It’s not only horses that are born in stables but saviours too. Before grubbing out an existence in the mosquito-infested swamps of the Dombes, Le Marquis Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) was raised in the palace of Versailles. Tired of seeing his people dying of malaria he ambitiously plans to drain the marshes. His only problem is that he lacks the funds. The king can perform miracles the peasants believe, but Grégoire’s scientific mind is more sceptical. To him, any man can perform wonders, but in this age of reason who is he to dash their hopes? Armed with his blueprints and some dubious claims to nobility he heads straight for the unwelcoming treasury, fails to secure a loan and gets robbed. Then serendipitously, or perhaps ill-fated, Grégoire is rescued by a bumbling good samaritan – Le Marquis de Bellegarde. After a prompt misdiagnosis, this charming and aging doctor nearly bleeds him dry and during this process, becomes a valuable friend.
Taken directly from a script penned by Remi Waterhouse and never claiming to be a historical drama, Ridicule is a far more ambitious project. From the outset, the film struts onto the screen like a vicious peacock, dazzling me with its brilliance and shocking audacity. As the cruelly nicknamed Marquis de Clatterbang pays his last disrespects to an aged man, I was pricked by a conscience that questioned me as to why an elder revered for his intelligence should be treated so harshly in his dying moments. As the story unfolded, this time with a new victim, the riddle of this clever tale was slowly revealed.
There are heroes of sorts in this carnival of harlequins. Le Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), like an over-aged schoolboy, delights in his joke book. I sensed that he truly understands the wickedness of the court and yet it quietly amuses him until his family are sucked in. His daughter, Mathilde, naïve and intelligent, might just squander her virginity in order to secure her studies as she desperately explores a weed-strangled lake in her leaky diving suit. The arrogant Abbé de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau) greases his way into Marie Antoinette’s favour like a well-oiled eel as he teases his rivals with nasty pranks.
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And it is his wit on which the people of the Dombes depend because in the court of Louis XVI the tongue is swifter than a sword. The king likes a joke and only a bon-môt earns a good word, the passport to the royal table. The aristocrats rely on their wits to win their battles and swoop like harriers upon weaker prey. With the treasury nearly bankrupt only the most malicious will secure the slim pickings. So, in this world of vicious repartee, a killing-joke takes on a sinister meaning as Grégoire discovers when a disgraced courtier takes his own life. And there are many faux-pas to ensnare a dullard – the demarcation between brilliance and crudeness is razor-thin: playing on words is permissible whereas punning is forbidden; one never laughs at one’s own jokes; but above all, timing has to be perfect. So, armed with their rapier-tongues the duellers strike their wicked jibes, eager for their strokes to draw favour. But some of them are cheating, and not only on their lovers.
Ridicule’s script is like a guillotine, a sophisticated device with a well-honed edge and the actors are like its oil enabling the lines to be effortlessly delivered with slick precision, time and time again. However, it always serves its greater purpose, like the music in Amadeus it is a servant to the plot and never usurps it. The lighting effects also add to the drama. As if stepping from Flemish paintings dark interiors are illuminated by shafts of piercing gold contrasting by the naked footprints of Mme de Blayac’s powdered floor. Whilst in-doors may seem claustrophobic, the verdant expanse of the palatial gardens gives room for the characters to breathe. In their flamboyant garb they strut like tight-lipped peacocks eager to crow yet fearful of being heard. It is truly a beautiful film. Inspired by Joshua Reynolds, the imaginative costumes designed by Christian Gasc paint the characters with a series of delicate glazes: scene by scene Mme de Blayac slowly transforms from a black widow into a scarlet woman until even her dark lace lightens up; Vilecourt forever clad in well-fitting priestly garb, is adorned with superfluous pom-poms – an overt emblem of his unnecessary vanity; and, Bellegarde, in his washed-out mauve, looks like an older, more weathered version of Grégoire. But of particular note is the fancy-dress ball with its outrageous wigs fashioned from Brillo pads and leather-beaked masks. It’s as if grotesque turkeys have roosted menacingly on the dancers’ heads, eager to peck out the eyes of a passing enemy. Gasc deservedly scooped one of the four Césars won by this film.
Ridicule is a like compendium of games in that each time I watch it I find new things to entertain me. Whilst anyone with a penchant for 18th century France will have to forgive the artistic license (feel free to moan about the out-of-date fireplaces), they will enjoy it again and again because the filmmakers didn’t want this incredible drama getting bogged down with trivial matters. It is witty, mature, beautiful, and cleverly constructed; a work of true sophistication, yet it retains a tension that the cruel jokes are getting out of hand. Suddenly, the Revolution seems like an act of kindness, sparing the aristocrats of the anguish of fading notoriety. Perhaps losing face can be worse than losing one’s head.
Unfortunately for such a good film as this, the DVD is depressingly light on extra features with only a documentary about the making of the film (also subtitled). It pays particular homage to the wardrobe designer and composer as well as interviews with cast and directors. Whilst informative, it’s standard fare.