BY Manfred Hermes in Profiles | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Revolt Into Style

Eric Rohmer's latest film

BY Manfred Hermes in Profiles | 05 MAY 02

The bourgeoisie made its first appearance on the political stage during the French Revolution. Its emotional, social and economic longings instigated a certain spiritual mobility, which propelled the class upward. Ever since then, the French have kept a cold, vigilant eye out for this disposition of desire, which can be detected in Pierre Bourdieu's determinations of social distinction as well as in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, whose immense expectations ruined her. The somewhat irresolute heroines in Eric Rohmer's films struggle to make day-to-day decisions and pursue the search for love in completely the wrong direction. Even within this relatively narrow framework, it is still possible to recognize the residue of Romanticism, though deprived of its more existential levels of desperation and death.

With L'Anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke, 2001), shot on video and set against painted backgrounds, the 81-year-old Rohmer has turned his attention to the origins of the middle class. The film is based upon the diaries of Scottish noblewoman Grace Elliott, written at the start of the French Revolution. Elliott was mistress to the Prince of Wales; she then moved to France, where she accepted the same position with the Duke of Orléans. Time passed; their sexual relationship became a friendship that survived the revolution. From what was still a privileged, though fragile position, she took part in familiar historical events: the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille; the fall of Louis XVI in August 1792; the September massacre; and the execution of the King at the beginning of the following year, which initiated the Terror.

Elliott records the increasing radicalization of the people's movement, the adoption of extreme surveillance and subordination measures, the maliciousness and childishness of self-appointed authority figures, the confusing bureaucratization and pleasure in despotism - and all of it revolts her. Before the revolution, she called herself a Republican, but under the new circumstances, she felt her loyalty to the ancien régime growing. She even put herself in danger for the sake of previously repugnant fellow aristocrats. When Elliott (played by Lucy Russell) says 'we Royalists,' it almost sounds like Winifred Wagner, who, in a 1975 documentary by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, candidly speaks of 'we National Socialists'.

Rohmer sympathizes with the strength of character behind this perseverance. In a unique reversal of the propaganda of the time, the middle class suddenly represents excess and violation, while the nobility distinguishes itself through courage, self-control and modesty. By reserving these admirable attributes for his main character and clearly contrasting Elliott's exemplary behaviour with the Duke of Orléans' opportunism, the director - a notorious anti-Modernist - seems to believe he can forestall obvious accusations of dubious politics. The brother of Louis XVI was flexible enough to play a political role even under revolutionary conditions. That, however, required an excessive patriotism - which he not only proved by his request to be called Philippe-Egalité, but also by contributing to the slight majority in favour of the death penalty for his brother.

To take the perspective of a private person, a non-French noblewoman, is a testimony to Rohmer's finesse in both dramaturgy and revisionism. He reveals his conviction that the end of the courtly refinements of the ancien régime also led to the horrors of nationalism, populism, and fascism - and that neither the notions of freedom, equality nor brotherhood have any meaning at all. He does so using what is, for him, an unusual technique: best-known for his naturalist cinematic realism, Rohmer made L'Anglaise et le duc in Digi-Beta. For budget feature and documentary films, Digi-Beta is often used to suggest low-key immediacy and authenticity. Rohmer does the opposite: he heightens the effect of illusionism. He solved the problem of representing 'Revolutionary Paris' by compositing painted scenery over an ordinary blue-screen background. In this way, the streets and squares possess an affordable spaciousness that could not have been obtained through any studio set. These tableaux give the film a historical glow, and, ultimately, the impression of alienation they create quickly fades, leaving only the desired illusionism.

Translated by Allison Plath-Moseley