Take any piece of music from the year 1732. It may be good, it may be bad, it may be indifferent, but it represents something almost vanished from the planet: a work that reflects the full application of a mind, unpolluted by diversion, giving itself totally to design, as expressed in intricacy, cleverness, density, depth. In other words, it's fancy!
That is true also of the dramatic arts, as Marivaux's "The Triumph of Love" of that year demonstrates. Given a classy, sprightly spin on film by the writer-director Clare Peploe, the piece represents farce at its most elaborate: You marvel at the formal perfection of detail work as complication leads to complication, the whole of it whirling dizzily toward infinity without ever quite losing touch with its elegantly simple premise and the wretched, vulgar, noble humanity of its characters.
The subject is love. The Princess needs to penetrate a house where the rightful heir to the throne is sequestered. She doesn't want to kill him, she wants to preclude his killing her by co-opting him into a political alliance; but when she sees him, buck nekkid as the day he was born, a he-god Adonis, she wants to co-opt him in, as the French say, le sack as well! (Victorianism was still more than a century away from draping its shroud of stuffy propriety across human lust.)
However -- the complication! -- he is sequestered by a philosopher, an austere figure in a Merlin the Magician hat who has forsworn emotion, especially love, and demands that his pupil live a life of pure rationalism that takes a form of misogyny. Thus, knowing that as a woman she won't be permitted entry and as the Princess she is a sworn enemy, she disguises herself as a man and enters the household.
The actress, Mira Sorvino, has a great deal of fun putting on a manly swagger and throwing her body onto chaises with macho abandon. She works to keep her face dull, her eyes lightless, her voice low. The drag deal is as old as Shakespeare and never quite believable, but part of the brilliance here is how quickly she yields her identity to get what she wants.
In the house -- one of those begardened Italianate estates -- she seduces the three principals: the young man, easy; the older man, easier; and the sister. The sister! you say. In 1732! Well, the first two quickly see through the first level of her masquerade (they recognize that she's a woman but not that she's a princess); the third, the sister, some kind of daffy scientist, never does see through it.
So there the Princess is with three separate emotional situations going on, each intruding on the other, each meant to replace the illusion of rationality with the delusion of love, each demanding a different personality of her, and a different memory of what has been said. Add to this the fact that people are forever running in and out of rooms with perfect timing, and you have something literally dazzling. It advances an argument, it never strikes a false note, it's funny, and it's got Ben Kingsley in a comic role. Quelle treat!
Sorvino, in a role that demands believable cross-gender disguise, as well as tender beauty, political toughness, two or three good wet cries and flat-out hot need of the carnal variety, may not be most people's idea of a great classical actress. But she clearly relishes the role and is as energetic as she's been since "Mighty Aphrodite."
Kingsley: Well, he's fabulous. In one scene, I just stopped listening to the words and watched how masterfully he manipulated his eyes -- they darted in impatience, they halted in thought, they beamed in and out of focus, they expressed so much without a word being spoken. Amazing. But don't do what I did. Pay attention, because Marivaux actually lent his name to the French language in the word marvaudage, which means the crackly, witty badinage between the sexes. In other words, he taught the world to flirt!
The goofy sister, Leontine, is played by the brilliant British actress Fiona Shaw and Jay Rodan, rather a pretty boy, is the callow Agis, the deposed heir and resident meat-puppet. Everybody is so good you forget they're all dressed in foofy silks and wearing high heels. Kingsley eventually even puts on one of those Cardinal's Henchman curly wigs; he looks a little like an extra from "The Three Musketeers" at that point. But the rustle and bustle of costume never occludes the brilliance of the conceit and the humanity of the performances.
The Triumph of Love (107 minutes, at the Dupont Circle and the Shirlington) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo and dialogue with actual verbs included.