Adapted from a play by Pierre Marivaux, a popular French dramatist of the day, the story takes a satirical swipe at the au courant philosophy of the era, rationalism, which extolled reason -- rather than observation, experience, faith, religion, or emotion -- as the guiding principle in life. Long on talk and short on action, the movie can't help but betray its theatrical roots. Even the gorgeous Italian locations and constantly roving camera can't dispel the staginess of some of the scenes. That may be intentional, however, as at various points during the film director Clare Peploe (High Season, Rough Magic) deliberately suggests that what we are watching actually is a play.
In defiance of the recent trend in updating costume dramas to appeal to a younger audience (think of the wealth of Shakespeare plays reset in high school for the leap to the big screen), Peploe has retained the play's original time period. As the story opens, the princess and her lady-in-waiting are wriggling out of their corsets and into the fashionable britches of privileged young noblemen. It's all part of a plan, concocted by the princess, to win the affections of a young man whom she has only glimpsed from afar, but whose fair looks already have won her heart.
Unfortunately, she is the last person on Earth whom he wants to meet, given that he is the rightful heir to her throne -- through no fault of the princess, of course. To make matters worse, Agis (Jay Rodan) has been raised to distrust emotion and to shun romantic love. His guardians, the philosopher Hemocrates (Sir Ben Kingsley) and Hemocrates' sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw), are proponents of rationalism.
Pretending to be a young scholar, the princess talks her way into Hemocrates' villa and in no time at all (the action takes place in one day) has seduced not only Agis but also the pompous philosopher and his romantically challenged spinster sister. The princess is now faced with the task of how to extricate herself gracefully from two of the three.
Although Triumph of Love is clearly intended as a good-natured and comic discourse on affairs of the heart, it's difficult to ignore the fact that the manipulative young heroine basically lies and deceives people in order to achieve her goal. To reject the story on such grounds would be preposterous, yet the viewer can't help but think that if a male protagonist tried the same thing, the audience surely would protest.
Special mention should be made of Jason Osborn's score, an appealing mix of 18th-century chamber pieces and electric guitar, courtesy of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. Music, by its very nature emotional, serves as a nice counterpoint to all the talk of logic and reason.
The silly plot and, at times, overly broad comedy get a bit wearing -- this is the type of story that throws comic relief on top of what's already an airy comedy -- but the film is worth seeing for Sorvino alone. The actress hasn't been this good since Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, a role that couldn't be more dissimilar. As the princess, she's absolutely irrepressible, so full of life and energy that she barely seems to touch her feet to the ground. That all the actors perform their parts as if staging a play is part of the film's conceit. This fact may also explain why so many Shakespearean lines keep wafting through one's mind while watching the film, chief among them "Oh, what fools these mortals be" and, of course, "All's well that ends well."