Tag Archives: Period Piece

A Song of Innocence (2005)

“One day, they’ll be no more masters and servants.”

Set in nineteenth century France, A Song of Innocence (La Ravisseuse) begins with the arrival of a wet nurse to a large country mansion. The wet nurse, a young girl named Angele-Marie (Isild Le Besco) has left her baby boy behind in order to take the job as a wet nurse for the baby of a wealthy young couple, Charlotte (Emilie Dequenne) and her austere architect husband, Julien (Gregoire Colin). Angele-Marie has been selected from dozens of similarly lactating women, and she’s been chosen by Julien.

song of innocenceAngele-Marie is a good wet nurse, and she gets right to the task considered too “lowly” for her young mistress. While Angele-Marie nurses the baby and takes care of her morning, noon and night, Julien hopes that this will free up his wife for the bedroom once again. But with Julien distracted by work and refurbishing a new, splendid apartment in Paris, Charlotte forms a tentative relationship with Angele-Marie. At first the relationship forms as a sort of  “sisterhood.” The convent-raised Charlotte is shocked to discover that her wet nurse has a baby of her own who’s been farmed out somewhere else in the country while her mother earns a living by selling her breast milk. A less sexually naive woman wouldn’t need to have all this spelled out for her, but Charlotte is so innocent, she doesn’t seem to grasp that breast milk means that there was a baby somewhere….

The two young women do have a great deal in common, but while Angele-Marie considers her relationship with Charlotte to be friendship, Charlotte treats Angele-Marie like a pet, and dressing her up as a nursemaid, she becomes a sort of fashion accessory. Angele-Marie  loves to make up stories and she and Charlotte even engage in the occasional daydream, but Angele-Marie, as a peasant, can’t afford imagination.

Meanwhile Angele-Marie and Charlotte find some pleasure in each other’s company, but everyone else in the household is either threatened or annoyed about it. Leonce (Anemone), the housekeeper is jealous of the wet nurse’s relationship with the young mistress. After all, by becoming Charlotte’s pet, Angele-Marie is elevated over the other servants. Julien, sexually unsatisfied by his wife, begins sneaking around the house for glimpses of Angele-Marie’s breasts, but like a typically-repressed person, he begins to loathe the object of his lust. Even Julien and Charlotte’s bourgeois relatives are appalled by the wet nurse’s elevated position.

Flashbacks reveal exactly how Julien and the family doctor selected Angele-Marie for the wet nurse job. One scene depicts women baring their breasts to their potential employer and both the sexual aspects and the objectification of women is clear as the would-be wet nurses ply their wares like women on display in a brothel.

Set in 1877, A Song of Innocence contains shades of class discontent, mainly voiced by the servants who after all must still remember the debacle of the 1871 Paris Commune. During the late 18th century in France, it was the ‘done’ thing for a bourgeois family to employ a wet nurse for the exclusive use of their baby while the wet nurse’s baby was fostered out to face certain death in the country. Peasant wet nurses were known to nurse up to five babies at a time for a pittance, and the morality rate was not good. Scenes with Julien and the doctor acknowledge the attitude that it’s a very reasonable thing for them to ‘rent’ Angele-Marie while condemning her baby to certain death. Of course, this attitude simply reinforces the societal hierarchy of one bourgeois baby being equal to an infinite number of peasant babies.

Angele-Marie and Charlotte’s friendship at first seems to be based in sisterhood and the commonalities they share as women viewed by society as the chattels of men, but any notion of sisterhood is eventually overridden by the powerful pull of class loyalties. The film includes some clever camera shots that emphasize Julien’s growing sexual obsession with Angele-Marie, and an aura of mystery and impending dread runs through the film. From director Antoine Santana.

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Los Borgia (2006)

“All who come near me have a bleak fate.”

los borgiaThe DVD cover of Director Antonio Hernandez’s lavish production, Los Borgia (The Borgia) promises a lot of blood, but instead this surprisingly good and engrossing film takes a long hard look at the ambitious Borgia clan through the lives of its greatest, most infamous characters: patriach Rodrigo Borgia (Lluis Homar), Cesar Borgia (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Lucrecia Borgia (Maria Valverde). I am using the spelling of the names as used in the film, by the way. The sets are magnificent and the costumes are sumptuous. If you enjoy historical films or are at all curious about The Borgia, then seek out a copy of this colourful film.

When the film begins, the power of the Borgias is waning, and then the scene segues into the past–twelve years before–with the election of Cardinal Borgia to the highly coveted, powerful and lucrative position of Pope. As Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo rules from the vatican, slotting his bastard children into power spots. While Juan (Sergio Muniz) becomes the Duke of Gandia, Cesar becomes a most unsuitable cardinal. And Cesar seethes with jealousy as his brothers marry and go off to battle while he stays in Rome wearing the scarlet robes of a cardinal.

The film charts the Borgias’ phenomenal rise to power through land grab, murder and marriage. Most of the carnage takes place off screen in this character-driven film. Wise choice given with the subject matter. It helps to keep the characters straight by brushing up a little on your Borgia history before starting the film. Characters include Sancha of Aragorn (Linda Batista), Burkard (Roberto Alvarez), Cardinal Della Rovere (Eusebio Poncela), Perotto (Diego Martin) and Caterina Sforza (Paz Vega). As with most historical films based on fact, the plot plays with some elements and condenses others.

History hasn’t been kind to the Borgias, and the film makes this point through its portrayal of Lucrecia. Lucrecia was married off three times–all political matches–and when politics changed, well Lucrecia’s spouses had to go too. Some tales colour Lucrecia as a ruthless woman who was as murderous as her brother and father, but this film portrays Lucrecia sympathetically as “currency” used by her family to further their political ambitions. The historical allegations of incest lodged against Lucrecia are addressed by incidents depicted in the film, and scenes portray Cesar and Lucrecia’s deep love and loyalty to one another. But again history hasn’t been kind to Lucrecia–according to some tales, she bore a bastard child when locked up in a convent, and this perpetuated the incest rumours. And while it was all part of the Borgia plan to continually marry Lucrecia off as un-soiled goods, it didn’t help that both her father and her brother claimed the child as their own (by another mother, of course).

The film makes it clear that Rodrigo operates with a vast ambitious plan to rule Italy in mind. All the Borgias realize that they are a part of history, referring to the family as an organic force rather than as individual members. And, of course, as pope, Rodrigo makes sure that “god’s will” conveniently coincides with his own ambitious plans. There’s one scene that takes place within the vatican. It’s an orgy of sorts, and naked girls frolic and dance with Lucrecia. Rodrigo has a great line about beauty being one of God’s greatest gifts. Everything: murder, power grabs, rape, orgies–well it all fits right along with god’s plans for The Borgia.

While Machiavelli admired Cesar Borgia’s skills as a tactician and wrote his book The Prince with Cesar as its model, here Cesar is portrayed as a psycho. The act of stabbing people in the back through the heart, in other men would be seen as murderous or cowardly, but Cesar, as son of the pope, gets immediate absolution no matter the crime. Cesar’s knee-jerk reaction to insults hint at mental imbalance (and his case of Syphilis is mentioned). Several scenes show Cesar pushing his father’s ambition along into new brutal solutions. There’s little here to hint at any traits that inspired Machiavelli’s admiration for Cesar’s intelligence and wiliness. Instead the film takes the approach that Cesar is unleashed to commit state crimes using his father’s power. And that he has a glorious time doing it while others wait to seize power back from The Borgia.

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The Last King: The Power and Passion of Charles II (2003)

 The Merry Monarch

Fans of the Restoration period will be delighted with this BBC dramatization of the reign of England’s king, Charles II. The film begins with Charles (Rufus Sewell) still living in exile, and then it swiftly moves to his return to England in 1660. The story touches on the political troubles faced by Charles during his reign, but the politics of the day share equal space with the trials and tribulations Charles experienced at the hands of his many mistresses. The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II selects a handful of the King’s mistresses for this film–the more famous ones–Barbara Castlemaine, Nell Gwyn, and Louise de Keroualle. The Queen’s, (Catherine of Braganza) often-problematic relationship with Charles is also analyzed in quite some detail.

last-kingAll the acting is top-notch. Rufus Sewell as Charles II, Shirley Anderson as Catherine of Braganza, and Rupert Graves as the Duke of Buckingham–are perhaps the most engaging members of this glittering cast of players. While many of the actors and actresses did not match my visual idea of their historical counterparts, the superb acting soon cast aside any marginal doubts I had. The costumes are sumptuous, and the sets excellent (with only a few cheesy spots during the Fire of London). The aging of Charles II is handled most adeptly.

However, with all the good points to the film, I would add that a basic knowledge of ‘who’s-who’ in the period is essential. The film does not yield explanations, so the viewer had better have a context to place the action in, or you may stand to be hopelessly lost. Also, this film chose to concentrate its focus on the women in the king’s life. My ideal mini-series about Charles II would probably last somewhere between 20-30 hours and include much more biographical information, and exploration of the political events of the age. While the film does an excellent job, many fascinating aspects to Charles’ character are not covered here. That is most unfortunate–but unavoidable given the time constraints. I was particularly disgruntled that Rochester had such a tiny role. But my little peevish grumbles aside, I have to acknowledge that the film was quite wonderful.

The DVD extra includes interviews with many of the major cast members. I often dislike these sort of interviews as I am usually disappointed, but in this case, the actors presented very intelligent interpretations of their characters, and this extra feature was worthwhile.

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Casanova (1987)

“I’ll send my groom to horsewhip you.”

In spite of a glittering international cast, sumptuous costumes, incredible sets, and a script written by George MacDonald Fraser, the film Casanova pays poor service to the life of Casanova. The story begins with Casanova (Richard Chamberlain) imposing himself on three women in a carriage, and then, after evading creditors, Casanova lands in prison where he reminisces about some of the highlights of his life. Casanova’s women, for the purposes of this film, include Hanna Schygulla, Faye Dunaway (delightfully naughty), Ornella Mutti, and Sylvia Kristel. Other big names in the cast include Sir John Gielgud, and Frank Finlay. (Ironically, Frank Finlay starred as Casanova in a marvelous 1971 BBC mini-series of Casanova’s life.)

The film fails on several levels–for a start, if you’ve read Casanova’s memoirs, you know that he was a wonderfully original story teller, but apart from that, the memoirs laid out the foundations of Casanova’s character. It is clear to the reader why Casanova led the life he did. In this film version, however, Casanova is almost a caricature of the legendary lover. The film is not funny enough to be tongue-in-cheek, and not bawdy enough to be a really naughty version of Casanova’s life. Also the film lacks wit and is rather tedious. It is as though the audience is supposed to accept the mythological status of Casanova as a given and sail on from there–at no point are we really privy to any single detail as to what makes Casanova a great lover, for example. The women just drop like flies at his feet. We don’t see Casanova, the lover, in action–we don’t see him setting up a plan to seduce a woman who wishes to hang onto her virtue. The BBC mini-series gave many examples of Casanova’s prowess in the art of seducing women–this film does not, and instead Casanova seems like a well-dressed Venetian ne’er-do-well. From director Simon Langton

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Poor Poor Pavel (2003)

 “Everyone to hard labour in Siberia!”

poor-poor-pavelRussia had its share of despotic rulers, and the film Poor Poor Pavel examines the brief rule of Tsar Pavel I, son of Catherine the Great. In 1796, Catherine died, and at the age of 42, Pavel (Viktor Sukhorukov) became Tsar. Pavel ruled for a brief five years.

When the film begins, Pavel receives news that he’s now ascended to the throne, and it isn’t long before the volatile Pavel manages to rack up enemies. He immediately exiles the powerful Zubov family and all other “favourites and sycophants.” But the paranoid Pavel doesn’t stop there–he constantly suspects that his sons covet the throne, and even periodically places them under house arrest. Pavel unravels under the responsibilities of the state, but finds consolation in a private room that contains his cardboard models. While the Tsar’s family and most of the court frantically try to placate Pavel’s childish and explosive whims, Pavel discovers two favourites: Baron von Pahlen (Oleg Iankovskii) and a pert young girl who is the only other person capable of soothing Pavel’s fractured psyche.

While Pavel throws himself into the construction of the fantastic Mikhailovsky Castle, Baron (soon promoted to Count) von Pahlen becomes Pavel’s most trusted and intimate advisor, and the wily statesman discovers that such a trusted position puts him in the perfect place to plan a coup ….

The film’s splendid cinematography matches that of Russian Ark, and the film’s interior scenes place an emphasis on yellows and golds. Exterior scenes, naturally, depict the frozen harsh landscape, and whirling snow. While it’s tragic to conceive that a nation is under the thumb (yet again) of a despotic madman, the film also utilizes slices of black humour to emphasize the absurd. In one favourite scene, a man who’s been branded with the word ‘thief’ on his forehead confronts Pavel. A loyal manservant tries to comfort the hysterical Pavel by explaining that the case of a man who was branded but then found innocent was solved by simply branding the words ‘not a’ above the word ‘thief.’ This brief moment between the deranged monarch–and his loyal servant encapsulates Pavel’s rule. In the film’s enigmatic final scene, von Pahlen stresses that the end of the 18th century heralds in a change for Russia. This excellent film will particularly intrigue Russophiles. Directed by Vitali Melnikov Poor Poor Pavel is in Russian with English subtitles.

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Children of the Century (1999)

“I want a reminder of last night’s sins.”

The passionate love affair between French writer George Sand (Juliette Binoche) and poet/dramatist Alfred de Musset (Benoit Magimel) epitomized the Romantic Period and scandalized 19th century society. Children of the Century is the story of Sand’s 2 year long affair with de Musset.

Baroness Aurore Dudevant sheds the suffocation of married life on her husband’s estate to further her writing career. Donning male apparel, she heads for Paris and takes the name George Sand. Speaking at a literary salon, George reads an excerpt of her work attacking the lack of male sensitivity towards female pleasure. Most of the listeners are scandalized, but young rake Alfred de Musset is entranced. De Musset, who’s mainly into debauchery, maintains a lively friendship with Sand, but inevitably the two become lovers.

At first, their love affair makes perfect sense–he’s a rake entranced by novelty, and she’s attracted by his passionate nature. While his friends speculate about the relationship, and his family disapproves, Sand and Musset depart for a trip to Italy.

Once in Italy, de Musset’s behaviour towards Sand is appalling. He parties with prostitutes, stays out all night long, and returns looking decidedly haggard. De Musset’s relationship with Sand is strained, but things become even uglier when they both become ill, and Sand employs a handsome, young Italian physician (Stefano Dionisi).

Just how much you enjoy Children of the Century may depend on how much you enjoy Romanticism–Sand’s Grand Passion with de Musset is difficult to understand unless you accept Romanticism–its absence of restraint, belief in self-expression, unbounded, irrational emotion, and the notion that love is essentially difficult, tumultuous, and above all–painful. Sand–a proto feminist takes immense abuse and humiliation from de Musset who rapidly becomes an enfant terrible once his feet land on Italian soil.

The sets and the costumes are spectacular, and the acting superb, but watching over 2 hours of violent break-ups followed by remorse for bad behaviour, momentary penance, culminating in desperate groping is exhausting and can become a bit grating on the nerves. One must, however, realize that these two great literary figures of the Romantic Era explored their liaison to the fullest, and that included high drama, jealous rages, opium binges, and even attempted murder–Children of the Century is worth catching for anyone interested in the period. In French with English subtitles.

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The Captivating Star of Happiness (1975)

“It’s too late to turn back.”

The film The Captivating Star of Happiness is the background story of the Decembrists–the mainly military conspirators who plotted to overthrow Czar Nikolai I in December 1825. The plot failed miserably, and the Czar rounded up the conspirators for either execution or exile. The film–which states that it’s dedicated to the “women of Russia” chooses to focus on the relationships between the conspirators and the women in their lives. Some of the wives did not accompany their exiled husbands to the frozen Siberia tundra–while others made tremendous sacrifices to be with their husbands.

The film is episodic, and the identity of many of the characters is vague, so it helps if you know a little bit of the background to this particular period in history. The film begins with Volkonsky (Oleg Strizhenov) burning letters after the plot’s failure, aware that arrest is imminent and that he may be executed for his actions. The film then goes back in time to show several of the conspirators as they plot the assassination of the Tsar, and the men are seen with the various women in their lives.  The idea of the Northern and Southern Societies is mentioned, and the assassination of Count Mikhail Miloradovich in the Senate Square is also depicted. Even so, it’s still confusing in parts as some characters are not identified, and the film goes back and forth in time so it’s best to come to the film with some information about the story beforehand.

Most of the story concentrates on Volkonsky and his wife, but another large slice of the film is devoted to a young army officer and his French lover, Pauline. While their match would have been impossible before his arrest and exile, the fact that he’s stripped of his rank and shipped out to exile makes marriage possible yet a tremendous hardship for the frivolous Frenchwoman who’s ready to sacrifice all to be with the man she loves. Some scenes depict the utterly ridiculous decadence of the gentry when Pauline attempts to persuade her captured lover’s mother to help him escape. The mother is a member of the nobility and quite potty–dressing up her servants and making them enact plays for her amusement.

The scenery is gorgeous (reminds me of parts of The Russian Ark)–snow covered landscapes, and splendid mansions with glowing lights. Russophiles should seek the film out, and it’s certainly interesting for anyone interested in 19th century Russian history. Directed by Vladimir Motyl, The Captivating Star of Happiness is in Russian with English subtitles.

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