An independent filmmaker, the films of Patrice Leconte, although set in a number of different genres, largely adhere to the director’s own personal style and themes - comedies, buddy situations and off-beat romances, usually in a modern-day settings. Even when working from a literary source and moving to a different period, as in his successful adaptation of Georges Simenon’s thriller Monsieur Hire, the characters and situations are very much those that the director has made his own. It’s difficult then to imagine just how the name of Patrice Leconte could come to be attached to a script for a period film called Ridicule by Rémi Waterhouse, that had long been doing the rounds looking for filmmaker. Set during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the director most famous in France for his broad farce Les Bronzés would surely have been the last person expected to helm the project. It would seem that Patrice Leconte himself was uncertain at the outset about his ability to do justice to the sparkling wit of the script’s satire of the Royal Court of Versailles, but, always willing to rise to a challenge, Leconte managed to bring his own unique touch to the film.
Leconte had been recommended for the project by Jean Rochefort, the great French actor having already worked with him on a number of films. Leconte knew he was in safe hands with Rochefort on board, and went about casting for the film in his own way. Perhaps the bravest choice was in seeking out and casting a stage actor, Charles Berling, in the main role of Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy. In this way, the then unknown actor would more effectively play the outsider at the intrigues of the Royal Court of nobles at Versailles. Ponceludon is a landowner from the provinces, looking for support to drain the swamplands that are breeding disease and killing the people working on his estate. Arriving at Versailles, the baron finds however that he is too late to seek the favour of a friend of his father’s, as Monsieur de Blayac has just died. In any case, with many petitioners already waiting interminably for an audience, it is unlikely that Ponceludon’s proposal would have been read, let alone been brought before the king, the only person with the authority and the money to finance such an ambitious engineering project.
With the Royal Court remaining distant and aloof, deaf to appeals for compassion and immune to attempts at flattery, the engineer learns that there is only one way to find the ear of the king and that is to dazzle the Versailles society with the brilliance of one’s wit. Reputations can be made with an improvised, well-timed bon mot or witty epigram, but it’s also a cruel game, where the remarks are often barbed and made at the expense of another, and the worst thing that can happen to any young man with social aspirations to find himself an object of ridicule. A misdirected quip or the choice of an inappropriate subject can also soon end any attempt at social climbing, but Ponceludon gains the assistance and friendship of the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), an expert in the social behaviour of Versailles, who guides him through the minefields of Versailles etiquette. Ponceludon also meets the Marquis’ daughter Mathilde (Judith Godrèche), a beautiful and brilliant young woman engaged to be married off to an old Count, whose first wife is not yet even dead. Although reluctant to take part in the empty repartee of decadent nobles, sparring with the Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant) and L'Abbée de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau), Ponceludon realises that sacrifices must be made for the sake of others who are back home dying of swamp-fever.
Based on several historical accounts and memoirs from within Versailles society of the period, Rémi Waterhouse’s script for Ridicule sparkles with all the cleverness and wittiness of the Royal Court, showing it in all its glamour and brilliance, while at the same time condemning it for how decadent and out-of-touch it is from the reality of the lives of its subjects - much more successfully than Sofia Coppola’s recent Marie Antoinette. So concerned with appearing clever in their little parlour games, they do not realise how ridiculous they have made themselves – the one thing they fear most in the world. Assisted by cinematographer Thierry Abrogast (Léon, The Fifth Element), fresh from his work on Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s The Horseman On The Roof, Leconte’s direction is every bit as sharp and pertinent as the script, dazzling with the fineness of its visual look and feel, yet getting very much down-to-earth with a very sensual and earthy presence. The camera simply soaks up everything it films, deepening the script’s impact and meaning. The colours, the beauty of the gardens, the textures of the fine fabrics, the powdering and perfuming of the Versailles nobility is contrasted with the swamp conditions of Ponceludon’s Dombes region, the camera not just intercutting between them, but following Ponceludon’s progress, flowing over the landscape and measuring the distance between them, the earth from the rider’s horse kicking dirt up into the camera lens. Anyone suffering from hay-fever would also be well-advised to approach the film with caution, such is the overpowering quality of the use of pollen in the film, not to mention the strength of its suggestiveness.
The only real weakness in the film are in Ponceludon’s romantic interludes with Mathilde and the widow de Blayac. Godrèche’s character is rather dull and contrived – intelligent, self-sacrificing and an engineer herself, she is too obviously drawn to be the perfect romantic match for Ponceludon. There’s little to fault with Fanny Ardant’s performance as Madame de Blayac – the character is deliciously twisted, yet has a human side, and Ardant is quite brilliant in muddying the waters between these two sides of her character. Her corrupting influence however is rather too close to Madame de Merteuil of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and while it is certainly a match for that work in the authenticity of its linguistic flights of fancy, in the rather more gritty area of sexual tensions and relationship intrigues, Ridicule really can’t compete.
Ridicule is released in the UK by Second Sight. The DVD is in PAL format and is not region encoded.
The quality of Second Sight’s releases of previous Patrice Leconte DVDs have been variable, but in most cases we are grateful nonetheless to have them made available at all. Improvements have been noted in their most recent release Monsieur Hire, and thankfully the trend seems to be continuing with Ridicule. The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved and given anamorphic enhancement. The quality of the print is excellent, with scarcely a mark or flaw to be seen anywhere. Colours are reasonably well-defined, though are perhaps not quite as vivid as they might be. The image seems to be progressive and, on a dual-layer disc, there are few problems with macro-compression or artefacting. It’s not a perfect transfer, but it’s hard to define just what isn’t quite right. The image can look slightly soft in places, particularly wide shots, but perfectly clear in other scenes. Blacks are strong and shadow detail is good, but it can also appear slightly bright at times. It just seems to lack that sparkle that should lift it off the screen. I suspect the image could look better then, but not by much.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is reasonably effective, capturing dialogue, sounds and Antoine Duhamel’s marvellous period pastiche soundtrack with reasonable clarity and tone. Again though I can’t help but feel that it is lacking something, particularly as the French 2-disc Special Edition contains Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS mixes.
English subtitles are provided and, unfortunately, are fixed on the transfer – a deplorable practice. They are correctly positioned however - partly inside the frame and partly below when the dialogue stretches over two lines – and, in a white font, they are clear throughout. The translation, so crucial for a film like this to work, is excellent, perfectly capturing not only the tone of the wit and barbed comments but, since le bel esprit fortunately doesn’t consider puns or word play as acceptable forms of wit, it is also as utterly faithful to their literal meaning as it is possible to be in translation.
One of the extra features from the French 2-disc Special Edition has made it over to the UK release, and it’s perhaps the only important one. The Making Of Ridicule (L’Histoire De Ridicule) (52:02) is a long feature – perhaps longer than necessary – of interviews that retrospectively cover every aspect of the film’s making, from script, costumes and music (interviewing the relevant people) through to its opening and critical reception.
An adventurous and versatile director, perhaps even Patrice Leconte wasn’t aware of his own capabilities until he undertook the challenge of making a period film. With its dazzling production design and direction matching the sparkle and acuity of the script Ridicule consequently remains one of the director’s most successful films internationally, opening in Cannes in 1996 and going on to earn Oscar nominations that year. It’s great to finally see the film making its way onto DVD in an edition which, if it isn’t quite up to the standard of the French Special Edition, is nonetheless very satisfactory.