Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can’t even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille’s really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety.
This is a real comedown after the first film in the series, which ended with Angelique de Peyrac enduring an abrupt fall from grace and apparently aligning herself with the Parisian underworld, bent on vengeance. Wonderful Angélique, however, turns out to be a much more straightforward romantic melodrama, showing Angelique as a status-driven career woman and serial monogamist who pulls herself out of poverty as an entrepreneurial restaurateur and hitches herself to royalty by marrying her cousin, Philippe de Plessis-Bellieres (Claude Giraud). She starts the film in thrall to her old sweetheart Nicolas (Giuliano Gemma), eventually falls for the anti-authoritatarian provocateur known as the “dirty poet” (Jean-Louis Trintignant) — the kind of charming rogue who introduces himself by groping your breasts while you sleep — and finally settles for Philippe. There’s a callback to the assassination plot from the first film, but the storyline feels much more middle-of-the-road-historical-romance this time around and the sense of rollicking, slightly bawdy fun has been diminished. Angélique’s wardrobe is still an enticingly fabulous manifestation of costume drama and the whole thing is lovely to look at but somehow the woman herself seems to have lost a stake in the story as appealingly fierce edge of Michéle Mercier’s performance has been dulled. A disappointment.
While the standard-bearers of the nouvelle vague were off making stuff like The Soft Skin, Contempt, and Muriel, le cinema du papa was cranking right along with this historical potboiler, a romance about the lavish and dangerous love shared between Angélique (Michèle Mercier), the daughter of a poor nobleman living in the French countryside, and Joffrey de Peyrac (Robert Hossein), a wealthy count with a reputation for deviltry who essentially buys her hand in marriage. Peyrac takes Angelique away from the common people she loves — and from Nicolas (Giuliano Gemma), the strapping young fieldhand who first took her fancy — but wins her over by declining to force himself on her. Instead, the cold, cold cockles of her heart are thawed when the limping, scarred Peyrac manages to perforate the chest of a rival in a swordfight. By contemporary standards, this is hilarious stuff — yet somehow it’s still stirring, swooning through its melodramatic paces with the speed and slippery, unstoppable heft of the proverbial greased pig. Think of a Francophone cross between Gone With the Wind and Barbarella.
Near the beginning of Angels and Insects, our romantic protagonist courts the object of his very sexual affections in odd fashion. That scene, which involves a veritable swarm of butterflies and moths crawling across the woman’s clothing and skin, is a good indicator of the film’s ambitions. Putting a Victorian estate under the microscope, Angels and Insects postulates that this family unit, with sons, daughters and servants all tending slavishly to the needs of a bloated matriarch, is something less sophisticated and more distasteful than your average backyard ant farm.
William Adamson (Mark Rylance) is an outsider among the blueblooded Alabasters, the family whose patriarch, Sir Harald (Jeremy Kemp), rescued the young naturalist from a disastrous shipwreck. He is allowed to live with the Alabasters as Harald’s assistant, and swiftly falls under the spell of the oldest daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit). This courtship among the insects is the film’s most direct metaphor, and its most satisfying conceit. As William confesses his love to Eugenia, he looses upon her what first seem to be the world’s loveliest butterflies. But soon, Eugenia is beset by the unsightly male counterparts to the beautiful females, which crawl across her body, drawn by female pheromones.
The trauma of that experience isn’t enough to derail the romance, which unfolds to the chagrin of Eugenia’s brother, Edgar (Douglas Henshall), who considers William an unfit suitor. Edgar’s sneering insults grow more and more provocative, but William resists his verbal exhortations to physical battle and marries Eugenia. His assimilation into the family is thus made literal, and Harald seems rather fond of the young man — but Edgar won’t let up, spouting continually about how little William knows of the world, and the significance of his improper breeding.
This socio-scientific Darwinism is as much a key to Angels and Insects as are the butterfly and ant-farm metaphors (when Eugenia proves herself to be less than an ideal lover, William bides his time with a detailed study of an ant colony on the estate). For the first hour or so, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, gamely tracking all of the asides, double entendres, and allegorical declamations. Philip Haas’s screenplay tries to cram all the thematic concerns of its source material (the novella Morpho Eugenia, by retro-Victorian scribe A.S. Byatt) into the two-hour space of a feature film, but it’s a little much.
Those concerns spill over from the story and dialogue into the film’s visual grammar, as well. While the overall production design is sumptuous and striking, the movie’s infatuation with its own color sceme grows tiring. For instance, when Kensit turns up in one of her show-stopping gowns, an unlikely peacock blue fringed in blood red, the effect is an imperfect distillation of the Peter Greenaway Effect — decidely garish in appearance, but relatively graceless in execution. More effective for my money is the less specific sense of dread that infuses the proceedings, especially in the scenes leading up to the marriage of the unlikely lovers.
So maybe it’s because the film wore me out in its first section that I found the second half fairly tedious. It’s mostly a waiting game. We know that Kristin Scott Thomas (she plays Matty Crampton, the family tutor) gets billing above Kensit, so her role will soon become prominent. The ad campaign has assured us that there’s a “startling” revelation in the final reels, but the punch is telegraphed across most of the movie. And, of course, we know that something’s got to give — and it does.
That having been said, the movie does have its pleasures. The performances are decidedly less mannered than we’ve come to expect from costume drama, and Rylance and Henshall make deliciously credible intellectual adversaries. I’ll even go out on a limb for Kensit, whose vaguely unsettling concupiscent charms have never before been put to such perfect use. The cinematography is lush and surprising, and the atmosphere is boldly creepy.
The opening credits sequence, which flash back to Adamson and a troupe of Amazonian dancers frolicking in the firelight, is more honestly sexual than anything that follows, and we get the sense that he was never happier than he was among the natives (as if to underscore the point, the titular letters spelling out Angels cross the screen in front of the dancers). This sequence, beautifully edited by the director’s wife, Belinda Haas, helps us understand the libidinous freedom that Adamson craves, even as he takes a luscious wife in an ostensible paradise. While the inhabitants of a less seething Victorian tableaux might negotiate apparently charmed paths to a satisfying but unlikely happy ending, we are made to grow more and more certain that the only resolution to the Victorian dilemma postulated by Angels and Insects is escape.