Bertrand Tavernier’s Let Joy Reign Supreme is one of the most confusing films I have ever seen. The intentions, to bring to life the turbulent era of the Regency of Philippe, Duc d’Orléans (Philippe Noiret), are clear enough. Perhaps those intentions are the source of the problem, for Joy crams a lot into its two hours. It is an excessive film about an excessive era, not because it revels in the abundance and joyous spectacle of the privileged few, but because it throws together so much that the results are less pleasurable than bewildering.
You need a crash course in French history to be able to follow what is going on. Tavernier stages events so quickly that understanding the relationship between them is nearly impossible. This is definitely not one of those costume films that sink under the weight of their period recreation. Every effort is made to present a gaudy, debauched era as it might have been experienced by its participants, rather than as a stately procession. No detail of everyday life is spared us. Tavernier can’t seem to get enough of the recurring theme of servants carrying slop buckets around for noblemen to relieve themselves, for example. One arcane event after another—a revolt of nobles in Brittany, the abduction of people off the streets of Paris to be sent to the colonies in Louisiana and Mississippi, the speculation and collapse of Law’s bank, the sexual preferences and capacities of the major characters, Louis XV’s first ejaculation, and on and on and on—certainly keep you fixated on events, but there is little sense of their significance.
The central story, such as it is, focuses on the machinations of the Abbé Dubois (Jean Rochefort) to become an Archbishop. It is typical of the film that the Abbé’s maneuvers are both complicated and pointless, because it is never clear whether even he knows why he wants the honor. At best, they serve to show the Regent’s lack of resolution and conviction. At a stretch, one could argue that the pointlessness of the Abbé’s plotting is the point, that this was an era when bored, cosseted people schemed as a way of life to fend off a suffocating ennui. Maybe, but if that is indeed the film’s purpose, it doesn’t make for very coherent viewing.
For all the luxurious surroundings, elegant costumes, gorgeous women and sumptuous repasts, Joy is not even particularly enjoyable as sensuous spectacle. Perhaps Tavernier set out to prove that the Regency era was more grotesque than gratifying. Certainly the contrived ending, in which the accidental death of a peasant boy inspires the victim’s sister to rise up in a prefiguration of the Revolution, suggests a moralizing purpose. The fact that her anger is seventy years premature feels like both perfect 20-20 hindsight and an insulting reminder that the party will soon be over. If Tavernier thought the audience was in danger of having too much fun, he needn’t have worried.