(Patrice Leconte, France, 1996)


Director Patrice Leconte has had a patchy career. Two of his films – Monsieur Hire (1989) and The Hairdresser's Husband (1990) – are admirable. Both are about strange fantasy worlds, obsessions nurtured by odd, inward men – respectively, a small, balding man, and an old man. In both films, Leconte traced the meeting of a certain dream-come-true – which always involves some beautiful, ideal, younger woman – with a final, cold, harsh reality. This clash of fantasy and reality in Leconte can be poignant and terrifying.

But then, as so often happens in the inescapably commercial world of cinema, Leconte tried to parlay the success of those two fine movies into a repeatable formula. So there was the dreadful Le Parfum d'Yvonne (1994), an insufferably twee meditation on a young man and his fantasy woman, with the flames of the real world roaring up behind him ... It was hard to believe that Leconte could make such a bad film. Now, with Ridicule, he's something of a director for hire, and he's working with someone else's script for a change. Leconte has in fact gone back more to what his career started with: comedies of social manners with a biting, sarcastic, critical edge.

Ridicule is a captivating film. It is set in the courtly France of the eighteenth century. Everything is pomp and pretence, masks and manners. However, this film is not an extravagant, vast historical mosaic. Its period or costume elements are relatively minimal, and Leconte, with this writer Rémi Waterhouse, focus on one particular social ritual. This is the often scary and cruel ritual of social wit, of insult and ridicule. As the publicity for this one rightly says, this is a world where words can kill, or at least utterly destroy a person's standing and reputation.

As often happens in fiction, we get into this world via an innocent outsider, a young man named Ponceludon (Charles Berling). He's taken in hand as a protégé by the Marquis de Bellegarde, a role that gives Leconte a chance to cast his favourite older actor and also mine – the marvellous Jean Rochefort (he stared in The Hairdresser's Husband). Young Ponceludon comes with a noble, social cause – he's trying to raise money for an irrigation system that will eliminate the rampant disease killing of the normal folks who work the fields. As you can easily see, this character stands for the new, radical France which is about to destroy the calcified world of the aristocracy with the French Revolution. And the film does get a bit simple-minded, I'd have to say, in the way it pits this idealistic young man, and also his proto-feminist, free spirit lover Mathilde (that's Judith Godrèche) against the fast crumbling old world. Leconte and Waterhouse clearly had a problem fitting the character of Mathilde into the centre of the plot – so they have her donning deep sea diving costumes and plunging underwater in the name of scientific research – which comes over like a rather absurd Monty Python touch!

But if our male hero is a righteous innocent, he's also corruptible, and his slow seduction into the insidious culture of wit and ridicule gives the film its best and most powerful scenes. As he's trained by the Marquis in the ways of the court, Ponceludon learns the tactical differences between wit and humour, puns and word play – and how, for instance, a gentleman never laughs at his own jokes, and certainly never laughs at anything with his mouth open. But Ponceludon also learns how to deceive and wound. And he gets himself involved in an erotic tangle with Madame de Blayac, played superbly and very icily by Fanny Ardant.

The progression of de Blayac's story – which ends with a cold, almost tragic scene of a masked ball – recalls another chilling, intensely focused costume drama, Stephen Frears' version of Dangerous Liaisons (1988). And if you're afraid that Ridicule is going to be, basically, a cute, precious collection of puns and poncy manners and costumes, let me assure you that it's much more in the arena of unique historical films like Dangerous Liaisons, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), and even Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982). That's to say, Ridicule is fun and good-looking, but it also has a real bite to it, a hard, dark side.

MORE Leconte: The Girl on the Bridge, Intimate Strangers

© Adrian Martin February 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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