I wanted to says "whoever lived by the word, would perish by the word' but among the many lessons Patrice Leconte's "Ridicule" taught me is that pun is regarded as the death of wit.
"WIT ELUDES US SOMETIMES"
In French, there are two kinds of wit: the repartee and the 'stairs' wit. One is the ability to come up with the right witty remark as self-defense, while the other always comes to mind, when we're 'going down the stairs' and then the flash of wit blinds us: "damn, that's what I should have said". The thrilling aspect of "Ridicule" is that it turns a rather benign theme into a life-and-death situation, when the hero's mission depends on his wit and being ridiculed would be his failure.
"PEASANTS NOT ONLY FEED MOSQUITOES BUT ARISTOCRATS"
The tag-line of Patrice Leconte's masterpiece magnificently contradicts a famous French saying, by stating that 'Ridicule can kill', literally and symbolically. Literally, because some remarks can knock down any person and follow him the rest of his life, while symbolically, it can make a social status collapse and undermine the realization of subsequent projects, no matter how noble and thoughtful they are. And the project in "Ridicule" belongs to a rural aristocrat, Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy, more than a gifted engineer, a decent man who cares for peasants, victims of mosquitoes-infested swamps in his region, the Dombes. Ponceludon needs money to drain the swamps, a costly project that only the King, fond on scientific innovations, can fund. The peasants' lives depend on Gregoire's ability to make his place in Versailles, in the King's Court, such a morally corrupted words that the stinks of the swamps seem more breathable.
"I NEVER LIVED IT DOWN"
To understand the violent nature inherent to this world where the word can be mightier than the sword, the film opens with quite a spectacular scene. A man comes to visit an elderly dying aristocrat: Mr. de Bleyac, confined in a chair, and then urinates on him, a late reply to a humiliating 'bon mot' uttered in the past. Ridicule is indeed the worst curse that can ever strike an aristocrat in Versailles. Bleyac happened to be Ponceludon's contact in Versailles, "You'll recognize him by his widow." said the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), a doctor and eternal admirer (and not bad practicer) of wit and humor, and the widow is Fanny Ardant, magnificent as ever, as Madame de Bleyac, the powerful woman who can use her wits and charms to make any social ascension possible or not. The film is set in 1783, 6 years before French Revolution, when the liberal ideas of Voltaire and Montesquieu were on march, it's ironic that the very minds who were praising them couldn't see their own ends coming. The film works also as a slice of aristocratic life in its last breaths.
"HONESTY AND WIT ARE SO RARELY UNITED"
I've always been fascinated by historical movies set in the 18th Century, with all these flamboyant costumes and grandiloquent designs, it seems so unreal that such times ever existed, but I guess their value was to serve as a set-up for the most remarkable metamorphosis the Old World would know, before embracing modernity. Gregoire embodies this new generation, and it's not a hazard that he's befriended by Bellegarde, the doctor, who doesn't just admire the different uses of wit: quips, word-plays, retorts, paradoxes but also honesty and decency. He plays a central role in the film as he both teaches Gregoire and the viewers about the Courts' etiquette, the do's and don'ts, like never laughing to one's own joke, and never making puns. Bellegarde's moralilty affected the education of his own daughter, the beautiful Mathilde (Judith Godreche): a free-spirited woman fond of scientific experimentations, and avoiding by any means, the corruption of Versailles court. She's the total opposite of Mme de Bleyac and the mirror of Ponceludon's corrupting process.
"WE'RE JUDGED BY THE COMPANY WE KEEP" "A MISJUDGEMENT, JUDAS KEPT EXCELLENT COMPANY"
Under the mentor-ship of Bellegarde, Ponceludon reveals himself a most witty mind and an excellent match to the wittiest of all, L'Abbé de Villecourt, a corrupted abbot and protégé of Madame de Bleyac, Bernard Gireaudeau in a scene-stealing performance. "Beware of the abbot" warns Bellegarde "He's a snake. He watches in silence. When he speaks, it's too late." Indeed, an insult can take you at anytime and sometimes in the field of verbal sparring, the best defense is still the attack. "Ridicule" on that level, provides an abundance of verbal confrontations, reaching their pinnacle during a magnificent 'tournament of wit' meant to ridicule Ponceludon. One might lose a battle, but not the war, especially if he still has the last word.
"THE SOUL OF WIT IS TO KNOW ONE'S PLACE"
And this is only one of the layers that contribute to the film's greatness, with an extraordinary respect for the intelligence's viewer, "Ridicule" never takes its wit for granted but uses it to speak much more truthful statements about the way one conducts his own life. We can be our own enemies as sometimes, a beautiful moment in the sun can turn into a stormy disaster, simply with one unfortunate word. Any word said can be hold against its author, and some will learn this lesson the hard way.
"VOLTAIRE WOULD HAVE WEPT"
The film provides other unforgettable moments, deaf people proving that even the language of hands can make witty gestures, a suspenseful duel and a splendid climax. To Historical movie buffs and to French Language lovers, "Ridicule" is a must-see, a modern classic that deserved the Best Film César in 1996, and is so magnificently written that the fact that it didn't win a Cesar for Best Screenplay sadly fits the title.