The Lady and the Duke (L’Anglaise et le duc) (2001)

When I first saw Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke (L’Anglaise et le duc), and now that I see it again on DVD, one moment made me smile. During the French Revolution, a Republican patrol enters the room of the Lady Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), to announce a search of her house. Rohmer composes the shot of the patrolmen’s entrance with Russell offscreen. The patrol packs the frame from background left to foreground right. Rohmer cuts to Russell for her nervous reaction. An English émigré and Royalist sympathizer, Elliott is, indeed, hiding an enemy of the Revolution — between her mattresses. The commander orders the men to leave the room — the anxiously gracious Elliott being at the time in bed in her sleeping clothes. The men refuse to exit the bedroom, some visibly itching to get a look at better look at the Lady. I smiled. It’s the only time Rohmer allows the Revolutionaries recognizable human emotions that exceed their mob role in history and the movie’s story.

In this one sequence, Rohmer establishes various cross-purposes (Elliott’s subterfuge, the commander’s pretense, and the patrolmen’s horniness) through constructed cinematic space. Doing so is a particular challenge given the low resolution of the digital video medium used to shoot The Lady and the Duke. Transferred to film and projected on the big screen, the images are an abomination. The interiors are over lit and actors in the foreground leave trails when they move across the screen. The exteriors — digital recreations of pre-Impressionist painting styles — actually reduce film’s light-sensitive affinity to painting to a blown-up mush of pixels. It’s as if Rohmer were declaring, “Let them eat digital!”

As the DVD of The Lady and the Duke shows, the digital decision also marks Rohmer’s loss; he too is stuck eating digital. Like Godard, Tarr, De Palma, and Patrice Chereau, Rohmer is a modern master of film mise en scène. The digital medium simply does not serve his art, even though on DVD, skin and fabric textures have more shading and luster (though excessive lighting and trails remain). Additionally, the exterior digital effects are no longer indecipherable on the small television screen; the night graphics are downright gorgeous. Still, there’s rarely an example of the expressive use of screen space apparent in every shot of his previous films. In The Lady and the Duke, artist and medium are at cross-purposes.

However, digital video is not the only option for achieving the visual abstraction Rohmer desires — as evidenced in the artificial (almost Lego-like) world of Rohmer’s film, Perceval (Perceval le Gallois 1978). With The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer attempts to focus on the psychological and moral development of his characters, turning the historical backdrop into an abstract milieu. The minimalist mise en scène of Perceval concentrated the tale’s archetypes, revealing Rohmer’s quest for moral narrative. After his Moral Tales, the paired down abstraction of Perceval prepared movie audiences for the enriched Catholic sense of morality and ritual in the quietly monumental films that followed.

Gone in the digitized The Lady and the Duke is Rohmer’s phenomenological awe of nature and art — the green ray of Summer (Le Rayon vert 1986) as Percevalian Holy Grail. The colorfully lush garden in Pauline at the Beach become an Eden besieged by the knowledge and innocence of adult sexuality. The deep focus clarity (Apollo) of a vineyard (Dionysus) in An Autumn Tale (Conte d’automne 1998) becomes a playground for Rohmer’s rational-ecstatic romantic rites. These are not reductions of reality. Instead, Rohmer discovered the metaphysical foundation for his romantic tales in the natural world. They’re built on faith.

Faith also provides the dramatic force behind The Lady and the Duke, but it is no longer developed from the mise en scène. Grace Elliott’s conflicting faith in royalty and in her former lover, friend of the Revolution, Philippe, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), puts her life in danger. Equated to her religious faith — “God gave me more courage than I ever had before” — Elliott’s obstinacy, however, proves her salvation. Her faith is purified — and rewarded. And History does away with the opportunistic — read: “unfaithful” — Duke. However, I must be clear, my problem with The Lady and the Duke is not Rohmer’s ostensibly pro-Royalist politics, but his now reactionary aesthetics.

With The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer betrays the film revolution that he and the French New Wave began as Cahiers du cinema critics in the 1950s and as filmmakers in the 1960s. The conversations about politics in The Lady and the Duke, adapted by Rohmer from Elliott’s memoirs, are staged and edited like a television sitcom (though expertly performed in Russell’s evoked conviction and Dreyfus’ slyly expressed hypocrisy). It’s nothing like most of Rohmer’s movies in which characters talk endlessly about love. Those movies had pop validity. The dialogues and monologues — some of them constructed through improvisation — were given the throbbing fascination of pop songs that the drab, politics-focused The Lady and the Duke lacks. (Hasn’t Rohmer heard any hiphop for a clue on how to get political discourse into pop?)

In the past, Rohmer’s philosophical aesthetics deepened the pop connection, and made the characters’ concerns urgent and timeless, individual and cosmic. Previously, Rohmer’s film space provided a correlative or contrast between thought and action. Now that existential clarity is blurred and flattened, existentially limited. The use of sculpture and painting in the mise en scène of Rendezvous in Paris (Les Rendez-vous de Paris 1995) and of theater in A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver 1992) established the characters’ romantic travails as part of a universal spiritual effort.

In The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer’s digital paintings fail to relate Elliott’s political loyalty to any sense of modern exigency, except that of Rohmer’s lost faith in film. Also, at 129 minutes, The Lady and the Duke features Rohmer’s deliberate narrative construction, but is now unwieldy and punishing. This after the anthology of shorts that made up Rendezvous In Paris and Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (4 aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle 1987) represented a new, devastating moral concision not unlike the best pop albums. Rohmer’s oeuvre — until now — revealed romance, pop, art, and the movies as extensions of the ritual experience of Catholic healing and redemption. That was a revolutionary proposition.

Within his films, Rohmer had blessed characters fortuitous and doomed, with grace. The Lady and the Duke, however, is cynically cruel. In a challenging defense of The Lady and the Duke, Jeremiah Kipp reads the use of the digital backdrops as follows: “Rohmer employs the clever ruse that his characters themselves are phony to the core, mocked by the artificial world that surrounds them.” A jolting graphic supports this interpretation. The Duke rides in his carriage while the digital backdrop can be seen through the window. Suddenly, a passerby swings his hand into the window and grabs at the Duke. It’s an homage to famous moments in the works of Rohmer’s primary auteur idols: F.W. Murnau’s trolley car in Sunrise and Alfred Hitchcock’s horse-ride rear-projections in Marnie.

Whereas Murnau and Hitchcock’s artificiality usually allowed spectators to empathize with the characters’ spiritual or psychological states, Rohmer here joins his characters, transforming the mob into a symbol for the historical forces that encroach upon them. Thus, Rohmer dehumanizes the mob, and encourages the audience to participate in the objectification. It’s the aesthetic equivalent of the guillotine, chopping off spectator imagination. And the digital revolution puts the heads of moviegoers on the block.