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