How delicious! Only by being clever, savage, venomous, and acid-tongued as they used their wits could one survive in eighteenth century Versailles. It makes one longingly reminisce about how nice it must have been to partake of "jeu de mot" and "piquet". (Not that it need stop any of us from still enjoying such pastimes today.) In any case, director Patrice Leconte has taken Remi Waterhouse's script and transferred it to the screen with all the taste and aplomb that it so rightfully deserves. Rather than serving it up as an overwhelming epic, it has more the taste of an intimate and fashionable group therapy session among vipers. Remember, it was during this period that frequenters of the court would warn their daughters "here vices are of little importance, but it is ridicule which kills."

The manners may not be exactly what one might have expected at court, but were undoubtedly acceptable. As people's aspirations are viciously cut down with an optimum of flair and wit, the sufferance of the victims becomes all the more painful. Everyone wants to be noticed, but no one wants to become the brunt of ridicule. The victorious conquest of the sharpest tongue keeps the most wicked in the spotlight.

Ponceludon (Charles Berling), hero of the film, comes from the provinces to secure from the King a commission to dry out his infested region's marshlands and rid it of swamp fever; both children and adults are dying and he has a mission to accomplish. Unacquainted with and unaccustomed to the social mores and manners of the aristocracy, first he must learn the rules of the game and find his way through them toward the attainment of his goal. Repulsed by the attitudes of those surrounding him, who are totally out of touch with daily life, he continues to wend his way forward. As many courtiers, he needs to profit from this bizarre system and must, therefore, act accordingly.

The beautiful and dangerous Countess of Blayac (Fanny Ardant) holds many keys inasmuch as she functions both as go-between and conspirator. This courtesan, a powerful force within the society she travels, uses her myriad powers to obtain favors from the King as well as bedding many of her consorts. Included among them is the aptly named Abbot of Vilecort (Bernard Giraudeau), one of the most unscrupulous and blackest of characters. As time passes Ponceludon also finds himself among the visitors to her bed.

The Rousseauian Marquis of Bellegard (Jean Rochefort) has a beautiful daughter named Mathilde (Judith Godreche) who is promised in marriage to an older man, but becomes the target of Ponceludon's true affections. A woman with strong views and a rebellious nature (who spends much of her time experimenting with an underwater diving suit), she shares neither the superficiality or artificiality of the women at court. Fully aware of potential consequences, she freely decides to enter upon an affair with Ponceludon and continues it despite an awareness that he is cheating on her with the Countess of Blayac..

The ball scene, which contains a striking moment when the Countess removes her mask, is the only scene found wanting and that solely because it reminds the viewer awkwardly of Foreman's Amadeus. Director Patrice Laconte, who has exerted extreme finesse in putting a refined polish onto the remainder of the film, makes one regret that an alternative method was not found to dress the Countess de Blayac's ball. If the wigs appear to be made from steel wool, it is probably because they are. Nevertheless, this is a mote point in a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Superb points for the performances of Charles Berling, Fanny Ardent (always beautiful to behold), and Jean Rochefort and Bernard Giraudeau as well as the direction of Leconte and scriptwriting of Waterhouse.

This society moves from party to party unaware of the surrounding world as it closes in with a stranglehold. The "powdered spirit"; the "bel espirit"; the wicked snapping tongues; oh, how I long for the good old days.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett