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Arts & Culture Opinion

“Lady J”: What’s In a Name

The year is 1750. Madame de la Pommeraye (played by Cécile de France) is a wealthy widow who lives on a large estate and falls for the libertine Marquis des Arcis. But the rakish Marquis soon tires of her and their romantic relationship eases into a friendship. Although Madame DLP pretends that it was her idea to end it, she is bitter and seeks to enact her revenge. She recruits two ladies expelled from high society who have been forced into prostitution, Madame and Mademoiselle de Joncquières. Shakesperean-type drama ensues.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Here, it is best served with over the top hairstyles, bourgeois decor, and pastel period dresses. The movie left me with the impression that the writer and director Emmanuel Mouret simply wanted to make a period piece with the beautiful Cécile and the plot was more or less irrelevant… and that was perfectly fine with me.

The film is loosely adapted from a novel by Denis Diderot called Jacques the Fatalist. It also appears to draw inspiration from Pierre de Laclos’s 18th century novel “Dangerous Liaisons” with its plotting of various sexual relationships to enact revenge. The movie also connoted the Kate Beckinsale-led movie “Love and Friendship,” which itself was adapted from Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan. In one sense the Beckinsale movie was not very good, but in another, more important way, all these films and books exist in the same exciting world: a vengeful female lead in beautiful costume-filled 18th century Europe.

Cécile de France plays the Madame with an excellent saccharine edge. In conversations with the Marquis, whose downfall she is plotting, her face appears blank, with an insipid smile on her face. But when talking with her best friend she is downcast, every muscle in her face on edge. Cécile de France (yes, that’s her real name, although ironically she’s Belgian) is a beloved actress in France, and won her first César for her appearance in the excellent film “Auberge Espagnole.” She was also a guest star on the French series “Call My Agent”, also available on Netflix, where she plays a hilariously conniving actress.

The title of the movie follows the custom of 18th and 19th century literature to name the work after the lead female (think Emma or Daisy Miller). In English the film is titled “Lady J”, but I laughed when I realized that in French it is called “Mademoiselle de Joncquières” – I wonder if Netflix executives decided to change it because they thought a non-French speaking audience would never make the effort to pronounce the name. More fascinatingly, the title of the book on which the movie is based is named after the lead male character, but the writers made a small but powerful change by shifting the focus to the lead female and renaming the movie after her. The plot of the original book is a series of vignettes detailing various romantic foibles and mishaps: the story of Madame DLP is one of these stories. It’s therefore all the more interesting that a story first told from the point of view of a man has evolved over the last few centuries into this movie, so completely based in a woman’s point of view.

The mademoiselle in question is very beautiful. She barely looks at the camera or speaks, which seems to be part of what attracts the Marquis to her. He likes that she is unattainable, because he is more interested in the “chase” than the reward. But at the end, the young lady runs after him with a clomping stride and shouts at him. This show of emotion and strength is made all the more shocking by how strongly it contrasts with her demure personality up until this point. That is part of what drives this movie: women who at first glance seem gentle and dim, but who underneath betray strong feelings of vengeance and despair.

The best friend of Madame DLP is mostly thrust to the side, even though she is the only person loyal to her. I was haunted by the last line she utters – “he’s as alone as you are.” Except the marquis is not alone – he is with the wife he has decided to accept. Madame DLP has her best friend, who has always been honest with her and on her side, but whom she does not appreciate. They are in opposite situations.

At the end the Marquis decides to embrace his wife and forgive the lies and transgressions that brought the two together. We see their victorious union in contrast to the Madame, who feels empty even though her plot has reached its climax. By displaying this ending, the focus of the film shifts from Madame DLP to Mademoiselle J, the titular character. This is significant because most of the movie has been about DLP’s plotting, but in the end, it’s the soft-spoken Mademoiselle J who triumphs even through DLP’s manipulations. It is surprising to see a period film with several such strong and complex women. Most often these movies, such as “Pride and Prejudice” are more about the dictates of society and how women conform to them, and less about the inner thoughts of women.

My friend complained that the movie was “too slow, as all French movies.” It’s true that there is not a lot of action, and the plot is largely based in small psychological manoeuvres.

The movie is downright Proustian: it portrays a male lead who quickly bores of his conquests and only wants what he cannot have, namely, Mademoiselle J. This ennui (the French term for a deep existential angst and boredom) is what propels the movie forward. But it is also a question that goes unanswered: can we ever be satisfied? The Marquis appears happy at the end of the movie, choosing to stay with his wife, whose affection he has finally won over. But the whole problem with the Marquis, from Madame DLP’s perspective was that as soon as he prevailed upon a woman, he tired of her – but there is no explanation offered for why Mademoiselle J is any different.