“You hate where you come from and you detest where you’re going.”
This French made-for-television film is based on the Stendhal novel, The Red and The Black–a term which refers to the conflicting passions within the soul of the protagonist Julien Sorel. The story takes place in the early 19th Century–after the death of Napoleon and during the Bourbon Restoration. King Charles X is on the throne, and the Catholic Church is once more a power in French politics. Julien (Kim Rossi Stuart) is the son of a carpenter in the small town of Verrieres. Thanks to his Latin skills, he’s employed by the mayor, Monsieur de Renal (Bernard Verley) to tutor his son. Julien is a great admirer of Napoleon, but he’s forced to hide this fact from his employers. The local Catholic Abbe believes that Julien’s future is in the church, and he encourages Julien to enter the priesthood.
Julien, however, is not priest material, and his talent for Latin masks his rather superficial approach to a career in the church. While he longs to rise from his despised peasant background, he lacks the discipline and the ambition to succeed in the church. Julien is incorporated into the de Renal household, and although he enjoys his job with his young charge, he rapidly gets into trouble. Madame de Renal’s maid, Eliza, casts her eyes at Julien and sees him as a suitable husband. While the de Renals both think this is an excellent idea, Julien obviously considers the maid beneath his attention, and instead he’s drawn to Madame de Renal (Carole Bouquet).
Throughout the story, Julien is continually torn by conflicting desires and ambitions. His employment casts him in the much-hated role of a servant, but his ambitious soul longs to belong to the noble classes. While ostensibly he seems to reject class on numerous occasions, he doesn’t despise class. He wants all the worldly spoils that class and privilege can bring–simply put–he wants to be a gentleman. The Red and The Black explores the class system and the politics of this volatile era through the life of Julien as he rather cold-heartedly attempts to succeed in Parisian society–only to fail due to his emotions. The film includes some great characters–the effete Marquis de la Mole (Claude Rich), his spoiled capricious daughter, Mathilde (Judith Godreche) and the cynical Italian Count Altamira (Francesco Acquaroli). The film captures the hypocrisy of French society–the gossip, the snobbery and the intrigue. Directed by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe (who has successfully brought a number of classic novels to the screen), this is not a perfect adaptation of the novel, but The Red and The Black should please French film fans and French history buffs alike. In French with English subtitles from director Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe.