(director: Patrice Leconte; screenwriters: Remi Waterhouse/Eric Vicaut/Michel Fessler; cinematographer: Thierry Arbogast; editor: Joelle Hache; cast: Charles Berling (Baron Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy), Jean Rochefort (Marquis de Bellegarde), Fanny Ardant (Madame de Blayac), Judith Godreche (Mathilde de Bellegarde), Bernard Giraudeau (Abbot de Vilecourt), Urbain Cancelier (Louis XVI); Runtime: 102; Miramax Films; 1996-Fr.)

“The acting or the story did not excite me enough to think that this clever film was anything special.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

For a film that prides itself on its use of wit to show what the nobility and their King Louis XV1 were like during 1783, just before the infamous French Revolution, I would have expected to be more than dazzled by these nobles with their silver-tongued wit and their razor-sharpened retorts. Instead, I found myself more taken with the history aspect of this good looking costume spectacle and was not especially amused by the barbs. In fact I found the film rather anti-septic, not a particularly moving dramatic experience. Overrated by some of the critics who seemed to fall for this French film’s farcical intentions, deeming it intellectual in the broadest sense of what is intellectual while failing to construe how ordinary and dispassionate the characters were.

The art of ridicule was the sword used by those who expected to gain favor with the king and his court, with the hopes of having enough wit so that they won’t have their life ruined by failing to respond to someone else’s comments in a suitable manner. It was their way of fighting for their position in life.

The plot centers around the serious-minded Baron Ponceludon’s (Berling) attempt to get royal backing on a needed drainage project, which would help cultivate the swampland he owns by getting rid of the mosquitoes breeding there and help the peasants who work for him have a better life. He is a French lord of not much wealth and has been trained as an engineer, and who rides by horse to Versailles to learn how to play the delicate games of wit at a place where the aristocrats show an indifference to social concerns other than the ones that please their own vanity. He comes here solely to raise the money he needs for his life’s work.

Part fiction and part history this satire, as directed by Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire/The Hairdresser’s Wife), is not completely absorbing in its romantic tale or as drama. The history part accurately depicts the corruption of the king’s court and his placement of more importance on vacuous wit than genuine ideas. The honest engineer from the country is quickly disheartened by what he sees in Versailles — where you get the king’s ear by trickery, or sleeping in the right bed, or by deception. To meet the evasive king, you have to make a name for yourself in Versailles through one of those methods.

The idealistic Ponceludon finds a local nobleman, Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), to treat his wounds when he is robbed on the road to Versailles. The nobleman thinks Ponceludon might have some chance of succeeding in being witty and offers him lessons of how to survive in Versailles; such as, “Don’t laugh at your own jokes. Never laugh with your mouth open. Call puns the death of wit. Remember, the soul of wit is to know one’s place.” The nobleman who will sponsor him also has a beautiful and intelligent daughter, Mathilde (Judith). She is prepared to marry an older, dishonest noble. Now you know she’s going to fall in love with our hero; but, in between, Ponceludon courts the seductively attractive and treacherous Countess de Blayac (Fanny) in Versailles, because he is committed to get help for his swamp project anyway he could. His problem with winning Blayac over is that her ‘main man’ is the arrogant and nasty master of wit himself, the clergyman Abbot de Vilecourt (Giraudeau); and, the rivalry between these two wits will culminate in a gentleman’s pistol duel, that is, after a series of dueling witticisms are hurled back and forth. After his battles with the nobles it is still a challenge to meet the insulated king, too busy living the “good life.” The king is just as indifferent as the nobles are to the plight of the common man.

What elevates this film above merely showing how obviously stupid and petty the nobles were, is that it stresses how the nobles had to use language to survive in that atmosphere. Language therefore became a source of power for them if used in conjunction with wit, as their class status only gave them a ticket into the arena of power so to speak. This film is also about a moral dilemma for our good-hearted hero. He must choose either what is morally correct or to sell himself out for his project, which he considers as something that is more important than how he might be perceived.

The acting or the story did not excite me enough to think that this clever film was anything special, except as a mildly diverting farce. The retorts heard here would pale considerably, next to those heard regularly in an average schoolyard in any large American city.