At the ripe old age of 82, veteran French film-maker Eric Rohmer, best known for his visually restrained moral tales and comedies of manners, has embraced computer-generated imagery to create an extraordinary portrait of Parisian life during the French Revolution. Frustrated by period films which use only tight shots of surviving buildings and doorways, Rohmer and his technical collaborator Françoise Etchegary used 18th century pictures and engravings to create painterly virtual backdrops into which the actors were then inserted. Drawing upon the memoirs of Scottish-born royalist Grace Elliott, he uses self-conscious artifice to evoke rather than reproduce the authentic everyday ambience of revolutionary Paris. In so doing, he also achieves a remarkable psychological verisimilitude: ‘I don’t much care for photographic reality,’ Rohmer has said. ‘I depict the Revolution as people would have seen it at the time. I try to make the characters more like the reality you find in paintings.’
Not that Rohmer has strayed away from the preoccupations familiar from both his previous period films, Percival and The Marquise of O, and his more naturalistic contemporary ones: The Green Ray, A Summer Tale or Full Moon in Paris. Here, however, the complex moral dilemmas, troubled friendships, strained loyalties and vagaries of love are played out in the context of an encroaching anarchic terror. The precise formality of the language is perfectly suited to Rohmer’s subtle moral and psychological insights, the dense grain of the characters’ underlying feelings hidden by a wafer-thin veneer of politeness. Yet outside Grace’s beautifully furnished apartment, the ‘sans culottes’ run riot, King Louis XVI’s authority and life are under threat, and the streets run red with the blood of pro-royalist aristocrats. At one point, Grace’s carriage is caught up in a revolutionary demonstration, and she sees the decapitated head of her friend, the Princess de Lamballe, skewered on a spike.
Shortly after this, Grace (Lucy Russell) is compromised by the arrival at her door of sick, fugitive royalist Charles Dumouriez (François Marthouret), a man she despises and the personal enemy of her ex-lover and devoted friend, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). At great risk to herself, Grace hides Dumouriez and solicits the help of her old friend, who reluctantly agrees to assist in an escape over the border. Constantly shifting political allegiances generate suspicion and fear, putting great pressure on Grace’s passionate friendship with the Duke: for she is an ardent royalist while he is a pro-revolutionary aristocrat, albeit one who is increasingly distrusted by Robespierre and his lowly-born followers. The simmering personal and political dilemmas come to the boil when the Duke reneges on a promise he made to Grace, to vote against the execution of the King.
Using elegantly composed static shots, Rohmer creates a quivering tension between the calm precision of the imagery and language, and the violent extremity of the political setting. As a result, we experience this living personal history as if we are ‘in the moment’, not looking back at events that dusty historians have embalmed in aspic.France, 2001. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby stereo SR. 125 mins.