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Our Virtual Versailles

Our Virtual Versailles

Nearly 25 years on, a brilliant period masterpiece anticipates the viciousness and vapidity of the modern social media scene.

Nicole Penn

Is there much difference between an 18th-century French aristocrat and a 21st-century blue-checked Twitter user? An odd question perhaps, but six months into the pandemic it’s hard not to reflect on how our extended isolation has accelerated the transfer of our social and civic life to digital spaces.

This migration is not a good thing. Bitter, often downright spiteful tweets about culture or politics now easily overwhelm innocent posts about cute dog pictures or the latest pop culture mania (which, at this time of writing, happens to be cephalopod pedagogy). If our feeds contain any common refrain, it’s usually the realization that our digital space might just be the bad place after all.

And yet, we refuse to log off. In normal times, one could explain this as the result of the way Twitter’s game-like construction tickles the pleasure receptors of our lizard brains; today, at least for a certain cadre of the chattering class, we’re stuck online because there’s nowhere else to go. It’s a situation not unlike the one facing Baron Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy in Ridicule, director Patrice Leconte’s period masterpiece. Released in 1996 but set “six years before the French Revolution . . . when wit is king,” Ridicule follows the trials of the impoverished and idealistic Ponceludon (Charles Berling) as he attempts to win Louis XVI’s financial support to (quite literally) drain the mosquito-infested swamps that are killing the peasants in his province. To do so, he must first ingratiate himself at the court of Versailles, where one gains influence by demonstrating a capacity for wit, or le bel esprit. But one false move—a bad joke, dull remark, or even a misplaced dance step—could leave one permanently banished with nothing but a cruel nickname as a parting favor.

Although Ridicule won considerable contemporary acclaim in its time (including an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film), it is nearly impossible to find it online today. This is a shame, because Laconte’s blistering picture of an insular and insecure aristocracy foreshadowed the electronic fora where elite discourse thrives today. Twitter, with its arbitrary word limit that privileges pith and pitilessness over nuance and empathy, particularly evokes the verbal sparring and intellectual preening that the nobility obsesses over in Leconte’s film. It also begs the same question that Ridicule asks of its viewers: What is lost by participating in an arena where wit, rather than virtue, reigns above all?

“ . . . vice is immaterial, but ridicule is fatal.”

Ridicule begins with an almost hilariously shocking scene. The Chevalier de Milletaille, freshly returned from fighting in the American Revolution, visits a dying Versailles count named Monsieur de Blayac, once known as “the finest wit of his age,” who had dubbed him the “Marquis de Clatterbang” after he stumbled once in court. The ignominy forced him to join a foreign war to restore his honor. Milletaille sarcastically thanks Blayac for his nickname, and then unceremoniously urinates on his former tormentor.

This opening—and the bleak vision of Versailles that Leconte spins into a marvelous black comedy—has some basis in historical reality. In her memoirs of life at Versailles, the Comtesse de Boigne described an identical episode in which a nobleman earned the epithet “Jésus Maria” after uttering the sacrilegious oath as he tripped during a dance. It was a moniker that dogged him even after he distinguished himself in the American Revolution, leading a fellow aristocrat to issue the following warning to his daughters on the day of their first court appearance: “Remember that in this country vice is immaterial, but ridicule is fatal.” It is advice that is central to Ridicule’s world.

Despite his honorable intentions and the brilliance of his engineering project, Ponceludon is unable to secure an audience with the king. Even worse, he is attacked by a thief, who beats him and steals what little money he had (ominously shouting “God is our only judge” as he runs away). His only stroke of luck is to be rescued by an Enlightenment-minded marquis known as Bellegarde (Jean Rocheforte), who shelters him and nurses him back to health.

Ponceludon asks Bellegarde to introduce him to the court, but Bellegarde refuses at first. He explains that he has seen the petitions of too many provincial aristocrats flounder at Versailles, where “it is easier to be seen than to be heard.” Nevertheless, Ponceludon has a sharp mind, which he uses to his advantage during a salon exchange between himself and the aptly named abbé de Vilecourt (Bernard Girardeau), a high-ranking court clergyman. When Vilecourt asks about Ponceludon’s purpose, he replies that he wants to improve the health and well-being of the citizens in his region. “Calamity always comes in pairs,” Vilecourt replies in mock sympathy, “Poor folk are not only dying, they’re boring.” Without missing a beat, Ponceludon pointedly retorts: “What you should understand is that the same peasants who feed the mosquitos are those that feed aristocrats.” Proof of his talent thus secured, Bellegarde takes Ponceludon under his wing to train him for life at Versailles, promising that so long as he remains “witty, sharp, and malicious . . . you’ll succeed.”

Ridicule hits beats common to stories about outsiders-turned-insiders, but it does so in delightfully inventive ways. The love interest who alerts Ponceludon to the futility of his scheme and his increasingly compromised morality is none other than Bellegarde’s daughter Mathilde (Judith Godrèche), a well-educated girl “born in the age of Rousseau” who eschews Versailles in favor of scientific experiments of her own design. As Ponceludon continues to distinguish himself at salon gatherings and his status at Versailles improves (he even meets briefly with the king), Blayac’s salonnière widow (Fanny Ardant) plots with her lover Vilecourt to seduce and destroy him. They succeed at a dinner featuring a contest of aphorisms—arguably the most historically accurate depiction of le bel esprit in the film. When Ponceludon mangles a quote from Voltaire while distracted by Madame de Blayac, he is laughed out of Versailles.

Ridicule also contains a few original storylines that help to flesh out its thesis on communication and power. One of the most tragic moments in the film involves a destitute baron named Guéret (Albert Delpy), who has waited for years to meet with Louis XVI to restore his family’s aristocratic titles. He dozes off in an antechamber where the king selects his entourage for the day, but awakens to find that Vilecourt has hidden one of his shoes. Such a violation of court protocol destroys his reputation so profoundly that he hangs himself in the court gardens—although not before furiously denouncing Louis and his family for institutionalizing the routine humiliation of  “the nobility, who made you king!” It is a remarkable moment that captures the complete enervation of France’s aristocracy during the waning years of the ancien régime. It also offers an intriguing, almost Burkean condemnation of the Bourbon monarchy, holding it responsible for the toxic, frivolous, and self-destructive society it created to centralize its power.

In the end, the cult of wit eats its own. After delivering an eloquent sermon that uses logic to prove the existence of God, Vilecourt accidentally ends up disgracing himself by teasing, “in a stroke of wit,” that he can also “prove the opposite, if his majesty would like.” Madame de Blayac invites Ponceludon to return to the court as her new lover, but after he leaves her for Mathilde, she furiously resolves to remove him from Versailles for good. In a scheme evocative of the movie’s opening, Madame de Blayac invites Ponceludon and Mathilde to a soiree where she conspires with her fellow aristocrats to trip him during a dance. The plot succeeds, and Milletaille gleefully dubs Ponceludon the “Marquis des Antipodes.” Resigned to the reality that (in Mathilde’s words) “Versailles saves no one,” Ponceludon removes his mask and denounces those assembled, coldly noting that for all their envious emulation of Voltaire, the philosopher would cry upon seeing wit weaponized for the court’s vacuous political games. He and Mathilde leave the court for good, while Madame de Blayac silently sobs.

On The Nose

Would Voltaire have cried? Studies of court culture in the ancien régime suggest that at least he raged. In fact, Ridicule is a movie written almost entirely from the perspective of the many contemporaries, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who criticized the growing influence of le bel esprit in elite circles. As Johns Hopkins professor Elena Russo notes in Styles of Enlightenment: Taste, Politics, and Authorship in Eighteenth-Century France, the philosophes “described beaux esprits as fashionable amateurs who were culturally immature and whose taste was poor but who wanted to usurp the rewards that should have devolved on the true gens de lettres.” Interestingly, Russo’s work is a defense of the culture of wit, arguing that its attackers failed to appreciate the range of learning and “verbal virtuosity” it required. The philosophes also betrayed a certain degree of misogyny in their condemnations, given the gendered terms they used to characterize le bel esprit and the female-led salons where it flourished as glib, decadent, and anti-intellectual. In Russo’s view, wit was a natural product of an intellectually rich age that encouraged critical thinking. “Where its detractors saw theatricality and vanity,” she concludes, “we can see an attitude of self-reflexivity toward mimesis and an ironic questioning of the foundations of representation and authority, be they divine, political, or narrative.”

Perhaps Ridicule takes too harsh a stance on wit. But if the recollections of the Comtesse de Boigne and other fellow aristocrats are accurate, there was certainly something profoundly unhealthy about the state of the French aristocracy by the middle of the 18th century. It seems that, when it was not serving to entertain and enlighten, le bel esprit could certainly become a tool to distract or even terrorize. Moreover, one can’t help but sympathize a little with the posture of the philosophes when le bel esprit was often used to skewer their work. Even Russo must concede that “it was certainly embittering for the philosophes to see how effectively the weapon of ridicule could be wielded to belittle their efforts and how difficult it was to educate a public that preferred entertainment to enlightenment and satire to edification.”

Leconte may not be a historian, but he is an incisive anthropologist. As he explained in an interview in 2004, much of his work is a reflection of his concern with “the solitude that’s a part of our modern life.” We may have rid ourselves of absolute monarchs, but it clear that there is something about the loneliness of modernity that has turned the need to be entertained into a tyrant in our hearts.

Which brings us back to Twitter.

Comparing the culture of the ancien régime to Twitter might, at its face, be a difficult task given that social media appears to be so inherently democratic. Unlike aristocracy, where blood is the price of admission, anyone can make an account on the internet. There is no autocrat dictating who gets to be seen, who gets to speak, or when.

But there is a question of visibility, and that does depend largely on tapping into a certain kind of mimetic wit that is cultured, like the epigrams that Ponceludon and his compatriots lob back and forth over the course of Ridicule, by both the constraints Twitter imposes on users and our obsession with entertainment. At its best, Twitter produces the kind of wry and idiosyncratic observations that can help to unite us in our common human weirdness (see, for example, this beautiful thread comparing Civil War generals to Muppets). More often, it fuses a certain kind of modern “wit” with a burning malice that makes meaningful discourse on almost anything simply impossible.

Twitter’s viciousness is a function of the growing dissolution of reality. French aristocrats mobilized wit against one another after the monarchy circumscribed their power and independence. Our own time has produced a similar loss of real-world outlets for community-building and self-actualization, such as stable jobs, healthy families, civic organizations, or religious affiliation. These gates to the physical world were already closing before the pandemic. COVID merely locked them shut, and in doing so catalyzed the tendency to funnel whatever remaining agency we had into fighting irony-laced crusades on the internet.

That is not to say that the politicization of social media has always been vapid or ill-informed. In many instances, it reflects the remarkable breadth of learning that we have collectively achieved in modern society, alongside a generally healthy skepticism of power and privilege. But like the distorted masks that Madame de Blayac and her accomplices wear to Ridicule’s “fall ball,” the digital veneer that separates and dehumanizes us when we interact online ensures that the battles that may have demanded some kind of resolution in flesh-and-blood-land can now go on indefinitely. Ross Douthat captured an aspect of this phenomenon persuasively in The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, when he argues “that virtual reality manages the political passions, not by fomenting real revolution but by encouraging people to playact extremism . . . to approach radical politics . . . as a kind of sport, a kick to the body chemistry, that doesn’t actually put anything in their relatively comfortable late-modern lives at risk.”

In other words, this may all be a feature, not a bug. In a fascinating essay that he published earlier this year on “The Internet of Beefs,” Vinkatesh Rao offers a compelling vision of Twitter as a medieval society where blue-checked “Knights” spar eternally against one another (usually on some facet of the culture war) while amassing legions of “Mook” followers. The catalyst is disturbingly simple: “We no longer know who we are, each of us individually, and collectively as a species. Knight and mook alike are faced with the terrifying possibility that . . . there is nobody in particular to be once the beefing stops.” But just because the fighting is virtual doesn’t mean that the consequences are—just ask Justine Sacco, David Shor, or the countless victims of cyberbullying from the past two decades.

Revolutionaries nearly destroyed Versailles, but Hannah Arendt was right when she pointed out that the Copernican sense of the word “revolution” implies a return to one’s past position. Although Twitter and its social media cousins intended to open the doors of virtual discourse and influence to everyone, in the end it remains a playground for our cultural elite, who tend to their platforms as a substitute for the difficult work of cultivating their gardens in the real world. Although Ridicule is almost a quarter of a century old, it can still provide us with a useful jolt from settling too comfortably into our virtual fiefdoms. And as we look from blue check to blue blood and back again, we might be forgiven for wondering which is which.

Nicole Penn is program manager for Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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