REVIEW: My Night at the Duke's; Rohmer's DV (French) Revolution
by Eddie Cockrell
[EDITOR’S NOTE: this review originally ran in September 2001, when “The Lady and the Duke” screened at the Toronto Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film Friday.]
As the French Revolution swirls around her, transplanted English gentlewoman Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell) has a front row seat from her large Paris apartment on Rue Miromesnil. Alternately escaping to the suburbs and trying to maintain her life as if the Terror were just another urban annoyance, she becomes involved in a series of high-risk adventures that she survives through a blend of fear, defiance and naivete. These include cajoling her former lover, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), to help her hide an outlaw from the patrols of dangerously enthusiastic soldiers. But when she fails to persuade the Duke to spare the life of his cousin, King Louis XVI, her allegiances are questioned and own life is put at risk.
“The Lady and the Duke” is the first film from celebrated French old guard director Eric Rohmer in three years, since wrapping up the “Tales of the Four Seasons” quartet with 1998’s sublime “Autumn Tale.” As he did following the “Six Moral Tales” cycle in the early 1970s as a way to cleanse his creative palette prior to the half-dozen “Comedies and Proverbs” that preoccupied him in the following decade, Rohmer has punctuated contemporary work with a more stylized and technically challenging period film. In the mid-1970s, it was the formal experimentation of “The Marquise of O” (1975) and the studio-bound “Perceval” (1978). Now, on a significantly larger budget, he has harnessed the magic of digital video and green screen compositing to create a Paris in which people move against specially painted backdrops, scrupulously researched and created over three years from pictures, engravings and period maps. The effect is genuinely new, undeniably beautiful and consistently problematic.
At first blush a far cry in both style and substance from the multileveled conversations and intricate relationships that are his hallmark, beneath its high-tech surface “The Lady and the Duke” isn’t actually that far removed from those twin strengths. Based on Elliott’s actual memoir, discovered by the director while on holiday a decade ago, the defiantly right-wing story (Rohmer is proudly conservative) explores the royalist psyche with detail and precision. Yet Grace isn’t a fanatic by any means: na