A great film artist who works best on small canvases, France's Eric Rohmer breaks new ground at the age of 81 with his new film, "The Lady and the Duke," renewing himself by taking advantage of digital-age technologies to look back on the history of both France and the cinema.

"The Lady and the Duke" is a vivifying film, though it's done in such a strange style that it takes a while to get used to it. The action is depicted in theatrical tableaux against painted backdrops of 18th-century period settings that were then digitized.

Lovers of Rohmer and of classical cinema, however, will have few problems. A fresco of the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of a real-life Scottish-French aristocrat, Lady Grace Elliott, this is a work that, in some ways, looks more like an old man's film than Rohmer's usual fare, the intellectual romances set among contemporary French young people -- which he made his metier from the "Six Moral Tales" of the '60s and '70s through his recent '90s "Four Seasons" series.

Those films often revolved around the constant theme of lovers temporarily swerved from their more permanent liaisons into accidental "adventures." "The Lady and the Duke" takes a similarly "moral" view of romance. It's the story of a non-physical love (one in which sex is past) set against the tempestuous battleground of the Revolution. Meticulously following Elliott's actual journal, and retaining its ornate language, the film portrays Lady Grace (Lucy Russell) and her one-time lover, the "radical" aristocrat, Philippe, Duc de l'Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), as the French Revolution deteriorates into a wave of bloodshed, the late despots of a unjust country reaping a whirlwind of hatred from the "sans-culottes," or lower classes.

With her friends falling victim to the guillotine, Lady Grace's defiance would have made her a heroine in the era of Scarlett O'Hara and the Scarlet Pimpernel. She's a "lady" who retains dignity, courage and silken beauty even as the world around her explodes. The Duke of Orleans, meanwhile, is more a tragic protagonist of the post-revolutionary '60s and afterward, an aristocrat of advanced ideas, sympathetic to the revolution and antipathetic to his cousin Louis XVI, yet unable to save himself as the revolt turns ritual of slaughter.

Here, character, is everything. Russell, whose primary credit up to now was Christopher ("Memento") Nolan's early film, "Following," plays Lady Grace as the epitome of beauty, quiet courage and noblesse oblige, refusing to flee France and risking her life to rescue a man whom she dislikes (Champcenetz, played by Leonard Cobiant). Dreyfus, a fleshy, familiar, mournful-eyed figure from scores of films (notably "Fitzcarraldo" and "Delicatessen") plays the Duke as a man of goodwill sabotaged by his own principles, a well-meaning sensualist and liberal sinking in a sea of violence.

The story is fascinating, but just as intriguing is the way Rohmer tells it: as an unabashed classical history, done in a highly theatrical fashion, against artificial backgrounds derived from 37 backdrops executed by Jean-Baptiste Marot in the style of early 19th-century salon landscape paintings.

I loved the look of this film. These charming views of the Place de la Concorde (then the Place Louis XIV), the Rue Saint-Honore, the Boulevard St. Martin and Lady Grace's mansion at Meudon give the movie a weirdly old-fashioned feel and tone, as if it were something shot in a 1930s French studio -- or perhaps even earlier, in the time of Georges Melies and the young Abel Gance. Even the story itself, transferred faithfully from Lady Grace's memoirs, recalls the tone of silent classics from the '20s, like D.W. Griffith's "Orphans of the Storm" or Gance's "Napoleon."

As in Rohmer's two previous period films, 1975's "Percreview" (after Chretien de Troyes) and "The Marquise of O" (after Kleist), he is also telling a story consonant with his contemporary tales: of a sexless, "moral" love. But he is evoking as well a time of sudden death and extreme violence. Far from being static, the film's style helps generate enormous tension, especially in the scenes when Lady Grace hides Champcenetz or faces Robespierre's police and courts. She and all the characters seem trapped in these tableaux, just as the aristocrats are bound by their traditions and the revolutionaries imprisoned by ideology and hate.

Does that make "The Lady and the Duke" a conservative historical romance, a right-winger's take on revolution?

Rohmer has insisted that he has no overt political agenda here -- even though he was famously deposed as "Cahiers du Cinema's" editor, by a quasi-Marxist putsch in the mid-'60s. But Rohmer is famous for only showing on screen that which he admires, and he seems moved less here by the characters' political convictions than their personal morality in the face of social dissolution. Lady Grace is a conservative monarchist, the Duke a revolutionary member of congress. Yet they stay true to themselves and each other to the end. It's a love that survives war and death in a film that -- thanks to Rohmer, his cast and the paintings of Marot -- survives time.

3 1/2 stars
"The Lady and the Duke"
Directed and written by Eric Rohmer; based on Grace Elliott's "Journal of My Life During the French Revolution"; photographed by Diane Baratier; edited by Mary Stephen; art direction by Antoine Fontaine; paintings by Jean-Baptiste Marot; music by Becourt (opening credits) and Francois-Joseph Gossec (end credits), conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire; produced by Francoise Etchegaray. English and French, subtitled. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; 773-871-6604. Running time: 2:09. No MPAA rating (family, with caution for disturbing themes of war and violence).
Grace Elliott -- Lucy Russell
Philippe, le Duc de l'Orleans -- Jean-Claude Dreyfus
Dumouriez -- Francois Marthouret
Champcenetz -- Leonard Cobiant
Nanon -- Caroline Morin Dec le Biron -- Alain Libolt

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.