The Lady and the Duke Review
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...
Eric Rohmer is best known for three film series, the Moral Tales and the Comedies and Proverbs (six apiece) and the Tales of the Four Seasons. All these films, variations on a theme, are delicately nuanced, naturalistic comedies about the whys and wherefores of love, not so much about what happens as what goes through the characters' minds while it happens. This is expressed largely through the way the characters talk: dialogue that is at once witty and character-revealing.
A highly stylised costume drama, based on the real-life Grace Elliott's memoir, might seem more of a departure than it actually is. But between the final Moral Tale, Love in the Afternoon known in the US as Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), and the first of the Comedies and Proverbs, The Aviator's Wife in 1980, he made two other period pieces, both literary adaptations, the German-language The Marquise of O (1976) and Perceval (1978). Perceval, an Arthurian story based on a medieval ballad, was a great departure for a director who is usually one of the cinema's great realists. It was filmed in the studio, in stylised sets, and foreshadows Rohmer's approach to The Lady and the Duke. Rohmer shot the film on digital video, often incorporating his actors into specially-painted backdrops. The result is striking: hardly lifelike, but certainly cinematic, as if a painting has come to life. In his use of video, Rohmer has proved himself more inventive than many a filmmaker half his age.
Some knowledge of the history of the time might be needed to appreciate the finer points of the plot, though the basic storyline is clear enough. As Grace, Lucy Russell (whose only previous film role was in Christopher Nolan's debut, Following) gives a fine performance. And needless to say, the film looks stunning: possibly too stunning, as the film's unique look may possibly distract you from the story being told. Given a larger budget than he is accustomed to, Rohmer makes use of a digital soundtrack – Dolby Digital and DTS – for the first time, and there's a fair amount of directional effects.
Like all Rohmer's films, The Lady and the Duke will be too talky for some viewers, and the story does require attention. Even among Rohmer's fans, there will be those who prefer his contemporary comedies to his period pieces – and I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit to that. But even so, this film is a fascinating departure for Rohmer. In his eighties, with more than four decades since his first feature, Rohmer clearly has plenty of life still in him.