The second French film I watched this weekend was Ridicule, which won the 1996 Best Film award at the Cesars (French Oscars). I don't mind saying right up front that I thought it was great.
The protagonist of the film is the Marquis de Malavoy, a nobleman from a rural area of France who comes to Versailles and lives at the court of Louis XVI. His purpose at court is to get funding for his plan to drain the swamps on his family's lands, which he learns will require the King's approval. See, de Malavoy is a good noble, and swamps have a tendency to breed disease, which is killing his peasants.
But the real meat of the film is its depiction of court life, which I found to be quite unique. While we get the standard dose of conspiracy and political maneuvering, Ridicule makes a point of emphasizing the shallowness, hypocrisy, and asininity that pervaded Versailles in the years leading up to the French Revolution.
In the film, these qualities are embodied by L'Abbe (Abbott) de Vilecourt and his lover, Madame de Blayac (a wealthy widow), expertly played by Bernard Giraudeau and Fanny Ardant, respectively. They have risen to the top of the heap at Versailles due primarily to their eloquence and wit, which, as de Malavoy learns, are essential if one seeks to curry favor with influential nobles and, ultimately, King Louis himself.
Upon his arrival at court, de Malavoy is taken in by de Bellegarde, an older nobleman who teaches him the ways of Versailles. Never laugh at your own jokes, he explains, and when you laugh at others' jokes, you must keep your mouth closed (after all, laughing with your mouth open is so vulgar). Failing to come up with a retort after a witty remark at your expense is the fast-track to court purgatory. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to demonstrate your wit ("l'esprit") with a few well-chosen jabs at the expense of your fellow nobles, and you can quickly become the talk of Versailles and ultimately gain the King's ear.
The performances in Ridicule are excellent, and the very best comes from Mr. Giraudeau as the Abbott. He manages to create something very unique with the character, something I can only describe as a well-rounded caricature. And, despite being the embodiment of all that was wrong with the French nobility in late 18th-century France, he manages to pull off being strangely likeable and even sympathetic at times. His best scene in the movie is without a doubt his sermon to the nobles (including King Louis) in which he puts forth his proof for the existence of God. He gives his sermon with an unusual amount of gusto and dripping with adoration for himself and -- as much as you will want to be disgusted by him -- you will have a big, goofy smile on your face as you watch.
The actors are helped along by the amazing costumes and sets in the film, which looks like it was actually filmed at Versailles (I haven't been able to confirm this). As the film progresses, and de Malavoy works his way into the most exclusive circles, his wardrobe becomes increasingly intricate and ostentatious.
If I were so inclined, I could use this as a jumping-off point to seriously criticize the film. For, even as it excoriates the excess and myopia of the court of Louis XVI, the film is so damn pretty and fun to watch that its underlying message of conscience and sobriety can sometimes get lost. This is most apparent at the ending of the film, which I won't spoil except to say that it is quite abrupt, and you can almost sense the filmmakers rushing to get back to that core message.
But even taking that into consideration, I give Ridicule an 8.5 (out of 10).