The 18th century, the "Age of Reason," the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Adam Smith, Kant, Montesquieu, Hegel. Great thinkers looking at the world in a new way, challenging established views with reason, logic, and faith in the promise of the great advances of science. In literature, Swift and Montesquieu satirized the follies of men, Voltaire’s anti-religious views got him in trouble with the government, Fielding moved from satire into social realism. Fragonard was painting in high Rococco spirit. Gluck wrote operas on classical themes, but began to imbue them with genuine dramatic expression, offering substance over existing florid style–a revolution in itself on the musical stage.
In the midst of this sweeping intellectual change (inevitably followed by political revolution), Pierre Marivaux was writing plays for La Comedie Italienne in Paris; he, too brought new sophistication to the old style, in this case the traditional commedia dell’arte. He charmed the public with intimate examinations of the complexities of human behavior in matters of the heart, creating fast amd funny dialogue, and commenting, as well, on the intellectual pretensions of the time.
His 1732 comedy, The Triumph of Love, seems again ripe for an audience in an age of sexual freedom (tempered by a devastating world-wide epidemic of a sexually transmitted disease) and scientific advancement (little deterring war and global social and economic inquality). Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…
A musical version of The Triumph of Love that played on Broadway in 1997 was a commercial flop, running just over two months.But a nonmusical adaptation by Martin Crimp, produced in 1999 at the Almeida Theatre in London, was an inspiration to director Claire Peploe, wife and frequent collaborator of Bernardo Bertolucci. Peploe has directed this new film version of the play with Bertolucci producing.
It tells the story of a reigning princess, Aspasie (Mira Sorvino), who falls in love with Agis (Jay Rodan), the legitimate heir to the throne she holds. He is the ward of Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley), a philosopher who rigidly believes that all emotion must be completely suppressed in favor of rational thought. Together with his scientist sister, Leontine (Fiona Shaw), he has raised Agis on that principle and kept him in seclusion on their grand estate. The princess, disguised as a man, comes seeking Agis, believing him to be a threat and her enemy, but when she sees him she falls in love. What follows is a compounding series of complications as Aspasie woos Agis, but also turns her considerable charms on both Hermocrates and Leontine. (Why didn’t Mozart ever get the rights to this one?)
Peploe succeeds in creating a frothy atmosphere in elegant settings (filmed in villas in Lucca) and she sustains the lightness of mood throughout. It makes for a charming fairy tale, but, in the cutting of the play, has lost some of the dramatic conviction that underlies the best of comedies. The script is focused on the movement of the plot to the detriment of a fuller exploration of the potential in the material. There is much play on gender, with the Princess in and out of her male impersonation, but, it seems more the stuff of vaudevillian farce–albeit tasteful vaudevillian farce–than of literary comedy. Hermocrates is not well enough established as a rigid, domineering sort to give his turnaround the comic effectiveness called for. (The director’s afterthought to provide glimpses of a modern audience watching the performance is hackneyed and seems coy here. And the use of some jumpcuts is an annoyance that adds no meaningful effect.)
Newcomer Jay Rodan looks the role of the handsome prince and has precious little else to do. Kingsley, saddled with an underwritten role, doesn’t get much chance to shine. Peploe might have found the means for him to project a more forceful presence, but there’s not the slightest sign of the emotive power of the Logan of Sexy Beast. Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite, Summer of Sam) acquits herself well. The role keeps her onscreen practically the entire time and she has a lot of dialogue to deliver, even as she is switching back and forth in gender roleplaying. Still, her performance mostly projects as play-acting; she doesn’t seem to fully inhabit the role.
The one genuinely superlative performance is by Fiona Shaw who offers solid characterization as well as high comedic polish. Watching her transformed from a repressed, dominated, mousy spinster into the girlish, hopeful, liberated (if deceived) beloved is sheer joy. Every muscle of her face, every posture and movement of her body is a disciplined tool of the actor’s art. Only she justifies and exemplifies here a triumph of love; her performance suggests what the film might better have been.
It isn’t a bad film. Light, fluffy, and charming, it will please many, but it does not fully deliver the triumph suggested by The Triumph of Love.