Period films have a very specific aura about them – a degree of refinement that rarely transcends genres. Lady J (French: Mademoiselle de Joncquières) was, much like many other films I come across on Netflix, a fluke. In a truly chameleonic fashion, the story promises to dive into a luscious courtship, but instead ends up draining our wits with its many moral dilemmas. And though the film seemed like it would be a forgettable watch, it has stayed with me for many months. Here’s why.
Netflix’s 2018 French period drama, directed by Emmanuel Mouret, follows Madame de la Pommeraye (Cécile de France) as she begrudgingly falls for libertine Marquis de Arcis (Édouard Baer), fully aware of his reputation. When his attention seems to wander, she decides to mould his next object of adoration, young Mademoiselle de Joncquières (Alice Isaaz), in her own hands – all with a sense of justice waiting promisingly at the end. The wicked journey to a satisfying climax tests Madame de la Pommeraye’s morality, questioning everyone’s unbiased delinquency in the end.
The similarity between Lady J and Stephen Frears’ 1988 period drama Dangerous Liaisons is substantial. In both cases, we are faced with a middle-aged woman trying to punish a man, whose heart obstinately refuses to budge. However, this likeness might have been coincidental. After all, Madame de la Pommeraye seems to genuinely forsake her hope of a reconciliation with the man she is intent on tormenting.
The entire plot seems to be inspired by Denis Diderot’s 1796 novel Jacques the Fatalist, which dissects the issue of moral responsibility and the consequences of adopting a philosophy of determinism. That would explain why the deconstruction of our protagonist, initially akin to Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 Elizabeth, grows increasingly grotesque. While presenting us with the multifaceted complexity of female identity, the film simultaneously challenges our empathy for her, asking whether wickedness has any chance of ever being excusable. Rich in witty dialogue, sumptuous costumes by Pierre-Jean Larroque, and outstanding acting – which equally horrifies and mesmerises – the film is bound to raise a few eyebrows.