“Nowhere are Misery, Desperation, and Crime more welcome than here. You, my most loyal subjects, as Louis XIV, my uncle, left you to me, I shall leave you, more numerous still, to Louis XV and his successor. For misery, desperation, and crime are fecund. Enter, and let joy reign supreme!”
If you want to examine the decadent insanity possible in the abuse of a monarch’s absolute power, you could craft a thoughtful and brutal treatise on the subject, or you could revel in the insanity and have as much fun as the monarch. The director can be as mercurial as a king, and in that sense, Bertrand Tavernier has the best of both worlds in his luminously batshit Let Joy Reign Supreme. France in 1719 was in decline after the successful rule of Louis XIV, with the largest population in Europe in the midst of unrest, rising poverty, and widespread violence with frequent conscription of commoners to colonize Louisiana. Phillipe d’Orleans is the Regent, having denied the ascendancy of the king after annulling the will of the mouldering Louis XIV. He was famously an atheist and a libertine, concerned with living the high life over the affairs of state. He denounced censorship and decreased taxation, promoting public schooling while reveling in the arts. The ashes of this spoiled kingdom, as well as that of Louis XV, concealed the smoldering coals of the coming Revolution. Though Let Joy Reign Supreme does traffic in philosophy, it is content with being as bugnuts as it is brilliant.
With the sumptuous portrayal of the Regent’s court of excess, it is cynical, anarchic, and darkly hilarious. Surreal elements abound with a sardonic sense of humor, one feels an attitude that nothing in life or death is of any worth; except to feel alive. Politics is stripped bare to its grounding in parasitism and avarice, while the opposition is made up of the most pathetic revolutionary this side of Life of Brian. There may be no central point to be gleaned from this work apart from gaining a sense of how chaotic the march of history can be, even in retrospect. This movie is not to be understood, but rather experienced. It washes over you, and afterwards you wonder what the fuck happened as you straighten up the room. To set the pace in the opening scene, a priest performs a ceremony wherein field mice are excommunicated, while a nearby pedophile attempts to kidnap two little girls. Then things get strange.
Phillipe is depressed, having witnessed the death of his favored daughter, who was as mad as she was promiscuous. The autopsy examines the body noting significant brain damage and a pregnancy (multiple births likely caused her demise), and the physicians present declare she died of gluttony. Phillipe felt that shitty doctors were the cause, but never mind. Thus distracted, the Marquis de Pontcallec hatched a conspiracy with his fellow nobles to topple the Regent by inviting Spain to use its coast to land an invading army. His land of Brittany was wracked by starvation, and so he had little funding for visiting brothels, let alone gathering an army. Boasting a regular force of thousands (in actuality only three), he failed to get support from anyone other than the Spanish army, mostly because they were kind of expecting to support an army. Instead, it was only Pontcallec, proudly armed with his fearsome weapon, the mistoufle. This was a pistol tied to a pitchfork, and was as effective as it sounds. Jean-Pierre Marielle plays Pontcallec as an amiable oaf, defiantly inscribing letter after letter to the Regent, often with subsequent corrections following a failed threat.
Phillipe Noiret plays the Regent as oddly detached, only distantly concerned with the future of his seat while surrounded by enemies. He despises the church and its hypocrisies, of the clergy’s enthusiastic culling of Prostestants, and of its profligate corruption. As one priest claims the Church is apolitical, Phillipe dryly notes that their sales of arms to Native Americans who convert to Christianity is inherently political. Still, he is no angel, and gleefully takes part in the corruption. His primary aspiration is to secure another underage girl to his harem, preferably if they are into menage a quinze.
His chief advisor is Abbe Dubois, a fellow atheist and pimp who aspires to be mitered an Archbishop. It is a practical desire – “I am a born pagan, but an Archbishop is untouchable.” He has no care for the Regent, hoping only to get the appointment before his boss dies mid-orgy, and is the source of most of the court intrigues. Fortunately, no time spent in exposition is wasted – DuBois explains his ambitions to a whore with her ankles wrapped around his head. He is a cackling twit who is too bent to be labeled a madman – who would want to appear principled in this mess? In any case, the Church endorses his mitre, and in exchange the Regent will not force the Church to sell land to the poor at a price they can afford. A plan more pernicious even than public schools. Everything about the court is rotten, from royal family who extort Phillipe for bribes to the local enforcers who round up the whores and homeless for deportation to the Americas. In one scene that amuses the fetid souls among us, a priest performs marriage rites for a crowd of scores of such people, so any fucking on board the ship has the consent of God. Soldiers and officials alike are either bribed or duped easily; this is anarchy with a bureaucracy.
The real entertainment here are the bizarre setpieces that serve to highlight ignorance and decadence in the most hilarious possible way.
– Phillipe is too busy to discuss the conspiracy against him because porn slide show.
– Pontcallec hides in a convent, leading him to hide in a tub with a hot nude lady of the cloth while soldiers storm the building knocking nuns over like bowling pins.
– The vaunted military of France demonstrates its new cannon by missing a carriage with shots at point blank range while Phillipe gropes one of his hoes. The future King Louis XV whines for the carriage to contain a condemned man, else this is no fun.
– There is a Piss Boy. One of the attendants at the court walks around with a pail.† I thought that bit from History of the World was a joke.
– Check out the banquet centerpiece.
The denouement is as bizarre as the rest, as a commoner is killed in an act of negligence, sparking an event that heralds the coming Revolution. A simmering anger from the misrule of the Regent is given release, and though the anger is directed at the elite, it is unfocused and not necessarily purposeful. This is how political change occurs, uncontrollable, amorphous, impossible to predict and driven by unseen factors. Though the masses can be manipulated, they cannot be denied when they hunger. Perhaps that illuminating exchange seems tacked on, as just about anything would when attached to a story this fucked. It does lend a feel of consequence, a word utterly alien to anyone holding power. The masses will rise against tyranny, though not necessarily in the name of justice, or in the name of anything other than anger and the driving force of the herd. In the meantime, enjoy the delirium as history marches past us, occasionally clothed, usually indifferent, and without a shred of decency or mercy.