This story of one woman’s courage — or obstinacy — during the French Revolution is a rare period piece for octogenarian New Wave veteran Eric Rohmer, though it has the signature approach of his more modern tales, all of which feature characters talking obsessively about ... well, everything. Rohmer has adapted and filmed this true story of a Scottish woman, Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), and her relationship with the Duke of Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) with the novel and effective approach of using painted backdrops. They aren’t flat paintings but ones with the illusion of depth and which the characters seem to walk inside of, rather than in front of. It gives the film an eerie beauty, at least during the outdoor scenes.
Unfortunately, while Grace and Orléans argue the moral dilemmas of a dangerous time, they’re granted a complexity which is denied the revolutionaries, who are either cartoonish louts or the kind of tight-lipped villains who scowled their way through old melodramas. Even the token “nice” revolutionaries are bland clichés.
Some have commented that Grace’s story transcends mere politics, but the movie isn’t just political, it’s polemical, reflecting Rohmer’s conservative bias; it’s a stacked deck with elegant aristocrats being viciously mistreated by uncouth commoners. It’s not that a leftist bias would have been any more enlightening, but rather that some sense of context beyond Grace’s personal concerns might have given the viewer an idea of why the revolution was happening.
As it is, Grace comes across as an annoying Royalist groupie, more stubborn than brave. Some of the events she witnesses are genuinely horrible. But when she begins to wail and wail about the king’s imminent and eventual execution, she comes across as almost idiotically zealous, a foreigner so smitten with the French aristocracy that she takes every blow to it as a personal affront.
Still, even if you don’t share Rohmer’s nostalgia for the ancien régime, this is a typically graceful, if somewhat less subtle, addition to the director’s impressive body of work.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.