Ridicule (1996) is an 18th-century-set
costume movie that focuses on the intrigues and pettiness of the court at Versailles. It received very positive reviews, and multiple awards: Césars for Best Film, Best Director (Patrice Leconte), Best Costume Designer (Christian Gasc), Best Art Direction; BAFTA for Best Film not in the English Language; the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I hadn’t seen the movie in many years (maybe not since ’96!), so in pursuit of The Quest, it was time to haul it out and ask: Ridicule — as good as the hype?
The plot starts off with a provincial aristocrat (the Baron Ponceludon de Malavoy), who wants to drain the swamps on his land in order to improve the lives of the peasants. He heads off to Versailles to try to win the support (and financing) of King Louis XVI for his project. But what it’s really about are the machinations of the French courtiers, as they try to gain favor and prestige through wit. Ponceludon turns out to have a way with the tongue, and uses it to navigate the court, specifically through the (closed, then open) arms of aristocrat Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant, probably the only actor in this known to US audiences). He meets a marquis who guides his attempts, and who also happens to have a beautiful and brilliant young daughter, Mathilde.
The movie IS really good. In particular, the script is strong, the pacing is quick, and it presents such an unusual and interesting take on the machinations of court life. Most films about the French court focus on the king and queen and their own pathos. Instead, this movie focuses on just how ridiculous it is to spend your time jostling for a moment in the presence of the very-removed royals, and the hopes that they might just speak a few words to you. And, it shows beautifully how the French aristocracy became so narrowly focused on their own petty intrigues. Those who know that the Revolution is only a few years away will understand the irony.
Now, my issues with the film:
The director, Patrice Leconte, was adamant that he would NOT make a Costume Movie:
Pour faire sien l’univers de Ridicule, Patrice Leconte en a également rejeté une partie : c’est là qu’intervient sa décision de ne pas se mettre au service de la reconstitution historique et du genre particulier qu’est le film en costumes. To create the universe of Ridicule, [director] Patrice Leconte equally rejected a part: this is his decision to not serve in the historical reconstruction and the particular genre that is the costume film. Le tempérament de Ridicule s’impose donc rapidement : énergique, presque brusque… stylé mais pas guindé, en tout cas pas « endimanché.» The temperment of Ridicule thus imposes rapidly: energetic, almost rough … stylish but not stuffy, certainly not “Sunday best.” — Dossier on Ridicule, Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée.
On the one hand, I get what he means and I like where he went with it. This isn’t a stuffy movie, and instead of worshiping its subjects, it exposes their trivialities. On the other hand, do ALL costume movies necessarily move slowly, focus on the clothes instead of the characters, and show everything in a rosy light? I would argue not! In some ways, I’m glad Leconte made this film, if only to broaden the view of a Period Piece. On the other, I’m kind of sick of hearing of filmmakers who are trying so hard NOT to be something, especially something that doesn’t have to suck simply by definition.
Patrice Leconte refuse de faire allégeance aux codes du film en costumes, de faire de ces costumes son sujet. Il ne combat pas leur charme … mais il se contente de les utiliser comme n’importe quel vêtement. Patrice Leconte refuses to swear allegiance to the codes of the costume film, to make the costumes his subject. He doesn’t fight their charm … but he contents himself with using them only as clothing. Dossier on Ridicule
Well, yeah. While I loves me some costume porn, one only need look at Dangerous Beauty to see that it’s shlock that ruins that film, not the costumes.
Before I get into the costumes, one more thing: Ponceludon’s love interest, the brilliant and beautiful Mathilde, is pretty damn one note. Oh yes, she’s a child of the Enlightenment who values science and exploration above all things. But in terms of her character, that’s just something that’s pasted on her. Really, she’s sweet and innocent and there to be fallen in love with. Isn’t THAT the kind of thing — lame characterizations — that are the problem with Costume Films? If this movie didn’t have Mathilde, I think it would be a much better film. Because all of the rest of the characters are interesting, nuanced, and go places you wouldn’t expect them to go.
Also, I think the film DID use costumes to further the vision in some great ways:
Similarly, the comparison between Ponceludon on his own recognizance, versus Ponceludon in makeup as a courtier, you’ll see below. Both of these costume-relevant things definitely showed the audience the artifice of Versailles and therefore advanced the vision of the movie.
Now, let’s talk costumes, which were designed by Christian Gasc, who also designed Farewell, My Queen and last year’s French production of Madame Bovary.
Il [Gasc] explique dans diverses interviews que son travail ne consistait pas à réaliser des costumes en respectant scrupuleusement le cadre historique mais de donner du sens aux tissus et couleurs en s’octroyant quelques libertés. He [Gasc] explained in various interviews that his job did not consist of creating costumes by scrupulously respecting the historical setting but in giving the sense of fabrics and colors and taking some liberties. — Teaching dossier for the Collège au Cinéma (Orne).
I’M KIND OF GETTING SICK OF THIS WHOLE “MY JOB IS NOT TO BE A SLAVE TO THE PERIOD, BUT TO GIVE YOU THE SENSE OF THE PERIOD” THING. EITHER BE A SLAVE TO THE PERIOD — show us your mad research chops, get those seams right, burn all the zippers — OR GO SUPER THE-COSTUMES-ARE-THE-CHARACTER — go crazy if you need to, dress the murderer all in red, put the virgin in a nun’s habit, put wings on the airhead. Fish or cut bait. Shit or get off the pot. I can think of a very few films where the costumer went off-period and managed to add something to the film:
Angels & Insects (1995). Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Moulin Rouge (2001). Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Sweeney Todd (2007). Vanity Fair (2004). Hell, at least Plunkett and Macleane committed … and A Knight’s Tale (2001) is total shit, but at least they went for it.
But otherwise, you just look like you either don’t know what you’re doing, were lazy, or didn’t have the budget Do It Right.
So. With that in mind, this is another one of those “we’re aiming for the period, but not getting it quite right, supposedly because we Meant It That Way, but probably because we either didn’t know what we were doing, were lazy, or didn’t have enough money” films.
According to this teaching dossier, Gasc was inspired by the paintings of Joshua Reynolds. Yes, English fashions were very trendy in France in this period, but it seems a little weird to me, given the number of French sources that exist documenting what was worn in France. But, you know, that’s me asking you to Commit. We’d like to half-ass it here.
Now, let’s talk ladies:
When we first meet Fanny Ardant/Madame de Blayac, she’s in mourning for her husband. According to the dossier on Ridicule, this was one of the few costumes that he chose to do something Purposeful with:
“Le costumier a choisi d’y mêler des fleurs bleues pour montrer que la comtesse ne se morfond pas dans son deuil.” The costumer chose to mix in blue flowers to show that the comtesse is not languishing in her mourning. — Dossier on Ridicule
She’s often shown lounging around the chateau in her corset and a dressing gown, which she would have done, and I was happy to see:
Soon, she moves into RED, RED, RED:
Supposedly another of the “very few” times the costumer did something Costume Movie-esque was when he put her in red in the final ball scene. Except she’s been in red for most of the movie.
Dans le dernier plan de la comtesse au bal, sa robe est rouge flamboyant afin de symboliser ses sentiments amoureux (sincères) pour Ponceludon. In the last shot of the countess at the ball, her robe is flamboyantly red in order to symbolize her (sincere) loving feelings towards Ponceludon. — Teaching dossier
Now, let’s look at ingenue Mathilde:
This is one of the other Costume Movie costumes, according to Gasc:
… Mathilde, tout en conversant avec Ponceludon, utilise sa robe pour la récolte du pollen : la caresse de l’étoffe sur les fleurs annonce le moment où la main de Ponceludon se posera sur la jambe de Mathilde. Il y a là un très bel enchaînement où le costume devient langage de sensualité. Mathilde, while conversing with Ponceludon, uses her dress to collect pollen: the caress of the fabric on the flowers recalls the moment when Ponceludon’s hand lands on Mathilde’s leg. This is a very nice sequence where the costume becomes the language of sensuality. — Teaching dossier
And, HER HAIR:
Marie-Antoinette is a quick character in this movie, but I’m a fan, so let’s discuss:
And now, let’s talk about the wigs in the final ball scene. This scene is clearly supposed to be the height of Versailles artifice. Hence, masks, and the courtiers running around in these:
They’re SO WEIRD. I can’t tell if they’re made of steel wool, or something beyond heavily powdered, or what. Why do many of them have darker bases? Why do many of them show the wearer’s own hair underneath? WHAT KIND OF HELLMOUTH AM I LOOKING INTO HERE? Also, they do some kind of Hokey Pokey version of the minuet that upset me.
*goes for a laydown*
* Yes, I know it should be “capisce,” but I’m being silly and using the Americanism.