There’s a lovely scene between Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw about halfway through Clare Peploe’s filmization of Pierre Carlet de Marivaux’s eighteenth-century play “Le Triomphe de L’Amour” (via the 1999 London stage adaptation of Martin Crimp, not the 1997 Broadway musicalization. The British duo play a brother and sister–he a scholar-sage, and she his spinsterish sibling–who have both been successfully romanced by a princess disguised as a student (he realizes the suitor is a woman, she of course doesn’t), and they converse upon their regrets and the possibilities for love that remain to them even so late in life. The moment has a nostalgic sweetness that makes one really feel for the characters, and the quiet, gentle readings of the two veteran stars give it real emotional weight.
Unfortunately, the relatively brief sequence stands in stark contrast to the rest of “Triumph of Love,” which is mostly frenzied and unconscionably broad. The picture, which is supposed to be a light, airy period trifle–the cinematic equivalent of a delicate pastry–instead treads heavily and clumsily through its labyrinthine plot. It’s like watching a man try to dance a minuet in cement shoes–not a pleasant sight.
The tale is a typically absurd example of Enlightenment-era romantic and farcical piffle. The heroine is a princess (Mira Sorvino) who falls in love at first sight with gorgeous young Agis (Jay Rodan), the son of the man whom her father had overthrown. Agis, however, is the ward of her family’s old enemy Hermocrates (Kingsley), who has raised the youth to be contemptuous of women’s wiles. The princess thus dresses up as a male herself and, accompanied by her similarly-attired maidservant Hermidas (Rachael Stirling), breaks into Hermocrates’ enclave, pretending that she wants to study with him. Before long she has persuaded Hermidas (Shaw), to whom s/he declares his/her love, to implore her brother on “his” behalf. In addition, she makes friends with Agis, who’s also deceived by her disguise. Hermocrates, however, isn’t taken in by her outfit. She takes care of this problem by convincing him that it’s he, not Agis, that she’s entranced by; and soon the old man is making a fool of himself in response to her advances. A complicated series of approaches and reversals follows, with the princess being aided in her machinations by the estate’s servants, Harlequin (Ignazio Oliva) and the gardener Dimas (Luis Molteni), more interested in money than loyalty. The ultimate question is whether Hermocrates and Hermidas will be hoodwinked and whether the princess and Agis will eventually share the throne. Despite some effort to add doubt toward the close, the conventions of the genre pretty much dictate how things will turn out.
This sort of highly artificial piece works best on stage, where distance from the players can add a sense of enchantment and all the running about–an earlier version of the slamming-door plot–can be briskly amusing, despite (or because of) all the ruckus. (Of course, there’s an underlying streak of meanness in the treatment of the clownish, “villainous” figures, but that’s to be expected–just think of the way Malvolio is humiliated in “Twelfth Night.”) On film, however, problems arise when the treatment is insensitive. That’s surely the case here: Peploe goes in for huge, oppressive closeups that make the characters appear desperate rather than amusing; and while the location–an old Tuscan mansion with a verdant garden–is quite lovely, it proves aurally disconcerting, since the actors’ comings and goings frequently cause heavy clatter on the stone and wood floors. The use of music (mostly French baroque bits from Rameau and the like, though occasionally oddly modernized in terms of instrumentation) is also curiously unsatisfactory: at times the sounds are overlaid at much too high a volume, almost obliterating the dialogue. Some of the camerawork is either too studied (as in early moments showcasing a nude Agis artily sauntering from a lake) or simply clumsy (the hand-held shots involving a carriage at the end are so unsteady they might cause vertigo, and the jump-cuts that are periodically used at “passionate” moments are intrusive and ineffectual). And weirdly, appearances by an understandably becalmed modern audience seated in the garden are abruptly inserted at random points, a rather sodden ploy that gets worse toward the close, when the players break into song (turning the piece into a mini-opera) and change into modern clothes to warble a closing chorus and take bows. (Unhappily, they all do their own singing, and their pitch is approximate at best; when their voices join, the sound is pretty excruciating.)
Nor do the cast seem at their best; Peploe encourages them to exaggerate much too strenuously, and with her penchant for closeups the effect is deadly. Sorvino smiles broadly throughout in a failed attempt to be charming, and Rodan makes a handsome but stiff romantic partner for her– he strides majestically in the nude, but it’s a thoroughly unnecessary, and rather prurient, shot. Kingsley and Shaw could–as their quiet scene together demonstrates–carry things off with a degree of elegance, but they’re transformed by the direction into overripe stooges most of the time (their final appearances are positively campy). The supposedly comic servants, Oliva and Molteni, have thick French accents that clash badly with the leads’ British or American ones. Perhaps the intent was to create a sort of linguistic never-land, but if so it doesn’t succeed.
Even under the best of circumstances “Triumph of Love” would probably seem arch and precious. Unhappily, the circumstances here are far from the best.