Director: Patrice Leconte.
Starring: Charles Berling (Le Marquis Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy), Jean Rochefort (Le Marquis de Bellegarde), Fanny Ardant (Madame de Blayac), Judith Godrèche (Mathilde de Bellegarde), Bernard Giraudeau (L'Abbée de Vilecourt), Bernard Dhéran ( Monsieur de Montalieri), Carlo Brandt (Le Chevalier de Milletail), Jacques Mathou (Abbé de l'Epée), Urbain Cancelier (Le Roi Louis XVI), Albert Delpy (Baron de Guéret), Bruno Zanardi (Paul), Marie Pillet (Charlotte), Jacques Roman (Chevernoy), Philippe Magnan (Baron de Malenval), Maurice Chevit (Le Notaire).
wit proves the key to social success at the court of Louis XVI
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary, of the entire film.
Six years before the French Revolution Louis XVI still ruled, but wit was king. A man marches in to speak to an elderly man who looks ailing. He asks the older man if he remembers him, the "Marquis de Stumblebum"? He dubbed him thusly when he fell at a ball. He says he never lived that name down. The man now urinates on the elderly fellow. He then leaves telling the maid that the elderly man urinated on himself.
The Dombes, southwest France. Men and women are catching fish in the marshes of a lake. A man of the nobility comes out on his horse and tells an elderly man to go home. He then takes a boy from his mother. The boy's name is Leonard and the aristocrat takes him home.
Madame de Blayac is having powder put on her body. (Brief nudity.) Then a dress is placed on her.
There is a funeral for the elderly man. The man who urinated on him, the Chevalier de Milletail, is there. Another man kneels next to Milletail and says that the deceased was the finest wit of the age. The two men keep talking until they are chastised for disturbing the prayers of others. So the fellow next to Milletrail asks him to dine with him and they leave. The comment is made: Madame de Blayac will grieve for days!
A man on horseback stops to help a man laying in the road. As he kneels over the man, the fellow suddenly grabs the good samaritan and throws him on the ground, hits him with a stick and then steals his money. The robber also steals his horse. The unlucky traveler is taken to a nearby house. The man there asks his name. It's Grégoiree Ponceludon de Malavoy. The fellow who is bleeding him says his name is Marquis de Bellegarde. Charlotte is his house keeper and Paul, who is deaf and dumb, is her son. Grégoire says he is a water engineer who has come to Versailles to seek aid for his drainage project. The doctor tells him that he is to rest for two days in bed, have light food and a glass of wine each night.
When he gets better physically, Grégoire has very little luck trying to get support for his project. He asks the Marquis for help being introduced to the court, but the Marquis says he does not think that Grégoire has the right stuff to survive at court.
One day the water engineer walks among the social elite who constitute the King's court. People don't know him, so they stare at him as he walks along. The Abbot tells the engineer: "Fresh from the country, you must find our courtly ways ridiculous." The Abbot gets some digs in on the engineer and gets some laughs, but the engineer is also able to be fresh and gets some laughs. The Abbot asks the engineer what he seeks, and Grégoire explains that he wants support for a project to drain the swamps of Versailles so that fewer peasants will die. Blayac says about the peasants: "They're not only dying, they're boring." Grégoire tells the man to remember "peasants not only feed mosquitoes but aristocrats." The group laughs and seems to admit the engineer is witty.
Her majesty the queen comes in and takes the abbot away because she says the people she is with are so dull. Madame de Blayac tells the Marquis de Bellegarde to come over for supper and bring his protégée with him.
The Marquis runs over to tell Grégoire that it went very well for him at court. The engineer doesn't agree saying he crossed the Abbot and the Abbot is too close to the queen. The Marquis responds: "Wit opens every door and you have plenty of it." The Marquis explains his sudden change of mind in now supporting Grégoire. He says that it is very rare for honesty and wit to be combined in one person.
The Marquis shows Grégoire how to put on make-up. He tells him: "Serious topics are deplored. Avoid them." If he can combine wit, sharpness and maliciousness, he will succeed at court. But there should be no puns because puns are "the death of wit". And never laugh at your own witticisms.
The Marquis and Grégoire are back in society. Grégoire makes a mistake and starts talking about the Dombes and a man tells him that subject is an unsavory topic. He makes another mistake when he laughs heartily over something he said.
The next day Grégoire is out working with a scythe. He watches as a pretty young lady is dropped off from a coach by a man that Grégoire cannot see. The woman catches Grégoire watching her. She goes over and hugs the Marquis. He asks her if Monsieur de Montalieri is dissatisfied? She is a governess for the man and the Marquis says it's a good post for her. She tells the Marquis that the man is pleased with her work but it would be indecent of her to remain in his wife's home.
Nevertheless, the young lady is going to marry de Montalier, who will have access to her bed twice a month. De Montalier adds one more condition to the contract. His wife is never to appear at court. Mademoiselle de Bellegarde agrees to the demand.
Grégoire asks Mademoiselle if she loves this de Montalier? She says it was either marry him or remain poor or become a nun.
The Marquis uses his daughter Mathilde to help teach Grégoire how to dance.
Grégoire goes to see a man who can suggest what to do to get on the inside in order to get things accomplished. The man tells Grégoire that he first must prove his lineage back to1399. Grégoire says his family belongs to the House of Savoy, but he has no proof. The fellow says he will have to see the birth certificate of Marquis Sigismond de Malavoy deceased in 1507. Grégoire says their castle burned in 1680. The man tells him to write to the ancestor's village because they may have the baptism records.
The Marquis receives what he regards as wonderful news. He will dine with the Duke de Guines. At the party is Madame de Blayacand Blayac. After dinner Grégoire takes a walk with the Marquis's daughter. He asks her again why she wants to marry an old lecherous man? She says she knows that he disapproves of her reasons for marrying. He starts caressing her thigh. De Montalier looks in on her and doesn't like what he sees. He taps on the glass and that breaks up the encounter.
The Marquis is like the trainer working on a fighter in his corner. He tells Grégoire to watch out for that snake Abbot. And sure enough, Grégoire catches Madame de Blayac helping the Abbot cheat by switching the two cards with two words each on them with two cards she already has stuck in her fan for which the Abbot has already prepared a response. The Abbot gets up and criticizes Grégoire in his witty remarks. Then the Marquis draws two cards. One with skill and will on it, the other with newcomer and summer.
Grégoire gets up and walks over to Madame de Blayac to check her fan. She tells him to put his response in verse form. Grégoire does so and gets a louder applause than the Abbot got. Madame de Blayac leaves the room with Grégoire following quickly after her. He tells her: "I see the Abbot trusts his memory more than his wit." She asks him what price will his silence cost? He says he will not fan the winds of gossip.
Grégoire walks with the Marquis's daughter and she tells him that he has changed. He is becoming like the people he is with at court.
Even though Grégoire cannot come up with the birth certificate of his noble ancestor, the man gives him his title, signed and sealed, anyway. He also tells him to be sure and thank the Countess of Blayac.
Grégoire visits with the Countess to thank her. She has him sit down beside her and says: "Let's chat." The Countess asks if she is embarrassing him, but he says he is torn between respect for her and his desire for her. She says that her bedroom has been a stepping stone to the king for many men. She also tells him to hide his insincerity so that she can yield to him without dishonor.
The next day Paul runs to get Grégoire. They both start winding the well rope up so they can get Mathilde out of the well. She was down there in her diving suit. Grégoire says he forbade her from going down into the well. This makes the woman mad and she says nobody, not even her father, forbids her anything. Grégoire gets angry and slaps her face. He then tells her that her fiancée's wife finally died. She will be married soon. He takes her diving helmet to hide it from her. She shouts to him: "I dread this marriage!" He says he doubts that because she is too cold-blooded to regret it.
Grégoire is one of the many selected to come and be in the presence of the king. He comes by Grégoire and tells him that he has heard of him. This makes Grégoire happy. One of the nobles who doesn't get in hangs himself.
Someone puts on the diving helmet and when Madame de Blayac comes riding by the costumed person jumps out and scares the horse that bucks and throws Madame de Blayac to the ground. One of the men with her chases down the creature in the diving helmet. The culprit turns out to be Paul. The man says: "It's only de Bellegarde's idiot."
Madame de Blayac wants to see Mademoiselle de Bellegarde and the young lady comes to her room. Madame de Blayac asks Mathilde if she will ever see her at court? The young lady doesn't answer that question, but rather asks the older woman to forgive Paul for what he did and let him come back to the de Bellegarde home. Madame de Blayac tells her to forget about Paul. She wants to know how Grégoire is doing. The young girl seems to resent the question and says goodbye to her hostess.
Paul is taken away to an institution.
In bed with Madame de Blayac, the Abbot is worried that because Grégoire caught them cheating, he may ridicule him before the king. Madame de Blayac tells him she will never let Grégoire sit at the king's table. She will have a dinner at which she will serve up a bowl of ridicule for Grégoire.
De Montalier comes to tell Grégoire that he is invited to a dinner tonight given by Madame de Blayac and he is to come alone. At the dinner she says that they have 13 at the dinner and someone will have to leave. On cue, the Abbot suggests that the one who shows the least wit in a contest of wits will be the one to leave. To distract Grégoire Madame de Blayac plays footsies with him under the table. Madame de Blayac then sets up questions for which the Abbot has already thought up quips for. She keeps on playing with Grégoire under the table so he won't be able to concentrate and come up with a clever quip. And his time does come. At first he is silent, but the Abbot says he must speak. So he says something not that clever. He throws himself out now, but has several good retorts for the nobles.
Grégoire is leaving to go home. Mathilde kisses him and he kisses her back. She indicates that she wants him to stay, but he feels he cannot. She asks to take a last walk with him, but he says he has to get to the inn before it's dark. He rides by the Dombes. Mathilde shows up at court. She looks very radiant in her gown and she catches everyone's attention. She sits down by her father and makes it clear to him and de Montalier that she is breaking it off. Dad tells her to ask Montalier's pardon, but she refuses, saying she can't bear to marry him.
Grégoire goes home and talks with his mother. He finds out that Leonard is sick from drinking some swamp water. Grégoire goes to see the boy. He looks terrible.
At court the Abbot makes a big mistake. He shows off too much saying he has just proved the existence of God. Then he says, if his Majesty desires, he can now prove that God does not exist. The king views this as little more than heresy. As he leaves the room, the king says: "I'll see you jailed, philosopher!" And now the court shuns the Abbot. He tries to enlist Madame de Blayac's help but she says she cannot intervene on his behalf to the king. The soul of wit is knowing your place.
Now Mathilde writes Grégoire and tells him that she has forsaken the Abbot of Vilecourt for his sake. Grégoire races to her. He tells her how Leonard died in his arms. They kiss. He puts her on top of the table and has sex with her. Madame de Blayac calls in the Marquis to check her over because she says she has been having these heart palpitations. When Grégoire waltzes in wearing one of her robes, the Marquis is shocked to see him and he is definitely not happy to see him. He leaves telling Grégoire to monitor her heart palpitations. Grégoire wants to run after the man and explain things to him, but Madame de Blayac holds him back.
At a meeting of the swells, at which the Marquis and his daughter are in attendance, Madame de Blayac and Grégoire make a grand entrance as a couple. It's now that Madame de Blayac tells Grégoire that Mathilde did not marry the Count de Montalier. He tells her: "Your guile has no equal." Mathilde stares at him with a dirty look on her face. Madame de Blayac tells him to be patient and he will be thankful.
The man in charge of the institution where Paul now resides has brought Paul and others to show the social elite that the deaf and/or dumb can live productive lives. And now he brings out Paul. Mathilde is happy to see him and waves to him. He waves back. The elite gives the handicapped people and their teacher a hard time, but the students start making such a good impression on them that they end up clapping for the young people.
Madame de Blayac has set up a casual meeting between the king and Grégoire. The King asks Grégoire to be witty and he says: "The king is not a subject." The king is advised that this is a play on words and not a pun. So now the king is happy and he says Grégoire can join the group. Grégoire makes a suggestion to improve how one of the cannons works and the king is impressed and asks the Colonel why didn't he think of that? The Colonel becomes angry with Grégoire. The king brings up the water project and says they will talk about it. He is to make an appointment with his secretary. The Colonel insults Grégoire and Grégoire asks for satisfaction. A duel is set up.
Grégoire comes to see Mathilde. He tells her he was unaware that she had broken off the marriage. It doesn't take too long before Mathilde's anger abates and they hug each other. And now they kiss each other passionately.
Mathilde learns from her father about the duel. She faints. Mathilde begs him to flee. He must live on for his peasants, if not for her sake. He tells her to pack his bags. She is happy to hear that he will not duel with the Colonel. But Grégoire does duel with the Colonel. The throw of a coin decides that the Colonel will shoot first. The Colonel fires but misses. Grégoire does not miss. The Colonel is dead. The Marquis tells his daughter by smiling at her.
Madame de Blayac's servant tells her that Grégoire has killed the Colonel. She asks if Grégoire is with him, but the servant says Grégoire went with Mathilde. Madame de Blayac becomes very angry and with the back of her hand and arm wipes things off her desk saying: "He'll pay for it!"
Grégoire wears the diving suit and stays under for longer than 14 minutes breaking the record. Mathilde is very pleased with him.
Grégoire goes to see the king, but the king can't see him, at least not yet, because Grégoire killed one of his officers. Grégoire turns and leaves.
Grégoire plays chess with Mathilde. She says he is not one of the elite and they need him here to help with the estate. Grégoire says he is not giving up yet. He will get to see the king eventually. He now shows her an invitation for the two of them to attend a court ball. There a man deliberately trips Grégoire and then the others practice their witty sayings on him. Grégoire doesn't seem to care really. He tells them: "Tomorrow children will die, because you ridicule me today." He says they all admire the wit of Voltaire, but Voltaire would be ashamed of them because he was ridiculously compassionate. So who next will be the butt of the oh, so charming wits? He tells Madame de Blayac that he is going back to his swamps where he belongs. And he will build his canals and dikes. He and Mathilde now leave. The music strikes up again. Madame de Blayac takes her mask off as tears fill her eyes.
"1794. The French aristocrats fled the Revolution and found refuge in England. One of those who fled was the Marquis de Bellegarde, but Grégoire and Mathilde stayed home". Mathilde is helping her husband drain the Dombes. The wind blows his hat off as he walks with a companion on the cliffs above the water. He laments the loss of his hat, but his friend tells him it's better that he lost his hat, than his head. The Marquis realizes that this is not wit, but good old English humor and he is happy for it.
"In 1795, Citizens Grégoire and Mathilde Ponceludon proceeded with the draining of the Dombes. Their lives were rid of pestilence, royal caprice and the savage sting of aristocratic ridicule."
Today the rich and wealthy get together for the purposes of raising money to help others less fortunate than them. But in the days of Louis XVI they only had contempt for the peasants. They were so spoiled that they spent their time together being witty. So I guess today's elites have made some moral progress compared to the wealthy elite of France during the days of their kings. While watching the film, I was thinking, no wonder they had a revolution in France and started lopping heads off. In some ways the royals in the days of Louis XVI were just plain decadent. Did they really have nothing to do but criticize and mock each using clever witticisms? With all the partying done by the elite, no wonder they didn't realize what was soon going to happen to them.
Hanging with the elite was starting to corrupt the hero Grégoire, but he at least never completely forgot his project to help the poor by draining the swamps. His beloved Mathilde made our hero very bitter because she was to marry an old nobleman for his money. But the machinations of the evil Madame de Blayac brought him back to Versailles and to Mathilde and was the eventual source of his happiness. I think the acting was good all around. Fanny Ardant was very good as the manipulative Madame de Blayac.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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