'Stanley Kubrick wasn't available, so they contacted me. I owe everything to Stanley Kubrick!'

Carol Allen talks to Patrice Leconte, director of 'Ridicule'

Christopher Hampton's play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, subsequently filmed as the Eighties blockbuster Dangerous Liaisons, showed a group of highly educated, wealthy and intelligent people with nothing to occupy them other than the destructive and manipulative games they play to bolster their sense of power and protect their social position.

A monument to lust, guilt and duplicity, it was a powerful argument for the inevitability of the French revolution. This week the French film director Patrice Leconte, better known for The Hairdresser's Husband, presents us with a native point of view on that same, extinct, aristocratic lifestyle. But whereas the Hollywood Liaisons played out its drama in the drawing-rooms and boudoirs of the aristocracy, Leconte's Ridicule takes us directly into the heart of Versailles and the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - a world where the famous rapier wit (or bel esprit) was an essential weapon, both for gaining power and position and for protecting the beneficiaries of those gains against the ultimate coup de grace, the social guillotine of ridicule.

As Leconte explains: "In the court, it was necessary to demonstrate one's intelligence at the expense of others in order not to risk being ridiculed. That is what excited me when I read the script, because I was never told as a schoolboy how bel esprit was - above everything else - very cruel, a lethal weapon pushing people to devour each other. We grew up believing it was something playful, seductive and charming."

Yet Leconte chose to present his courtiers not as monsters but as victims of their strictly hierarchical social situation - in particular, the sophisticated and influential Madame de Blayac, played by Fanny Ardant. There is one particularly telling moment when Ardant, having betrayed her lover to the dreaded social ridicule, literally takes off the mask she is wearing and reveals the pain beneath. It is a moment not dissimilar to the understated agony of Glenn Close as Madame de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, when she realises her own undoing.

The film, which has been nominated for 12 Cesars and is France's offering for the Oscars, centres on the fortunes of Ponceludon, an impoverished and socially aware young minor aristocrat (played by Charles Berling) who comes to court hoping for financial assistance in draining his swamp- ridden lands and improving the lot of his peasants. Ponceludon is befriended by the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), an aristocratic doctor with a keen interest in the new Rousseau-esque sciences.

And while the cruelty of the courtly sharks literally takes the breath away, much of the warmth and genuine humour of the film comes from this central relationship and Ponceludon's ability, under his mentor's tuition, to adapt his wit to score valuable points in the ridicule game - a game that Bellegarde has reduced scientifically to its components, but is not nimble-witted enough to play himself. Anything goes, he tells his young student - except puns: "At Versailles, we call puns 'the death of wit'.

Be witty, sharp and malicious and you'll succeed. And, above all, never laugh at your own jokes."

Although Rochefort has worked with Leconte before - he took the title role in The Hairdresser's Husband - Charles Berling had barely stood in front of a camera before production commenced. "It was my idea to give the part to an actor who was not known, so that we could discover the court of Versailles with the same innocence as his," explains Leconte. "It amused me to have the courtiers played by actors who are better known than he is."

Ridicule is something of a departure for Leconte, who usually writes or co-writes his own films. But this script is an original screenplay by television writer Remi Waterhouse, who had hoped to direct the piece himself until it was deemed too ambitious for a first-time director. The producers called in Leconte.

As Leconte puts it: "Stanley Kubrick wasn't available, so they contacted me. I owe everything to Stanley Kubrick!"

It is the first time, too, that Leconte has made a period piece, his previous films never having ventured further back than the Fifties, the period of his own childhood. But he was concerned to make this something more than a detailed historical re-creation of the late 18th century.

"I wanted to make a sensitive and human film, not to enter a time-machine and return to the period," he says. "If you are too true to history you lose something. For example, in this period, the wigs of noblemen were all silvery white and I find that really horrible, like some sort of white cow dung. So, although I was conscious that it wasn't correct historically, I asked the wig department to do wigs in the same colours as the actors' natural hair colour. That way I think the audience forgets about the fact that the actors are wearing wigs."

In terms of historical fact, however, Leconte believes that Ridicule, like Dangerous Liaisons before it, demonstrates the inevitable course of events. "That was what I found extremely moving when I was making the film. It is not exactly about the approach of the revolution, but when you look at all the people at court, they're almost on another planet and you understand that the French revolution was inevitable; the system just couldn't continue. I think of it like Venice, filled with magnificent marble and gold but at the same time sinking"n

'Ridicule' opens tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...