Acclaimed French director Patrice Leconte tells Sam Francis about his scathing costume satire Ridicule.
‘It was the ﬁrst time I'd done anything about the I8th century. which is material that‘s been covered by a lot of great directors. I love Dangerous Liaisons. but I had to forget it. I had to put Barry Lyndon to one side. It’s hard not to be inﬂuenced. but the main question was how I was going to ﬁnd my own personality in historical drama. I knew right away I wasn’t interested in the usual costume drama.’
Director Patrice Leconte admits to having begun his tart costume saga Ridicule with more than a little trepidation. but what’s emerged from the other end is far more exciting than the usual collection of ruffs and ﬁounces in search of the next country house. It‘s a movie to give you a whole new spin on the strutting and ﬁnery of the French court circa Louis XVI. for Remi Waterhouse’s rapier-like script conjures up an age of gilded anxiety. where the eossetted aristocrats and couniers literally live or die by their wits.
Viewed from an outsider's perspective. Leconte's ﬁlm follows well-meaning engineer Charles Berling (well-known on the French stage. but seizing his big celluloid break here) as he arrives at Versailles hoping to secure funding for a much-needed marsh- drainage scheme. Here he discovers a hermetic environment where elegant conversation and the glittering put- down is prized above all else. Aided and abetted by old hand Jean
,Rochefon. he gets drawn into the game himself. where barracuda-like Fanny Ardant‘s siren countess and razor-sharp abbé Bernard Giradeau pick off those too weak to defend themselves.
‘The screenplay never had any of the usual attitude — that the courtiers were all corrupt scum who deserved to die when the Revolution came around -
Rldlcule: the cruelty of wit
which is pretty much the received line I remember from school.‘ reﬂects Leconte. who has had one of his biggest French hits with the ﬁlm. ironically the ﬁrst of his movies he didn’t write himself.
‘Instead it showed you how they were all just struggling to keep their heads above water. It must have been a terrible life when you think about it. If you were ridiculed and stuck for an answer. you were dead. The unexpected thing for me that came out of all that was the suspense it generates on screen. I mean. when they're going round the table and it’s your turn to add the next line to a perfect alexandrine. you don’t really know whether you’re going to make it or not.‘
Bitterly funny and not without resonances for today's audiences (‘There are cliques and hierarchies all round us. in the media for instance.‘ chuckles the director, ‘and I think it’s a movie a lot of ﬁlm critics will understand.’). Ridicule should go some way to reinforcing Leconte’s somewhat up and down reputation on these shores.
Known for a string of commercial comedies at home. his international breakthrough came with 1988’s brooding study of voyeurism Monsieur Hire, yet since then his ﬁlms have left British critics divided as to his overall standing. The brilliant mood-piece The Hairdresser Is Husband worked much better than the ﬂimsy farce Tango. while the impressionistic eroticism of La Parfum D'Yvonne was unjustiﬁably overlooked almost entirely. Ridicule shows him at his best however. a ﬁlmmaker with a ready wit and a ﬁne eye for detail.
‘I’ve always thought there was something very sensual about making movies.‘ is his own summation of his approach. ‘After all. direction is all about looking. isn’t it? The texture of things. of skin. of material. of emotions. That's what gets me excited.’ Ridicule opens at the Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh Filmhouse on Fri 7. See competitions page for a chance to win posters and soundtrack CDs.
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The List 7-20 Feb 1997 21