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Fun and Gamesmanship

Two centuries before zillionaire NBA players started talking trash, before Don Rickles ambushed his first tipsy Vegas ringsider, before Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley traded quips at the Algonquin, the decadent court of Louis XVI turned acid wit into coin of the realm. While the nobles blindly sniped at each other, a revolution started brewing beyond the sculpted gardens of Versailles.

That's the premise (and the promise) of Patrice Leconte's hugely entertaining Ridicule, the latest in a recent string of costume romps that have taken dead aim at the excesses of European monarchy and the sundry corruptions of aristocracy.

In the age of Chuck and Di (not to speak of Newt), such stuff gladdens the democratic heart. But there's another reason, I suspect, why moviegoers are drawn to the dense romantic intrigues of Dangerous Liaisons or the royal follies of The Madness of King George and Restoration: The public taste for well-upholstered debauchery is never quite satisfied. Give us a steamy eighteenth-century courtesan insinuating her toes into the crotch of a handsome banquet guest and we are delighted. Verbally skewer a couple of pretentious fops in lavender brocade britches and the art-house crowd goes wild. And who doesn't relish just roaming around the palace, gazing at the jewels and the gold, unaffected by Puritan restraint?

Director Leconte, best known on this side of the Atlantic for Monsieur Hire and The Hairdresser's Husband, scores style points aplenty with this sumptuous look at the goings-on at Versailles--right down to ponderous gray wigs inspired by the paintings of Gainsborough, the lavish table settings and the pursed lips of an insufferable abbot. But Leconte's also sharpened his social dagger. Ridicule is a deft, detailed examination of the whims of a king and the nasty little ambitions of the sharp-tongued devils who curry his favor. In other words, Leconte shows us the last gasp of European feudalism and the first glimmers of the French Republic, six years before the Tennis Court Oath and the fall of the Bastille.

As you might expect, Leconte's hero neatly embodies Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) is a tattered provincial engineer who travels to Versailles in 1783 in hopes of petitioning Louis for his pet project--cleaning up the disease-ridden swamps of his native region, the Dombes. Straightforward and sincere, Gregoire doesn't get anywhere until his unlikely mentor, the Marquis de Bellegarde (the great, sad-faced Jean Rochefort) clues him in to the rules of engagement. It's not substance that counts at decadent Versailles, but vicious style; out-duel your adversaries in lethal games of wit and the king will hear about it. Dazzle him once more with bons mots and he may indulge your request ahead of a hundred others put forth by clerics, barons, courtesans and pretenders. Fail to amuse, and oblivion is your reward.

Luckily, our Gregoire is bright and adaptable. With a little coaching from Bellegarde, he is soon out-ridiculing his rivals at court and making a reputation for himself--although his brilliance is probably dimmed for most of us unwashed Americains by the presence of French dialogue and minimal English subtitles. "Peasants feed not only mosquitoes, but aristocrats," he quips, fast becoming a master of the parry, the well-turned epigram and the put-down delivered in--what else?--rhymed iambic octets.

Meanwhile, just like the idealistic young doctor who forsook duty for debauchery at the court of Charles II in last year's Restoration, this Malavoy also has a weakness for pleasure. Before you can say "French postcard," Fanny Ardant's scheming Madame de Blayac has lured him into her boudoir, even though he has already fallen in love with Bellegarde's beautiful and forward-looking daughter, Mathilde (Judith Godreche). Bedding a powerful courtesan is all guile on Gregoire's part, too, but it has its price. He may stoop to conquer for his cause, but at court everyone knows the rules of the game.

En route to La Revolution, writer Remi Waterhouse, director Leconte and this wonderful cast provide a wealth of fetching period detail--insouciant ladies lolling naked in their dressing rooms while servants blow huge clouds of dusting powder over them; the overheated huffing of a phony baron seeking admission to the Academie Francaise; the manipulations and thoughtless cruelties of two dozen strivers who have clearly corrupted the ideals of Rousseau and the wisdom of Voltaire. At the heart of their vulgar battle we but glimpse Louis XVI (Urbain Cancelier), plump as a pastry, distracted and imperious. We cannot help thinking of the French treasury in disarray, the peasants gnawing on roots and leaves and Malevoy's countrymen dying in the swamps--while disaffected aristocrats pluck morsels from golden plates and hurl barbed gibes at each other.

We understand that, a decade later, the inheritors of France's fate will be plucky Gregoire and even pluckier Mathilde de Bellegarde. While Louie's head lies in the bottom of a basket and the machinations of Madame de Blayac are but a memory, work will supplant wit and rebirth will overcome ridicule. Thanks to this fine and funny film, getting there, by way of Versailles, is a huge pleasure.

Ridicule. Screenplay by Remi Waterhouse. Directed by Patrice Leconte. With Charles Berling, Jean Rochefort, Fanny Ardant and Judith Godreche.

 
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