On Friday, for some reason, we felt like watching a film about BLOODY REVOLUTION. Ken Hughes’ CROMWELL was considered (in which Alec Guinness says of his impending trip to the executioner’s block, “The walk will do me good”), but Eric Rohmer’s THE LADY AND THE DUKE eventually found its way into the Panasonic — it has the advantage of an Edinburgh-born heroine and a stylised CGI environment, which makes it like stepping into a gallery of paintings from the eighteenth century.
What a weirdly compelling film it is! Against the fine perfs of Lucy Russell (Bruce Wayne’s dead mum) as Grace Elliott, a Scottish courtesan settled in France, and Jean-Claude Dreyfus (DELICATESSEN: “I’m a butcher but I don’t mince my words”) as the Duke of Orleans, an aristo turned revolutionary, and the exciting events of the story, you’d have to admit that much of Rohmer’s approach would seem to weigh against dramatic involvement.
The unreality of the settings — the exteriors are all paintings, and the interiors, while physically present, are carefully designed with a faint lack of detail and texture to blend with that sense of a constructed world — doesn’t get in the way at all, but we’re all familiar with stylised movies that nevertheless bypass the famed verfremdungseffekt and wind up involving us as thoroughly as any trad melo. More impactful should be Rohmer’s typically laid-back filming style, which never pushes for drama or uses the conventional devices associated with suspense-generation. Usually, when a story is powerfully tense without seeming to expend any effort on Hitchcockian tropes, the explanation seems to be that a combination of dramatic situations and a realistic milieu force us to imagine ourselves in the scene. Here, while the situations are indeed dramatic, almost everything is anti-realist, from the heavily expositional speeches of the characters, to the artificial scenery. But the very convincing performances seem to supply the needed believability, while the fake settings remove any concern from our minds about the authenticity of the film’s period detail.
“It’s the only Rohmer film with severed heads,” says Anne Billson via Facebook.
“He didn’t use ’em much because they can’t talk. And don’t have knees,” I reply.