Rohmer’s ‘L’Anglaise et le Duc’: Paris, Inside Out

In an interview with Claude-Jean Philippe, Eric Rohmer talks about his love for the city of Paris and his naturalistic style of shooting ‘dans la rue’. [1] Rohmer performs the function of a filmic cartographer, an archivist of the city.  He has catalogued both the inner-city, its cafes and parks (in La Femme de L’Aviateur, 1981) and its suburbs (in Les Nuits de la pleine Lune, 1984). With his 2001 film L’Anglaise et le Duc, he has created a map of a different kind. It is a map of a Paris that has been effaced: the Revolutionary city, the city of Robespierre and the Paris Commune.
The film is an incredibly evocative representation of a city at its most ephemeral – caught up in the flux of cataclysmic change. It documents the experiences of a Scottish royalist émigré living in France after the Revolution of 1789. It is based on the memoir of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose journal, though widely criticised for its alleged historical inaccuracies, was an early-nineteenth-century bestseller in France and England.
The film is shot entirely using matte-painted green screens. The Paris of the 1790s is accurately painted, pieced together as a series of carefully angled tableaux vivants, with recourse to Verniquet’s eighteenth century Plan de Paris and a wide variety of paintings, miniatures and historical ephemera. The stylistic decision to paint revolutionary Paris, rather than reconstruct and film it on location, was made in part because the original locations no longer exist – Grace Elliott’s Paris home, for example, has long since been demolished. Jean Baptiste Marot and Clare Barrett, writing about the film in its early stages of production, note that: ‘the main work of locating a place was achieved through walking the streets, photographing them, and sometimes measuring them.’[2]
     L’Anglaise et le Duc can, therefore, genuinely be thought of as a kind of virtual, architectural model, or an eighteenth-century interactive Google map. Choosing to create this three-dimensional moving painting and to set the story in a moment of historical turmoil, Rohmer foregrounds historical change, the destruction of the past, and its documentation. The film also touches on gender issues and themes of touristic viewing practices. Grace Elliott is not only a British woman in Paris; by the end of the film she is also a woman on trial before an all-male tribunal for her royalist political beliefs and her longstanding association with the Duc D’Orléans. Above all, however, the film explores the city as space, especially the blurring of the lines between private and public space, and the partitioning of Paris in the years following the Revolution.
The specificity of the urban condition is central to the presentation of the Revolution in L’Anglaise et le Duc. Linguistically, the idea of the Republic, presented in the film, is built around the city; the new government and the new order reflect urban living and are expressed using a uniquely urban vocabulary. As soon as Grace leaves Paris, however, these rules no longer seem to apply. She can seek refuge outside of the capital. Grace is constantly reminded by the Revolutionaries what it means to be a good ‘Citoyen’. Anyone who is not a ‘Citizen’ is necessarily a Counter-revolutionary. The Revolution is thus an urban event.
It is also a revolution in terms of the partitioning of urban, public space and private, personal space. The Committee of Security sifts through Grace’s private letters (Fig 1). An official clumsily feels his way around the drawers and compartments of a private writing desk. This moment can be read as a cipher that foregrounds the film’s central theme – the inversion of space. Grace’s desk becomes the de facto property of the Republic, and therefore public furniture. Her private correspondence – provided she is a good citizen, who has nothing to hide – must be public property too. A good ‘Citizen’ harbours no fugitives; the private spheres and private homes of good citizens are public spaces, subject to regular and frequent searches, and open scrutiny.

Just as the private becomes public, so the once public urban spaces of the film become perversely private. By painting them, Rohmer makes the thoroughfares and squares of Paris resemble the interiors of a stately home. The fields and streets that Grace Elliott walks through are painted landscapes that could hang in a lady’s boudoir, a salon, or a drawing room. Brush strokes convert bridges, streets, and walls into fabric swatches, wallpaper, and the canvas of domestic furnishings (Figs 2 & 3). Paris is turned inside out. This inversion is made explicit when, as Grace is taken to the Revolutionary Tribunal by carriage, a passer-by shouts: ‘It’s nicer out than in’. The film is replete with shots in doorways and passages in interiors. And in Rohmer’s interior-exterior spaces there are also doors. This is underlined by continuous references to passports. Grace needs to procure travel documents to move in and out of the city of Paris. There are places in the city that she cannot visit: entire streets that belong to specific factions, areas that have fallen under military control, and a strict curfew. Just as there are hidden compartments in writing desks, and boudoirs hidden behind bedrooms, so too the city of Paris has secret compartments, reachable through holes in the wall (Fig 4), where things and people can be hidden. This diegetic partitioning of the urban space, when coupled with the painted exteriors of the production design, theorises Paris as an interior: an interior under surveillance.
Grace and her maid are pictured, throughout the film, peering through upstairs windows and straining to see public spectacles using a telescope (Figs 5 & 6). This foregrounding of optics and viewing apparatuses is important. Paris is a closed space open to viewing, much like an optical box. The film invites us to read Paris as a historical fossil in a Boîte de Salon. The city has become a curio we can observe. We find ourselves inside a city, whose exteriors are painted, and evoke eighteenth-century panoramas and dioramas; the viewer is thus a tourist in a city turned inside out, with Verniquet’s map on her GPS, and a lady’s memoir as a guide.

[1] ‘Eric Rohmer Parle de Ses Films: Extraits de l’Entretien avec Claude-Jean Philippe “Le Cinéma des Cinéastes”, France Culture, 22 Mars 1981’, DVD Extra: La Femme De L’Aviateur, The Eric Rohmer Collection, Arrow Films.
[2] Jean Baptiste Marot and Clare Barrett, ‘Paris for the Cinema’, in AA Files, No. 45/46 (Winter 2001), p. 138, stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/29544264, accessed 21/4/15

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