Background Information

18th Century France
The film takes place in 1783, six years before the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789). It is an illustration of the main currents in 18th century France: the luxury and decadence of the Court of Versailles which led to the French Revolution; the importance of sophisticated language, and the emergence of new ideas about science, religion, education and the role of women.

"The film illustrates the power of language both to build and to tear down. It is also about choices. Ponceludon's own moral dilemma -- to retain his purity and reject the ways of the court or to embrace the place by the king's side that his skill for witty repartee can gain him -- is personified by the two women who want him: the sweet, independent Mathilde and the seductive, manipulative Madame de Blayac."
1996 James Berardinelli

Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Versailles
Louis XVI was the son of Louis XV who was the great-grandson of Louis XIV. Louis XVI was born at the court of Versailles in 1754 and died, guillotined, in 1793. He married Marie Antoinette, an Austrian, who was also guillotined. They lived a luxurious life in the spectacular castle of Versailles until the revolutionaries forced them to move to Paris. 

Rousseau and Voltaire
Rousseau was a Swiss philosopher, Voltaire was a French philosopher. Their liberal ideas influenced the politics, literature and sciences of the pre-revolutionary period. Rousseau was interested in education and a life in nature. Voltaire was a 'free thinker' interested in politics, meaning that he fought against the authority of the church. Both philosophers had to flee to Switzerland to escape arrest for their 'subversive' ideas. Who, in the movie, represents the liberal tendencies which are typical of the 18th century?

The importance of scientific experimentation
Often scientific and religious ideas collide. They did in the 18th century as they do today. The Church and the political authorities were opposed to the new scientific experiments and discoveries. They feared that rationalism might diminish their influence. Indeed it did. Several 18th century French philosophers and scientists contributed to the publication of the first Western encyclopedia.

The French Revolution
During the French Revolution thousands of people were guillotined, i.e. decapitated, including the King, Louis XVI, the Queen, Marie Antoinette, numerous aristocrats and later, under the 'Terror', rivaling political leaders. The guillotine was an instrument of death imported from England by a Dr. Guillotin because it was more 'humane' than death by hanging. At the end of the movie some of the aristocrats have fled to England to escape death by the guillotine. England had a less authoritarian form of government since the king had to share power with a parliament.


Website designed and maintained by Barbara Vigano, Prof. emeritus of French, Mt. San Antonio College