Rohmer was almost 50 when he first became an art-house staple in the United States, starting with My Night at Maud's (1969) and Claire's Knee (1970). Those films -- and nearly all of their 15-or-so successors -- are talky, stylistically restrained explorations of morals and manners, almost always revolving around romantic confusions. Contemporary middle-class behavior has always been at the center of his concerns. But The Lady and the Duke is a period film, set among the aristocracy during the French Revolution. (For the record, Rohmer did make two other period films in the '70s, the little-seen The Marquise of O and the even less seen Perceval.) It is, in typical fashion, almost all talk, but the historical setting makes the talk stiffer and stagier than Rohmer's usual.
The source material is the journal of the real-life Grace Elliott, a Scotswoman who was the mistress of George IV (before his ascension to the throne) and then of the Duke of Orleans, who was a cousin to Louis XVI. At the duke's behest, she moved to France and there remained, even after their affair was over. She seemed to prefer her adopted country and felt great fealty to the king and his court -- greater fealty, it turns out, than the duke, who despised his cousin. Despite this, and the end of their romance, the two stayed deeply close friends.
The film is structured as a series of five episodes. Each one is set at a crucial juncture in the lives of Grace (Lucy Russell) and the Duke (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), as well as at turning points of the revolution, from 1790-93. The central moral conflicts are within the relationship between the two characters. Grace, the foreigner, is in thrall to the king. Orleans, the patriot, is so anti-royalist he has involved himself with Robespierre's gang, encouraging the revolution. From an aristocratic perspective, he is a traitor or, possibly worse yet, a fool.
Of course, we rarely hear the aristocratic perspective. History, although unkind to much of the revolution, has been even more unkind to the House of Bourbon. And part of what's surprising about The Lady and the Duke is that it's so firmly centered on the aristocratic viewpoint. The entire film is essentially from Grace's point of view: The upper class, even those Grace dislikes, seem brave and chivalrous, whereas the rabble and the army are hateful, uncouth louts, filled with vengeance and deceit.
Despite having to deliver almost all of her dialogue in French, English actress Russell -- whose only other "major" credit was as the femme fatale in Christopher Nolan's ultra-low-budget debut film, Following -- gives an emotionally rich and believable performance. Dreyfus, playing a character whose inner life is never entirely clear to Russell or, hence, to us, has less to work with.
One senses that what really attracted Rohmer to the subject was, uncharacteristically, the excuse to play with the visual possibilities of current technology. That is, The Lady and the Duke was shot on digital video, and Rohmer has used digital techniques to create a unique visual style. Rather than rebuild eighteenth-century Paris (economically unfeasible in any case) or shoot in preserved historical locations, Rohmer hired artist Jean-Baptiste Marot to paint the backgrounds and then digitally composited the characters into these clearly unreal settings. (Even some of the interiors appear to be paintings.)
The result is odd and striking. There are establishing shots in which you think you are watching a static canvas, before you spot characters moving in one corner. The effect is nothing like the supersmooth CGI we're used to from a million action films; in fact, it bears more resemblance to the older special effects techniques like glass paintings mounted in front of the camera.
The blatant sense of artifice is in keeping with the rest of the elements. There is, for instance, no music track except during the credits, and the flatness of the digital video itself increases the feeling of theatricality ... or, for those who don't respond to it, staginess.
For Americans less familiar with the history of the French Revolution, the chronology and significance of the events may occasionally be confusing, despite a fair amount of expository dialogue -- just one more factor that may be off-putting. Still, for all its problems -- the assumption of historical knowledge, the staginess, the talkiness, the opacity of everyone but the central character and the two-hour-plus running time -- The Lady and the Duke surprisingly manages never to grow boring ... which proves that Rohmer still has a sense of his audience.