Que la fête commence – Let Joy Reign Supreme

France, 1975

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier

With Philippe Noiret (Philippe d’Orléans), Jean Rochefort (l’abbé Dubois), Jean-Pierre Marielle (le marquis de Pontcallec), Christine Pascal (Emilie)

A group of villagers, fervently praying with their priest that God would chase away the field mouses invading their farms, stands still at the center of the establishing shot, on the verdant edge of a cliff in Brittany, but it does not last and they are soon scrambling along the cliff – they pursue a stranger they think is trying to abduct two little girls – and so does the camera. To tell the whole episode, down to the gruesome death of the man, it has swiftly tracks in, tracks out, pans left and right, tracks sideways at great speed, switches from one shot to another, introducing in passing one of the lead characters. This is a lively, jumpy beginning, an exciting, pleasant show of mobile, dynamic camerawork, a sequence as gripping and obvious for the audience as it is complex and difficult to plan, carry out, manage. For a moment, an incident in Brittany has the look of a tense, spectacular sequence American western movie.

A prince and a premier plotting and partying in their way in Paris: Philippe Noiret (left) and Jean Rochefort

This is not just a bright introduction to part of the film’s plot: it is a statement on the nature and aim of the mise en scène. Here is a period piece going for energy, motion, surprise. The camera would be often hand-held, carried through streets and corridors, making a hectic chase even vigorous and engrossing to watch, or offering a completely fresh, curiously vivid and realistic view on the daily life and ordinary behaviors of the nobles making up the court and the government, with a knack for the comic, amazing detail, a tireless effort that sometimes feels clumsy. The most remarkable element of the film lies in the fact that it does not really belong to the kind of swashbuckling, escapist, likable entertainment Hollywood has churned out since the silent era starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks: it is the chronicle of Regency government, which ran France from the death of Louis XIV in 1715 to the coronation of his grandson and heir, Louis XV, in 1722, under the leadership of royal prince Philippe d’Orléans. This is the reconstruction of a peculiar political moment, and the portrait of a leader and of the aristocracy surrounding him, with a focus on their mores and attitudes. Adventure is not the purpose, the matter is to observe and understand. Director Bertrand Tavernier willfully avoids elegant, carefully crafted, slowly moving, if at all, easily associated with that kind of purpose – this is definitely not like the grand, stately, stylish period piece Stanley Kubrick also released in 1975, “Barry Lyndon”. And this is not like what most cinema and television liked to show in France when tackling the same kind of topic, either. So visually speaking, the film comes as a real, beguiling surprise.

The film seems at times to be just a scattershot approach to the events, but it actually follows the complex movement defining the beginning: to start, the camera takes the wider view (the film likes long shots), capturing a new, surprising incident, and then the frame shifts, narrows, gets down to the precise moment it has been looking for that gives the story the needed twist or catches the telling exchange between two key characters. This is frantic, teasing, at the risk of creating too much confusion; and yet, as the painstaking series of shots runs its course, coherence prevails. The episodes add up to a global vision which brings the audience at the heart of the government and casts the Regent as a fascinating and complex person.

Philippe d’Orléans does fit the image he has been readily associated with, through contemporary writings and popular memory: an epitome of the libertin and bon vivant from the 18th century French aristocracy, seeking romantic and sexual pleasures and enjoying feasts and parties, a joyous skeptic no longer believing in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church but interested in new, liberal ideas and the progress of the economy. But the hedonistic, sensual, cheerful ways of the man do not readily come to light. It is rather a sad, somber man who is first shot, first in bed, and then in the room where a postmortem of his preferred daughter has taken place. As the film moves on with the many anecdotes churning the year 1719, the melancholy and sobriety that are also part of the Regent’s temperament become more prevalent, and actually haunt him in the very last shots. This a man who does like life and women, many women, although the film highlights only the special sentiments linking him with a prostitute, Emilie, and who is a master of irony and farce, but he rarely comes across as fully carefree, and careless, and he is quick to show concern, even compassion. Politically, he is in full command of the government, eager to promote a more liberal agenda, wary of being unfair or irresponsible, but he does not hide how much he dislikes power – when a clairvoyant predicts (wrongly) a crown will rest on his head, he is underwhelmed, uttering rueful lines on the way death took away so many of his relatives supposed to reign, and he leaves the place even more despondent than when he came in. This Philippe d’Orléans is clever, but always lucid, scathing if needed, but more often gentle and sentimental, as he stands at the core of the farcical plot.

It pits a crabby, fiery, and quixotic noble, the marquis de Pontcallec, who hopes his native Brittany become an independent republic, against the senior minister of the Regency, l’abbé Dubois. This narrative reminds that the French kingdom was a loose collection of territories with various degrees of allegiance to the Crown sitting in Paris (for much of the national history and during the Regency; under Louis XIV, and then under Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Court is in Versailles), and that the way the Regent took power has not pleased everybody. But the political dream of the marquis is not popular at all in Brittany, and not very credible; nevertheless, l’abbé Dubois eagerly runs after and then punishes unfairly le marquis de Pontcallec, reckoning it would make it politically easier to get a position of archbishop, but his ruthless and selfish zeal eventually puts an end to his friendship with Philippe d’Orléans.

The plot essentially offers a stunning portrait of the Regent’s senior minister: here is a priest who does not believe, does not know how to lead a mass, is a regular patron of brothels, is greedy to a fault, cannot talk without staying profanities and insults, cannot show mercy or compassion (especially when a poor is in sight). This abbé Dubois is a living scandal, and clearly one of the most farcical and hilarious take on a priest and statesman ever shot in cinema, the most astonishing and seductive element of what is a real comedy about power. This is a high-octane performance, splitting your sides constantly, and a memorable display of cunning and vulgarity, always hogging your attention – though it sometimes goes overboard, running the risk, along with the boisterous, provocative scenes of private parties mixing gastronomy and promiscuity, of reducing the film to a mere satire and an easy entertainment. It is a little more than a pleasant ride with a jovial company: it is an intricate show of filmmaking which is keen on grappling with life as it could have been, teeming with characters and vignettes to depict precisely an era, cleverly interweaving the long view and the most mundane detail to build a thorough view on the man presiding over it (as a final, incredible, evidence of how composite and intriguing the Regent’s personality was, and how dearly “Que la fête commence” wants to show it, the film’s score uses music he composed when he was busy with the state or the women, a quite remarkable, probably unique, case of a score made by the lead character, a detail also proving how serious the historical research for “Let Joy Reign Supreme” has been).

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