When Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's Le Triomphe de l'amour opened in pre-Revolutionary Paris in 1732, its genteel mockery of aristocratic mores brought titters to the gentry assembled in the audience. When Clare Peploe's cinematic version opened in Italy (where it was filmed), on September 6, 2001, it must have seemed like an elegant anachronism. The brutal events of September 11 did not quite put an end to irony or even flippancy, but The Triumph of Love now seems so out of sync with the zeitgeist that even though it was made in English, the production speaks an esoteric foreign language. When it is not merely tedious, this giddy story about preposterous masquerades seems more a specimen of Ionesco's Theater of the Absurd than the French Enlightenment that begot it.
Smitten by the glimpse of a handsome young man, Agis, a princess (Sorvino) schemes to win his love. Her father had usurped the throne from Agis's father, and she hopes to right that wrong through union with the son. However, Agis has grown up in splendid isolation, reared by a rationalist philosopher, Hermocrates, and his spinster sister, Leontine (Shaw), to mistrust women and in particular to despise the Princess, whose image he daily uses as an archery target. Accompanied by her trusty attendant Hermidas (Stirling), the Princess vaults the wall of the philosopher's rustic estate, and, dressed as a man she calls Phocion, attempts to win Agis. An eighteenth-century audience within the film is more easily wooed than the audience for the film.
Phocion's disguise is thin, and Hermocrates, played with majestic panache by Sir Ben Kingsley, observes immediately that the intruder in his study is a woman in man's clothing. So the Princess alters her account; she now admits to being female but pretends her name is Aspasie. As Aspasie, she asks permission to meet Agis but insists that she is really in love with Hermocrates himself. In truth, he would have been a better choice, since Jay Rodan's Agis is a witless hunk. As "Phocion," the Princess tries to win the trust of Agis and to court the timorous maiden Leontine, while as "Aspasie," she launches an amorous assault on Hermocrates. "I'm here to mortify my flesh," she declares, throwing herself at the rationalist philosopher who, standing beside a bust of Aristotle, is mortified by the very thought of human flesh. "Knowledge and reason forbid me to listen to another word," he insists, but listens anyway.
While in separate semblances the Princess is managing to win the hearts and confound the minds of Hermocrates, Leontine, and Agis, while Hermidas, disguised as Corine, is confusing and cajoling the servants. The giddy plot becomes as thick as a block of brie, and even the Big Cheese herself becomes flustered. "I'm losing track of my own plot," observes Phocion/Aspasie/the Princess, who, like Shakespeare's Prospero, also abjures authority in order to advance love. As in The Tempest, everything culminates in the paradoxical recognition that it is only by relinquishing control that we acquire power.
Hermocrates confesses: "I'm a vain, proud man for whom true wisdom is less important than his fraudulent image of them," and the Princess seems set on donning yet another identity — disgraced commoner. Reason is chastened by passion, and much is given to those who forgive. However, the quality of mercy in this film is sorely strained, and so is a viewer's patience. Though Mira Sorvino's attractions are supposed to be polymorphous, they seem more like polyester. Exquisite and empty, The Triumph of Love is a clever trifle that, while proclaiming the importance of letting go, bullies the audience with its own smart oratory. This is not love, nor is it a triumph.
The Triumph of Love
Dir. Clare Peploe; writ. Clare Peploe, Marilyn Goldin, and Bernardo Bertolucci, based on a play by Pierre Marivaux; feat. Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley, Fiona Shaw, Jay Rodan, Ignazio Oliva, Rachael Stirling, Luis Molteni (PG-13)