Imagine a time when all compliments are two-faced, when everytruth is tinged with irony, when insults are the currency of humor. We havemore in common with the 18th century than we might imagine. “Ridicule” is amovie that takes place at the court of Louis XVI, circa 1783, but its valueswould be at home around the Algonquin Round Table, or in modern comedy clubs.Wit is all. Sincerity is an embarrassment.
Themovie tells the story of a provincial baron with a scientific cast of mind. Thepeople of his district are dying because of the pestilent waters, which breedmosquitoes and disease. He has a scheme for draining the marshes and making theland tillable. He needs the help of the king, and so he journeys to Versaillesto press his case. But the king values verbal wit above all, and lives mostlyto be entertained. If the baron cannot develop a savage tongue, he has nochance.
Thebaron, named Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), is, like all provincials,inclined to give his rulers credit for being better than they are. InVersailles he witnesses shocking displays of public humiliation, which are allpart of the game. He seems to have no chance at all, but then he is taken underthe wing of the wise old Marquis de Bellegarde, played by Jean Rochefort, thattall, long-faced master of sly intrigue. “Be witty, sharp, and malicious,” themarquis tells him, “and never laugh at your own jokes.” The baron somehowstumbles into success; his honesty plays like rudeness, and he doesn't laughbecause he doesn't know he has told jokes. He gains admission to court circles,where he finds that in romance, as well as politics, wordmanship is morecrucial than swordsmanship.
“Ridicule”has been directed by Patrice Leconte, a name not well known in this countryunless you have had the good fortune to see “Monsieur Hire” (1990) or “TheHairdresser's Husband” (1992). Those films were about erotic fixations carriedto uncomfortable extremes: about a little man who becomes solemnly obsessedwith the young woman he can see across the courtyard, and about a fetishist(Rochefort) who loves hairdressers so much he marries one, and hums with blissevery time she administers a shampoo.
In“Ridicule” the characters are faced with the exquisite torture of seducing oneperson while desiring another. The baron quickly falls in love with Mathilde(Judith Godreche), the kindly marquis' daughter, and she with him. But she isdetermined to marry a distasteful old rich man (they are only waiting for hiswife to die) so that he can finance her research into diving bells. Meanwhile,the baron, for matters of expediency, pays court to the powerful and beautifulMadame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), who can do him good at court.
Shelikes him. Well, he likes her. She understands almost everything about themotives of the people in her life, and at one point, while he is going throughthe motions of wooing her, she looks at him in amusement and advises, “Learn tohide your insincerity, so that I can yield without dishonor.” After all, she isnot a woman without stature; her own official lover is the abbot de Vilecourt.
Thekind old marquis sees all and keeps his counsel. He does not have the money tosupport his daughter's research, and sees how much she treasures her divingbells. He rather prefers the baron as a son-in-law, but realizes that no swampsare going to get drained that way. And the king? He has peepholes installed sothat he can secretly observe the real goings-on in his court, the better tosavor the ridiculous posturings of his petitioners when they come into hispresence.
“Ridicule”reminded me of the equally fascinating “Restoration” (1995), with Robert DowneyJr. as an ordinary man embraced by the king after he treats his beloved dogs.It was set a century earlier at the equally colorful but somewhat less manneredBritish court of Charles II. Both films show a monarch using his personal styleto set the agenda for his nation, and both are about lifestyles as a work ofart. Both, too, are about simpler men from scientific backgrounds, who findthat being straightforward gets them points at court that they haven't reallyearned.
Whatis fascinating about “Ridicule” is that so much depends on language, and solittle is really said. The characters come and go, polishing their one-liners,memorizing their comebacks, desperately walking the line between delectablerudeness and offending the king. None of what they say means anything. It isall words. The eyes carry the meaning. Watch the way the characters look at oneanother, and you can follow the real plot, while they spin their torturedfancies.
Film Review by Thomas Bourne
In pre-Revolutionary France, to laugh at someone who falls over at court is considered the height of gentlemanly conduct and a sure route to the favour of the king. But beware, it may cause you to be pissed on by your insultee doubly embarrassing if you are too old to have the power of speech for a witty reposte. Patrice Leconte opens his 1996 film, Ridicule, with this suitably ridiculous scene. In fact, just in case anyone might have missed the subtlety, the plot is already given away if you are in a hurry press stop there because you have done this film pretty much. If not, I highly commend the ninety-eight minutes that follow as an entertaining and different experience of Ancien Regime France on film. Ill admit it, I enjoyed this film and find it interesting that it has attracted such a spectrum of criticism from praise to the downright childish. Before I move on to what the critics have to say and what, if anything, can be drawn about the eighteenth century from this film Ill outline the plot.
After the bizarre opening, the action cuts to rural France where keen, but ailing, peasants are pulling fish from a swamp. Their lord, Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy, despairs at the malaria-ridden state of his people and gallops to Versaille to seek money from the king for an ambitious drainage project. Ponceludon is something of an amateur engineer and hopes to capture the scientifically minded kings imagination with his plan. But the political and social labyrinth leading to Louis XVI is a windy one, and his various advisors as well as an array of stubborn courtiers stand in his way. His advisors are all too used to plans like this being brought before the king and have systematically blocked them: ideas like the Channel Tunnel and the mapping of India are mentioned as ideas that would drain the resources of the country. To guide him through the system of patronage at Versaille is the well-acted and charismatic Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort).
The mechanism by which Ponceludon will get to the king, we soon discover, is wit. In fact, for the hard of hearing or plain stupid the words wit and ridicule are specifically mentioned almost every other line: Wit opens every door, you have plenty of it, Honesty and wit are so rarely combined, We live under the tyranny of wit and genealogy, He could ridicule me in front of the king, Well serve a dish of ridicule to Ponceludon, Wed look ridiculous, and so on. Anyway, Ponceludon, unfortunately for the established courtiers, is a ready source of wit and this, together with some tutoring on make-up application by de Bellegarde, stands him in good stead at court. He also attracts the attention of the court tart, the Countess de Blayac, who is renowned both for her closeness to the king and looseness of her knicker elastic.
Juxtaposed slightly too Hollywood-esquely is the beautiful, virtuous and progressive daughter of our heros mentor, Mlle Mathilde de Bellegarde. Predictably Ponceludon falls for her too and her budding scientific mind although he is slightly alarmed by her liberty of movement and speech. Dont worry, explains her father, she was born in the same year as Rousseau wrote Emile. Now, it may seem nit-picky but Mathilde is probably the absolute antithesis of Rousseaus woman who existed solely for man and has more facility to excite the desires than man has to satisfy them.  Mathilde is, however, pretty much the perfect 90s lass - compare her to the woman in Nostradamus - and that will do for the purposes of this film. (Shes also very fit and has an amazing cleavage.) The problem of her marriage to a lecherous old rich man is disposed of when she falls whole-heartedly for Ponceludon and chooses him over riches and stability.
Ponceludons choice between de Blayac who means moral bankruptcy but certain royal patronage and Mathilde who is earthy, natural and honest is a classic Hollywood-ism but represents one of the themes of the film. The choice is something he finds difficult to reconcile fully until near the end. So thanks to his chat and the help of the randy Mme de Blayac he finds himself briefly next to the king talking about his project. Sadly the kings interest is short-lived as a duel between Ponceludon and one of the kings captains caused by, you guessed it: an insult, ends in the death of the captain. The dispirited young man returns to his swamps only to gain renewed vigour for his purpose.
On Ponceludons return to Versailles his courtly mistress learns of his love for Mathilde and seeks to disgrace him publicly. In one scene he is wearing Mathildes diving-suit, a ridiculous affair of canvas and tin that caricatures human features in the style of a World War II gas mask. The suit, at first seems to be as far removed from Ponceludons silk courtly suit as is possible. The next scene, the masked ball, proves this not to be the case. The ridiculous masks and over the top wigs are no better and the guests at the courtly ball, perhaps, are no different to the pond life that Ponceludon has been playing with in his girlfriends garden. In his arranged downfall, he is tripped up on the dance-floor and his enigmatic slow-motion scream is the precursor of a world of trouble. Immediately one of the other courtiers steps in with a standard jibe about someone dancing on their head and Ponceludons sense of humour, for once, fails him. He responds that Children will die tomorrow because you ridicule me today. You envy Voltaires wit. Voltaire would weep. He was ridiculously compassionate [theres that word again]. Whos turn is it next? Whos next in line for a barb of wit [and that one] that sends a family to ruin?
Before you know it, the action has skipped ahead to 1794. The revolution has come and gone with no warning or elucidation. The sympathetic but fat and stupid Louis XVI has been executed, although we do not officially know that, and de Bellegarde has fled with other nobles to England. Citizen Ponceludon, we are told in writing at the end, has finally gone ahead with his project thanks to the benevolence of the revolutionary government. A happy ending to his tale, we guess, but what a load of rubbish as far as history is concerned: the concept of making a film about the French court between 1783 and 1794 without a single mention of the French Revolution is certainly a novel one. Its no surprise to learn that this is Patrice Lecontes first foray into the world of historical film. Tom Keogh puts it eruditely: We never actually see the popular uprising or the destruction of Louis XVIs court, but after meeting some of the twits who inhabit it, its easy to understand what all the violence was about.  If this film were a social polemic, to call it one-sided would be as much of an understatement as to call Ponceludons jokes slightly bad. As Laura Miller observes, the notion of wit as king is historically dubious she says this misunderstanding would be forgivable if Ridicule actually sparkled with cleverness and bon mots. Unfortunately the characters banter crudely, trading insults like family members in a bad sitcom.  The portrayal of the court is indeed sketchy: although it was a bear-pit of favour in which, latterly, familiarity with the works of the philosophes was fashionable this is a gross caricature it seems.
Mireille Rosello suggests that its historical inaccuracies should be put aside in favour of its universal truths. Leconte invents a particular past to construct a particular present.  Leconte himself denied that this was a film about the eighteenth century; the modernity of it comes through treating the story as something universal, and why not something of today.  It is suggested that the idea of Ponceludons quest, which ultimately has a medical goal, to prevent the spread of malaria, brings to mind serious scandals about corruption in the funding for medical research in the 1990s in France. It is also suggested that the point that endures to modern times is the hegemony of language and wit, or in modern terms, the soundbite. The personal and political harm done to individuals by the power of words echoes both the issue of racism and homophobia (prejudice in general) and gesture politics and spin that deserves all the derision it gets. She finishes: an ambiguous heritage film, Ridicule redefines the genre by proposing to use a historical setting to ask very specific questions about our contemporary ways of relating to history, to words, to images, and, in the end, to the film itself. 
 Rousseau, cited in Mireille Rosello, Dissident voices before the Revolution: Ridicule. From French Cinema in the 1990s
 Mireille Rosello, Dissident Voices before the Revolution
 Ibid, p 83
 Ibid, p 90