Imagine a time when all compliments are two-faced, when everytruth is tinged with irony, when insults are the currency of humor. We havemore in common with the 18th century than we might imagine. “Ridicule” is amovie that takes place at the court of Louis XVI, circa 1783, but its valueswould be at home around the Algonquin Round Table, or in modern comedy clubs.Wit is all. Sincerity is an embarrassment.
Themovie tells the story of a provincial baron with a scientific cast of mind. Thepeople of his district are dying because of the pestilent waters, which breedmosquitoes and disease. He has a scheme for draining the marshes and making theland tillable. He needs the help of the king, and so he journeys to Versaillesto press his case. But the king values verbal wit above all, and lives mostlyto be entertained. If the baron cannot develop a savage tongue, he has nochance.
Thebaron, named Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), is, like all provincials,inclined to give his rulers credit for being better than they are. InVersailles he witnesses shocking displays of public humiliation, which are allpart of the game. He seems to have no chance at all, but then he is taken underthe wing of the wise old Marquis de Bellegarde, played by Jean Rochefort, thattall, long-faced master of sly intrigue. “Be witty, sharp, and malicious,” themarquis tells him, “and never laugh at your own jokes.” The baron somehowstumbles into success; his honesty plays like rudeness, and he doesn't laughbecause he doesn't know he has told jokes. He gains admission to court circles,where he finds that in romance, as well as politics, wordmanship is morecrucial than swordsmanship.
“Ridicule”has been directed by Patrice Leconte, a name not well known in this countryunless you have had the good fortune to see “Monsieur Hire” (1990) or “TheHairdresser's Husband” (1992). Those films were about erotic fixations carriedto uncomfortable extremes: about a little man who becomes solemnly obsessedwith the young woman he can see across the courtyard, and about a fetishist(Rochefort) who loves hairdressers so much he marries one, and hums with blissevery time she administers a shampoo.
In“Ridicule” the characters are faced with the exquisite torture of seducing oneperson while desiring another. The baron quickly falls in love with Mathilde(Judith Godreche), the kindly marquis' daughter, and she with him. But she isdetermined to marry a distasteful old rich man (they are only waiting for hiswife to die) so that he can finance her research into diving bells. Meanwhile,the baron, for matters of expediency, pays court to the powerful and beautifulMadame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), who can do him good at court.
Shelikes him. Well, he likes her. She understands almost everything about themotives of the people in her life, and at one point, while he is going throughthe motions of wooing her, she looks at him in amusement and advises, “Learn tohide your insincerity, so that I can yield without dishonor.” After all, she isnot a woman without stature; her own official lover is the abbot de Vilecourt.
Thekind old marquis sees all and keeps his counsel. He does not have the money tosupport his daughter's research, and sees how much she treasures her divingbells. He rather prefers the baron as a son-in-law, but realizes that no swampsare going to get drained that way. And the king? He has peepholes installed sothat he can secretly observe the real goings-on in his court, the better tosavor the ridiculous posturings of his petitioners when they come into hispresence.
“Ridicule”reminded me of the equally fascinating “Restoration” (1995), with Robert DowneyJr. as an ordinary man embraced by the king after he treats his beloved dogs.It was set a century earlier at the equally colorful but somewhat less manneredBritish court of Charles II. Both films show a monarch using his personal styleto set the agenda for his nation, and both are about lifestyles as a work ofart. Both, too, are about simpler men from scientific backgrounds, who findthat being straightforward gets them points at court that they haven't reallyearned.
Whatis fascinating about “Ridicule” is that so much depends on language, and solittle is really said. The characters come and go, polishing their one-liners,memorizing their comebacks, desperately walking the line between delectablerudeness and offending the king. None of what they say means anything. It isall words. The eyes carry the meaning. Watch the way the characters look at oneanother, and you can follow the real plot, while they spin their torturedfancies.
This article is about the film. For the concept, see ridiculous. For ridicule used as a rhetorical ploy, see appeal to ridicule.
Ridicule (French pronunciation: [ʁidikyl]) is a 1996 French film set in the 18th century at the decadent court of Versailles, where social status can rise and fall based on one's ability to mete out witty insults and avoid ridicule oneself. The story examines the social injustices of late 18th-century France, in showing the corruption and callousness of the aristocrats.
The film begins in 1783 with the Chevalier de Milletail (Carlo Brandt) visiting the elderly Monsieur de Blayac (Lucien Pascal), confined to his chair. He taunts him about his past prowess in wit and reminds him of how he humiliated him, naming him "Marquis de Clatterbang" when he fell over while dancing. He then urinates on the helpless old man.
The film then shifts to the Dombes, a boggy region north of Lyon. The Baron Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) is a minor aristocrat and engineer. He is one of the few aristocrats who care about the plight of the peasants. Horrified by the sickness and death caused by the mosquitoes that infest the swamps, he hopes to drain them; he goes to Versailles in the hope of obtaining the backing of King Louis XVI (Urbain Cancelier).
Just before reaching Versailles, Ponceludon is robbed and beaten. He is found by the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), a minor noble and physician. As Ponceludon recuperates at the marquis' house, Bellegarde takes him under his wing, teaching him about wit (l'esprit), the primary way to make one's way at court. At first, Ponceludon's provincial background makes him a target at parties and gatherings, even though he proves himself a formidable adversary in verbal sparring.
At one such party, he catches L'abbé de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau) cheating at a game of wits, with the help of his lover, Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), the beautiful and rich recent widow of Monsieur de Blayac, who was to have been Ponceludon's sponsor at court. Blayac repays his generosity in not exposing them by arranging for the certification of his lineage—thereby allowing his suit to proceed. Despite his success, Ponceludon begins to see that the court at Versailles is corrupt and hollow.
In one notable example, a bumbling noble of the court, Monsieur de Guéret, falls asleep during a roll call to partake in court with the King Louis XVI. L'abbé de Vilecourt, seeing that the noble is asleep, removes the noble's shoe, throwing it in a fireplace, and mimics a call for him. The noble wakes upon hearing his name, but finding out he has only a single shoe, is terribly distraught. To attend court without the proper clothes is a social impossibility, and because of this, the noble is forced to leave. He is so terribly distraught with his own failure that he later hangs himself in the garden.
The only exception is Mathilde de Bellegarde (Judith Godrèche), the doctor's daughter. She has agreed to marry Monsieur de Montaliéri, a rich, old aristocrat whose wife is dying. Her motivation is twofold: to support her science experiments and to help pay off her father's debts. Ponceludon begins to help her with her experiments. Montaliéri observes their growing attraction to each other. Later, Montaliéri tells Ponceludon that he should wait, as he is not likely to live very long, and Mathilde would be a rich widow. Even after Mathilde admits that she dreads her upcoming marriage, Ponceludon does not want her to end up the wife of a poor man.
One day, a deaf-mute named Paul runs through the woods wearing Mathilde’s diving suit and frightens Madame de Blayac. Blayac makes Bellegarde send him away. Bellegarde sends the boy to the Abbé de l'Épée, a pioneering educator of the deaf. Mathilde visits Madame de Blayac and unsuccessfully pleads for Paul. Madame de Blayac senses a rival for Ponceludon. Meanwhile Vilecourt is concerned that Ponceludon is becoming too successful, so Madame de Blayac promises to bring him down. Madame de Blayac traps Ponceludon at a dinner party (with her accomplice Montaliéri) where one too many guests has been invited. A contest of wit is used to settle who must make a humiliating departure. Distracted by Blayac, Ponceludon loses, and is convinced that his disgrace will force him to leave the court. However, he is reminded of why he set out in the first place when a village child dies from drinking contaminated water. During this time, Mathilde appears at court, breaking the terms of her engagement contract.
Vilecourt finally obtains an audience with the King, but blunders by accidentally blaspheming against God in an attempt to be witty, and Blayac turns her attention back to Ponceludon, convincing him to return to Versailles. He sleeps with her in exchange for her assistance; she arranges a meeting with the King. She maliciously has Bellegarde attend her in his capacity as physician when Ponceludon is still with her, ensuring that Mathilde learns of their relationship.
During a presentation at court of the Abbé de l'Épée's work with deaf people and development of sign language, the nobles ridicule the deaf mercilessly. However, some nobles change their minds when the deaf demonstrate their own form of wit: sign language puns. In response, de Bellegarde stands and asks how to sign "bravo," leading Ponceludon to rise and clap to show his support. Mathilde is touched, and they soon make up.
Ponceludon joins the King's entourage and, after showing off his engineering prowess by proposing an improvement to a cannon, secures a private meeting with the King to discuss his project. The embarrassed cannoneer then insults Ponceludon, forcing him into demanding a duel. Madame de Blayac almost persuades him to avoid the duel, but he eventually decides to proceed, under the supervision of Bellegarde. He kills the cannoneer, but is later informed that the King cannot meet with someone who has killed one of his officers right after his death, although he is assured that it was right to uphold his honour.
Madame de Blayac is furious when she learns that Ponceludon has left her for Mathilde and plots her revenge. Ponceludon is invited to a costume ball "only for wits." Upon arriving at the ball with Mathilde, he is manoeuvered into dancing with Blayac and is tripped. His spectacular fall earns him the derisive nickname "Marquis des Antipodes" by Milletail. Ponceludon tears off his mask and condemns their decadence. He tells them that they class themselves with Voltaire because of their wit, but they have none of Voltaire's compassion. He vows to drain the swamp by himself, and leaves the court with Mathilde. Madame de Blayac removes her mask and stands silently crying.
The movie closes in Dover, England in 1794, where Bellegarde has fled from the French Revolution and where he gets a taste of the English “humour” which the nobles had discussed earlier in the film. On-screen text states that Grégoire and Mathilde Ponceludon successfully drained the Dombes and live in revolutionary France.
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