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Ridicule is a 1996 French film set in the 18th century at the decadent court of Versaillesmarker, where social status can rise and fall based on one's ability to mete out witty insults and avoid ridicule oneself. The story critiques the social injustices of late 18th century Francemarker, in showing the corruption and callousness of the aristocrats.


The Marquis Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) is a minor aristocrat and engineer living in the Dombesmarker, a boggy region north of Lyonmarker. He is one of the few aristocrats who care about the plight of the peasants. Horrified by the sickness and death caused by the disease-carrying mosquitoes that infest the swamps, he draws up plans to drain them; however, the project is far too costly for him to finance himself, so he goes to Versaillesmarker in the hope of obtaining the backing of King Louis XVI (Urbain Cancelier).

Just before reaching Versailles, Ponceludon is robbed and beaten. He is found by the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), a minor noble and physician. As Ponceludon recuperates at the marquis' house, Bellegarde sympathizes with Ponceludon's mission and takes him under his wing, teaching him about wit (l'esprit), the primary way to be recognized at court, where the aristocracy have taken to comparing themselves to Voltaire—all the while missing the point of their hero's ridicule. At first, Ponceludon's provincial background makes him a target of attacks at parties and gatherings, even though he proves himself a formidable adversary in verbal sparring.

At one such party, he catches L'abbé de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau) cheating at a game of wits, with the help of his lover, Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), a beautiful and rich recent widow of the man who was to have been Ponceludon's sponsor at court. Although Madame de Blayac fears being exposed, Ponceludon assures her that such is not his intention. Blayac repays his generosity by arranging for the certification of his lineage—thereby allowing his suit to proceed. Despite his success, Ponceludon begins to see how hollow and rotten is the tree that is the court at Versailles—a motif that runs throughout the film (his barren swamp-infested land; the dark roads that lead to court; the moral corruption of Versaille, etc.)

The only exception is Mathilde Bellegarde (Judith Godrèche), the doctor's daughter. She has agreed to marry Monsieur de Montaliéri, a rich, old aristocrat whose wife is dying. Her motivation is twofold: to support her science experiments and to help pay off her father's debts. Ponceludon and Mathilde quickly fall in love. As a result, she begins to dread her upcoming marriage.

Sensing a rival for her protegé, Madame de Blayac traps Ponceludon during a dinner party (with her accomplice Motaliéri) where one too many guest has been invited. A contest of wit is used to settle who must make a humiliating departure. Sexually distracted by Blayac, Ponceludon is the loser and is convinced that his disgrace will force him to leave the court. However, he is reminded of why he set out in the first place when a village child dies from drinking contaminated water. During this time, Mathilde appears at court, breaking the terms of her engagement contract.

Vilecourt finally has his moment in the sun: an audience before the king. The abbé initially impresses the king, but then immediately falls out of favor by accidentally blaspheming God in an attempt to be witty, and Blayac turns her attention back to Ponceludon—convincing him to return to Versailles. He sleeps with her in exchange for her assistance; in the end, she arranges a meeting with the king. She maliciously has Mathilde's father attend her in his capacity as a doctor while Ponceludon is still in her bedroom, ensuring that Mathilde learns of their relationship.

During a presentation at court of Charles-Michel de l'Épée's work with deaf people and development of sign language, the nobles ridicule the deaf mercilessly. However, some nobles change their minds when it is shown that the deaf have their own form of wit via sign language puns. In response, de Bellegarde stands and asks how to sign "bravo," leading Ponceludon to rise and clap to show his support. This act of kindness touches Mathilde and they soon make up.

Ponceludon joins the king's entourage and, after showing off his engineering prowess by proposing an improvement to a cannon, secures a private meeting with the king to discuss his project. The embarrassed cannoneer then insults Ponceludon, forcing him into demanding a duel. Madame de Blayac almost persuades him to avoid the duel, but he eventually decides to proceed, under the supervision of de Bellegarde. He kills the cannoneer, but is later informed that Louis XVI cannot meet with someone who has killed one of his officers right after his death, although he is assured that it was right to uphold his honor.

Madame de Blayac is furious when she learns that Ponceludon has left her for Mathilde and plots her revenge. Ponceludon is invited to a costume ball "only for wits." Upon arriving at the ball with Mathilde, he is maneuvered into dancing with Blayac and is tripped. His spectacular fall earns him the derisive nickname "Marquis des Antipodes." Before Ponceludon leaves, he writes on three playing cards, "repartees," "quips" and "paradoxes," an allusion to the cards he once held, before throwing them to the ground. Ponceludon renounces the decadent court life and leaves with Mathilde.

The movie closes in Dovermarker, Englandmarker in 1794, where Bellegarde has fled from the French Revolution. On-screen text tells that citizens Grégoire and Mathilde Ponceludon successfully drained the Dombes and live well in revolutionary Francemarker.






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