Directed by Patrice Leconte
“Imagine a time when all compliments are two-faced, when every truth is tinged with irony, when insults are the currency of humor. We have more in common with the 18th century than we might imagine. “Ridicule” is a movie that takes place at the court of Louis XVI, circa 1783, but its values would be at home around the Algonquin Round Table, or in modern comedy clubs. Wit is all. Sincerity is an embarrassment.
The movie tells the story of a provincial baron with a scientific cast of mind. The people of his district are dying because of the pestilent waters, which breed mosquitoes and disease. He has a scheme for draining the marshes and making the land tillable. He needs the help of the king, and so he journeys to Versailles to press his case. But the king values verbal wit above all, and lives mostly to be entertained. If the baron cannot develop a savage tongue, he has no chance.
The baron, named Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), is, like all provincials, inclined to give his rulers credit for being better than they are. In Versailles he witnesses shocking displays of public humiliation, which are all part of the game. He seems to have no chance at all, but then he is taken under the wing of the wise old Marquis de Bellegarde, played by Jean Rochefort, that tall, long-faced master of sly intrigue. “Be witty, sharp, and malicious,” the marquis tells him, “and never laugh at your own jokes.” The baron somehow stumbles into success; his honesty plays like rudeness, and he doesn’t laugh because 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 more crucial than swordsmanship.
What is fascinating about “Ridicule” is that so much depends on language, and so little is really said. The characters come and go, polishing their one-liners, memorizing their comebacks, desperately walking the line between delectable rudeness and offending the king. None of what they say means anything. It is all words. The eyes carry the meaning. Watch the way the characters look at one another, and you can follow the real plot, while they spin their tortured fancies.”
Rogert Ebert, Sun-Times