Cannes 1996: Day 1: May 9
Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (IMDB) begins with a dolled-up and pissed-off 18th-century Frenchman striding through the gilded hallways of a fellow aristocrat's estate. Having cornered the elderly, incapacitated owner in his opulent bedroom, he pulls out his penis in close-up and pisses all over this vieux monsieur's silk vestments and ruffled shirts. That's the movie in a nutshell: extravagant finery, mounted for maximal oohs and ahhs from the art house crowd, inclined to abrupt and wicked assaults on itself and its audience. That's also the Cannes Film Festival for you, a fussy, self-fashioned pinnacle of artistry and glamour, barely concealing its lip-smacking hunger for controversy, vulgarity, grandiosity, and humiliation. Opening Night is frequently an occasion for dire catharsis, as some lumbering commercial calculation like The Da Vinci Code or some beige flash in the middlebrow pan like Blindness gets trotted out to the global cinemarati. They, in turn, gnash their incisors on these stale appetizers before the real haute cuisine starts arriving the following morning.
By the standards of Cannes openers, Ridicule is a substantially above-average achievement. That is to say, it's a perfectly fine movie, engaging throughout, impressive in several passages, shaky in a few others. Styled as a kind of homegrown Dangerous Liaisons (Fanny Ardant's final shot owes an all-but-explicit debt to Glenn Close's indelible signoff as Merteuil), Ridicule handily seduces the wigs-and-bustles audience while baring a sharper-than-usual set of teeth. The critique of royal decadence—moral, verbal, sexual, monetary, gustatory, political—is nothing new in itself, but the stakes ramify outward from Versailles in unique and memorable ways. Beyond just vanquishing rivals and chasing tail, though he manages plenty of both, naïve protagonist Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (demonlover's Charles Berling) is mastering the art of weaponized badinage for a specific purpose, which palpably fascinates the filmmakers. He wants to rid his swampy village of mosquito-borne illness and thus needs palace financing for a complex engineering scheme that will rehabilitate public health and local ecology.
At its best, Ridicule goes deeper on these kinds of pretexts and details than movies of its genre typically do—so much so that the screenplay's edges and eccentricities are more compelling than its core scenario. To take another example, Grégoire's lady love Mathilde (Judith Godrèche, who recently hawked her husband's anus paintings in The Overnight) is not just a dark-eyed beauty but an early innovator in scuba technologies. Watching her warm to Grégoire's advances, then spurn them, then reinvite them is sufficiently diverting if wholly conventional; watching him winch her up from a backyard well where she boldly tests her watertight suit is altogether weirder and more memorable. An 18th-century school for the deaf, at first peripheral to the plot, becomes intriguingly crucial. A third-tier character, deployed for comic relief, meets a grisly end; though conjured only briefly, it deepens the rest of the film.
Compared to such zesty sideshows, the main plot of Ridicule feels borderline perfunctory, complete with amorous tests, semi-veiled agendas, masked balls, effete courtiers, huffy stands for justice, and brief walk-ons for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The script is never dull but it doesn't always summon a potent sense of purpose. Director Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire, The Widow of St. Pierre) relishes the script's circuitous approach to narrative, and his enjoyment proves largely contagious, though once or twice I found myself wanting to push things along or tighten the movie's shape. As the title suggests, Ridicule works as a sardonic, sometimes sobering study of witticism as elitist sport. I wonder if the critics reviewing it felt chastened or emboldened by the spectacle of educated voluptuaries honing insults like knife-blades, and occasionally drawing real blood.
Happily for the filmmakers, Ridicule didn't attract many barbs. Well-received upon arrival, the film earned a BAFTA award, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and a quartet of Césars, including Best Picture. Even some internal mismatches—the meticulous, museum-ready costumes and decor occasionally clash with cinematographer Thierry Arbogast's high-speed camera movements and modern embellishments—at least make the movie more interesting. Granted, some narrative turns are less rewarding than others. A masquerade sequence proffered as a dramatic climax ends with a dull whimper, and sometimes the film feels over-proud of all its arch repartee. Still, this sort of movie is sometimes in grievously short supply in Cannes: a crowd-pleasing, proficiently styled, plushly produced entertainment that's credibly and marketably "artistic" without being inaccessible.
Opening with a film as sturdy and sumptuous as Ridicule marked an auspicious start for the festival. That at least a dozen Competition titles over the next two weeks would take greater risks, express themselves in more singular tones, and attain greater heights of sublimity was a blessing too great to foresee.
Coming up: The first full day of the festival brings us a French classic, a gun-toting feminist, a multi-stranded border tale, and the eventual Palme d'or winner. Scope out the whole itinerary, keep up with tweeted mini-reviews, and post your own with the hashtag #Cannes96!