Directed by Patrice Leconte
Written by Rémi Waterhouse, Michel Fessler, Eric Vicaut
Produced by Frédéric Brillion, Philippe Carcassonne, Gilles Legrand
Starring Charles Berling, Jean Rochefort, Fanny Ardant, Judith Godrèche, Bernard Giraudeau, Bernard Dhéran, Carlo Brandt, Jacques Mathou, Urbain Cancelier, Albert Delpy, Bruno Zanardi, Marie Pillet, Jacques Roman, Philippe Magnan, Maurice Chevit, Jacques-François Zeller, Gérard Hardy, Marc Berman, Philippe du Janerand
“An aristocracy was […] by definition a class of both obligation and privilege, the one validating the other.”
–John Keegan, The Mask of Command
In the final days of his reign, Louis XVI (Cancelier) enjoys a monopoly ex officio for the dispensation of stingy subvention representing his kingdom’s terminal dearth of noblesse oblige, so the only recourse for a provincial baron (Berling) who meditates to restore the health of his province’s land and liegemen by draining its malarial swamps is a sojourn in Versailles, where he’ll entreat his regent’s largesse. A highwayman’s assault and theft proves felicitous, leaving the compassionate lord to the treatment, lodging and counsel of a marquis and physician (Rochefort) who instructs his canny junior of conventions and decorums: the application of moderate maquillage, necessity of nonstop frivolity, chaff’s optimum utterance, gaucherie to be avoided and joviality’s effect in tasteful measure. Though his peerage accords admission, only by the young nobleman’s plied talent for extemporized repartee may he petition the king after insinuating himself into the city’s stratified society: a periwigged and lavaliered, decadent and viciously vituperative gentry wherein a duke’s wily widow (Ardant), and a cunningly contemptuous abbot (Giraudeau) are to be met with craft by riposte. Waterhouse’s, Fessler’s, and Vicaut’s screenplay cleverly depicts the late aristocracy as a pampered pack of jackals sneering behind their pro forma facade of phony pleasantries and protocol, whose social currencies of jeux d’esprit and florid vitriol elicit and declass statuses. Their lordly despite is contrasted with the gracious charity of Berling’s baron, Rochefort’s kindly marquis, and the abbot Charles Michel de l’Épée (Mathou), a selfless pioneer of education for the deaf. Greater nuance is indued to an engaged couple who respectively import their failing patriciate and succeeding Enlightenment: stodgy and jaded but not at all without a distant sympathy, an aged, wealthy widower (Dhéran) is opportunistically betrothed to the marquis’ fetching and dexterous daughter (Godrèche), whose preoccupation with inceptive technologies is incarnated as her construction of and experimentation with a diving suit comparable to Freminet’s. Every sensible director of a period picture balances recondite authenticity with some accessible modicum of modernity, and Leconte succeeds here by stagily interpreting this solid script by a top-flight cast who emphasize without exceeding expression. As consistently funny as fascinating, painstakingly costumed by Christian Gasc and lensed by Thierry Arbogast in sprawling Panavision against and within the extravagance of Villiers-le-Bâcle, Châteaux de Maisons-Laffitte et Vaux-le-Vicomte, and Versailles itself, this fable of a cruelly corrupt, historical elite established by lineage and preserved with sex, wit and wealth observes one of its moral members striving to access a royal fisc and rescue his vassals, who suffer for survival and servitude.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Valmont.