The very last image is a charred chariot, to rhyme with the flaming automobile that opens Bertrand Tavernier's The Clockmaker -- to establish both a link to the earlier film and modern analysis within period reconstruction, as if still needed after the opening tracking shot, racing laterally over to Jean-Pierre Marielle on horseback. The camera glides and prowls, often handheld, to shake the dust off the 18th-century, Rossellini-style; accordingly, the time is 1719, after The Rise of Louis XIV, with a new ruler still far from puberty. In his place, Philippe d'Orléans (Philippe Noiret) plays Regent, humane and prone to his appetites yet at the center of the complacent bourgeoisie, living large while the people get one-way tickets to the colonial fields of Louisiana. Children in court use a painting as dartboard, and the magical lantern occasions primitive stag shows; L'abbé Dubois (Jean Rochefort), a pagan, is angling for the archbishop position, and, if a pimp can become archbishop, ponders one of the brothel's workers, why can't a whore become an abbess? Or, for that matter, why not a revolution? Marielle, a marquis and later a martyr for the poor, scrambles to rally his army of Bretons against the uncaring French royalty, although to Tavernier, now as then, radical insurrection simmers enough to make the ruling classes question their own fragility. Tavernier's attention to period detail (surgeons in long-beaked bird masks, a pistol tied to a pitchfork) might rival Kubrick's, though his scalpel-sharp satire is far closer to History of the World: Part 1 than to Barry Lyndon, piss-boys included. (Another Brooksian comedy bit -- a gesticulating soldier's gurgling gets translated by another, with both rewarded by Dubois for losing their prisoner.) The people will put up with the aristocracy's abuse for just so long, however, and Noiret's titular call for festivities cloaks the dread of the upheavals to come -- a buxom attendee to the debaucheries doffs her mask only to reveal another, skull-faced mask underneath. With Christine Pascal, Martina Vlady, Gérard Desarthe, Thierry Lhemitte, and Nicole Garcia.
--- Fernando F. Croce