The Lady and The Duke – A Review

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.  

Bottom Line:

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.

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5 thoughts on “The Lady and The Duke – A Review

  1. I watched this on DVD last week and absolutely agree with the bottom line – I wanted to see how the director treated Louis Philippe d’Orléans because I’ve just finished reading Godfather of the Revolution by Tom Ambrose, a really vivid account of a character often overlooked by biographers. (You have to forgive the author’s one major blunder when he says Louis XV was the father of Louis XVI, Provence and Artois, tsk tsk!)
    The film really didn’t amount to very much but it is very, very pretty to look at. You’re constantly given the impression you’re watching a painting coming to life, costumes are gorgeous, colours muted and interiors small but interesting – though I think the streets needed a bit more dirt!

    1. I concur! One could eat off those streets, though I suppose they contributed to the overall aesthetic. I’ll have to look up the book you mentioned. I know very little about Orleans, but after watching the film I am much more interested. No idea he had such an important role in the revolution!

      Few people, I’ve realized, actually know Louis XVI was the grandson. You’re kind to give Ambrose a little slack. Most readers love to wave red flags over mistakes, but they happen to the best of us and cause authors much cringing!

      1. What I should have mentioned is that the Ambrose book is a biography, I can’t find a novel devoted to Louis Philippe – pity.

        Speaking of streets – there’s a wonderful map of 18th century Paris here

        http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/Paris-turgot-1909

        I spent ages enlarging the sections around the centre and was puzzled I couldn’t find the Louvre/Tuileries until I realised whoever has put this online has actually put it upside down so everything I wanted that I KNOW is on the right bank is shown on the left!

        This is a great blog, I’ve really enjoyed browsing and I do hope you’ll carry on with it!

      2. Lovely map, Terri. It’s reminds me of Horwood’s London Map which I have studied more than I care to admit. Now that I have its Parisian sister, I am officially doomed!

        Thanks for saving me from confusion over the left bank/right bank problem. I always thought left and right were static until I went to India and was told while walking up a path, “Left is right and right is wrong.” A British thing, like driving? 🙂

  2. Actually for anyone who’s interested I found a much better map on Wikimedia with higher resolution and doesn’t take as long to get there. Still upside down though, so bear that in mind if you look at eg. Google’s map of modern Paris.

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