Beaumarchais l’insolent and Ridicule

Issue 5

Historical romps are fashionable these days, and the French six-part, over-the-top miniseries, 1788 et demi that aired this past winter, outdid all the anachronisms Sofia Coppola threw in to enliven and modernize her Marie Antoinette (2006). Perhaps history has only become palatable as farce, being too “boring” otherwise.  Since the above productions did not have the classroom in mind, but a public of their own choosing, it is churlish to complain.  On the other hand, and despite their own anachronisms, we suggest two movies that would work well, or have already worked well, in courses covering the Old Regime.  Ridicule has proven irresistible to many of us and Beaumarchais l’insolent deserves to be reissued.  Both films appeared in 1996 and both reflected contemporary trends in scholarship on the Enlightenment.  (How often can that be said of periodized costume dramas?)  Ridicule may caricature late eighteenth-century courtiers, but it provocatively raises issues of contested gender roles (both male and female), royal representations, and the often confusing idea of an aristocratic elite divided between enlightened reformers and self-interested grandees.  Moreover scholarly interest in the consequences of cultural production, from the subversive libellistes of “Grub Street” to the melodramatic representations of courtroom causes célèbres, make Beauchmarchais a great figure for students to begin exploring.  After all, his personal story is true and fashionable too.

Beaumarchais l’insolent

Thomas E. Kaiser
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

In light of the nature and notoriety of his life and plays, it is scarcely surprising that posterity has fixed upon Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais as the most perfect embodiment of the late Old Regime’s rakish spirit. Although his literary talents were certainly considerable, Beaumarchais’s reputation was mostly shaped by his efforts at self-promotion, which kept him in the public eye for over two decades, as evidenced by the more than two hundred fifty entries on his antics in the roughly contemporaneous Mémoires secrets of Bachaumont.[1] Since Beaumarchais’s death, countless scholars, dramatists, and composers (most recently John Corigliano in his 1991 opera Ghosts of Versailles, which not only is based on a play by Beaumarchais but also features him as a character) have ensured that the playwright and his works would not be forgotten. Despite this flood of attention, no single characterization of Beaumarchais has quite captured his mercurial nature. Most often, he is identified with his creation Figaro for his (their) celebrated barbs against privilege and the abuse of power. But it remains unclear how much Beaumarchais’s celebrated plays were contrivances to realize his vaulting ambitions and how much vehicles to advance the cause of political and social reform. Even harder to assess is the radicalizing effects of his plays on their first audiences. As we now know from Sarah Maza’s illuminating analysis of its reception, Le mariage de Figaro scandalized contemporary critics less for its proto-revolutionary content than for its all-too-unserious depiction of aristocratic flirtation.[2] How much of its vast notoriety would it have attracted, one wonders, had Louis XVI’s initial disapproval of the play not insured its triumph as a succès de scandale? Beaumarchais’s politics are likewise hard to type. He had feet in both dévot and anti-dévot camps at court; he consorted with exactly the sorts of ministers and sycophantic aristocrats he loved to satirize – indeed, he bought a venal office to acquire noble status himself; and, as Simon Burrows has recently demonstrated, [3] he was perfectly capable of working with the monarchy to suppress a libel against the royal family of which he was the secret author!

It is one of the great virtues of Edouard Molinaro’s film Beaumarchais l’insolent that it dramatizes the “lighter” sides of its hero – brilliantly played by Fabrice Luchini – without losing sight of the “serious” ones, and it is the chemistry between these parts of Beaumarchais’s personality that makes the film both highly entertaining and instructive. (The English translation of the title, Beaumarchais the Scoundrel, is unfortunate, since it implies darker intentions on Beaumarchais’s part than does the less judgmental French original: Beaumarchais the Rogue would have been better.) Loosely based on an unperformed play by Sacha Guitry and released in 1996 – which turned out to be poor timing as Ridicule appeared in the same year and came to overshadow it – the film focuses on Beaumarchais’s rise to notoriety from the end of Louis XV’s reign through the early reign of Louis XVI. It pursues many aspects of Beaumarchais’s career in this period. We see him as a man of the theater, of course, endlessly struggling with scripts, censors, and actors. But we also see him in his roles as a government secret agent, part-time judge, casual lover, swashbuckling duelist, and pop star, whose conflicts with authority endeared him not only to the people, but also to the aristocracy he delighted in taunting.

This film will no doubt disappoint those looking for scrupulous realism in its portrayal of the grimmer aspects of eighteenth-century life. As in so many historical dramas, the characters in this film are too well fed, their costumes are too clean, and their teeth are too intact for its representation of Beaumarchais’s world to be perfectly credible. We also do not see much of the daily grind of the Parisian underclass. Nevertheless, the film sticks closely to the facts of Beaumarchais’s roller-coaster career as a dramatist and intrigant, which included strategizing with royal ministers in between stints in prison. More importantly, it brilliantly captures the theatricality of not only the Parisian stage, but also of other public venues, notably the law courts, and it effectively brings to life the dark world of the émigré French libelers, who made their living by blackmailing les grands while hiding from the French police in London. Beaumarchais, we are meant to feel, was always on stage, even when he was off it. Benefiting from a crisply worded script and a fine cast, Molinaro skillfully blends the public scenes of Beaumarchais’s life with the private ones, recreating especially at the end of the film a veritable sense of the growing, if still undefined hopes and expectations of a new age about to dawn in the late eighteenth century.

This film could be used to good effect in a variety of university courses, whether shown in its entirety or only in segments, some of which could be detached without significant loss of comprehension. Most obviously, Beaumarchais could enhance courses on the eighteenth-century French theater, but it would also work well in more general courses on the political, social, and cultural history of the late Old Regime. To illustrate the tension between noble and non-noble orders, for example, I could imagine showing and analyzing with students the following delicious mini-scene: Beaumarchais, despite his protests, is handed a watch to repair by an aristocrat who wants to humiliate him by recalling Beaumarchais’s previous humble occupation. Beaumarchais purposely lets the watch fall to the floor and shatter, reminding the aristocrat that, as he had warned, it had been a long time since he had practiced his earlier craft. I would also recommend pairing the movie with some of the recent literature on the world of the libellistes by Simon Burrows and Robert Darnton, as well as the book on causes célèbres by Sarah Maza, which recounts the Goezman case and Beaumarchais’s involvement in it.[4] One word of caution: the film contains some “tasteful” nudity and scenes of erotic suggestion. My guess is that Beaumarchais would have not have minded either.

  1. Louis Petit de Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, 36 vols. (London: John Adamson, 1777-1789).
  2. Sarah Maza, Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Célèbres of Prerevolutionary France (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 290-95.
  3. Simon Burrows, Blackmail, Scandal, and Revolution: London’s French libellistes, 1758-1792 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), 99-103.
  4. Burrows, Blackmail; Robert Darnton, The Devil in the Holy Water or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Maza, Private Lives, 130-40, 164-65.

Edouard Molinaro, Director, Beaumarchais l’insolent [Beaumarchais the Scoundrel] (1996)/ France/Color, Canal +/Cinéma 2 France/Cinéma 3 France, Running Time (USA): 116 min.



Lisa Jane Graham
Haverford College

Before any image appears in Patrice Leconte’s film Ridicule (1996), we hear the brisk footsteps of a maid’s shoes on marble floors followed by the heavier tread of a man’s boots.  The sounds introduce the recurring motif of shoes as marks of social distinction and feet as movers of plot.  In key moments of the film, the camera draws our eye down to emphasize the difficulty of maintaining one’s footing in the treacherous milieu of the eighteenth-century French court.[1]  In the opening scene, a dying old man is urinated on by an erstwhile rival and in the penultimate scene, the hero is tripped by his enemies while dancing at a masked ball.  The film unfolds between these two scenes of personal revenge in which the same man, Milletaille humiliates two different opponents.

The film opens in 1783 and evokes the last years of the Old Regime in France.  I use it in my course on the French Revolution to compare how texts and film use images and arguments to represent the past.  The movie adds a dimension to discussions of historical method and interpretation.  The preceding remarks should make clear that I do not use Ridicule as a documentary on the Old Regime.  For accurate portraits of fashion, hairstyles, and political debates, we have archives and paintings from the period.  In combination with these sources, however, I use the film to address three topics: (a) the court and its role in the coming of the French Revolution; (b) the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Revolution; (c) the debate over the origins of the French Revolution.  I ask students to identify the film’s positioning on each topic by analyzing the director’s aesthetic choices and representational strategies.

Ridicule follows a provincial noble, Baron Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy, who travels to Versailles in 1783 with a hydraulic project to drain the mosquito-infested swamps of Les Dombes in south-western  France.  Grégoire is smart but naïve and provides an ideal guide to the archaic conventions of the French court.  He is robbed upon his arrival, but is then befriended by the Marquis de Bellegarde, a physician who takes him in and offers him protection.  Bellegarde tutors his protégé in the manners and word games required to navigate the court.  Bellegarde’s greatest treasure is his fetching daughter, Mathilde, who is an amateur scientist and an immediate love interest.[2]  Mathilde and Grégoire are kindred souls: they are determined to pursue their scientific goals and both detest the court.  Like Grégoire, Mathilde has ambition, but unlike him, she faces the constraints of her sex.  She is betrothed to the wealthy Montalieri, a soon-to-be widowed aristocrat who is four times her age.  She is willing to sell her virtue in exchange for money and laboratory equipment, a decision that Grégoire condemns before he, too, realizes that sex is the road to power.

The film follows Grégoire’s efforts to pitch his project to royal ministers and Leconte’s cinematography evokes the boredom described by La Bruyère nearly a century earlier: “It is hard to accustom oneself to a life that takes place in a waiting-room, in courtyards or on a staircase.”[3] The hero’s wit opens doors but his drainage plans meet with glazed eyes.. Despite his love for Mathilde, he must sleep with Madame de Blayac because as she reminds him: “my bedroom is known to lead to the king” (48:20-22). Grégoire briefly gets the king’s ear but then falls from favor before he can pitch his engineering scheme. He is humiliated by a vengeful Blayac at the end of the film and he returns to his chateau with Mathilde. The two survive the Terror and proceed to drain the swamps in 1795.

Ridicule – Trailer
Tags: Ridicule – Trailer

This film – especially its plot – might be problematic if presented in a vacuum, but it works well when contextualized with documents.  I ask students to view the entire film in advance and identify scenes on a handout that we view in class to focus discussion.  I include it in a unit on the role of slander and court politics that includes Robert Darnton’s translation of Anecdotes sur Madame du Barry and Sarah Maza’s article “The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited (1785-1786): The Case of the Missing Queen.”[4]  In addition, we read an excerpt from Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-revolutionary France and Roger Chartier’s chapter on “Dechristianization and Desacralization.”[5]  Students notice that the film rehearses tropes about women and the court that emerge in the pamphlet literature of the late eighteenth century.[6]  We discuss how the film portrays the court, why it garners sympathy for some characters and disdain for others, and how it engages themes encountered in the texts.  The discussion illustrates how the film’s representational strategies shape a particular narrative about the relationship between the Old Regime, the Enlightenment, and the Revolution.

One might begin with the image of the Enlightenment and its scope in the late eighteenth century.  From its second scene, the film reinforces stereotypes about an ignorant, superstitious, and hard-working peasantry with glimpses of the swamps in Les Dombes.  One could show the scene (5:50-5:55) where the young boy Léonard asks Grégoire to have the king bless his medal in order to cure him from the “fever.”  This reference to the Royal Touch recurs later in the film when Grégoire returns to visit Léonard on his deathbed and gives him the medal as the priest prays for his soul (68:50-70:05).  The film captures the competing cultures of science and religion through the image of the engineer and the priest at the bedside of the dying boy.  The film contrasts Grégoire’s sympathy for his peasants to the contemptuous attitudes of the courtiers, one of whom remarks:  “Not only are they dying, they are boring”(17:15-17:20).  The film’s depiction of the peasants as objects of pity or scorn denies them historical agency in the coming of Revolution and reinforces an image of an immobile rural world cut off from the progressive currents of the age.  Subsequent course readings challenge this perspective and reveal its limitations.

In contrast to the credulous peasants, the film offers multiple examples of an emerging scientific culture that includes Bellegarde’s private library (12:00-12:35); the amateur diving experiments of Mathilde (27:55-29:15); the experiments with electricity (31:44-31:60); Charles Michel de l’Epée’s development of a sign language for the deaf (33:20-33:30); and Grégoire’s hydraulic project.  The film draws out the erotic charge of science in scenes with Grégoire and Mathilde discussing pollination, bee stings, and the “vital instincts” that draw men and women together (35:40-39:08).  Leconte evokes the king’s personal interest in science and technology and uses science to portray the tensions at court between progressive ideas and archaic practices.

Moving forward, we discuss the trope of a good king surrounded by evil ministers and corrupt courtiers and how the film exculpates the royal couple by portraying the king as well-meaning and the queen as a silly child.  By keeping the king off screen most of the time, the film enhances his aura of inaccessibility.  The camera places the viewer in the seat of the courtier who waits for an audience but never knows if s/he is being observed as in the scene where the king selects individuals to join him for a hunting party (51:00-53:00).  When Grégoire finally meets the king during a promenade (81:10-82:00) and the king offers himself as a topic for a joke, the hero refuses because: “the king is not a subject” (le roi n’est pas un sujet”).  This retort reminds the viewer that the king is not a subject in both senses of the term; he is not a topic for conversation nor is he subject to power.  When the Abbé de Vilecourt forgets this distinction in his efforts to display his own wit, he effectively commits social suicide and narrowly escapes the Bastille (70:18-72:45).  By limiting the king’s appearance, the film emphasizes that his person was unavailable for representation or discussion.  This idea underlined theories of kingship as well as laws of treason under the Old Regime and the film captures its impact well.[7]

Ridicule illustrates a specific interpretation of the origins of the French Revolution that blames a decadent and selfish nobility for leading the country into bankruptcy.  Students notice how the film echoes the language which surfaces in the Anecdotes sur Madame du Barry and the Diamond Necklace Affair.  It demonstrates how slander, intrigue, and reputation determined individual fortunes and destinies.  The film makes the Revolution inevitable since the audience identifies with the progressive views of Grégoire and Mathilde and roots for them to triumph over the narrow self-interest of the courtiers.  By casting the courtiers as villains, the movie blames them for the revolution, reducing a complicated causal argument into a neat narrative.  This last point leads to discussion of what we gain and what we lose by such choices and how to compensate for them.

There are few persuasive films about the royal court and Leconte uses cinematography to emphasize the hard work required to survive in this artificial world.  Bellegarde teaches Grégoire how to apply lipstick and powder while instilling the fundamental rule of wit: never laugh at your own jokes.  Grégoire learns the rules because the court is a means to an end but for the others it is the only world they know.  Leconte evokes the cloistered structure of palace life and the fears of these men and women who sense their inability to survive beyond its walls.  The outside world penetrates intermittently with a performance by the deaf under the tutelage of Charles Michel de l’Epée (76:05-80:40) and the decoration of a Sioux warrior (53:38-54:20), but these interruptions emphasize the isolation of the court.  When the deaf appear, the courtiers mock their efforts to communicate without words until the pupils make a joke that is untranslatable.  The capacity for wit earns the court’s applause.  In one of the film’s last scenes (97:35), the camera lingers on the face of the countess de Blayac who appears devastated by Grégoire’s denunciation of everything that defines her milieu. In a world where words are ammunition, Blayac suddenly finds herself speechless.

I include Ridicule in my class on the French Revolution because it resonates with current events in interesting ways.  Unlike Stephen Frears’ 1988 film of Choderlos de Laclos’s novel, Dangerous Liaisons, Ridicule emphasizes the political dimensions of the words that ricochet between characters.[8]  As several of the reviews noted at the time of the film’s release in 1996, Leconte gives the court of Louis XVI “une dimension presque contemporaine, sinon universelle” (a nearly contemporary, if not universal, dimension).[9]  In addition, the critics discerned an analogy between the corrupt and indifferent court of Louis XVI and the government of Jacques Chirac and his prime minister Alain Juppé in 1995.  Juppé introduced neo-liberal reforms which provoked massive strikes in the spring and fall, thereby paralyzing the country and bringing down the government.  As this film and its reviewers both suggest, the analogy to the Old Regime is a recurring motif in criticism of the Fifth Republic and its presidential leaders.

The connection to current affairs is also relevant because Ridicule offers eighteenth-century France as a parable for understanding the social principles and gender roles that underpin the emergence of democratic culture.  It identifies the influence of women and the effeminacy of men with the corruption and inadequacies of royal government.  This perspective reinforces assumptions about modern gender roles and the appropriate place of sex in society.  It enacts what Joan Scott calls the “paradoxes” that the Enlightenment bequeathed to women who sought political rights during the French Revolution and after.[10]

As Leconte remarked in an interview, the film “is not a history lesson but it is anchored in history.”[11]  Although the film does not offer a lesson, it does make an historical argument.  It forces us to consider the narrative choices involved in writing a historical screenplay and whether similar choices apply to the practice of professional history.  By allowing students to compare the two processes, Ridicule raises important questions about representation and memory, the relationship between the professional historian and the commercial public; and finally the impact of narrative strategies on what history means in and for the present.

  1. There are several sequences that focus on feet after this opening scene. These include: the procession to pay respects to the Comte de Blayac after his death (8:36); the cruel jest inflicted by the Abbé de Vilecourt on the Baron de Guéret (52:30-53:30); the Countess de Blayac’s use of her foot to distract and humiliate Ponceludon at a dinner party (61:30-64:45); and the penultimate scene at the masked ball where Ponceludon is tripped and dubbed the Marquis des Antipodes (134:00).
  2. The film uses the relationship between Bellegarde and his daughter to emphasize that these are enlightened or progressive nobles as opposed to the decadent members of the court. Bellegarde announces to Grégoire that he has taken Rousseau as his guide in raising his daughter in accordance with nature and allowing her freedom to choose her own destiny. He has never imposed any restrictions on her. (32:24-32:35).
  3. Jean de La Bruyere, Characters, trans. by Jean Stewart, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970), 129. The original reads: “L’on s’accoutume difficilement à une vie qui se passe dans une antichambre, dans des cours ou sur l’escalier;” see Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères, édition d’Emmanuel Bury (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1995), 310. See for example scene from Ridicule at 29:50-30:30.
  4. I use the excerpt from Anecdotes sur Madame la comtesse du Barry translated by Robert Darnton in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 337-390. The Maza article first appeared in Lynn Hunt, ed. Eroticism and the Body Politic (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 63-89.
  5. Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. by Lydia G. Cochrane (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) and Robert Darnton, “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France” in Ronald Schechter, ed. The French Revolution: The Essential Readings (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001), 106-137.
  6. Although it appeared too late for this review, for deeper context on the portrait of women, gender, and sex in the film, one might assign Jeffrey Merrick, “Gender in Pre-Revolutionary Political Culture” in From Deficit to Deluge. The Origins of the French Revolution, Thomas E. Kaiser and Dale Van Kley, eds., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 198-219.
  7. I discuss the scope of lèse-majesté in the eighteenth century and the references to the king’s person in If the King Only Knew: Seditious Speech in the Reign of Louis XV (1744-1774 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000). See also Arlette Farge, Subversive Words: Public Opinion in Eighteenth-century France, trans. by Rosemary Morris (University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 1995).
  8. See the review of Dangerous Liaisons by Laura Mason in The American Historical Review 95: 4 (October 1990): 1129-1131.
  9. Review by Olivier Mauraisin for Le Monde, March 24, 1997. Writing in The Guardian, Derek Malcolm makes a similar remark in his review of February 7, 1997: “the film…. manages to be both a metaphor for modern society and a semi-historical allegory.”
  10. Joan Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  11. Charles Trueheart, “Patrice Leconte’s Vicious Siècle; In ‘Ridicule’ Director’s 18th-Century France, Rivals are Ripped Apart with Repartee,” The Washington Post, December 15, 1996.

Patrice Leconte, Director, Ridicule (1996), France/Color, Epithète Films/Cinéa/Cinéma 3 France, Running Time: 102 mins.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One thought on “Beaumarchais l’insolent and Ridicule

  1. Excellent and intelligent review of Ridicule by Dr. Graham. I came across this while trying to find the script for the closing scene, but the analysis was so well-written that I kept reading. If anyone thinks 18th Century France or the customs and manners of the French aristocracy is irrelevant, then go to any social gala today and see for yourself. “Ridicule” is appropriately named, and a wonderful movie, but with this article in mind it will be an even greater pleasure to see again.

Comments are closed.