18th Century Quest: Lady J (2018)

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Y’all, I really need to get back to my 18th-Century Quest, wherein I try to watch every historical costume film/TV show set in the 18th century. Which is probably a crazy goal. But thinking about it made me saddle up and force myself to watch Lady J, aka Mademoiselle de Joncquières, a 2018 French movie that’s recently come to Netflix. I’m not sure why I was putting it off — I feel like lately there’s been a spate of 18th century-set French films where the costumes are just too modern, maybe? Also it didn’t help that previews showed the lead guy with a completely anachronistic scruffy beard. Well, the modern thing came into play here, but color me surprised that I quite enjoyed this movie — with a few quibbles, of course!

Lady J is based on an 18th-century novel by Diderot (you know, the guy who wrote the first Encyclopedia) called Jacques the Fatalist, which was written between 1765 and 1780. The film is about a middle-aged, but still very attractive, aristocratic widow named Madame de La Pommeraye (Cécile de France) who falls in love with a Casanova/Valmont seducer type named the Marquis des Arcis (Édouard Baer). Eventually he tires of her, and she gets her revenge.

First, let’s talk casting. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers, but while Cécile de France was lovely, there was NOTHING ATTRACTIVE about dumpy Édouard Baer. Maybe he was a super hottie when he was young? Maybe this goes along with the fascination with aging-Casanova-but-he’s-still-got-it films? (Side note, there’s YET ANOTHER of these coming out — called Casanova, Last Love — and I don’t get it; see my related rant in my Gérard Depardieu/Geoffrey Rush post). But the guy is shlumpy and dumpy, his hair is shitty, HE HAS A SCRAGGY BEARD in an era when NOBODY wore beards, and hey I think facial hair is hot hot hot but this was Not Good, and when we first meet him he’s shlumping around WITH HIS HANDS IN HIS POCKETS like a modern bro:

Lady J (2018)

OK, from a modern perspective, he’s perfectly reasonable if middle-aged. But from an 18th-century perspective, he looks like a farm hand.

WHAT THE FUCK GUY THIS IS NOT WALMART (we’ll come back to those boots).

Please tell me this smart, witty, attractive lady isn’t going to fall for this shit.

OTHER than that, I felt this was well-cast, well-acted, and well-written — and there are some gorgeous shots. I did have some feels about the whole “but I LOVE YOU, oh but now I have you, so now I’m bored with you” thing (i.e., the story of my attempts to date French men), but that’s to be expected. I also enjoyed that, like Dangerous Liaisons, the cast was small — it had that intimacy that theater does because of that. And yes, this film is in many ways in the same vein as Dangerous Liaisons, but it’s different enough to be enjoyable.

So now, on to the costumes!

Costumes in Lady J

The costumes were designed by Pierre-Jean Larroque (The Lady and the DukeNapoleonMolière, Arsène Lupin), and he won a César (the French Oscar) for his work on this film.

It’s unclear to me exactly which era the film is supposed to be set in — vaguely mid-18th century, but beyond that, it’s fuzzy. The whole look is elegant and yet very pared down, which was the director’s — Emmanuel Mouret — vision:

“All the costumes were made especially for the film. And as the costumes and the decor were being designed at the same time, I insisted particularly on two things. On the silhouette, that’s why we have costumes that are not overcharged and also on very simple sets so that the sets could be a bit like a screen for the silhouettes. That’s why we worked the colours of the costumes in accordance with the furniture and set colours. Contrary to some costume films of that time, we tried to show the modernity within that period. We tried to avoid things that would make it look old and faded and brown” (Within the imagination).

According to lead actress Cécile de France, “[The dresses] were made for me, to measure, to the centimeter. Each color was chosen according to my complexion, my hair, but also the scene. There were eight outfits in total” (my translation of Cécile de France a réalisé son rêve de petite fille).

In general, the costumes are beautifully made and fitted, and evocative of the 18th-century era in which the film is set:

There’s a lot of robes à l’anglaise and française…

And almost everyone is in one-color ensembles.

The undergarments are correct for the era.

The three main characters are aristocrats — Madame de La Pommeraye and her friend Lucienne, and then the marquis. The two ladies are dressed very much alike, and even seen to alternate between them in terms of color:

Both in françaises, Lucienne in the strong color, La Pommeraye in a pale stripe.

La Pommeraye’s pinky/orange gown…

and then Lucienne in a similar color scheme in another scene.

Ditto pale green, here on La Pommeraye…

Another time on Lucienne.

And as you can see, most of the overall cut and silhouette looks good. A few of the gown backs were wonky though (although hallelujah! no back-lacing dresses!!):

Here’s a nice robe à l’anglaise with stitched-down pleats.

Like this extant Robe à l’Anglaise, 1776, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And a robe à la française with its usual two pairs of stacked box pleats in back, although the center pleat on each stack could stand to be wider.

They’re usually spaced more like this robe à la française from the Museum of London.

Then you have this française, where the pleats are stitched down at the top as seen in the period — but further down than I’ve generally seen, plus either the actress has scoliosis or someone didn’t measure where the pleats should stop, because that angle looks wonky to me.

Compare it with the pleats on this 1775-80 sack at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

And then this française has WAY TOO MANY PLEATS — or maybe someone decided to invert the stacked box pleats? Either way, not at all how this style was done.

What gets stagey was the trimmings, which were generally not 18th-century in approach. Instead, what they seemed to do was to get coordinating fabrics, and use a contrast fabric as robings — the pleated bits along the front edges of the gown — which historically would have been made of the same fabric, and where generally there would usually be pleated or gathered trimmings attached:

The “robings” are a pleat that follows the center front edges of the overgown, from the shoulder down through the skirt. Here, they’ve been trimmed with a pleated strip of self-fabric. Robe a la francaise ca. 1765, from Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Here’s a robe à la française with gathered lace — by Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux, 1776, Musée Cognac-Jay.

And one with pleated or gathered ruches, edged with fly fringe: Robe à la Française, 1765-70, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What you see in the film: solid orangey-pink for the gown, spotted or figured for the robings, the pleated bits along the edges of the gown, as well as the sleeve bows.

Solid green gown, embroidered green for the robings.

Flat lace for robings — lace was certainly used, but it would probably be gathered or pleated.

Contrast fabric on the robings and sleeve ruffles — possibly the same taffeta, but laid crossways? I do love those striped ribbon bows on the stomacher.

There’s one or two dresses with applied trim that evokes fly fringe…

… but this is much more spare than you’d see in the period, where it should be on top of pleated or gathered ruches.

They did do a good job with accessories:

Caps, feathers, mantilles, parasols.

I particularly liked this yellow and black ensemble.

Then you have the marquis, who apparently has never heard of a wig, powder, or actual shoes — he loves wandering around in his unstyled, mulleted real hair and giant honking boots, even when inside:

Alright, I see a vestige of a buckle — the side hair rolls — here.

But most of the time, we’re doing a proper 18th-century cut without any styling. Listen, if it’s pre-1780s, there would be wigs and powder galore here.

I did think his suits were pretty! Nice cuffs and buttons!

Except no matter how formal or informal, he was always leaving his shirt open and wearing teeny black cravats. It’s not the 1960s, dude.

And boots. Always boots. Even inside, when reading. Boots.

The other two characters are prostitutes, the very down-on-their-luck Madame de Joncquières and Mademoiselle de Joncquières. Apparently prostitutes can only afford corsets and, maybe, dressing gowns, even when summoned to visit an aristocrat:

Dressing gown, I guess? And I have no idea wtf is going on with the fabric on that corset. Was there a dye accident?

Just your standard prostitute, headed out to visit an aristocrat in your underwear. With cheerleader hair. Sigh. At least she has a proper chemise and her stays are correct!

Other than that wobble, ladies’ hair was mostly up when it was appropriate:

Lucienne’s hair listed a bit more 1780s, while La Pommeraye’s was more 1750s.

Mademoiselle de Joncquières gets her hair organized.

While Madame’s hair was nice, except for the 1940s-esque sideswept bangs look.

In the end, I say yes, check out Lady J! It’s entertaining, you can hate stupid boys, and the costumes are pretty and well made, even with the various theatrical choices that were made.

 

Are you glad to be back on the 18th-century quest?

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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.

13 Responses

  1. Damnitz

    I will try to see it. Sometimes these French production find their way on French TV-HPs.

    The Pictures are looking not really promising, although I like Cécile de France (what a name by the way :-D).

    Reply
  2. Kate D

    I look forward to reading this post! I don’t see it up on your Patreon site yet, but maybe I just looked too soon.

    Reply
  3. Andrew

    Ok but Mme de la Pommeroye’s motivation was so confusing to me. Like she has an affair with scraggly marquis, suspects he’s not into her anymore, and when she asks him, he admits that he isn’t, which apparently is SO INJURIOUS to her that she concocts a ridiculous revenge plot that of course blows up in her face. If they were trying to upend the trope of the older rich dude in period dramas being a creeper, then they succeeded, because I didn’t see anything in the story that made him unsympathetic (other than the whole trying-to-hook-up-with-reluctant-teenage-prostitute). Maybe something was lost in translation when adapting the original story.

    Reply
  4. Nicolas

    I can tell why the actor doesnot wear a wig or have a beard: he is a major French actor and a diva very full of himself. So he certainly told them to fuck off with their wigs and shaving!

    Reply
  5. Mizdema

    Despite the ugly beard, I enjoyed this movie, one year ago: the langage was pure and classical and so naturally spoken by the actors.
    Now, as soon as you can, find a way to watch Portrait of a lady on fire.Great movie.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Hmm, the plugin should let you log in & take you back here to Frock Flicks where you can read the full post. Once you’ve logged in on Patreon, return to this page & reload it — if you still don’t see the full post, please let us know & we’ll troubleshoot further!

      Reply
  6. Kira

    This might be the worst historical movie I’ve ever watched. My friends and I were so excited for it but none of the good things about it were good enough to redeem all the stuff we hated. Not one character was sympathetic in any way, maybe with the exception of the young prostitute’s mother, who actually acted like a real person. And when I see it hailed as subversive, it just makes me roll my eyes. Mme de la Pommeroye acts like so many similar characters in literature and movies, treating those less fortunate like pawns, The marquis is a sleek creep, who, of course, falls for an innocent girl, who’s really a prostitute (so original). The girl has no self respect whatsoever and is exactly the stereotype of the kind of self-pitying and long-suffering innocent those kinds of guys “change” for in media.

    I suppose the fact that the Mme’s plot wasn’t successful in the end and the slutty marquis was able to overlook his wife’s past (how good of him) was supposed to be some great twist, but you can literally see it from a mile away in this poorly done narrative. I don’t see anything original or subversive about someone who’s technically an antihero getting a surprise and undeserved happy ending. It’s been done a million times.

    Reply
  7. LouisD

    There was a great movie adaptation of this story, relased in the 40’s : Les dames du Bois de Boulogne. It wasn’t a period movie, but was very good.

    Reply
  8. Shashwat

    The costumes do look pretty aesthetically and historically.So accurate in silhouette, but so devoid of trimmings that it makes me want to rush to the costumes with meters of lace and ruffle.Interesting way to create contrast using the same fabric but in different directions.I noticed that French productions tend to get the bust silhouette just right,otherwise Hollywood does tend to either get it too high or too low,too floppy or too squeezing-the-torso-of-the-performers.

    Reply

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