By Daniel Garrett
Triumph of Love
Directed by Clare Peploe
Writers: Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci
Original Play by Marivaux
Director of photography: Fabio Cianchetti
Production designer: Ben Van Os
Paramount Classics, 2001
Triumph of Love is a film directed by Clare Peploe (High Season, Rough Magic) and produced by her husband Bernardo Bertolucci, and it is based on a play by Marivaux, first performed in the year 1732. It is about the daughter of a usurper king who decides to find the deposed king’s son and then decides, out of infatuation and justice, to marry him and have him become king. As he has been taught to hate all women in general and her in particular, she disguises herself as a man and visits the estate where he lives with his guardians and teachers, a philosopher and his scientist sister. To be allowed to stay at the estate, the princess dressed as a gentleman begins to befriend the prince and seduce the philosopher brother and scientist sister.
In Triumph of Love, there are masters and servants, men and women, residents and visitors, with different perspectives and obligations, and the play and film are partly about how the characters seem to become conspirators, friends, and lovers. When manners have the full force of society behind them, the force is so powerful it acts as a natural law and shapes personality so deeply one doesn’t think to respond in an opposite manner. When one is aware of manners as an imposed or a chosen system of responses, one is inclined to be more flexible in their execution—or disregard them almost entirely. We think about our experiences as we have them, and we put our thoughts not only into action but also into words, sometimes very eloquent words: all human society is not gestures and grunts; and the most articulate works of art bear this out. Works made for sophisticated audiences often take into consideration not only experience, but various interpretations of experience, and such a work is this.
The film is an amusement, and yet it asks provocative questions about love, deception, and justice—and it makes accessible a form of culture (the play by Marivaux) that might otherwise seem distant to us—and it provides us the opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world, and, not least, the chance to laugh.
At the beginning of the film the princess and her friend and attendant are traveling toward the philosopher’s estate by carriage and begin to change from women’s clothes to men’s, and once they arrive at the estate they think to roll up handkerchiefs to put into their trousers as substitute penises. This last act also indicates that the film will be not only about power and disguise but also about sex.
As soon as the gentleman-princess, played by Mira Sorvino, and the exiled prince meet, they befriend each other, making one think that possibly the prince, played by Jay Rodan, may be especially interested in male company—he later talks about this being the rare chance to make a friend. Later the gentleman-princess will say, “We liked each other as friends—do we like each other the same way now, or is it different?” and they’ll agree they like each other more now than before.
The gentleman-princess begins a verbal seduction of the scientist sister, played by Fiona Shaw in a performance in which she goes from brainy and severe to floating on air. The gentleman-princess’s gender seems a matter of signs—clothes, deep voice, and masculine bearing—but it is an impetuous passionate spirit that seduces the sister. Her brother, played by Ben Kingsley, realizes immediately when alone with the gentleman-princess that the man is a woman, and the princess explains she is attracted to him. We can find annoying and arrogant, or pathetic, the erotic desire of someone we do not find attractive, someone we do not want; it’s an act of imagination and affection to return someone’s desire. The young woman’s desire awakens that of the philosopher, and he feels conflicted, concerned about his reputation but eager for love. The solitude of the brother and sister’s lives had previously allowed them to remain committed to a set way of being—solitary, rational, and judgmental about the princess’s family—and as they are seduced they begin to admit to each other that their way of life has had limitations. They can only admit these limitations when the opportunity to change has arrived—and possibly this explains why so often in life people refuse to engage in criticality (they do not see the opportunity for change). The princess herself begins to feel badly about exploiting the emotions of the brother and sister, her avowed enemies, in order to develop her bond with the exiled prince.
The sincerity in Mira Sorvino’s eyes as she plays the princess throughout the film is a great part of what drew this viewer into the film and made the plot more engaging. She is a sensitive (and pretty) princess and a handsome, cordial gentleman, and does whatever she does in the film with sympathetic understanding and wit.
It is the height of farce when brother and sister both prepare to enter their carriages to leave the estate to meet their new lover(s), the same person; and they are humiliated by the revelation. The prince at first cannot forgive the princess—but the film ends in a triumph of love, love between a man and a woman, between siblings, and also love for thought and science, as a scientific breakthrough occurs.
The film moves quickly, is well acted, and smartly edited. The color of Triumph of Love is often dark and dense, like the lush gardens of the estate. The estate itself, made up of stone walls and large rooms and attractive furnishings with a garden path adorned with the marble busts of great philosophers, seems to embody tradition, nation, and history, civilization in a word. The estate, like manners, like philosophy, may be an attempt to hold chaos, passion, and trouble at a distance, an inevitably unsuccessful attempt.
Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and his review of The Triumph of Love previously appeared on IdentityTheory.com’s web pages. Contact: D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and firstname.lastname@example.org