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:
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
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:
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:
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!!):
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:
They did do a good job with accessories:
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:
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:
Other than that wobble, ladies’ hair was mostly up when it was appropriate:
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?