Watching The Lady and the Duke is a unique if yawn-inducing experience. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it before. The film is experimental—layered paintings in the foreground, a nearly static camera, an aesthetic and haunting recreation of the French Revolution that would be difficult, if impossible, to achieve with built sets. The effect summons the viewer to step into a classical painting with moveable characters, yet simultaneously leaves the viewer short of interaction.
On that account, the film is a disappointment. One does, however, get the sense of New Wave director Eric Rohmer’s vision. He succeeds in horrifying the viewer through the rampant violence and suspicion surrounding the heroine, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Scotswoman and lover of Duc d’Orleans, cousin to the king. Working as the framework, her journals, upon which the movie is based, begin on Bastille Day, July 14, 1789 and end with the fall of Robespierre.
Grace is around thirty years of age when the film opens off Rue Miromesnil. The chaos of the revolution has awakened and the Duc d’Orleans, no longer lover but dear friend, arrives for one of his many visits Despite the conversational plotting—table, chairs, and talking heads in a room—Rohmer’s subtlety in achieving his message is what kept me watching. He refrains from explicitly pinning down the conflict and although Grace develops an increasingly political voice, her outbursts appear that of a woman overwhelmed.
Through her eyes we see the Princesse de Lamballe’s ghastly green head stuck on a pike; the ghost streets after curfew, barely restrained violence buzzing off guards as they march through the city. Later, the ragtag band searches her house, as they do every other house in the city. She is undressed in her bed, hiding the Marquis Champcenetz at her side, when the theme of what it means to be a good patriot takes hold of the film. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many WWII films, but it reminded me of how the Nazi party controlled their army and the public: denounce suspected enemies of state, cry out in favor of treason at the first whiff of foul play, and keep your head by surrendering another’s—all things Grace is unwilling to do.
For Grace this proves a dangerous stance, but the Duc d’Orleans’ is more perilous. He is fond of new, emboldened ideas, but falls short of leading their implementation, a trait which places him as the unfortunate figurehead of a revolutionary faction. As the introduction to Grace’s journals puts it, “. . . it was necessary to group all disappointed and newly born ambitions around the Duc d’Orleans, sow gold to produce popularity, slander the queen and her entourage so as to finally put the king, already deprived of a portion of his nobility and at war with his Parliament, alone, face to face with the people. The Duc d’Orleans was then to come forward as lieutenant of the Kingdom and interpose between the nation and the King, and they would control the government.”
Although aware of his hatred for Marie Antoinette and the Versailles Court, Grace maintains his noble senses will save his neck. Not so. The Revolution is out for blood, and as the film suggests, everyone—Jacobin, Girondin, Royalist—is suspect. After all, the duke is a dog without teeth, trespassing where nobody really belongs.
Like Grace’s journals, the film explores the little known character of the Duc d’Orleans. It may be worth watching for the visual feast, but at two hours and nine minutes, don’t bother unless a) you are a Rohmer fan, b) you’ve read (or want to read) Grace Elliott’s journals, or c) like me, you’re a French Revolution nut. Costume wise, it does have some stunning striped dresses.