The Lady And The Duke

At 78, Eric Rohmer, the oldest of the French New Wave directors, delivered what appeared to be the perfect coda to his career: Autumn Tale, the last entry in his "Tales Of The Four Seasons" cycle, and the last in a long line of perceptive, lyrical romantic comedies. But apart from its very existence, the biggest surprise in Rohmer's thoughtful new period piece The Lady And The Duke is that the 81-year-old has joined the nascent digital revolution, usually the province of no-budget filmmakers and George Lucas disciples. Setting historical figures against more than three dozen commissioned paintings of late-18th-century Paris, Rohmer treats his French Revolution backdrop like the pages of an immaculately illustrated picture-book, or a multi-paneled diorama too large to house in a museum. By detaching the actors from the artificial backgrounds, he actually makes the fuzzy indistinctness of digital video seem like an advantage, implying the distance and artificiality inherent in historical recreation. Working from an obscure memoir by Grace Elliott, a Scottish aristocrat who supported the beleaguered monarchs in her adopted France, Rohmer defends the Royals against the bloody tyrannies of the revolution, which he depicts as the ultimate blow to civility and righteousness. The lone conservative among New Wave directors, Rohmer lets his politics seep into his work, where they occasionally tilt the delicate balance between the title characters, two devoted friends on opposite sides of the conflict. The largely unknown Lucy Russell commands the room as the courageous, strong-willed Elliott, a former mistress to the Prince Of Wales and more recently the Duke Of Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), a close confidant. The Duke is King Louis XVI's cousin, but his weakness and political opportunism lead him to betray his family and join the revolutionaries. Still, his loyalties to Elliott trump his allegiance to the Jacobins, and he helps her facilitate the escape of the Marquis de Champcenetz (Léonard Cobiant), a wounded enemy who's marked for the guillotine. Typical of Rohmer's work, The Lady And The Duke hinges on wordy, impassioned dialogues between the central characters, whose increasingly heated arguments mask a friendship that transcends ideology. Though it could be a consequence of sticking closely to Elliott's point of view, Rohmer's pro-royalist position comes at the expense of political nuance, especially in his crude swipes at low-level revolutionaries, who are seen as little more than lustful, bloodthirsty heathens. But in the lively exchanges between the titular duo and the technical innovation that links the past to the present, The Lady And The Duke brings the period to life with surprising immediacy.

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