Beaumarchais, The Scoundrel

on October 17, 1997 by Alex Albanese
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In 1770s France lived an intriguing fellow known as Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Though of, as they say, humble birth, he was a brilliant writer, inventor, shrewd businessman and had married well--twice (both ladies unfortunately expiring shortly after the ceremonies). His title was purchased a title and he climbed his way into court circles, but he was a relentless gadfly and critic of the aristocracy. Between stints in the Bastille for his insolence, he spied for the Crown, smuggled arms to the American Revolutionary Army, had affairs, and wrote the wildly popular, poetically subversive comedy "The Marriage of Figaro," which was banned by both Louis XVI and Hitler. His life reads like a James Bond movie in a powdered wig--and now it is.
"Beaumarchais, the Scoundrel" is a lush, lavishly mounted costumer that is simply a hoot from beginning to end. Like the main character, it is sly and funny and whip-smart but never takes itself too seriously--combining the French-court intellectual intrigue of "Dangerous Liaisons" with the bravura, breezy dash of "Tom Jones." Director Edouard Milinaro achieves the historical/costume filmmaking grail: connecting the audience to the schoolbook characters onscreen not by making them modern but by making them human and real. One small setpiece has Beaumarchais meet with Ben Franklin, and as presented here Poor Richard is a study in eccentricity that will leave no moviegoer looking at a hundred-dollar bill in quite the same way again.
Although "Beaumarchais" sometimes plays a bit fast and loose with history, the film succeeds not only as a work of entertainment but as a tease to find out more about the man and his world. It presents the Age of Enlightenment as an attractive, smart, dangerous place to be. Hell, it makes you want to read a copy of the "Marriage of Figaro." Starring Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain and Manuel Blanc. Directed by Edouard Milinaro. Written by Edouard Molinaro and Jean-Clause Brisville. Produced by Charles Gassot. A New Yorker release. Comedy. Unrated. French-language; English subtitles. Running time: 100 min.
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