The long and the dull.
One must admire 82-year-old director Eric Rohmer for trying something quite new at this stage of his lengthy career. Known for such films as My Night at Maud's, Claire's Knee, and Chloe in the Afternoon as well as several cycles of films, including four films in the 1990s comprising his Tales of the Four Seasons, this time Rohmer focuses on a tale of the French Revolution based on the memoirs of Grace Elliott, an English lady caught up in the turbulent times of that Revolution. The film is The Lady and the Duke (original French title L'Anglaise et le duc) and the story revolves around former lovers, a English woman now living in France with monarchist sympathies and the radical Duke of Orleans who favours seeing some monarchist heads roll for the good of the country and also to save his own skin.
It's not the subject matter that's new, however. It's the film's visual effect. While interior scenes were all shot conventionally, Rohmer commissioned paintings for all the outdoor locations in the story and then digitally combined them with the live actors who had done their work in front of blue screens. The result is unusual, inventive, and very surrealistic looking, never really losing its impact throughout the film. It imparts a real feeling of an earlier era to the whole story—perhaps closer to what our imaginations might expect Paris to have looked at that time than would the sight of authentically constructed exterior sets.
Unfortunately, the rest of the exercise falls victim to the boredom that has afflicted much of Rohmer's work. Characters talk and talk and talk, and they don't move much while they do so. Action does happen, but it virtually always is off-stage and so we get more talk telling us what's occurred or philosophizing about it instead of showing it. Most films today err on the action side, fearful of falling astray of that malady of today's filmgoing times—the short attention span, so perhaps this is Rohmer's response. If so, he's gone too far the other way. Relative newcomer Lucy Russell and veteran Jean-Claude Dreyfuss both wrestle valiantly with their title characters, but one senses even their enthusiasm waning as the film trundles on and they're forced into another protracted round of often pretentious dialogue.
The picture is a Sony Classics release made available on DVD by Columbia. This is a very nice 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Interiors are very sharp, bright, and clean. The exteriors featuring the artwork are a little more subdued in colour intensity overall, as perhaps one might expect. There are occasional indications of edge effects around people in front of the exterior paintings. The Dolby Digital 5.0 surround audio is very good. Dialogue is rich and clear, and there is some very effective use of the surrounds to deliver ambient sounds such as distant gunfire. The sound track is in French with English and Spanish subtitling available. The only supplements are the theatrical trailer for the film and trailers for two other Sony Classics releases (Happy Days and Sunshine State).
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