Ridicule: Synopsis

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Today, ridicule is a relatively harmless censure.

But not always: Versailles, 1783, the reign of Louis XVI, six years before the French revolution. Ridicule was the modus operandi in the court -- the cause of emotional and physical ruin.

Part and parcel of this culture of ridicule was the bite of wit. But again, not wit as we now think of it -- as gentle and self-effacing -but as cruel and hurtful.

Wit was the coin of the realm. What few favors or grants the King would dispense, he did so on a scale of wit or ridicule. The more clever the words, the greater the chances the favor would be allowed, the grant permitted.

And in most cases, wit had to demonstrate one's clear intelligence at the expense of others; and at the risk of being ridiculed in return.

The King's Court was like a jungle, everyone striving to be as witty as possible, but few if any succeeding. In the few years before the monarchy collapsed, courtesans, clerics, noblemen, barons, courtiers of all stripe suffered their defeats, their requests unrequited. And as the rate of failures increased, the wit grew more cruel and hurtful, the ridicule turned ever more parlous. A man's life could be ruined in a moment if the King disapproved of his wit and found him ridiculous.

RIDICULE, the story of Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), a modest country engineer who ventures into the nest of vipers that was Versailles, is based on a script by Remi Waterhouse, directed by Patrice Leconte and produced by Gilles Legrand, Frederic Brillon and Philippe Carcassonne. The film opened the 1996 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim and stars two of France's leading actors, Fanny Ardant and Jean Rochefort, and introduces Berling and the gorgeous Judith Godreche. Driven by a desire to save the countrymen of his mosquito-infested region (the Dombes), Ponceludon journeys to Versailles. Although well aware of the difficulty, even futility of his task, he hopes that he will be able to persuade the palace with logic, reason and an appeal to human decency. He is of course wrong.

When he arrives at the Court, Ponceludon is drawn like a moth, dazzled by the light, the luxury and the vices of Versailles. He is intoxicated by the senseless mores of the aristocracy. He finds a home with the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), a court veteran who takes him under his wing. It is de Bellegarde who introduces him to the ways of the Court and most importantly, to the function of wit and ridicule.

At Court, Ponceludon is almost immediately seduced by the recently widowed Countess of Blayac (Fanny Ardant), who is a courtesan of the king, among others. Ponceludon persuades himself that perhaps she is the route to securing what he is seeking from the King.

Ponceludon becomes well-known at Court for his clever wit and for a time, through the graces of the Countess, seems to be close to a meeting with the king.

But, at the same fime he is romancing the Countess, Ponceludon is falling in love with Mathilde de Bellegarde, the daughter of his host. She is the voice of sanity in a nuthouse. When Ponceludon makes his intentions for Mathilde public, the humiliated and angry Countess sets the stage for the ultimate ridicule.

He is tripped at a masked ball. But instead of humiliation, Ponceludon has instead an epiphany.

He addresses the ball with one last statement of honor. "Children will die tomorrow because you ridiculed me today." Ponceludon recognizes the stupidity of continuing the games of the Court. He reinvents his own new mask and with Mathilde returns to his lands the wiser, empty-handed, but not empty-hearted.

The Revolution could not be far off.

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