It is perhaps a strange irony that the most performative literary genre, the play, rarely adapts well to the cinema. In the small gap between live performance on a stage and recorded performance on a set or dressed location, the difference between genius and imbecility lurks. This is made clear in Clare Peploe's adaptation of the 1732 play by Marivaux, The Triumph of Love, which despite its playful treatment of gender and flirtation with polyamory, fails to translate 18th-century sources of merriment into 21st-century comedy. Peploe injects the slightest of postmodern touches - an audience seated in transparent plastic chairs occasionally appears, looking frightfully bored - and sprinkles on a calcifying patina of progressive gender politics - the middle-aged Leontine is a scientist and seems to discover how to generate electricity. Though the soundtrack is mostly dominated by Rameau and a classically inflected score by Jason Osbourn, an electric guitar pops up at emotional moments, doodling at melodies that are not at all benefited by amplification. Such signs of contemporary provenance are jarring and distracting, but they are also rather slight and half-hearted. Rather than go for broke, Peploe makes a mere gesture at reinterpretation, and so makes neither a frightfully modern new version, nor an especially scintillating recreation of the original play.
Though produced by Bernardo Bertolucci (incidentally or not, the director's husband), and dominated by a story of seduction, deceit, and titillation, The Triumph of Love retreats to prudishness, partly faithful to Marivaux and partly a coy castration of the transgressive elements of the story. Mira Sorvino stars as a princess who disguises herself as an ardent young man in order to gain access to the rightful heir to the throne (Jay Rodan), who hates her as the daughter of the usurper. He is guarded by the misogynist philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his repressed sister (Fiona Shaw), while she is aided by her portrait-painting lady-in-waiting Corine (Rachael Stirling). The princess's plot involves seducing all three and ultimately restoring the rightful heir to the throne, without giving it up, by marrying him. All this is aided by two servants straight out of commedia dell'arte, Harlequin and Dimas (Ignazio Oliva and Luis Molteni). They are the only two Italians in the cast, which leads to an unfortunate ethnic metaphor: the aristocrats are all British and American, while the servants, buffoonish to a fault, are Italians speaking English with exaggerated accents.
Kingsley and Shaw both give deeply felt performances, too good for such a fluffy approach, and their inevitable, cruel disappointment shimmers like genuine gold on a bed of glitter. The effect, however, is to cast the dross into clearer light, thus highlighting the superficiality of the adaptation. It is upon Sorvino's shoulders that the weight of the film falls and she is not quite equal to it, never at all convincing as an ardent adolescent and too melting for a princess capable of such easy deception. She is not aided by a wooden performance by Rodan, who comes alive only when called to vigorous physical action, shooting arrows and stealing kisses with a zeal never felt in his line readings.
The Triumph of Love suffers not from being too stage-bound and static, as many play adaptations do, but from the resulting overcompensation. The camera swoops around trees, through carriage windows, and across long rooms, there are frequent jump cuts (at least some of which are meant to be self-consciously modern, but that more often come off as amateurish, or more worryingly, as though they couldn't get a decent shot together without one), and characters are constantly running about, presumably in order to do the next scene in a fresh location. The insistence on the possibilities of cinema, all those dynamic touches impossible in the live theatre, exposes the theatrical seams.
Since Marivaux's play resists being contorted into anything we could call 'realistic,' the filmmakers try to run the other way, into artificiality, affectation, and farce. Interestingly, the original play was a notable failure, possibly as a result of its heroine seducing multiple characters of both genders. This subversive element seems to beg for a deeper exploration of the dynamics of power, gender, sexuality, and monarchy, but the filmmakers get snarled up in the creaky turnings of the dramatic wheel. Rather than a fun, if slow-moving, romp in wigs and panniers, one longs for an anarchic dive into the treacherous waters of political and sexual machination, a pastoral Dangerous Liaisons or a gender-bent Rapunzel. This film is an attempt at a cappuccino without the espresso shot, and thus, despite its glossy costumes and sophisticated vocabulary, proves un-stimulating.