'Ridicule!' Delights With Its Unkind Wit.
By Stacey Richter
RIDICULE IS THE PERFECT anti-Valentine's day adventure. In this French movie set in the court of Louis XVI, in the period directly preceding the French Revolution, the nobles are mean, cruelty rules and love is a sham. Unkindness, especially unkindness coupled with wit, is the greatest asset a courtier can possess. Morality is just something else to joke about, and at Versailles, the definition of "a good time" consists of sitting around a candlelit table, sipping soup and spitting out insults.
Period movies--the great majority of which focus on the sex lives of their subjects--have a tendency to be annoying, predictable and flat. Ridicule is a decidedly more entertaining version of the genre with the grace to flash us some intelligence and self-consciousness. Director Patrice Leconte gives us men with powdered faces and women with plunging bodices who delight in insulting, rather than bedding each other. Leconte paints a portrait of an 18th century that isn't only a glamorous place to fall in love, but a political world ruled by complexities of manners and influence, where the greatest weapon is a deftly delivered barb.
The principal navigator through this verbal minefield is Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), a young nobleman from the provinces who comes to the court seeking a grant from King Louis. He's eager to drain the swamp causing malaria in so many of his peasants. Alas, the King has little interest in philanthropic causes. The main purpose in the life of this powdered, pampered ruler is to preside over his court, handpicking favorites based on a hierarchy of wit. (Wit is what the King himself lacks, and his advisors have to help him judge.) His court is an elaborate magnification of schoolyard pecking order, with the most popular kid resembling Oscar Wilde rather than a quarterback.
Squeaky clean, Malavoy enters this dissolute Versailles, certain that a good cause will be enough to earn him the aid of the King. It doesn't take him long to figure out that things don't work that way in these parts. Bellegarde, a sympathetic doctor (Jean Rochefort) and a beautiful, debauched countess (Fanny Ardant) alert him to the icy facts: No one gets anywhere without stepping on someone first. "Be witty and malicious," Bellegarde tells him, "and you will succeed."
Malavoy, as it turns out, is a natural at delivering pointed jabs. In the interest of the lives of his peasants, he puts his skills to the test, sparring with the self-obsessed, fatuous Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau), and other members of the court less prepared to defend themselves. For every wound he inflicts, he comes a little bit closer to the private audience with the King, and loses another little chunk of his soul. Malavoy finds himself seduced by court life, drawn to both the verbal sparring (there are plenty of easy targets around) and to the sexy, calculating Madame de Blayac, who turns her attentions to Malavoy after her protégé, the Abbot, offends the court with the claim that he could as easily disprove the existence of God as prove it.
Contrasting with the decadence of the court is the independent and free-thinking Mathilde (Judith Godreche), favorite daughter of Bellegarde and Malavoy's love interest. A true daughter of the Enlightenment, Mathilde spends her days conducting experiments and investigating the effect of water pressure on bunnies. She's not interested in battles of wit or in appearing at the court. Mathilde is perhaps too schematic a character to really gain our sympathy, but her flatness points out just how delightful the dissipated, debauched nobles are. The scheming members of the court are soulless and bad, of course, but they're certainly fun to watch, especially since we know their powdered heads only have a few years on them before they're sliced off in the guillotine.
And, unlike a lot of recent period movies, Ridicule certainly has resonance in our time. A bunch of self-obsessed rulers concerned with personal gratification instead of performing good works? A society in which appearances take precedence over skill or virtue? It sounds like government, Hollywood and advertising all rolled into one.
Ridicule will be opening soon at The Loft cinema.
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