Like Madame Defarge, you'll want to bring your knitting to "La Nuit de Varennes," a cumbersome costume drama set in 1791, two years after the storming of the Bastille. It's 21/2 hours of swish burlesque and highfalutin badinage, mostly inside a stagecoach aimed for Alsace.
The coach is crammed with the 18th century's version of jet-setters: Casanova (Marcello Mastroianni), Thomas Paine (Harvey Keitel) and Restif de la Bretonne (Jean- Louis Barrault). New German cinema star Hanna Schygulla also stars as Countess Sophie, lovely lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette.
Italian director Ettore Scola and Sergio Amidei coauthored this historical fiction about the flakiness of the French upper crust, blithe when it should have been wary. Scola's cavalcade is a little like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and a lot like Steve Allen's "Meeting of the Minds," only more obscure and scholarly.
The trip begins when Restif, playing detective, follows Countess Sophie, who has taken the coach with her black maid and gay hairdresser. Restif suspects she is tailing King Louis XVI to the border where he hopes to gain Prussian support.
Later, Restif and newfound traveling companion Casanova catch the coach and climb aboard. (The coach seems to have the seating capacity of a scenic cruiser.) The aging Lotharios regale the other passengers -- including an opera singer from Bologna and a winemaker's widow -- with tales of virility while the countess' maid cavorts with a callow revolutionary on the overhead baggage carrier.
Talk turns to Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and its inflammatory impact on the bourgeoisie. And the patronizing Paine notes that divine right exists "so that after a lion, an ass may sit at the throne." And so on and so on. Pinkies up.
Also sharing the fateful ride are a soldier, an arms manufacturer and a dog named Monsieur Baldi. The long day's journey ends off course at Varennes, where King Louis, captured by the town postmaster, is being held in a candle boutique.
"Travel broadens" is the kindest thing we can say, though there's nothing a film editor with a sharp guillotine couldn't fix. LA NUIT DE VARENNES -- At the Avalon.