The Lady and the Duke (L'Anglaise et le Duc) Review
Note: I reviewed The Lady and the Duke on its cinema release in February 2002. That review can be read here. The following DVD review is, apart from the opening paragraph of plot synopsis, newly written.
Scotswoman Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), former mistress of the Prince of Wales, is living in Paris. She was brought over to France by her then lover Prince Philippe (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), Duke of Orléans, who is supported by a Revolutionary faction as a successor to the throne. Then, on 10 August 1792, the Tuileries Palace is stormed and Louis XVI imprisoned. Grace has to flee for her life...
After completing his third and final series, the Tales of the Four Seasons, Eric Rohmer returned to history. However, unlike his two literary adaptations of the 1970s (with a third for TV), Rohmer's source this time was factual, or at least memoir, rather than fiction – namely Grace Elliott's own account. Some knowledge of the events would be helpful – that's easier to assume of a French viewer than a foreign one – though the basic outline can be grasped easily enough. Political positions are not always easy to discern in Rohmer's work, though he has been placed as a right-of-centre filmmaker. (I haven't seen the one Rohmer cinema film unreleased in English-speaking territories, 1993' The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, a satire on French local politics, which is no doubt relevant here.) Certainly, in The Lady and the Duke, he seems on the side of the royalists rather than the revolutionaries. How much of that is due to identification with Grace, who was also royalist, and who regarded the executions of the French royal family as a terrible thing, is a good question.
Although most of his films have been shot very simply, with small crews, Rohmer has embraced modern filmmaking technology – or at least some of it. Given a larger budget, he made The Lady and the Duke his most visually experimental film of his whole career (along with Perceval). Shooting in digital video, Rohmer goes for a deliberately non-naturalistic approach, matting in his cast and extras into painted backgrounds. The opening narration is against a background of these paintings, which suddenly unfreeze and come to life.
The results are fascinating, but maybe an aesthetic dead end. Rohmer may have realised this, as he returned to film for his last two features. While his features shot in 35mm or 16mm have not dated more than superficially (the usual fashions and hairstyles apart), eight years after its release, The Lady and the Duke already has. I don't know what resolution it was captured at, but it's fair to say that digital cinema has moved on considerably since it was made. More about this when I discuss the DVD transfer below.
Lucy Russell had made only a few films prior to this (which included Christopher Nolan's debut, Following) but she does give a strong performance in her first leading role. It's fair to say she hasn't had such a good role since. She's on screen more than top-billed Jean-Claude Dreyfus, as the Duke, but he makes a solid impression. Some Rohmer regulars – Charlotte Véry, Rosette, Marie Rivière – appear in small roles.
The Lady and the Duke is released on DVD by Pathé, in a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is anamorphic, in a ratio of 1.78:1, with thin matte lines on all four sides. Rohmer is most definitely not a “widescreen” filmmaker, favouring Academy Ratio or occasionally 1.66:1 throughout his career. This uncharacteristically wider ratio is no doubt due to shooting on digital video with a native ratio of 16:9. (The IMDB gives the intended ratio for this film as 1.85:1, and if memory serves I saw it in the cinema shown at 1.66:1, but 1.78:1 – whose nearest cinema equivalent is the uncommon 1.75:1 – seems about right.) However, digital video then (and now, short of Red One-type captures at 4K) was lower resolution than 35mm, and that shows in this DVD transfer. It's dullish and rather flatly coloured, with that characteristic brownish hue familiar from so many “films” from the time). The transfer is soft and lights trail. As I suggest above, Rohmer's use of digital video made for a fascinating experiment, but I'm glad it's one he didn't repeat. Even the grainy look of his 16mm-shot films seems less dated than this.
Rohmer has favoured mono soundtracks for much of his career, not using Dolby sound until Autumn Tale in 1998. Even so, that film sounded like plain mono with Dolby noise reduction, and later films have had minimal use of directional sound. That's certainly not so with The Lady and the Duke, which boasts a 5.1 soundtrack. And Rohmer does use it too – especially in the exteriors, with crowd noises prominent in the surrounds. Interiors are more dialogue-driven though. English subtitles are electronic but not removable.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer (0:58), which is also in 1.78:1 anamorphic (with thicker windowboxing than the feature) and has fixed English subtitles. Some historical background to the events would have been useful.