Of the many ways to die, death by ridicule is among the least pleasant. It comes right after drowning in peanut butter and just before choking on a Cracker Jack prize.
That's what's so fascinating in "Ridicule": It shows us not just a ridiculous man, but a ridiculous society dying at the lash of the quip. It's a vivid, brittle, vicious tale of the French court in the days immediately prior to the deluge of 1789, and it watches without sympathy as quite a large group of fools crack wise as the waves churn at their feet. They're so into wit as lifestyle that they fail to recognize that it can be a death style, too. And then along comes a chopper to chop off their heads.
Directed by Patrice Leconte, the chilly hand who guided the memorable "Monsieur Hire" a few years back, "Ridicule" follows the fortunes at court of the Ponceludon de Malavoy, a minor aristocrat with the unfortunate character flaw of a social conscience. Representing a region haunted by floods and infections, he realizes that draining the swamps would save the lives of peasants. But he's smart enough to realize that a straight-ahead application for a commission to do such is destined to fail at court; worse, it would be considered a fool's errand.
Court is the province of wit, headed by a dunce, which is what gives it its extraordinarily whimsical cruelty and sense of existential dread. Louis XVI (Urbain Cancelier) loves wit and he sets the tenor; but he's a moron. If he doesn't get it, your career is finished, and possibly your life.
Thus, life at Versailles has deconstructed itself into a complete parlor game, in which various politicos, clerics and petitioners jockey for position merely by their ability to conjure up, in a split second, a quip. But it can't be too good for the wooden-headed king: If it is, you're history, mac.
Metaphorically, what Leconte is offering is a view of the political classes, and maybe even the media classes, as a society obsessed with discourse but oblivious to reality. The quip, the aphorism, the rejoinder, the remark, those are the tools of the trade. (Puns, then as now, are a non-non.) And since no one can effectively leave such encounters to chance, many scheme and plot for advantage, attempting to move conversation toward their strong points, sometimes even using cheat sheets to emulate spontaneity.
Clever de Malavoy (Charles Berling) sees through this process and, with help, negotiates his way. He has a natural wit, but aided by a doctor (Jean Rochefort) and his daughter Mathilde (Judith Godreche) and then a predatory if beautiful widow (Fanny Ardant), he is able to avoid the various disasters, or at least forestall them. He's the Scarlet Pimpernel of pre-revolutionary France: He pretends to be a fop, a dandy and a quipster while underneath he's the worst thing a man could be in pre-revolutionary France: a compassionate human being.
If you don't think of the words "Washington, D.C.," when you see this film, you haven't been paying attention. It's another in what someone once called the March of Folly: an entire society marching blindly up the wooden steps to Mme. Guillotine with a smile on its powdered face and a quip on its rouged lips.
Starring Charles Berling and Fanny Ardant
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Released by Miramax
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 12/27/96