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When the French New Wave rejected the cinema of its fathers, one of the things that had to go was the costume drama: no more films about old people, old events, or old ideas. Eric Rohmer was hardly the most radical member of the New Wave’s inner circle, but he has by and large followed the prohibition against period movies. He’s known instead for talky films about contemporary romantic and moral dilemmas that, if never as loosely structured as they initially seem, retain some of ’60s art cinema’s taste for the impromptu.
Rohmer has occasionally commented, however, that he would like to direct period pictures—a desire frustrated by the costs of such films. He did make two in the ’70s, The Marquise of O and Perceval; now he’s added to that small catalog with The Lady and the Duke, a drawing-room (mostly) drama set during the French Revolution.
Rohmer usually writes his own scripts, but for his historical films he draws on novels and other texts. The Lady and the Duke is derived from Journal of My Life During the French Revolution, a memoir by Lady Grace Elliott, a somewhat scandalous Scottish noblewoman who survived the Reign of Terror in Paris. Elliott was a royalist who had no sympathy for the rabble that was decapitating her aristocratic friends and then promenading around Paris with their heads on pikes. (In this she resembles Rohmer, who, unlike some of his peers, has never been a political radical.) Although imprisoned twice, Elliott managed to keep her head longer than Robespierre, whose fall ended the executions. She went to Britain to write her account but ultimately returned to France to live out her years.
Although Rohmer does take his camera—a digital-video one—into the streets, The Lady and the Duke is hardly as visceral as most films about the French Revolution. Its essence is indeed a series of conversations between the Lady (British actress Lucy Russell, whose only previous film is Christopher Nolan’s Following) and the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), Elliott’s foppish former lover and close friend—and a cousin of the king who may soon face the guillotine. Elliott insists that the Duke must be governed by higher concerns than the shifting whims of the mob; he tentatively agrees but finds himself unable to live up to Elliott’s expectations or principles. Like My Night at Maud’s, the director’s breakthrough film, this is an account of a flirtation that becomes a moral debate.
In some ways, then, The Lady and the Duke resembles a Rohmer movie set in the modern era: It’s a series of polite and sometimes witty chats, at first seemingly trivial, that become increasingly compelling as their implications are made clear. Yet the director surprises, in part by including what—by Rohmer standards, anyway—qualify as action scenes. The tension is not philosophical when Elliott hides a wanted nobleman in her bedroom, an action that involves outwitting not merely the squad of revolutionary guards who search her house but also her own cook, a fervent revolutionary.
The film’s look is also a change of pace for Rohmer. Like Perceval, The Lady and the Duke envisions the past as being in a sense pre-cinematic. Using modern technology, Rohmer visualizes a world that looks eerily antique. Although the interiors were shot on sets, the exteriors are paintings based on contemporaneous engravings of 18th-century Paris. Artist Jean-Baptiste Marot executed 36 such views, into which the filmmakers digitally inserted live actors. The muted video hues suit the flatness of the painted backdrops, suggesting a book of old illustrations come to life. The effect has frustrated viewers who insist on “realism” from cinematic re-creations of the past, yet it’s far more convincing in its way than the heavily animated images of, say, the last two Star Wars movies.
The comparison to Star Wars is not idle. Whereas George Lucas dresses up contemporary Middle American notions in a mythic drag in an attempt to pretend he’s depicting an alternate universe, Rohmer tries genuinely to evoke another age and place. The rhythm, the concerns, and the language of The Lady and the Duke are foreign in a way that’s both alienating and fascinating, conspicuously contrived and yet utterly convincing. This is a strange film, and though fans of Hollywood movies can justifiably take that as a warning, it’s also a strong recommendation.
Although it’s the product of one of Hollywood’s current dynasties, CQ is also about a French revolution: the cinematic one of the late ’60s, whose principals included Rohmer. It quickly becomes clear, however, that writer-director Roman Coppola has taken a catholic approach to raiding Dad’s film archives. His first feature is just as smitten with the comic-book style of Barbarella as it is with Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin, Feminin and Two or Three Things I Know About Her. In fact, CQ is about a Godard type who tries to make a Barbarella-like flick.
But that’s not the half of it. This cinemaphilic would-be romp references more than a dozen ’60s movies, countering the kandy-color sci-fi kitsch of Dragonfly—one of several films within the film—with the black-and-white naturalism of a navel-gazing documentary being shot by CQ’s protagonist, Paul (Jeremy Davies). The initial connection is that Paul, an American in 1969 Paris, is the editor of Dragonfly, which is being directed by revolution-minded Andrezej (Gerard Depardieu). Paul cares more about his own film than Andrezej’s, but then Dragonfly stops being Andrezej’s. Italian producer Enzo (Giancarlo Giannini) rejects a rough cut of the movie, and the search begins for another director.
Enzo hires hot young director Felix DeMarco (Coppola cousin Jason Schwartzman), a Americanized Roman Polanski, who’s just wrapped a sexy vampire flick. DeMarco begins to issue swaggering but vague commands to Paul while concentrating on romancing Dragonfly star Valentine (fashion model and first-time actress Angela Lindvall). Having met her at a looping session, Paul is already enchanted by sweet, sexy Valentine—another American in Paris, although she may be intended to evoke Godard’s Danish muse, Anna Karina, as much as Barbarella star Jane Fonda. His new infatuation only gives Paul another reason to neglect his French flight-attendant girlfriend, Marlene (Elodie Bouchez), whose straightforward nudity decorates Paul’s “personal film” much as Valentine’s teasing seminudity adorns Dragonfly. (This is one of CQ’s more profound themes: Thank heaven for naked girls.)
Then the cocky DeMarco smashes his car and his leg, and suddenly Paul is the director of Dragonfly—as long as he can finish the shoot in two days and devise a new ending. Summoned to Rome so Coppola can do a quick Fellini homage, Paul briefly meets Enzo’s mistress (played by the director’s sister Sofia) and experiences some New Year’s Eve la dolce vita before returning to Paris to find that Marlene has left him. In his dreams, Paul is already kissing Valentine—or at least her pink-leather cat-suited alter ago, Dragonfly. Now he just has to finish the movie in a way that will please Enzo, Valentine, and Andrezej, who didn’t lose interest in the project’s revolutionary potential when he was fired.
“Cinema is truth 24 times a second,” Godard once wrote, but Coppola doesn’t believe anything of the sort. Although CQ pays tribute to Godard in both image and dialogue, the director’s ’60s films are treated as just some of the more interesting pieces of debris from the cultural pileup of 1968-1969. Coppola, who was born in 1965, blithely juxtaposes Paris’s late-’60s leftist fervor with the first flight of the Concorde and the introduction of video—all nifty, morally equivalent developments seen from the postmodern perspective of 2001, the year in which Dragonfly’s retrofuture is set.
In addition to Barbarella, Coppola has cited such other comic-book-inspired ’60s films as Danger: Diabolik and Modesty Blaise as inspirations for CQ, whose title is a Morse code predecessor to today’s term for instant messaging. Perhaps the most important precursor, however, is Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson’s David Holzman’s Diary, a 1968 film that comes on like a cinema verite documentary but is actually a work of fiction. Carson even makes a cameo appearance in CQ, giving his tacit blessings to Coppola’s thesis—whatever the heck it is.
Because Paul’s “personal film” is based on David Holzman’s Diary, a fictional flick that questioned the very idea of cinema as truth, CQ might be an attack on earnest ’60s notions of filmmaking. After all, Coppola is a veteran maker of commercials and music videos and has been immersed in the Hollywood ethos since childhood. Yet the director doesn’t seem to have a point of view at all: He just digs lots of things from the ’60s, so he devised a way to stuff many of them into the same movie. When a fantasy-sequence panel of experts (including Carson) appears to instruct Paul to “make us feel something,” it’s impossible to tell if Coppola is reproaching Hollywood, the French New Wave, or himself.
Ultimately, CQ fails to make us feel anything—including amusement. Coppola’s smorgasbord of cinematic references is great fun for film buffs without being much fun at all. The dour Davies, the underused Bouchez, and the merely picturesque Lindvall lack the charisma of ’60s art-film icons, and Coppola’s English-language, heavily Americanized Paris (filmed mostly in Luxembourg) always seems off-key. CQ suffers in comparison with a film Coppola doesn’t cite but has surely seen: Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep, whose not dissimilar scenario managed to transport the freewheeling quality of the New Wave into a contemporary scenario. Whereas Assayas recaptured the spirit of the ’60s, Coppola is capable only of simulating its look. CP