It’s all too easy to compare Ridicule to Dangerous Liaisons. The film, from French director Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband) and written by first-time screenwriter Remi Waterhouse, is set in 1783, six years before the French Revolution. As in Liaisons, it features snobs, high-class oui-men, and an unspoiled young woman (Judith Godrèche) who embodies all that is non-phony. And as in Liaisons, the plot hangs on the weight of words — in this case the ability of those who’d find favor with King Louis XVI and his court to parry wittily, viciously ridiculing adversaries while escaping even more wounding retort themselves.
There, though, the comparisons end. Because while the protagonists in Dangerous Liaisons play a cat-and-mouse game of exquisite artifice, the characters in this ambling promenade of a morality tale are, in their own ornate ways, more sincerely engaged in their petty pursuits; the status they seek is, in a way, a matter of life and death. And most sincere of all is Ponceludon de Malavoy (French stage actor Charles Berling), an earnest country engineer. Seeking the funds to drain the unhealthy swampy landscape of his village, he comes to Versailles, learns the ropes under the guidance of a benevolent marquis (longtime Leconte collaborator Jean Rochefort), falls for the glitz, and is adopted by the chattering classes as the New Hot Thing. But while he advances his position, and while the widowed countess of Blayac (Fanny Ardant, in sexy middle age and safely past Sabrina) throws herself at him, Ponceludon also falls in love with the marquis’ unspoiled daughter (the fresh Godrèche). Eventually, he begins to question the value of ”seeking fruit from a rotten tree.”
There’s not much ironic distancing going on here; take away the period-piece wigs and the rouge (not to mention the makeup for the women), and Ridicule is as classical as any hero’s journey, or as modern as the saga of any independent filmmaker trying to make it in the court of Hollywood. Indeed, staged as an unexceptional Masterpiece Theatre-type costume drama, the film (it’s France’s official entry for this year’s best foreign film Oscar) can just as easily be read as a jab at Hollywood — and at all big-media, gossip-column-oriented, eat-or-be-eaten societies. ”We’re judged by the company we keep,” one courtier instructs. Ridicule gently suggests that the culture of sound bites has deep roots. B