Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: The Triumph of Love

During the horrific 9/11 attacks, I was covering the Toronto International Film Festival for Boxoffice Magazine in Los Angeles. Like most catastrophes, I can still remember where I was before and after the terrorists struck. There were also two movies that framed the event, and as it turned out, they were movies that would both be eventually produced and abandoned. The night before, I had gone to Roy Thompson Hall to see Fred Schepisi’s stunning adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders (which David Churchill wrote perceptively about for Critics at Large back on January 15th); the other, which I viewed on September 12th, was Clare Peploe’s marvelous adaptation of Pierre Marivaux’s 18th-Century play, The Triumph of Love.

Watching a movie was probably the last thing I wanted to do that day, but I had a job to do. While fully understanding that I was - on one level - "enjoying" the picture, I was also aware that I felt distant from the screen, unable to let anything penetrate the state of shock that I was in. It was much worse trying to write the collection of reviews that were due at the conclusion of TIFF. Writing essentially seemed like an insignificant act, a negligible gesture in the face overwhelming horror. While I eventually got my enthusiasm for reviewing back, it took a few years to return to The Triumph of Love. When it barely made a dent at the box office and closed quickly, I had to wait for the DVD release to fully acquaint myself with the pleasure of experiencing it, which was more than I could do in 2001. I came to realize upon watching the DVD that the sensual lyricism of the material couldn't be fully appreciated right after a day of mass murder.

The Triumph of Love is a lush and sensually charged comedy that’s infused with some of the buoyantly exuberant operatic spirit of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Peploe, who directed the underrated romantic comedy High Season (1988), transforms (along with co-scenarists Bernardo Bertolucci and Marilyn Goldin) the seductive power of Marivaux’s language into a highly erotic romp about sexual deception. The story centers on Leonide (Mira Sorvino), the Princess of Sparta, who occupies a throne that has been usurped by her father, a throne that really belongs to a young man named Agis (Jay Rodan). One day, when Leonide spots Agis bathing in a lake, she falls deeply in love with him and comes up with a scheme to marry him. In doing so, Leonide would get what she wants and he would get what is due to him because of his birthright. The problem, though, is that Agis is being raised by the enlightened philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Leonitine (Fiona Shaw) who have not only schooled the boy in Enlightenment principles, they’ve also taught him to hate the princess. With her maid by her side, Leonide disguises herself as a male student and verbally seduces the brother-and-sister pair in order to buy time to win the love of Agis.

Peploe shrewdly balances the comedy and the cruelty in the play without losing any of its romantic spirit, while Mira Sorvino provides a spirited performance that reveals a surprising abundance of carnal mischievousness. Leonide is a rationalist who may feel pangs of love, but she methodically uses reason as a tool to cause pain as well. Ben Kingsley, as the pompishly foolish Hermocrates, serves up a series of enjoyably precise double-takes as he wrestles with drives he would rather repress. He’s matched by Fiona Shaw whose preening is disguised by a show of self-depracting charm. They both make perfect targets for the Princess’s scam, while the Princess also finds the rug being pulled out from under her schemes. What makes The Triumph of Love such a sublime farce though is the emotionally rich texture Peploe imbues within it. It's a farce that stings as well as sings.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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