Review: The Lady and the Duke (dir Eric Rohmer, 2001)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, written in 2001]

A theoretically engaging picture, somewhere between a magic lantern and a TV costume-drama, Rohmer’s first feature-length DV piece is a problematic view (and feels much longer than its two hours). Based on the possibly apocryphal memoirs of Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), a Scottish former courtesan – and lover of both the Prince of Wales and the Duc d’Orleans – in Paris at the time of the Revolution, the film uses what feels like both an ancient and a groundbreaking technique, the superimposition of his actors on meticulously researched and intricately painted backdrops of revolutionary Paris. Alongside many of Rohmer’s habitual concerns – betrayal, the search for understanding, moments of disruption, and so on – he seeks to literalise his view of history as an accruing of personal viewpoints and modifications through his choice of a highly personal and unpopular view of the Revolution, rather than try to impose another retrospective gloss on the events. His and Jean-Baptiste Marot’s pictorial reconstruction of Parisian space in 1792 and 1793 draws attention to itself using the textures and styles of numerous forgotten urban painters and illustrators as a resource, and enables him to present an accurate, immediate, visually continuous, fixed point of view, rather than a live-action edited version of space, and also to hint at how urban space might actually help produce the events that take place within it.

The performances of Russell (either subtle, or neutral) and Jean-Claude Dreyfus (who, as the Duc d’Orleans, Grace’s former lover and present friend, enunciates his way through the film with an over-theatrical precision, but has an undeniable presence) leave one cold, and call into question Rohmer’s hands-off directing. As for the mise-en-scene, the alternation between painted exteriors and faithful interiors allows Rohmer to point up the irruption of chaos both into public space, in Langian movements, and into private space, Grace’s windows framing the chaos outside. In general, the disruption of regimes, routines and of everyday life.

Rohmer’s searching after truth, as distinct from authenticity, or from verisimilitude, lead him to wait for technology to catch up with his idea, although one has to feel that maybe some of the impetus of the project may have been lost in the interim. Presenting a somewhat distracting, “highly visible artifice” to an audience drunk on faithful reconstructions of French history has its own motivations: there is, a rarity in his work, little charge in the air – a deliberate distancing from the celebrated historiporn of La Reine MargotThe Horseman on the Roof and others. And Grace’s sexual history remains just there, in History.

Rohmer refuses to romanticise or glamourise the Revolution, indeed taking a highly-conservative, and, in France, controversial line: insisting in interviews that it was bourgeois-led, that the majority of decent people disapproved of the bloodshed, and taking from Grace’s memoir a cyclopean Royalist stance. While Rohmer has, in the past been scrupulous in attempting to elide viewpoint, here he is somewhat hidebound by the very partiality of Grace’s account, and we are left with an all too unequivocal view of the brutish, loutish, opportunistic mob of sansculottes. In the end, it feels somewhat like a conversation piece in a tea ceremony – a curio to spark off conversation and debate, but not sufficient in and of itself.

And here is a comment added to the original article, apparently from Jean-Baptiste Marot himself, describing the process of creating the tableaux:

Hello I am Jean Baptiste Marot

and I made the paintings of the eric Rohmer’s movie the Lady and the Duke.

maybe this following little text could interest you

Tableaux for the cinema

In 1998, Eric Rohmer asked me to make 36 paintings of Paris that would depict historical views of the city during the French revolution.

These paintings had to be made as genuine paintings of the time in which actors would move around and play.

To fulfil this specific order, I made up a 36 sketches story-board working on the best pictorial points of view for the urban spaces needed by the show.

Among these 36 sketches, 3 views were inspired by XIXth century paintings : Le Pont au Change and Le Pont Saint Michel by Corot and a view of Saint Roch church exhibited at Musée Carnavalet.

All the other sketches were made in observing the existing sites and with the help of ancient maps, engravings, documents…

A set of remarkable photographs of Paris taken by Marville just before the important demolition ordered by Haussmann during the XIXth century contributed to rediscover architectures that do no longer exist.

I had to reconstitute lost sites and to draw them from unknown standpoints like le Palais des Tuileries or le Château de Meudon, using topographic plans to reveal the slopes and levels of the former landscape which has been nowadays drowned by a dense urbanisation.

In the same time, we constructed the paintings in 3D images, putting all the sites and buildings on plans in order to fit the perspective of the paintings with the shot pictures, the painter’s point of view becoming the camera’s focus, its length, its direction.

I had to know very precisely the width of the streets, porches, the height of the steps… so that the actors would not pass trough the walls or walk one foot over the ground !

All data were programmed for the shooting in a laser pinpointing the accurate places and ways of the actors in a green painted studio.

In being faithful to antique painting (Vedute were very fashionable at the time), I had to adapt the oil-painting technique of ancient chiaroscuro in order to avoid any damage due to the different pictures productions (photography, digitalisation, film…).

What I have been mostly interested in this long term work has been to make visual the gap between the image of the painting (memory of the subjective feelings of a place) and the reality itself.

Being able, Place de la Concorde for instance, to embrace at a glance all the little lodges of the moats (today steles of inner-cities), the statue of Louis XV, the horses of Marly, materialising an idealistic view, where nothing could be hidden by nothing, that would be impossible to get with a naked eye.

I also enjoyed to pivot slightly la Porte Saint-Denis and to flatten, distort and move the surrounding elements according to the best perspective for the painting.

These techniques (painting and perspective) I required for this work are the ones I generally use in the practice of my art, conceiving tableaux, lamps or piece of furniture as objects halfway between images and things. I call my special marotte * “Tableaux pour la maison”.


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