A group of women is seen moving frantically in a darkly-lit hallway while the deafening sound of explosions and gunshots are heard outside of their temporary sanctuary. In the midst of chaos they flee outside, only to find even graver danger waiting ahead. Russian soldiers lying in ambush jump out of their hiding place like ravenous wolves, shoving a woman in white onto the ground to assault her violently. Their aggressive activity is interrupted when a handsome man wearing a white uniform comes to the rescue. This damsel-in-distress situation marks the beginning of The Marquise of O, and it suggests the film’s melodramatic yet elegant nature throughout.
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Later, in the Marquise’s room where the stained pigments on the wall are hardening and falling apart, a rich, red drapery that had hung from the ceiling finds its way to the Marquise’s bed. She is sleeping peacefully. She is clothed in a silky white nightgown, which is juxtaposed to the crimson curtain that seems to overtake the entire room. Both of her hands are resting on her protruding stomach at the same time.
In this way, the Director Éric Rohmer captures the Marquise’s anxiety about pregnancy – the center of the story that binds all the characters – the Marquise’s parents, brother, and the Russian Count who rescued her from the attack at the start – together. Unresolved confusion and tension arise from the pregnancy, and the Marquise has to exonerate herself from the false accusations. In the process of her fighting for her innocence at stake, a thorough examination of human morality, family dynamics, and passions unfolds.
From the refined curtains to the exquisite cherub statues in the Marquise’s family’s residence, the setting also emphasizes their opulence while inviting us to come inside the screen.
In the dining room, shiny teacups, bowls, and plates are scattered on the table while desserts are served in a silver tray; in the sun-lit living room several decorative divans and chairs are arranged according to the habitants’ own taste, with a marble fireplace which sets near the wall. We can also catch a glimpse of the Marquise sewing with her mother on corduroy-bound chairs.
The slightly dramatic yet nuanced performances by Edith Clever as the Marquise enables us to understand the character dynamics on a deeper level, in this writer’s view. The Marquise often appears composed, timid, and sincere: she does not speak much. When she is distressed, she buries her face into her palms like a schoolgirl and starts sobbing, or she will throw herself onto a settee and wait for her mother to console her. Despite her childish side, the Marquise will rise up to defend herself when the occasion demands. She argues with her parents fervently when they question her innocence, yet she comes to terms with them without reserve when they realize that they had wronged her.
Enchanting, absorbing, and visually arresting, The Marquise of O is considered a masterpiece by many, including this writer. For fans of French/European cinema and cinephiles looking for some classic period dramas to watch on an uneventful day, this film offers a refreshing experience. For those interested in Éric Rohmer’s works, it is a must-see. However, if you find a film that lacks a distinctive plot tedious, then this one might not be of any interest to you.
Director: Éric Rohmer
The Marquise: Edith Clever
The Count: Bruno Ganz
The Mother, The Lady: Edda Seippel
The Father, The Colonel: Peter Lühr
The Brother, The Forest Master: Otto Sander
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About the Author: Cassidy Junyi Zhou
Cassidy Junyi Zhou is a rising sophomore at Vassar College pursuing a B.A. in English and Film Studies. She was born and raised in Chongqing, China, a city known for its rich Bashu culture and spicy food. In her free time, Cassidy enjoys watching movies, reading, and daydreaming about having a pet cat in the future. She is currently learning French (because of her interest in French avant- garde cinema!) and trying to master the art of cooking.