18th-Century Quest: Beaumarchais l’Insolent

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Beaumarchais l’Insolent — aka Beaumarchais the Scoundrel — is a 1996 French film about the life of Pierre Beaumarchais, a late 18th-century intellectual, inventor, playwright, and spy. He’s best known for writing the three Figaro plays (including “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro”), which were culturally influential in promoting the anti-aristocratic thinking that led to the French Revolution.

I’m in Paris on vacation, and the Petit Palais museum is hosting two 18th-century art exhibitions and showing 18th-century films as an accompaniment. Since this movie has been on my 18th-Century Quest list for a while, and I’ve yet to find a decent copy in the States, I thought I’d better see it while I had the chance. Unfortunately my French isn’t quite fluent enough to keep up with rapid fire dialogue, so I definitely missed a lot of nuance (I made a point to read up on Beaumarchais before seeing the film, which helped).

Overall, I found the film entertaining if not overly inspired. Beaumarchais is, as the title of the film suggests, a scoundrel. He writes plays that get him in trouble with the government, has amours with actresses that land him in duels, and is a generally saucy wit. After a legal battle, he ends up deprived of his civil rights, and King Louis XV enlists him to be a spy in London in order to have his rights restored. So there’s lots of banter and theater and general shenanigans.

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

Are you getting the shenanigans vibe yet?

 

Costumes and Hair in Beaumarchais l’Insolent

The costumes were designed by Sylvie de Segonzac, who also designed Marie-Antoinette, la Véritable Histoire (2006) and Murderous Maids (2000). And here’s where I tell you it’s the proverbial mixed bag: some things they did very well, others were somewhat odd, and only two things made me WTF.

The film spans 1773-75, and therein lie some of the problems. First, let’s look at French fashions of that period. In both images below, note the women wearing silk dresses — robes à la française and anglaise (check my rant on back-lacing if you need a guide to women’s dresses of the 18th century) — open in front over stomachers with some level of hip fullness. Everyone’s hair is powdered, and the men are either wearing wigs or at least have their hair styled short in front, rolls over the ears, and long in back:

The salon of the Duke of Orléans (sitting), he is with his son (standing); by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, c. 1770

La partie de trictrac by Jean François Garneray, c. 1780 [I’d be shocked if this was really that late, I’d say early 1770s myself based on the hair], Musée Carnavalet

Further down the social scale you see simpler jackets and fitted gowns; for the upper classes, note the women in robes à la française or poufy, drawn-up robes à la polonaise:

Two details from Le Pont-Neuf et la Pompe de la Samaritaine, vus du quai de la Mégisserie by Nicolas Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1777, Musée Carnavalet

Now let’s look at the film:

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

In general, the menswear was nicely made and appropriate to the period…

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

with nice details like embroidery, good shirt ruffles, and more.

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

Loooove the embroidery on this coat!

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

However, most of the women were dressed in more 1780s wear, like this zone cutaway bodice seen here…

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

Not-very-full skirts… Overall the womenswear just felt uninspired.

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

Except for this number, which had, I shit you not, FRONT, BACK, AND SHOULDER LACING. AND I SWEAR THEY USED A SHOELACE FOR ALL THAT LACING.

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

Plus there was waaaaay too much chemise-off-the-shoulder in casual situations, like on this actress during rehearsals…

And at least wife Marie-Thérèse’s chemise is on the shoulders, but why is she sitting around in her stays while hanging out with Beaumarchais’s assistant?

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

Side note, Marie-Thérèse, Beaumarchais’s wife, was a dead ringer for a young Celine Dion.

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

I did like this scene of an actress in her dressing room, as she’s in historically accurate undies — chemise, stays, stockings, and nothing else!

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

The color palette was also super neutral, which seemed weird. This red coat was really the ONLY splash of color in the entire film.

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

I had a lot of problems with the hair (you’ll be SO surprised). This is at Versailles. Beaumarchais is on his way to meet King Louis XV. Notice anything missing??

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

Only very few characters ever wore wigs in an era when wigs would be de rigueur. At least the king (left) is wearing one.

The further problem I had was that NONE of the men wore their hair styled into an 18th-century appropriate style (with side curls at the ears). Many of the men would have long or long-ish hair, but it was just shaggy and laying there.

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

Crowd scenes were better for showing wigs, but then WHYYYYY didn’t anyone ever wear a hat??!!

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

Beaumarchais DID wear a great wig while working as a magistrate, so they clearly had the technology. I did like how he very clearly put this wig on as a professional accessory.

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

The women’s hair was Not Great. She’s mid-dressing, so she can have a pass for all that hair down.

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

But almost all of the major female characters spent their time in vaguely 1740s-50s updo’s, some with more unnecessary tendrils than others.

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

And then the occasional extra would have fabulous, if 1750s, hair!

Beaumarchais l'Insolent (1996)

And DON’T even get me started on the hair on Judith Godrèche (in a bit part) as Marie-Antoinette.

And now, finally, I want to talk about two specific female characters:

When Beaumarchais goes to London as a spy, he meets the famed Chevalier d’Eon, a French spy who first lived as a man and then as a woman. First, let’s look at the real Chevalier:

Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart, 1792, National Portrait Gallery.

And then compare them to the film version:

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

SUPER feminized, I think in order to help the audience deal with the fact that Beaumarchais flirts with them.

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

AND WHAT WAS UP WITH THE CHEVALIER’S EYEBROWS. That is not On Fleek by 18th-century standards.

And then, there are two quick scenes featuring famed court painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Once again, let’s look at the real deal:

Self-portrait in a Straw Hat by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, after 1782, National Gallery

And again, the film version:

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

I literally LOLed when this came on screen.

Beaumarchais, l'Insolent (1996)

I feel like I’m looking at Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles!

 

Have you seen Beaumarchais l’Insolent? Which other French 18th century-set films should I make sure to track down?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

12 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    First, I should say that Insolent means insolent, not anything scoundrely (totes a word!).
    And Beaumarchais wasn’t a scoundrel, he was a genius watchmaker who was also a genius writer. He was also someone who was trying to climb the social ladder with no benefit of birth and little help.
    He also had far too big a mouth for his own good.

    Now, about the film: It’s not truly about Beaumarchais, it’s about the actor who plays him, Fabrice Lucchini, who’d gone into public eye in a big way at the time.
    The subject was chosen so all the top actors of the day could be witty at each other in fabbo locations and nice costumes.
    It’s a dude film… Okay, it lacks explosions, but it’s the sort of film we Frenchies do from time to time as a self congratulory pat on the back about ourselves, our history, our great actors… And so forth and so on.
    Extremely irritating.
    And the women, no matter what, are at best arm candy, but mostly just decoration/sex objects in those.
    C’mon, you REALLY don’t think a female should be given the chance of overshadowing some MALE actor, do you? The (male) critics would faint!

    As for another film you should see, may I suggest “Fanfan la tulipe”, the Gerard Philippe version? It’s a classic.
    Otherwise, not a film, but a series: Nicolas le Floch. Nice costumes, VERY nice dialog in classic French (a feast for the ears for me), and also some epic wigs!

    PS: Welcome in France! Hope you enjoy your stay.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      “It’s a dude film… Okay, it lacks explosions, but it’s the sort of film we Frenchies do from time to time as a self congratulory pat on the back about ourselves, our history, our great actors…”

      HAHAHAHAHHA! I thot those were only the ones starring Gérard Depardieu — tho’ I suppose those are just the films that make it to the U.S. ;-)

      Reply
      • Daniel C

        I remember when this movie came out back then. The theatre scenes were shot near where I lived then, in Rochefort in an adorable little theatre that, although built in the 1770s has an interior that’s totally 1860s but was decorated in the 1970s in pale blue velvet to look like the queen’s theatre at Versailles (it’s been recently returned to 1860s appropriate red and gold).

        I look a lot at period set design in films, which gives me another reason to rant, and it’s often about the same as the costuming. That gold chair in the dressing-room picture is full 1900s/1910s rococo revival…

        Reply
    • Janet Nickerson

      Nicolas le Floch – yes! Beaumarchais is a character in the series. A character I believe is the Chevalier d’Eon appears in the episode set in England, and the Count de Saint Germain appears in a couple of episodes, too. le Floch’s ‘boss’ is a wig freak – he has 15 or more in his office.

      Reply
    • Teleri T

      I would love to see a costume review of Nicholas le Floch! MHz Networks show it from time to time in the States as part of their International Mystery series.

      Reply
  2. Susan Pola

    No, I haven’t seen it as I too haven’t found a copy here in the States. The costumes seem very meh to be technical 😁, but I hope you enjoyed it for its content.

    BTW have fun at Les Arts Decoratifs & Palais Musee Galliera de la Ville de Paris.
    Also a huge LOL to Trystan for the not post on Reign’s ending

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      GAH!!! I was hoping nobody saw that post — I was trying to schedule it for 2 weeks from now (I’d read it was ending but couldn’t ID the date yet), but WordPress was being dumb.

      Reply
  3. MoHub

    One should also check out John Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles, in which Beaumarchais, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and several of Beaumarchais’ characters from the Figaro plays meet and interact in the afterlife.

    Reply
  4. David Murphy

    I do have the film in my Fabrice Luchini DVD collection. Some of his movies have been released with English subtitles but not all. His acting career has spanned several phases of French film production and is very varied. He is a transcendant theatrical peformer, actor or recitator, who can hold the audience in the palm of his hand. He is the equivalent of a John Gielgud or Olivier in the French language how it should be pronounced and spoken. I had the privilege of attending one of his “shows” based on the poems of Charles Baudelaire partnered by the soprano Sandrine Piau in music and text at the Marseilles opera house. It was sold out. He has released several CDs narrating poetry and French literature.

    My personal favourites are “Intimate Confessions” with Sandrine Bonnaire in which a dull solicitor is brought to life by a chance encounter (she thinks he is a counsellor/therapist) a well explored dramatic conceit which rather implausibly continues to end of the film. It’s intense and enchanting. The other is very similar but more direct and involves a conservative stockbroker gradually being seduced into a higher world of light, fun and love amongst the Spanish migrant girls working in Paris and living in rented accommodation in his building: “The Women on the Sixth Floor”.

    “La Fille de Monaco” was a great success and travelled out of France “The Girl from Monaco” probably due to its combo of sleaze and sexiness making it more commercial to Anglo Saxon film audiences.

    The Petit Palais exhibition of delightful paintings from the Golden Age of the Old Regime in France featuring amongst others (of course!) Watteau and Fragonard continues through the summer.

    Across the river Seine within walking distance a much finer and vibrant exhibition ends shortly on June 25th at the d’Orsay on the subjecf of “The Mystical Landscape” containing a vast array of fabuolous works by the great masters including van Gogh.

    This latter is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – grab a Eurostar ticket and GO!

    Notes on Fabrice Luchini

    Born in Paris in 1951 into an Italian immigrant family, Fabrice Luchini is a famous French stage and film actor. He got his first role at the early age of 18 but later discovered his true passion, theatre, ‘the only place where life is expressed’. Luchini features in many auteur films by directors and his theatre work is no less prolific. The year 2012 is the perfect example of Luchini s multiplicity and huge acting talent : he plays a French literature teacher in François Ozon s new film In the House, he is Julius Caesar in French blockbuster Asterix & Obelix: On Her Majesty’s Service alongside Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, and he is reading texts from Philippe Muray at the Antoine Theatre. If a great part of Luchini s reputation comes from his readings of fables of La Fontaine – not only on stage but also as a guest on TV shows – they had never made available yet. Fabrice Luchini partnered with Because Music to release them for the first time : to our greatest pleasure we get to see and hear Luchini s performative power and elocutionary eloquence at their best. This deluxe PAL DVD + CD edition includes a 44-page booklet and offers 15 fables of La Fontaine and 5 poems by Charles Baudelaire. The film was directed by Yves Angelo (Colonel Chabert, Grey Souls…) while the illustrations in the booklet were made by the duo of visual artists Kuntzel+Deygas. The deluxe long box set is cloth-covered, embossed and printed with black ink and gold foil.

    Reply

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