Opened: Dec. 6, 1996 (select cities)
Dec. 25, 1996 (wide)
I guess what I was hoping for from "Ridicule" was biting dark comedy. I wanted to see it with my buddy George because he and I are constantly trying to one-up each other in the insult department, and we thought it would be a kick to see this kind of verbal sparing in an 18th Century setting.
What I got was a story about an idealistic and fairly sharp-witted country engineer (Jean Rochefort) who travels to Versailles to beg Louis XVI for funds to drain a mosquito-infested swamp in his village. He quickly learns through a benefactor that the only way to get in and stay in with the king's court is to be quick of tongue.
So far so good, I'm thinking. Well, we do get a few rounds of small town hero and Parisian snobs knocking each other with some particularly cruel mockeries (Someone points to a painting of a guy on a horse and says it's his ancestor. Someone else responds, "The horse?"), but all the time I'm waiting for this to turn into a round of "Yo mamma..." in French and it never does.
The hero learns to dress and powder, learns to dance and to scheme and to insult his way into the court. He seduces a widowed courtesan (Fanny Ardant) and falls in love with his benefactor's beautiful and brilliant daughter (Judith Godreche), who is engaged to a much older man because he can finance her hobby of fiddling around with underwater breathing apparatus.
I don't know quite what that last bit has to do with anything, other than to demonstrate that the girl he loves is not just another pretty face. But it didn't distract from the story, so I'll leave it alone.
What did distract was all the times I said to myself, "When do we get to this ultimate game of wits?" The movie hints and hints, but it never comes. He doesn't beat them at their own game -- which is what I was rooting for. Instead he has a fit of integrity, gives a speech about how the court should be ashamed of itself and walks out holding hands with the girl.
Now, don't think I missed the point, which was that such cavalier attitudes as the court displayed are what lead to the overthrow of the monarchy in the French Revolution and that our quixotic hero was to symbolize the honest and hardworking peasants. I got that. But I went to see what was alluded to as a continuous volley of belittlements, and that was only 10 minutes of the movie.
As a film, never mind my disappointment, "Ridicule" was adequate. It has nice pacing, some good acting (Ardant is the best historic forked-tongued lover since Annette Bening in "Valmont") and some bad acting (if Louis XVI wasn't John Belushi back from the dead, I'll eat my hat).
But the story about the engineer seeking royal funding for a swamp project just isn't all that interesting without him winning a verbal showdown and going home, funding in hand. Screw integrity -- I wanted him to have some fun.