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The eight previous features from French director Emmanuel Mouret (Shall We Kiss?, Caprice) have often been funny and quite talky contemporary dramedies that explored relationships and morality, so it is no surprise that he has occasionally been dubbed the “French Woody Allen.” But it is unlikely that Allen would ever direct something like Mademoiselle de Joncquieres, Mouret’s first historical film which is set in 18th-century France and which suggests Les liaisons dangereuses by way of Denis Diderot. A rarely-better Cecile de France stars as a young widow who, against her better judgment, falls head-over-heels in love with a libertine rake and who then tries to do Madame de Merteuil one better when he falls out of love with her. “Happiness that doesn’t last is called pleasure” is one of the film’s bon mots, and this highlight from Toronto’s platform competition is a pleasurable way indeed to pass two hours at the cinema.
Hawk-eyed viewers will immediately notice that de France’s character, Madame de La Pommeraye, isn’t the Mademoiselle of the title. In fact, as a widow, she can never become a mademoiselle again. She lives on her late husband’s large, leafy estate, where she occasionally receives visitors, such as her gossipy best friend, credited as L’Amie de Madame (Laure Calamy). It can get lonely in a large manor with only servants for company, so guests are welcome to stay overnight, which is how the Marquis of Arcis (Edouard Baer) ends up staying at her abode for over four months. Though her friend warns her about Arcis’ reputation as a womanizer, Madame de La Pommeraye can’t help but slowly fall in love with the charming cad, telling herself and her girlfriend that “men can change.”
It is thus that they end up an unlikely couple. Whilst living together, Arcis tells her the story of a certain Madame de Jonquieres, an out-of-wedlock daughter of a count who has had to resort to prostituting herself and her young daughter for money since she technically has no right to any of the family’s income. But before Madame (Natalia Dontcheva) and Mademoiselle (Alice Isaaz) de Joncquieres make their entrance, about 40 minutes in, the Marquis and Madame de La Pommeraye need to break up or at least transition to the Régence version of an open relationship. This happens in a marvelously performed scene in which they talk about how the passion is gone from their relationship, with Mouret beautifully capturing their inner lives and sentiments in words.
Almost immediately after their confessions, the de Jonquieres pair becomes a pet project for de La Pommeraye, who now has a lot of time on her hands. With her generous help, the mother and daughter manage to transform themselves into pious and devout women with no interest in high society or the sordid life they left behind. But a womanizer like Arcis always wants what he can’t have or has been told he can’t have. So logically, Mademoiselle de Jonquieres, the former prostitute turned virginal youngster, suddenly shoots to the top of his list.
It would be criminal to reveal much more of the story but suffice it to say that several plot twists are still in store in what is without a doubt Mouret’s best screenplay to date. Without giving anything away, one of its highlights is a delicious dinner scene for the former lovers and mother and daughter, during which not a single person is who they pretend to be. Based on a story told by a character in Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master — which also inspired the Robert Bresson film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, with dialogue by Jean Cocteau — this is a fine adaptation that conserves Diderot’s structural approach to the material and which offers ample room for the sparkling dialogue, which is not necessarily always hilarious but which does highlight the differences between then and now in frequently amusing ways (“If all women acted like this, being a woman would be a greater honor,” for example, is offered as the highest form of compliment to a woman).
Belgian actress de France has a very earthy, sometimes almost masculine energy that has served her well in films from directors such as the Dardenne brothers (The Kid With a Bike), Alexandre Aja (Switchblade Romance) and Clint Eastwood (Hereafter). Here, she plays someone who at least initially appears to be the total opposite: a luminous and seemingly demure, if very chatty, woman decked out in the type of innocent pastel colors nowadays only found in the baby section at Gap and in French macaroon shops.
Madame’s days consist of nothing but rearranging the decorative elements in her gorgeously appointed home and lush gardens — anachronistic eucalyptus alert! — while always talking endlessly. De France shows her impressive command of language in the way she tosses off her dialogue here, which might read like high literature but which always feels supple and has a semi-improvised spontaneity to it. It is clear Madame delights in the art of conversation and is very good at it. The fact she’s smart, lightning fast and incredibly articulate are all qualities that first become apparent through the way she talks, though these characteristics will take on more importance in another arena in the film’s second half. Indeed, de France’s work in Mademoiselle in general and the home stretch in particular showcases the actress’ impressive range.
Baer as the Don Giovanni character, however, isn’t quite the home run. As a trained stage actor, he too always sounds perfectly at ease with the period dialogue. But what’s missing is any real sense of danger or rakishness; his Marquis would seem too polite and well-behaved to dump anyone, let alone chase after woman after woman without a care for the consequences. That said, thankfully the impact of this flaw isn’t all that great, as the Marquis of Arcis is in a committed relationship with Madame for a while and later falls head-over-heels, very-much-monogamously in love with Mademoiselle. The less said about the roles of Dontcheva and Isaaz the better, though the actors more than deliver on the promise suggested both by the film’s title and the Marquis’ early anecdote.
Production companies: Moby Dick Films, Arte France Cinema, Reborn Production
Cast: Cecile de France, Edouard Baer, Alice Isaaz, Natalia Dontcheva, Laure Calamy
Writer-director: Emmanuel Mouret, screenplay inspired by a story from Denis Diderot recounted in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
Producer: Frederic Niedermayer
Director of photography: Laurent Desmet
Production designer: David Faivre
Editor: Martial Salomon
Casting: Constance Demontoy
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Sales: Indie Sales
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