Patrice Leconte’s “Ridicule” – Presque perdu dans la traduction*

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*Almost lost in translation.

Films about pre-revolutionary France tend to share a kind of sadistic fatalism. They present a picture of boorish aristocrats too consumed in their own petty affairs to see the opposition and hatred fomenting beneath them. They’re tragic characters, but in some sense, they deserve whatever they get.

Patrice Leconte’s Academy Award nominated 1996 film Ridicule is no exception.

In the court of Louis XVI, wealth and status rule the day, but the real king is belle esprit – literally, “beautiful mind”. Belle esprit is what the aristocrats call a sharp, biting wit. They craft a perfectly brutal and entirely zero-sum situation in which the only way to advance one’s status in the court is to publicly and brilliantly humiliate another (and avoid being ridiculed oneself).

Entering the fray is Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), a small-time nobleman from the Dombes province who seeks the support of the king to rid his country of the horrible swamps that kill the majority of his peasants via mosquito-borne illnesses. He meets the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), an aged aristocrat whose wits are no longer sharp enough to compete in court. The Marquis takes Malavoy under his wing, teaching him the use of repartée, word games, rhyming epigrams, and other clever bits of malevolent wordplay that will bring him ever-closer to an audience with the king.

But never puns, warns the Marquis. Puns are the “death of wit”. And never laugh at your own jokes.

Malavoy takes to these rules famously, despite conflicting strategic and romantic interests in the gorgeous and cunning courtesan widow, Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), and the Marquis de Bellegarde’s breathtaking and scientifically-minded daughter Mathilde (Judith Godrèche). He also faces opposition by Madame de Blayac’s current companion, the Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau). While the film’s hollowly-crafted love triangle is made a good deal more convincing by marvelous performances on the part of the three leads, this film’s effectiveness is made entirely by the brilliantly crafted court dialogue.

Rémi Waterhouse’s script shines in these scenes. If Aaron Sorkin wrote about old-world aristocratic politics, this is almost certainly what it would sound like. However, the film strikes a somewhat bizarre tone. It revels in the cruelty of these scenes in a fashion that is almost darkly comedic, but also feels the need to impress upon us how deeply misguided and out-of-touch these people are.

The court scenes also contain such precise and esoteric language that they raise an unfortunate and seemingly unavoidable issue that comes when bringing a film to a new language – inaccurate translation. At times, the English subtitles accurately conveyed the language, and at times they were adjusted as the scene required, such as a scene in which the characters are rhyming. However, the language would occasionally be oversimplified in a way that seemingly contributed nothing to the scene, and in some cases, completely changed the meaning of the original line.

A few examples…

French line English subtitle Actual translation
Votre place n’est pas ici. We don’t belong here. Your place is not here.
Il est moins bête qu’il semble. He’s smarter than he looks He is less dumb than he seems.
Nous sommes de la même espèce. You and I are alike. We’re of the same species.
Il ne faut pas sacrifier tout à nos destins. Our plans come first. Do not sacrifice all for our destinies.
On voyait un diable devant la croix? Have you seen a ghost? Did you see a devil before the cross?

There was an outcry back in March of this year when Magnolia Pictures mangled the subtitles of Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant Swedish vampire coming-of-age film, Let the Right One In. Having seen (and loved) the theatrical version, I promptly returned my copy of this film to Amazon when I heard the news about the faulty subtitles. It’s always a tough balancing act when deciding how to watch a film in a language you don’t know (or even a language I do know, in the case of Ridicule). If you choose the dubbed version, you get a caliber of acting typically reserved for cereal commercials, but at least you don’t have to read any subtitles. If you choose the original version, the acting is better, but you still have to contend with lazy translation. Some films, such as those of popular animators like Hiyao Miyazaki, receive solid translations and dubs with real actors. Just have to take what you can get, I suppose.

But I digress.

Ridicule is a solid film, competently shot, and feels visually authentic (with the period backdrops and costumes). It’s probably more enjoyable if you know a bit of French, but the acerbic wit and incisive jabs are delivered well enough to transcend the language barrier.

Details about Ridicule‘s ending will follow.

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Like the court scenes, the film’s ending is tonally bizarre. It introduces a duel with a character that had not appeared in any prior scene, and seems to serve only to give Malavoy some minor triumph, or at least demonstrate his hypocritically selective pride. The love story is ended in a more satisfying manner, owing largely to Mathilde’s quite believable transformation (and Judith Godrèche’s brilliant performance), but the central conflict between Malavoy and Vilecourt is not resolved in any conventional sense. Vilecourt’s antagonism is compelling, but Malavoy only ever wins a few minor skirmishes. Vilecourt’s largely self-inflicted downfall seems to suggest that in such foul and petty company, it is quite possible to be too clever for one’s own good. Or perhaps, even more simply, the longer you spend in this court, the more likely you are to pass out of favor like last year’s fashions.

Ultimately, the characters’ machinations count for very little. And given the proximity of the film’s timeframe to the Reign of Terror, it’s probably better for Malavoy that he finds himself digging through the muck alongside his peasants in the end. Any success at court would’ve gained him, at best, a half-dug canal, and at worst, a guillotine blade to the back of the neck.

But at least he met a nice young lady for his troubles.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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