the lady and the duke [l'anglaise et le duc] (2001)


director: eric rohmer

lucy russell, jean-claude dreyfus, alain libolt

Imagine a movie about the French Revolution without the guillotine, without the crowds in the public square and the knitting crones under the scaffold howling for the blood of aristocrats hauled to their death in carts, without the tumult and the spectacle, and you'll have Eric Rohmer's utterly unique The Lady and the Duke, probably the first anti-epic about the Reign of Terror that followed the fall of the French monarchy.

It's not, it has to be said, the first film about the Revolution told from the perspective of a Royalist, depicting the reign of men like Robespierre as a bloody tyranny; almost every film about the period acknowledges the awful excesses of the time, and the most famous - the various film versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities - are unabashedly on the side of persecuted aristocrats and other victims of mob rule.

It is, however, the first film to make the monarchist, artistocratic perspective on the Revolution utterly sympathetic. Based on the real-life story of the friendship of Grace Elliott, a Scottish aristocrat and onetime mistress of the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV), and her former lover Phillipe Egalite, the Duke of Orleans, cousin of King Louis XVI. The Duke allies himself with the Republic, and ends up voting for his cousin's execution as a member of the Assembly, which alienates him from Grace, an unabashed royalist. Eventually, the terror catches up with both of them, and they end up hounded by Robespierre and his fellow zealots, Phillipe losing his head, Grace only escaping the guillotine with Robespierre's death.

The story is epic, but Rohmer's mode of telling it is consistent with the style of filmmaking he's been carefully perfecting over four decades, the kind of small, intimate, dialogue-heavy films that practically define a strain of slow, chatty, faintly cerebral French cinema. As Grace and Phillipe, Lucy Russell and Jean-Claude Dreyfus are note-perfect, which is good because their troubled friendship is the structure on which the whole film hangs. The twist is that Grace is the principled realist, and Phillipe the cynical idealist, trapped in a nightmare police state that Rohmer pointedly portrays as proto-fascist.

As a period film, The Lady and the Duke would be utterly revolutionary if Rohmer hadn't made Perceval le Gallois twenty-five years ago, a film famous for showing the middle ages as an illuminated page, flat and brilliantly colourful. Thanks to digital technology, his 18th-century Paris is a watercolour perspective drawing brought to life, utterly unreal, and it works.