Apart from the entertaining purposes, motion pictures are endowed with informative function, especially inherent in historical films. Plunging into the screen reality of France in the 18th century, director Patrice Leconte created his most recognizable film, Ridicule, which is a prominent representative of the historical movie genre. Even though it gently envelopes the audience with the historical spirit, it is impossible to claim unambiguously that it is a successful historical depiction. The evaluation of the extent to which the historical value and accuracy have a presence in this film is probably impossible without avoiding controversies. Despite that, the undertaken attempt by itself seems to be noteworthy and intriguing.
As Robert A. Rosenstone states, an analysis of history on film is of the special importance nowadays because people receive their ideas about the past mostly from the motion pictures and television. This type of medium has its problems and potentialities and, with no doubt, includes some elements that previously were not available for written history. Furthermore, a film can render historical complexity, which seems to be underestimated and not easily seen during the gradual deployment of the plot. To understand the historical integrity of Ridicule it is important to look at this multifarious film through the different prisms.
Firstly, one should suppose that a film is a direct window to history that enables anyone to see events of the past, “to experience people and places as we were there”. From this perspective, Patrice Leconte, the director of Ridicule, succeeded in providing audience into the world of the late 18th century France. Spectators have the opportunity to look at the glorious 1783 Versailles, its picturesque peripheries, pompous aristocratic life, their a bit ludicrous fashion of powdered faces and intricate hairstyles, mannerisms, and most importantly, their moral values. Ridicule with its very essence ridicules the mores of the French aristocracy, where the word was, in fact, mightier than the sword. Louis XVI's court was a hostile place where the mastery of wit could carry a person into the unknown tops of fame as well as to lead to beheading in a flash. While the country suffered from famine and pestilence, aristocrats were powdering noses, compiling the finest fictional etiquette, and tirelessly striving to excel in smartness. Furthermore, their wit was nothing but a form of abuse and malice. In short, the film truly makes its audience the “prisoners of history” for a time, as Rosenstone suggests, since the images and sounds on the screen “overwhelm us, swap our senses, and destroy attempts to remain aloof”. The image, movie provides the audience with, is richly saturated with information, which seems to be intangible at first sight. In spite of this, much can be lost from the sight even by the creators of the historical movie. From this perspective, Ridicule is rather imperfect because it has its simplifications and inaccuracies as any other historical feature or documentary movie. Nevertheless, evaluating it from the perspective of a vivid detailed picture of the period it is definitely impeccable.
Secondly, a film is definitely a story, a narration. Rosenstone is convinced that “neither people nor nations live historical ‘stories’”. The historians make a structure with beginnings, middles, and endings for the past to make sense. Thus, written history or history in images cannot be a past itself, but only the representation of it. These representations can be different: tragic, comic, heroic, and romantic. Ridicule is an ironic representation of the past. It cannot accurately depict the occurring situations, people, and dialogues at the court of the King. Nevertheless, it gives the very presumable reflection of what might be in the frames of the historical knowledge of the time. As the result, there are actors who assume the roles of historical characters or the fictional ones, but responding to the period. They have a specific gesticulation, movements, and voices that make sense for the audience. Their dialogues and caustic remarks cannot be rendered but only created in the way it successfully depicts the atmosphere of the time. Thus, as Rosenstone emphasizes, “yet surely no real violence is done to history by such an addition to the written record”. The rural province baron, Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy, is a fictional character in the movie, but the message sent by him is significant. He arrives in Versailles to find funds for the engineering plan he created so to drain the southwest France's swamps and help people who suffer from diseases provoked by the contaminated dirty waters. He meets the aristocratic representatives as his supporter Bellegarde, intriguante Madame de Blayac, crafty Vilecourt, and the condescending King Louis personally. In order to gain his noble aim, the protagonist does his best to meet all the bills the royal court obliges. With his entrance into the elite circles director makes the audience also enter the vicious atmosphere of the 18th century elite society. Ponceludon’s historical prototype in this point is not a human but the lower French class, whom as Ponceludon smartly notices “feed aristocrats as well as mosquitoes”. From the other hand, the main character is also the eyes of the audience who acquaintances scene by scene with the disgusting face of the court. The other fictional characters like Madame de Blayac, for example, whose sexual and political favor Ponceludon desires, also portray not the specific historical posture but the face to the faceless aristocracy. In this narrative performed in an ironic manner of the word’s contests between the characters, Ridicule is absolutely a successful movie since the highly valued satire, wit, and irony cannot be presented in any other possible way but as it is shown in the film through the frame of the splendid dialogues of the characters.
Thirdly, as a motion picture is a representation of the history not the history of itself, filmmakers seem to have a right to provide a “variety of perspectives on the events its covers”. Cinema, as Rosentone claims, is “capable exploring serious social and political issues”, thereafter, it is possible “to render the world as multiply, complex, and indeterminate”. That is, in turn, a move forward thinking about the specific issues. Ridicule is a bound of the 18th century French regime criticism. It is true that some moments of the movie are inaccurate. The court is probably not described in its entirety. Some jokes and wits may be found a bit miserable. One of the female protagonists, beautiful Mathilde, seems to be too modern for that time. The way the story is narrated puts the audience not only through the historical moments but also through the moral choices characters take. All these details can be viewed differently. Nevertheless, all of these shortcomings go as a background for more important issues that the film’s director Patrice Leconte wanted to present. Almost every other line speaks for the crucial role of wit and honorable bloodlines in the upper class circles. “Honesty and wit are so rarely combined,” or “We live under the tyranny of wit and genealogy”. Leconte decided to open one door among the tens to look behind the scenes. Consequently, the audience understands why the director criticizes this ridiculous upper-class society, where even the state affairs of prime importance such as a critical condition of the lands and lives of French people can be heard only after the “wit” or “bed” bribe. Rosenstone assumes that not all the movies serve to render the accurate historical essence, but tell us “a great deal about specific periods and issues of the past”. This look made Leconte cannot capture all the past diversity, but it still gives enough for consideration and analysis.
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Lastly, in his work, Rosenstone believes that films as well as written documentaries give a chance to “touch history”. He wonders why it is so important for modern people to understand their past and the answer is obvious: it helps to understand present. Visual culture helps to change the way people represent and see history, which brings many lessons and knowledge for new generations. If the task of historical movie is not only to show something accurately but also to teach some lessons, Ridicule once again can be called a successful and respectable example of its genre. Its historical inaccuracies must be shifted aside in favor of the truthful message it brings. Not only does it depict the 18th century life style but it also relates it to the modern times. Wit, genealogy, and close relations with high and honorable individuals could be the way to fame, or solving personal or social problems. It is all about corruption and human ties that, to some extent, still have a place in the present. The power of words is also inevitable in the modern world, unfortunately in its bad shades of insulting (i.e. racial, homophobic, prejudicial, etc). Once and again, in the terms of this view, Leconte’s Ridicule is a worthy historic movie.
As a conclusion, Ridicule is a great example of how the historical complexity can be rendered and comprehended in its very simplified way. As it enables to see the past of the eighteenth century France in its very precise, entertaining, and more over educational way, it is worth to be called as successful depiction of the past. As any kind of other image or word representation, Ridicule is not deprived of small inaccuracies and they definitely deserve attention in the historical discourse. Nevertheless, any historical book or documentary has been written with a human hand and everything humans do is imperfect in its nature. Moreover, it is presented from a very different perspective, which, in this case, is an asset as it gives an option to see the King’s court, upper class of France, its spoiled morals and think over the present times. Through the play of those heroes and the language they speak, the audience is able to perceive the history in the way director shows it to us. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with this, as any kind of historical piece is not a one hundred percent truth but an imitation.