Rohmer’s 2-D Revolution In an Empty, Painted Paris

Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke, from Mr. Rohmer’s screenplay, based on Grace Elliott’s memoir Journey of My Lif e During the French Revolution , is one of the most eccentric and unexpected movies to emerge from the New York Film Festival. For Mr. Rohmer’s most fervent admirers, like me, it seems at once disarmingly straightforward and strikingly devious. What Mr. Rohmer has done is put a new perspective on the old, almost hackneyed subject of the Revolution-and, in the process, he’s devised a distracting two-dimensionality by utilizing painted backgrounds to avoid the traditional falsification of Paris as it was two centuries ago.

Mr. Rohmer has acknowledged several models for the film-D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) and Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938)-but the unabashedly royalist sympathies of our lady heroine, Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), are closer to the antirevolutionary novel The Scarlet Pimpernel , by Baroness Orczy, which was made into an entertaining film in the 30′s, with Leslie Howard in the title role. Indeed, when Grace courageously rescues from the rabble an aristocrat even she despises, the festival audience didn’t seem to be sure for whom they should be rooting. It is perhaps not too much to say that Mr. Rohmer is politically incorrect, despite some scattered rhetoric about civil liberties and individual freedoms.

Certainly this is not a typical Eric Rohmer project, first in being a period film-of which there are only two others in the vast Rohmer oeuvre , the comparatively realistic Marquise of O (1976) and the ultra-stylized Perceval le Gallois ( Perceval ) (1978)-and second in not dealing with a romantic pairing or an elective affinity. All of Grace Elliott’s sexual adventures are behind her: a failed marriage to Sir John Eliott, followed by an affair with the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, to whom she bore a daughter, followed by an alliance with Prince Phillipe, Duke of Orléans, who brought her to France in 1786. The film begins after the end of that romance, but not their abiding friendship. The Duke is a frequent visitor to Grace’s house through the early stages of the Revolution, but their political differences briefly cause a rupture in their relationship when he votes for the execution of Louis XVI. The friends are eventually reconciled, virtually on the eve of the Duke’s execution by Robespierre’s terror. Grace is saved from a similar fate by the death of Robespierre.

The history of the period is recounted largely in conversations conducted at intimate tea parties, which is nothing new for a Rohmer film. What is new is the sense of empty, undeveloped space in the Paris of the 1790′s, and this is what has stayed with me long after I saw the film. Even so, I’m not sure Mr. Rohmer’s visual strategy will work with most audiences. In his films with contemporary settings, Mr. Rohmer seems to profit from a visual rigor and resourcefulness in placing his characters in distinctive locales that establish an independent existence of their own. In The Lady and the Duke , the characters seem to operate with a different degree of reality indoors than they do outdoors. Yet one must respect Mr. Rohmer’s refusal to compromise his vision by making his film resemble all previous facile representations of the past. Thus he succeeds, at the very least, in being completely original.

At a time when seemingly half the movies I see begin with a sexual humping sequence, it’s unusual to encounter a character of such womanly dignity and authority as Lucy Russell’s Grace Elliott. When asked if it was Grace’s “loyalty to her commitments that touched” the director, Mr. Rohmer replied, “No, it was her British stiff upper lip, a certain modesty and self-control, a completely unaffected way of talking about herself and, above all, a way of looking at events that makes her the heroine of a novel.” In casting the role, Mr. Rohmer chose Ms. Russell, who, in addition to her ladylike imperturbability, speaks a relentlessly enunciated French that French directors seem to find erotically provocative in a beautiful foreign female and boring in a similarly handicapped male. This frisson of sexual otherness goes back to Nora Gregor in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).

The fact that Mr. Rohmer was attracted to this project at all suggests a mischievous conservatism at work. But his view of history is nonetheless to make all sorts of distinctions in the endless controversies between ends and means. Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Le Duc d’Orléans projects a civilized counterweight to Grace Elliott’s uncontrolled emotionalism in her political likes and dislikes. Meanwhile, Grace displays a perceptive awareness of the Duke’s follies, brought on by his slightly ridiculous vanities. In the end, the tidal wave of history sweeps aside both the Lady and the Duke, but not before both have the opportunity to display a sublime grace under the most fearsome pressure.

Stranger Than Fiction

Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, from his own screenplay, manages to be more hatefully misanthropic and misogynous than his previous exercises in alienation and anomie, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Happiness (1998). I suppose there are people in the youthful target audience who find Mr. Solondz’s gallery of screwed-up kids, dysfunctional families and grotesque predators infinitely hilarious. I’m afraid I’m not a member of that target audience, at least where Mr. Solondz is concerned. There was, however, one heart-stopping moment in the film, when a casual shot of the New York skyline included the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Mr. Solondz indicated in a press conference following the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival that he was inclined to keep the shot in the picture, and I hope he does. We should not run away from the horrors of history in order to feel good-or at least, less bad.

Still, the awfulness of the characters in Storytelling seems more appropriate for the dispiriting period after Sept. 11, 2001, than it might have seemed earlier. Mr. Solondz has divided his latest work into two separate episodes entitled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.” The first opens with-what else?-a man humping a woman. After a series of moans and groans, the nude figures disentangle to reveal Vi (Selma Blair), an attractive blonde, and Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), the whiny victim of a disfiguring case of cerebral palsy. Both Vi and Marcus are next seen in a writing class from hell presided over by an angry black instructor without a kind word in his vocabulary. When he calls Vi’s story a “piece of shit,” the festival audience roared with laughter. Later, the seemingly mean-spirited Mr. Scott (Robert Windom) displays his comic timing as a sexual predator by letting Vi pick him up in a bar and then taking her to his place, where he seduces her with ridiculous ease. The actual stand-up intercourse is blocked from our view by a red bar, while the soundtrack remains unexpurgated.

At the next meeting of the class, Vi reads an account of the action as a piece of fiction, and Mr. Scott is only slightly more encouraging. This “satire” of writing classes is like shooting fish in a barrel, and I suspect that it’s nastier than anything in real life. With the sex, it is a bit of push-the-envelope time, but these days I’ve lost track of where the envelope is.

The “Non-Fiction” section of the movie is longer and less focused than its predecessor. A documentary filmmaker invades a family that is already terminally dysfunctional, and the end result is a burst of nihilism that takes Mr. Solondz into new areas of irrational malignancy. The problem with the film is that there is nothing resembling a raisonneur on the premises, and so each of the characters takes turns being ridiculous. Curiously, what seems to be a final humiliation for the central character is treated by him as a chilling triumph. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. And, unfortunately, that means some of you will like it.

Sorry, Wrong Number

John Dichter’s The Operator , from his own screenplay, begins with-what do you know?-another humping scene. I know you’re all thinking that I pick these licentious films to review so that I can pretend to be superior to them. No such luck. Sex is one thing to which I have never been superior, but truth to tell, I come from an age when a bit more foreplay was expected. In this instance, the male part of the equation has to jump under the bed when the woman’s husband comes home unexpectedly with his hound dog and rifle. The hapless adulterer has to run home half-naked after the irate husband shoots out the windows of his car.

We are gradually introduced to this farcical figure as Gary Wheelan (Michael Laurence), a young, married, upwardly mobile, corner-cutting Dallas attorney with a beautiful wife and a perpetually roving eye. One day, Gary gets a wrong number from a telephone operator and chews her out in no uncertain manner. For the rest of the film, the offended operator makes it her life’s work to destroy Gary, ostensibly for his own good. As she begins messing with his bank balances, telephone bills, credit cards and communications with his shady clients, she deprives him of his wife, his reputation and his credit with his bookie-and the latter could cost him his life.

The operator begins calling herself Shiva and spouting Eastern mumbo jumbo. There is some fun in watching one kind of operator take down another kind, but the problem with the central character is that he starts off on such a low note of weak resistance that he doesn’t have all that far to fall. Yet the movie may appeal to an audience’s sadistic nature.