While watching "The Lady and the Duke", I was reminded of director Andrew Niccol's recent film, "Simone", where a digital actress was inserted into a finished picture. Director Eric Rohmer, now 81, has essentially gone the other way: he's taken real actors and inserted them digitally into fake backgrounds (interiors are shot in actual sets). The actors would complete their outdoor scenes in front of blue screen, then be digitally dropped in front of one of many remarkably detailed paintings. The result is seamless in some ways and not in others. These backgrounds look like paintings, but the way that the actors are merged with the backgrounds and often almost appear to be living in the paintings is surreal and fascinating, not to mention remarkably beautiful at times. In addition, Rohmer also shot the film in digital video, although I wouldn't have guessed by looking at it.
As for the story, Rohmer again choses words over actions, letting his actors handle mountains of dialogue rather than attempt to tell the story another way. Whether this will interest the audience depends on their attention span, but I found most of it at least fairly interesting, with the background paintings there to look over when the story started to get less involving. The film is based upon the memoirs of Grace Elliott(played here by Lucy Elliot), written during the French revolution. The majority of the tale focuses on the friendship between the Lady and the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), her former lover, as they take two different sides during the revolution.
A film like this, which is fueled almost entirely by dialogue, needs passionate acting. For the most part, Lucy Russell and Jean-Claude Dreyfuss carry the story, although there are occasional stretches of dialogue that made me eager for the story to move forward (or back outside for more digital backgrounds). The other problem is that there's hardly any action; aside from a few sequences, we're told (and told) what happened in scenes with a lot of people standing around talking. The picture would have been aided had Rohmer edited it down a little further; at two hours and change, there are moments here and there that could have been deleted to pick up the pace, which occasionally becomes tedious.
"The Lady and the Duke" is not going to be for everyone's taste. Those who have an interest or have done research in this part of history will likely find it more engaging (as someone who is admittedly not that familiar with it, I was just managing to keep up throughout). Personally, I was stunned by the success of the gorgeous painted backgrounds and enjoyed the performances, but I felt more could have been done to open up this story, which at 129 minutes, needed a somewhat more intense, less dialogue-heavy approach.
VIDEO: Columbia/Tristar Home Video presents "Lady and the Duke" in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality was quite pleasant, as there were only a few little flaws scattered about. Although this film was shot in digital video, I really wouldn't have guessed (aside from a few faint hints), as the picture certainly retains a slightly soft, but rather "film-like" appearance.
Flaws were minimal and barely noticable. A couple of specks were seen on the print used early on, as well as some fine grain, but neither of these issues were too bothersome. Edge enhancement remained at a bare minimum, while no pixelation or other artifacts were spotted.
The film's earthy, warm color palette was well-rendered here, appearing natural and without any faults. Flesh tones also looked accurate and natural, while black level remained fairly solid. A very nice transfer.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.0 French (optional English subtitles), although it essentially could have been a 2.0 presentation and still worked perfectly. This is a completely dialogue-driven offering, with little or no use for the surrounds. Dialogue came through crisply and clearly, but other than that, there's little to discuss.
MENUS: Basic, non-animated main & sub-menus.
EXTRAS: There are a lot of DVDs whose extras seem either unnecessary or thrown together, but then you run into one where a feature would seem like an obvious addition. With "Lady and the Duke"'s remarkable digital effects inserting the actors into the background paintings, a little featurette on the process would have been appreciated. Unfortunately, all that's included here are a few trailers (for "Lady and the Duke", "Happy Times" and "Sunshine State").
Final Thoughts: A light recommendation for "Lady and the Duke": I liked the performances and absolutely loved the technique that inserted the actors into painted backgrounds, but the story could have been opened up. Columbia/Tristar's DVD offers disapointingly little in the way of supplements, but very good audio/video quality.