As director Eric Rohmer enters his sixth decade of making movies, you could excuse him for resting on his laurels a bit. Instead, he has suddenly decided that he wants to be George Lucas.
For The Lady and the Duke, his tale of France in the revolutionary 1790s, Rohmer opted to join the digital revolution of the 1990s. He did it, however, in a way that’s still oh-so-French: Instead of inserting his characters into landscapes created on a computer, he has inserted them into original paintings created to mimic city scenes of 18th-century Paris. The effect is like walking through a museum where the images on the walls suddenly and startlingly leap into motion.
In its own way, it’s a brilliant conceit, a nod to the idea that static, classical notions of history don’t capture an era’s energy and vitality. If Rohmer had found a story with the energy and vitality to match, he might have been on to something. But The Lady and the Duke never finds a gripping character or narrative event deserving of its visual ingenuity. The result is about as compelling as watching one of those paintings dry.
The story comes from the real-life journals of Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), an expatriate Englishwoman living in Paris. An unapologetic royalist, Grace’s political views place her life in jeopardy as the Republican zealots grow ever more willing to execute suspected conspirators. Those views also set her at odds with her good friend and former lover Philippe, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), a cousin of King Louis XVI who turned to the Republican cause. Yet she perseveres in her support for the monarchy, even if it means assisting in the escape of a nobleman she despises.
Yes, she perseveres despite every threat to her personal safety, which makes Grace a model of staying true to her convictions. It also makes her an incredibly tedious central character. Russell plays her as an aristocrat with a perpetual aura of bewilderment that the rest of the world doesn’t understand the self-evident superiority of the monarchy, and the characterization has a goofy, brick-headed charm—for a while.
Then it gradually becomes evident that there’s little more to her. Even her acts of courage feel like accidental pockets of grit in the fuzzy blanket of privilege she attempts to preserve. She bursts into tears at the various injustices she perceives—the execution of the king, the beheading of another aristocrat, being forced to walk to safety in impractical shoes—but doesn’t grow at all. The bits of her biography tossed out in an introductory voice-over, like an illegitimate child with the Prince of Wales that she leaves behind in England, never play a role in developing a complex, fully-rounded woman. Grace is just a witness to history, and we’re watching over her shoulder while she walks in a straight line.
Even the relationship that should have provided The Lady and the Duke’s central conflict can’t manage to generate a spark. Despite the fact that there’s supposed to be a romantic/sexual history between them, Grace and Orleans engage in their political badinage like acquaintances who happen to bump into each other at the same parties. Every 15 minutes or so, for the entire two-hour length of the film, the two get together in a room to debate some minor variation on the following theme: “The Revolution was a good thing!” “No, it wasn’t!” And a little of that goes a very long way.
Rohmer has been best known over the years for creating low-key contemporary character studies, so there was no reason to expect he would suddenly crank up the pace. He has no idea how to wring genuine tension out of the scene where Grace hides the fleeing nobleman in her bed—holding a single medium shot through an entire police search—yet in many ways, The Lady and the Duke is one of Rohmer’s most visually interesting films. The painted backgrounds remain fascinating from start to finish, as birds unexpectedly cross the pastel sky or ripples appear on an artificial river.
It’s a shame Rohmer isn’t able to put his digital experimentation to better narrative use. He may have achieved a small technical miracle, but he has wasted it on a collection of wooden characters who spend too much time on dry exposition of impenetrable politics. Congratulations, Eric Rohmer: You are George Lucas.