Prince Agis (resident hunk Jay Rodan) lives in seclusion by the hardhearted philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his scientist sister, Leontine (Fiona Shaw), both of whom lead a secluded cerebral existence that sneers at notions of passion. This is the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, the cycle during the 1700s when mankind emerged from centuries of ignorance into a new epoch governed by logic. People of the Enlightenment period were convinced that human reason could locate the natural laws of the universe. Love has no place in their philosophy, and so Prince Agis is trained to mistrust it. His stodgy guardians would never allow a beautiful woman in their estate, so the devious princess (aka Phocion, aka Aspasie, played by Mira Sorvino), along with her handmaiden (Rachael Stirling), sport male drag to become buddies with Agis.
Clare Peploe adapted the English-language script with her husband, Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci (who serves as the movie’s producer). Like their last collaborative effort, Besieged, in which music eclipsed poetry as the language of love, their delightful 18th century romp describes a force beyond words, an urge so primal that it cannot fit the pretentious psychobabble of modern "relationships." Peploe’s camera takes its cue from this model and remains in constant motion, dipping around triangular hedges, peeking over lanterns, and lending the sneaky thrills of a detective. The elegant Tuscan manor, with its scowling busts of Greek philosophers, sets the tone of tidy Rationalism, but the riotous garden fits the giddiness of Romanticism. When the girls sneak onto the grounds and steal warm fistfuls of grapes, the scene hints at increasing chaos to come. Before the tale’s uproarious finale, the princess has flitted from one gender to another, from charming rake to blushing ingénue, and promises marriage to a trio of hearts. Clothes make the man, or in this case, the woman into a man. Flattery will get her everywhere, but only Prince Agic loves Phocion for who she is, not what she says.
It’s not an easy task, translating a play to the vastly different medium of film, but Peploe’s nontraditional direction deserves kudos. Throughout the frenetically-paced performance, Peploe strips away the theatrical façade and inserts shots of a modern audience sitting on folding chairs and watching the goings-on. She never lets us forget that this is a postmodern performance, a self-conscious hallucination. When the curtain falls, the actors bow in their ordinary clothes, reminding us that each day, we also play a variety of roles, none less imaginary than theirs.