Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 25, 2002
Mad About the Boy

Mira Sorvino goes drag in the classical French comedy, Triumph of Love.

By Kristian Lin

That kind of a title is Triumph of Love, anyway? Well, it’s the name of a comedy written in 1732 by Pierre Marivaux, the finest French playwright of his time, which was admittedly a transitional period in that nation’s theatrical history. It is a weak title from a writer whose other titles include The Reconciliation of Love, The Game of Love and Chance, The Surprise of Love, and its sequel, The Second Surprise of Love. His repetitive titles aside, Marivaux’s flair for dialogue was such that the word marivaudage continues to mean sophisticated, flirtatious banter. His plays have been rediscovered in recent years because underneath all the farcical comedy, his characters are fairly complicated and often rendered with deep psychological insight.

Clare Peploe’s adaptation of his play The Triumph of Love begins with a shot of two women undressing each other in a carriage. Like much else in this comedy, it’s deliberately misleading. Mira Sorvino plays a princess whose recently deceased parents had usurped the throne from the rightful king. Now, she wants to restore the kingdom to Agis (Jay Rodan), the deposed king’s son, but she falls in love with him when she sees how beautiful he is. Marrying him would accomplish all her goals, but Agis is secluded at the estate of a great philosopher named Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw), who have taught him to hate the princess as a mortal enemy and also to resist all carnal temptations. To overcome these formidable obstacles, the princess disguises herself as a young gentleman named Phocion and ingratiates herself with the philosopher’s household, especially Agis. However, things get out of hand. Leontine falls in love with Phocion, and Hermocrates sees through the disguise from the beginning, so the princess has to fake another (female) identity and cozy up to him as well.

Sorvino’s performance is a bit of a stunt, but then so are all her memorable performances (Mighty Aphrodite, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion). She seems to respond best when she’s putting one over on us; the trickery involved in playing dumb — or, in this case, playing a man — engages her intelligence and her sense of fun. When she’s given a more straightforward role to play, she turns bland (Mimic, At First Sight). Her drag act here isn’t exactly convincing, nor is it meant to be, but it energizes her. It’s a kick watching her move crisply and hearing her deliver her lines with masculine bravado. It doesn’t rank with her best work, but it’s a useful reminder of where her talents lie.

Too bad the predominantly British supporting cast doesn’t jell with her. Part of the reason is the clash of acting styles, and part of it is the personnel. Comic brilliance isn’t exactly Kingsley’s stock in trade, nor is it Shaw’s, although she manages to capture some of the pathos of a woman in late-middle age who’s never known true love. Italian actors Ignazio Oliva and Luis Molteni play Hermocrates’ servants, and their commedia dell’arte sensibilities are extremely welcome — Marivaux wrote his plays for Italian actors and was heavily influenced by their comic traditions. They bring some tartness to a supporting cast that needs it.

The filmmaking style is similarly inconsistent. The farce requires a light, Mozartean touch, and Peploe isn’t quick enough to pull that off. The jump-cuts within scenes are distracting, as is the suggestion of a modern-day theatrical audience watching the drama. The movie is shot on location in Italy, and things are fine as long as the action stays indoors. The outdoor shots, though impressive, are still too realistic. The film needed to look stagier and more artificial — seeing the wind ripple the actors’ costumes only draws our attention away from the dialogue. Marivaux, much like Shakespeare and many other comic playwrights before the advent of tv sitcoms, intentionally sealed off his characters from external reality, leaving them with nothing to do but interact with each other. Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing was also shot on location in Italy, but he knew how to make the trees and water and gravel look properly unreal.

Still, Triumph of Love is refreshing, not just for its comic material and performances, but for its roots in classical theater. As a whole, this body of work is poorly represented on film: good luck finding movie versions of plays by Jonson, Dryden, Congreve, or Sheridan, let alone non-English plays by Lope de Vega, Calderón, Corneille, Racine, Gozzi, Goldoni, etc. Audiences have proven that they will go to see Shakespeare when his roles are filled by the likes of Denzel Washington or Gwyneth Paltrow. Why wouldn’t they go to see the same actors doing other pre-19th-century plays? There are certainly enough classically trained actors in Hollywood and abroad who’d like a chance to prove their mettle without resorting to Shakespeare. Let’s hope a few more filmmakers take their scripts from this period in history. We’d all likely be better off.

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