The worst thing about Valerie Lemercier’s Palais Royal! is the exclamation mark in the title. Lemercier’s third film as director is a funny, sharp and silly satire about a royal family with a strange resemblance to the one on the other side of the Channel.
Armelle (Valérie Lemercier) is married to Arnaud (Lambert Wilson), the dissolute second son of Queen Eugénia (Catherine Deneuve). When the king dies and the elder brother is prevented from ascending to the throne by some ancient protocol, Arnaud is chosen to replace his father. After some early trouble in her new role, Princess Armelle turns out to be a public-relations genius and becomes the kingdom’s favorite royal.
Lemercier is well-known in France as a TV personality (her big break came on the cult show “Palace”), for her one-woman shows and, more recently, as a writer-director. She’s naturally funny, with a fabulous array of ridiculous facial expressions and a sense of humor that can jump from burlesque to social satire in a blink of an eye.
You’d think that comedians wouldn’t have much left to work with when mocking royalty, but Lemercier captures the absurdities of protocol and tradition with a great eye for the comic detail.
She’s not really interested in royalty, however, but in the effect power and being in the spotlight can have on a person. Her character, Armelle, changes from an ordinary woman – at the beginning she’s a caring speech therapist – to a scheming, self-centered “saint” with the common touch. She sets up her husband, who – after being introduced as a nasty philanderer – is shown to be nothing more than a bumbling idiot (when he begins his official engagements, his daughter says, “Dad’s going to work?”). She begins an affair and arranges a Martin Bashir-style TV interview to push her own saintliness (any resemblance to Princess Di is, of course, purely coincidental).
As Armelle begins to out-monster her mother-in-law Eugénia (Deneuve does her haughty routine to perfection), Lemercier is brutal with her character.
Yet – and this is where Lemercier is particularly smart – her satire is never mindlessly cruel, which means we never lose sympathy for Armelle, even when her daughter looks at her and asks, “Do you remember when you were nice?”
It’s a delicate balancing act, but Lemercier pulls it off skillfully with the help of a great cast and script. In fact, she does it so well that it’s only after leaving the cinema that you realize just how dreadful Armelle is.
Visually, Palais Royal! isn’t exactly exciting, and there are occasional dry patches, but what matters in a Lemercier film is character and, once again, she proves that she has plenty of it.Favorite