French critics lose heads over Rohmer's anti-Revolution film

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French movie critics are struggling to come to terms with a revolutionary new movie which attacks the French Revolution.

In L'Anglaise et Le Duc, which opened in Paris and at the Venice film festival this weekend, the Revolution – above all the Terror – are seen through the horrified eyes of a young Scottish noblewoman, Grace Elliott.

Grace was a historical figure – a mistress of both the Prince of Wales and of a pro-revolutionary cousin of Louis XVI, the Duc d'Orléans – whose diary of the Revolution was published in 1859, 36 years after her death.

The film, by the distinguished 81-year-old French director Eric Rohmer, sticks close to her moderately pro-Royalist version of events. It portrays the Revolution as not just violent but oppressively priggish and totalitarian, and a harbinger of Fascism and Nazism (a "political" view for which Rohmer has been attacked by some French critics).

But the ground-breaking methods used by the film – a mixture of classical acting and story-telling and the most modern, computer-generated techniques – have won universal acclaim. The film uses digital – Jurassic Park or Toy Story – technology to have the characters stroll and murder in a late 18th-century Paris, re-created in 36 oil paintings by a young French artist in period style.

Except in the interior scenes, the actors are inserted digitally into the stylised back-scenes, as if paintings have come to life. The effect is bizarre but also beautiful and moving.

The role of Grace Elliott is played by an English actress, Lucy Russell, 28, who is appearing in her first movie. She answered an advertisement placed by Rohmer for an unknown English actress who could speak good French. Her performance, appearing in virtually every scene of the movie, has been described as "remarkable" by French critics.

Rohmer, best known for Ma Nuit Chez Maude (1969) and Perceval le Gallois (1978), has denied suggestions that he has become a "reactionary" and "counter-revolutionary". He says the viewpoint of the film is that of the Scottish-born adventuress who saw the Revolution at first hand in her mid-30s. Most of the dialogue and all of the incidents come from the French translation of her Journal of My Life During the French Revolution.

The diary was written in 1801, on her return to London, supposedly at the request of the Prince Regent, who had been her lover before she took up with the Duc d'Orléans in Paris. Since it was not published for 58 years, some historians have cast doubts on its authenticity. Rohmer insists that it has the truth of great fiction, and the dramatic power of a film script, whether it is historically accurate in all details or not.

The journal describes the mob raging through Paris with a princess's head on the end of a pole; the constant invasion of homes by revolutionary patrols hunting for aristocrats and "traitors"; and Grace's Pimpernel-like efforts to save the life of a vicomte. It also tells of her post-affair friendship with the Duc, who is swept along by increasingly barbarous events until he is himself denounced as a traitor and guillotined. The mob and the revolutionary patrols are portrayed as oafish, drunken, lecherous, self-important thugs. The centre-left newspaper Libération accused Rohmer of giving a "shocking" picture of The People, who French schoolchildren are taught to venerate, despite their "excesses", as the founders of modern France and the Modern World.

"It depends what you mean by 'The People'," Rohmer replied. "I show murderers, dregs of society, people who killed out of pleasure and drunkenness. That's the truth. They were manipulated by politicians, such as Marat, Danton and Robespierre... I don't believe in the myth of the 'sovereign people'. Most good people stayed at home and deplored the excesses."

In this sense, the violence and absolutism of the Terror "pre-figured all the totalitarian regimes to come", he said, adding: "I think Grace Elliott was mostly right about the Revolution. It was the end of a world, of a refined civilisation."

The revolutionary technique of the film has been much better received. Rohmer says he dislikes supposedly "realistic" historical back-scenes. He preferred to re-create a sense of what 18th-century Paris actually looked like. His intention was also to emphasise the contrast between the elegance and the violence. The young noblewoman at the centre of the story is living mentally in the cool, ordered world of the fake-contemporary canvases, through which the murderous, unwashed mobs rampage.