The Duchess of Langeais
2007, NR, 137 min. Directed by Jacques Rivette. Starring Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Bulle Ogier, Michel Piccoli, Anne Cantineau, Mathias Jung, Barbet Schroeder.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 20, 2008
Set in 1820s France during the Restoration while Napoleon was in exile and a Bourbon monarch again sat on the throne, Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais moves at an often languid pace that's reflective of an era in which horse-drawn carriages and sealing wax were the norm. But oh, the film's central l'amour fou is as timeless and obsessive as a page ripped from a contemporary psychiatrist's notebook. Based on a novel by Balzac, the story reveals the flip sides of passionate love and hate and how the tale's would-be couple can never get their volatile emotions in sync with each other. The film would probably be better-served if it retained its original French title, Ne Touchez Pas la Hache (Don't Touch the Axe), a much more evocative phrase (especially in the time of the guillotine) taken from a parable told at a key narrative juncture. Depardieu (son of Gérard) plays Gen. Armand de Montriveau, a humbly born Frenchman who has distinguished himself as a Napoleonic war hero. Although he is completely unaware of it, Montriveau is way out of his league when the Duchess of Langeais (Balibar), a married coquette known to her friends as Antoinette, spots him a ball and decides to make him her new plaything. Montriveau falls hopelessly in love, while Antoinette toys with his devotion as the months pass in a swirl of society balls and layers of etiquette that cloak the dishonesty and machinations that govern this upper-crust culture. Eventually, his love curdles into hate, a reaction that finally catches Antoinette's attention. And so it goes, seemingly unto eternity. Balibar and Depardieu make a compelling duo who exude an animal magnetism that's undeniable. Balibar's face is stunning, and the character resembles a pre-Raphaelite figure with a curly head of hair and a bosom made more luscious by the bare empire necklines that frame her many costume changes. And Montriveau, with his unpolished manners and war-injured leg that lends a noticeable clunk to his walk, has a physical presence that is no less remarkable. At one point, Montriveau describes their relationship as "steel against steel," an apt description for their Stanley Kowalski-Blanche "steel magnolia" DuBois-style relationship. Add to this Rivette's exquisite shots that show his attention to historic detail and the unusual array of sounds that punctuates the audio track. Moreover, the movie is broken up by intertitles that regularly appear on the screen and contribute to the film's extremely novelistic feel. Rivette, who has always been the most abstract of the French New Wave filmmakers, is at his most accessible in The Duchess of Langeais. The inextricability of form and content has always been at the forefront of his filmmaking impulse, and this one is no different. It may be slow-going at the outset for some viewers until they get oriented to this film. But The Duchess of Langeais is a far cry from some of his really slow-moving costume dramas and films that have been known to run anywhere from four to 10 hours a pop. The Duchess of Langeais stands with some of the best efforts of Rivette's long career.