Tag Archives: 17th century

The Wicked Lady (1945)

“How could I fail to love a man as rich as he is.”

I first saw the 1983 remake of The Wicked Lady starring Faye Dunaway as the deliciously nasty female whose need for excitement  is satisfied by a life of crime and a highwayman lover. The remake is a bawdy romp and it worked beautifully for its 17th century setting. This 1945 version directed by Leslie Arliss is subject to the censorship of the times. As a result, it’s tamer, but it’s still an excellent film for fans of period pieces or of the film’s stars, Margaret Lockwood, Jason Mason, & Patricia Roc. Apparently critics hated the film, but it was a huge box office success at the time. It’s not hard to see why.

The Wicked Lady begins with 19-year-old Caroline (a very squeaky clean, healthy-looking Patricia Roc) riding with Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones)–her guardian. They are going to be married, and it’s a marriage of convenience for staid boring Sir Ralph, but for Caroline, it’s a love match. This discrepancy in feelings sets the stage for the trouble ahead as Sir Ralph admits to Caroline that he doesn’t love her but that he’s “very fond of” her. Turns out he’s marrying her–more or less—for her housekeeping abilities.

Enter Caroline’s cousin glamorous Barbara (Margaret Lockwood) who arrives at Skelton Manor to be Caroline’s maid-of-honour at the upcoming wedding. Caroline is sweet-natured, but Barbara is bold, beautiful, and as it turns out quite bad. The two cousins haven’t seen each other in five years, and while Caroline’s lived quietly in the country, Barbara has been brought up by her merchant uncle. Barbara has all sorts of notions about men and marriage and brags that “a clever woman can make her husband do what she likes.”

The chemistry between Barbara and Sir Ralph is instantaneous and obvious to everyone except innocent Caroline. Soon crafty Barbara manipulates a compromising moment with Ralph and she swiftly stages a drama that allows her to steal Caroline’s fiance. This act is, in essence, her first crime–at least the first one we see–although Barbara later admits in a rare moment of frankness: “All my life, I’ve cheated to get what I want.”  Caroline’s very ‘niceness’ contributes to the situation as she does the noble thing and sacrifices her desires to Barbara’s wishes. These early scenes reveal Barbara’s corrupt nature to the viewer–again most of the characters remain oblivious to her designs. Henrietta (Enid Stamp-Tayl0r), the wife of Sir Ralph’s friend is an exception, and a bitchy exchange takes place between Henrietta and Barbara during the wedding celebration. In this great scene, Barbara, flush from all the dancing gushes about the traditional kiss claimed by the male partners at the conclusion of each dance. Henrietta cattily suggests that Barbara ask Caroline to pitch in:

“After all you two have  shared so much.”

But Henrietta isn’t a match for Barbara’s spite, and Barbara, who’s just finished dancing with Henrietta’s husband excuses Henrietta’s behaviour with the barbed comment:

“No woman can bear it if her husband finds another more attractive.”

Once married Barbara quickly discovers that life as Lady Skelton is boring, and she begins to compensate by taking to the highways as a masked highwayman. While Barbara’s life of crime begins as a lark to repay Henrietta, she soon becomes addicted to the thrills of her secret life. The roads around the Skelton Estate are the hunting ground for infamous highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson (James Mason), and Barbara finds that the notorious highwayman makes an exciting and dangerous lover. Over time, Barbara even commits murder, and she seems to grow even harder and crueller with each crime.

The film juxtaposes some great scenes. At one point, Caroline says that Barbara might as well have her wedding dress since she’s taken everything else, and after Caroline storms off in tears, Barbara smirks and says she “wouldn’t caught dead” in Caroline’s dress. The next scene shows Barbara in a much flashier gown looking quite satisfied with herself as she sits in a carriage on her wedding day. At another point, one scene shows Barbara flagrantly unfaithful to her husband while Caroline and Ralph decide against adultery. In yet another comparison, faithful, trusting servant Hogarth (Felix Aylmer) is dying in bed, and the next scene shows Barbara ‘prostrate’ with grief taken to her bed too. But perhaps my favourite scene sets Barbara in the arms of the highwayman Jerry Jackson as they lock in a passionate embrace before a fire. You can’t miss the symbolism of the fires of hell.

Some of the lines are quite risqué for the times (“an armful of hungry passion for my leisure hours” ), and the costumes are sumptuous. Underneath the scandalous story, the film shows that the plight of single women is not an enviable one. Two dotty old maids, the interchangeable Aunt Moll and Aunt Doll (Beatrice Varley & Amy Dalby) and also cousin Agatha (Martita Hunt) all live on Ralph’s charity. Their aimless lives seem to add to their general dottiness, and the film seems to proffer the idea that women’s lives aren’t full of choices. At one point, Barbara rails against her fate as if she can’t quite understand why her life is so dull:

“I’ve got brains, looks, and personality. I want to use them instead of rotting in this dull home.”

Barbara’s plight is not entirely unsympathetic (marrying for the life she thinks she wants–only to discover she lives in a gilded cage), and the intervention of  fate emphasizes that things might have been different.  Based on the book The Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, is supposed to be based on the real life story of a highwaywoman, (speculated to be Lady Katherine Ferrers). The film also stars Jean Kent as Captain Jackson’s doxy and Michael Rennie as Kit.

Jerry Jackson: When I’m with you, it’s like a giant meal prepared by the gods. I eat and I eat until I can’t face another morsel.

Barbara: And then?…

Jerry Jackson: And then I look at you again and before I know it, I’m clamouring for another helping.

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Moliere (2007)

 “Speak to me in the language of Moliere.”

Moliere, from director Laurent Tirard is a tasty romp through 17th century France. The film’s main premise is to present the backdrop story to Moliere’s success. There are some gaps in Moliere’s history, and during a thirteen-year period, he toured in the provinces with his troupe of actors. Here, he honed his satirical skills, and gained immense popularity before establishing himself at La Salle du Petit-Bourbon in Paris. The film Moliere attempts to explain some of the murkier details about Moliere’s past by presenting a slice of his life that mirrors the elegant style and wit of his wonderful plays.

moliere1Moliere (Romain Duris) is a talented but penniless actor who finds himself thrown in jail when he cannot pay his debts. But a rich gentleman, Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) pays for Moliere’s release. Jourdain, however, wants something in return, and he arranges for Moliere to arrive at his splendid country mansion. Jourdain, prosperous, and eager to improve himself, is in the habit of employing experts to teach him various skills. And he employs Moliere to teach him acting skills. It seems that Jourdain, although married to the deliciously lovely, Elmire (Laura Morante) is enamored with a shallow young widow, Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier). Jourdain intends to present himself at one of Celimene’s celebrated salons and impress her with a rendition of something written in her honor.

Now since Jourdain can’t tell his wife that Moliere is there to help him seduce another woman, Jourdain dresses Moliere up like a priest and tells Elmire that Moliere (now named Tartuffe) is in their home as a spiritual advisor. And here on Jourdain’s country estate, as events unfold, ‘real’ life assumes aspects of a Moliere play complete with a cuckolded husband, star-crossed lovers, and a fake kidnapping. Fans of Moliere will recognize names and plot elements of his plays, and of course, the implied idea is that Moliere’s greatest inspiration came from this episode in his early life.

Moliere, while not quite as good as the plays, is highly entertaining. The film also explores the idea of Moliere’s frustrated desire to write great tragedies, and it’s through his relationship with Elmire, that he finally realises the importance of comedy. With flawless timing, and impeccable acting, this is a witty, clever, and good-natured costume drama.

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Wicked Lady (1983)

 “I’d rather look worn than dull.”

wicked-ladySet in colourful 17th century England, The Wicked Lady is a ribald bodice-ripping tale about a woman who is determined to get everything she wants … no matter the cost. When the film begins, Carolina (Glynis Barber) is about to be married to the wealthy middle-aged Lord Ralph Skelton (Denholm Elliott). When her ‘best friend’ Barbara (Faye Dunaway) arrives to be the maid of honour, things begin to go wrong. Barbara casts her eyes on Sir Ralph (his home, & his money) and decides to seduce him. Naturally she succeeds, so when the wedding takes place it’s between Barbara and Sir Ralph with Carolina nursing a broken heart. At the reception, Barbara meets handsome stranger Kit Locksby (Oliver Tobias), but it’s too late for her change her plans–she’s married and soon buried in the boredom of country life.

A series of events leads Barbara to alleviate her dull existence, and she meets highwayman, Jerry Jackson (Alan Bates) and takes him as a lover. She leads a double life–discontented spoiled wife by day and highwaywoman by night.

Faye Dunaway plays the role of Lady Skelton with tongue in cheek style–echoing the flair and bravado of the swashbuckling films of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn. She never takes herself too seriously–whether she’s seducing men, pretending to be pious to satisfy servant Hogarth (John Gielgud) or exchanging vicious barbs with nasty sister-in-law (Prunella Scales).

Basically this is a story of a women whose role in life isn’t enough for her–penned in by her sex and financial dependency, she goes wild. And this is the film’s overwhelming appeal. Unfortunately the film, directed by Michael Winner insists on displaying an obsession with topless women–no doubt this is a token signal of the complexity of the times–but after a while these constantly inserted scenes are superfluous and silly. Oliver Tobias is supposed to be a romantic hero, but he never seems to warm up to his role. Faye Dunaway makes the film, and one of the best scenes occurs when Lady Skelton and a wench hold a whipping match. Based on the novel by Magdalen King-Hall, the film is solid entertainment with an occasional tendency towards cheesiness.

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Don Juan (1998)

“Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice.”

The legend of Don Juan makes fascinating fodder for fiction and cinema, and this French production, directed by Jacques Weber is an excellent version of the tale. Don Juan is set in seventeenth century Spain, and when the film begins, Don Juan (Jacques Weber) and his loyal, long-suffering valet Sganarelle (Michel Boujenah) are traveling across Spain. In pursuit are the revenge-driven brothers of Don Juan’s latest victim, Dona Elvira (Emmanuelle Beart). Elvira was, apparently, convent-bound when Don Juan seduced and abandoned her. Elvira tracks Don Juan and confronts him, and when he coldly dismisses her, she curses him.

After abandoning Dona Elvira, Don Juan sets out by boat to kidnap a beautiful girl he’s noticed, but when he’s shipwrecked, he instead contents himself with seducing two peasant women. This part of the film is the lightest sequence, and Don Juan manages to juggle Mathurine (Penelope Cruz) and Charlotte (Adriana Gil) by promising to marry both of them. Sganarelle witnesses his master’s actions, and while he doesn’t approve and tries to warn the women, he doesn’t want to jeopardize his position with Don Juan.

The film’s focus is on Don Juan’s moral corruption. This version of the legend presents Don Juan as a middle-aged, corpulent, and repugnant individual who callously rejects and discards the women he seduces. He is an embarrassment to his class, and he is unabashedly unapologetic for his actions. There are no niceties about Don Juan, and neither, perhaps surprisingly, are there any scenes of sex. The story presents Don Juan at the close of his promiscuous career, and his physical condition seems to be the end result of a life of self-indulgence and debauchery.

Seducers understand women, and while many legendary seducers can be accused of ‘loving’ too many women (Casanova, for example), this cannot be said of the film’s depiction of Don Juan. To him, seduction is a mental exercise–a game to be played only once with a woman who catches his fancy. After seduction “the best of passion is spent”, and it’s time to move on. There’s a viciousness to the pleasure he gains from his actions: “spite kindled by desire.” Don Juan’s moral decay is complete when he slides into hypocrisy in the final stage, and much to Sganarelle’s dismay, hypocrisy debases Don Juan even further. Don Juan’s speeches yield much food for thought, and like all good French films, Don Juan continues to evoke thought long after its conclusion. In French with English subtitles.

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Marquise (1997)

 “You shouldn’t betray yourself to win favour.”

marquiseThe French film Marquise, based on a true story,  is set in the sumptuous seventeenth century and follows the rise and fall of a beautiful actress–Marquise (Sophie Marceau)–a woman who uses her charms to further her ambitions. When the film begins, Moliere (Bernard Giraudeau) and his traveling troupe of actors stop in a rowdy town, and he spies a nimble young girl dancing on an impromptu stage. Moliere is fascinated by the girl’s beauty and grace, and when his leading comedian Gros-Rene (Patrick Timsit) offers to marry Marquise and take her to Paris, a deal is struck with her impoversished, opportunistic father.

Once in Paris, Marquise’s initial attack of stage fright causes Moliere to assign her minor tasks, but her determination and ambitious nature bring her to the attention of Moliere’s rival, Racine (Lambert Wilson), and also eventually to King Louis XIV (Thierry Lhermitte). Marquise’s story is that of many beautiful women–she knows the power of her beauty–she uses her looks to get what she wants, and then suffers when she’s used for her beauty alone.

Actors and playwrights are seen as rather desperate people trying to please an audience and the petulant king. At one point, Moliere is forced to perform a tragedy, and his usual tavern going crowds aren’t prepared for the noble statements–they just want raucous, bawdy comedy. The film spares little as it recreates the glories of this excessive age. With magnificent sets, splendid costumes, and fine acting, the film suffers from being too superficial in its treatment of Marquise (her initial rather modern dance scene lacks only a pole to twirl around). On several occasions, when she’s stymied, she stamps her foot and runs off, and this makes her a slightly less interesting character. That said–the film’s depiction of Louis is marvelous. We are privy to several moments in his daily routine (he’s ordered to take a bath, for example), and the entire court stands around watching–oohing and aahing as he steps into the water. While Louis is portrayed as a ridiculous example of conspicuous consumption, at one point, at one point, he pounces on someone and displays his terrible power. Lovers of French costume drama (Horseman on the Roof) should enjoy this one. From director Vera Belmont, the film is in French with English subtitles.

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