Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ridicule (1996) DVD / a film by Patrice Leconte; starring Charles Berling, Jean Rochefort, Fanny Ardant & Judith Godreches

"The soul of wit is to no one's place."
"In this country, vice is of no consequence, but ridicule can kill."
In pre-Revolutionary France, Gregoire Poncedulon de Malavoy is a low-level magistrate whose province in the southwestern part of the country is being overrun with pestilence due to a malfunctioning drainage system. Malavoy, an engineer as well as a baron, thinks he can solve the problem but he'll need the permission and backing of the King (Louis XVI) to do so. Arriving at lavish Versailles, the young baron finds that rather than concerning themselves with more serious matters of running the country, the king and his consorts are perpetually engaged with le bel esprit--the art of wit. And while the atmosphere effects an air of frivolity, it is in fact the meanest, most malicious brand of discoursing and gamesmanship in which cutthroat wars of words (actual staged contests) routinely serve up the public humiliation and permanent disenfranchisement of anyone not up to par--no matter what their title or pedigree. More detailed issues of governance are relegated to slow-moving bureaucrats who, as Malavoy soon discovers, intentionally stall the process of bringing matters such as the baron's request before the king out of little more than careless indifference. Most of the people the baron speaks with about his little problem seem somewhat annoyed he even brings it up ("Poor people, they're not only dying, they're boring").
Even just to get close to his majesty, Malavoy finds that he will have to employ his own rather clever but amateurish wordsmythe skills and develop a savage, scathing tongue of his own if he is to be admitted into the inner circle of the king's patronage. He seems to have no chance at all until he meets the clever, but discerning (and less vicious) Marquis de Bellegarde who coaches him up on the finer points of repartee. Before long Malavoy, owing to the marquis' advice but mostly to his own ability to effect biting insults in the direction of the most deserving members of the court, finds himself climbing the ladder toward a royal appointment. At the same time he finds the stakes of the game growing more and more dire as his own honor and character become entangled with the pernicious objectives of the other members of the court, most notably the lusty and calculating Madame de Blayac. A real snake in the grass but a woman who's in good with the king, Blayac has her own designs on Malavoy, even as his affections indelibly lie elsewhere, and has no reservations about tripping up the baron's plans.
Ridicule is a film set in a time and place where all compliments are two-faced, every truth is dubious, wit carries the day and sincerity is detested. Of course it could be any time or place, our own for example. And while it's a film about language and rhetoric, very little is actually said. None of what the characters verbalize actually means much if anything because being casually clever is everything and straightforwardness is a sure path to rejection. The tongue is the real instrument of choice among the royal court, insults and ridicule the currency of the power brokers. In an odd way, it's upstarts like Malavoy who most intrigue, rustics from the provinces perceived as something of a novelty among the more well-bred cosmopolitans. Being acid-tongued carries a price of course, and not only within heat-of-the-moment verbal confrontations in which the next one-upism could make or break you. For the France of that time was powderkeg atmosphere in which the ever-increasing smugness of the royal court and aristocracy offset the growing restlessness of a powerless bourgeoise and hoards of suffering peasants, a particularly vital part of world history the film ever-so-slyly alludes to. (DVD RIDICULE)

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