If it has been years since you attended to Stendhal’s great novel, The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century, or perhaps you were too busy with your own amours and revolutions to have time for it, I can recommend the 1997 French TV production for a quick catch-up. Beautifully cast and acted with fabulous location shots in rural France and Paris — including an unforgettable love duel-of-the-eyes at L’Opera, which you can still visit on your next trip and decide where the lady in red was sitting.

Said to be the first major novel which incorporated psychological motivations, the posturings of pride, the falling in and out of love, and above all the effect of love’s reinvigorating itself in the face of  third party interest, are exquisitely detailed in Stendhal’s original writing, and are very well done in Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe’s 4 hour homage.

Julien Sorel, [Kim Rossi Stuart] the callow carpenter’s son, who is taken in as a tutor to the son(s) of Madame Reynal [Carole Bouquet] and her husband, the Mayor of Verrier [Bernard Verley] , is simply fetching with his square features and dark eyes steady on the ladies.   Madame Reynal, 9 years older than 19 year old Julien, is a pure pleasure to watch as she resists and then falls in her first real love to the young man. Oh, such backing and forthing!  Impetuosity, regrets, yieldings, confessions.  Perhaps we don’t see quite as clearly in the movie as in the novel how strongly Julien’s ambitions motivate him, but to the watchful eye they are there.

The second part, of novel and movie, follow Julien to Paris where he is up to his ladder-climbing escapades in short order with the fabulously wealthy, and willful daughter, Mathilde de la Môle [Judith Godrèche] of the Marquis de la Môle [Claude Rich].  Whether Mathilde is as beautiful as Madame Reynal, or not, the viewer will decide in the heat of the moment.  Again the movie doesn’t quite make as clear the degrees of antagonism between the two, that eventually succumb to the toxic mix of ambition, pride, carnalityand danger.  There is more than a whiff of masochism in Mathilde’s eventual succumbing to Julien after he “proves” he loves her with a sword to her throat.  ‘Oh!  He was ready to kill me!  He must love me!’  As improbable as it seems, both novel and film make us believe.

This is all taking place in 1829-30.  Napoleon has been dead for 8 years, though not in the hearts of Julien and many others of the lower orders who cannot abide what Charles X and the aristocracy have done with their opportunities in the Bourbon Restoration.  The movie doesn’t not make it as clear as the novel that a good deal of the attraction Mathilde feels for Sorel is his bold, incautious, Napoleonic ardor, and his political hopes for a return to a rule of the people.  It only becomes clear in Julien’s speech in his own “defense” at his trial for the shooting, in a jealous rage, of Madam Reynal. Segueing with the genius of rage he avows his love for Madame Reynal and his eternal enmity for those who scorn and threaten him.  The revolution is coming!

And indeed it does.  As Sorel is taken to the guillotine, the streets of Paris are erupting in the Three Glorious Days of the July Revolution of 1830.  The House of Bourbon gathers up its frock coats and departs.  The House of Orleans, in the person of Louis Philippe, agrees to become a constitutional monarchy. A month later, inspired by the French  revolt against their king, the Catholic citizens of the southern part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, revolt against the Dutch king and establish the Kingdom of Belgium.  So goes history.

All things considered — good looks, great scenery, desperate bodice ripping and a  fair encapsulation of a great book, this is one period piece you should strongly consider.