Review: The Duchess of Langeais

This Balzac adaptation is a costume drama that bristles with measured passion.

The Duchess of Langeais
Photo: IFC Films

Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais is a reminder that the barnstormers of the French New Wave rebelled not so much against period pieces as they did against the academic style in which they were being made. Like Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., Rohmer’s The Marquise of O, and Rivette’s own The Nun, this Balzac adaptation is a costume drama that bristles with measured passion. Perhaps closer to its severe heart is the director’s little-seen but masterful Hurlevent, fitting since the mutually depleting battle of wills between the two protagonists brings to mind Wuthering Heights. Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) is a general in 1820s France, who, back from the battlefield with a limp and depths of brooding fatalism, becomes fascinated with the Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar). “Manners are all,” Antoinette is reminded by her aunt (Bulle Ogier), and, adhering to the rules of a corseted society, she toys with her admirer’s feelings in an extended game of thwarted seduction. Armand is not one to be toyed with, however: Hardened by life and war, he likens himself to the executioner’s axe of the film’s French title (Don’t Touch the Axe), a weapon that, once touched by a coquettish woman, cuts back mercilessly. Balzac’s story was nearly filmed, tantalizingly, by Max Ophüls in 1948 as Greta Garbo’s comeback vehicle, and The Duchess of Langeais includes a reverent nod to Ophüls in the scene where, given an ominous prophecy by Armand, Antoinette half-defiantly and half-helplessly tries to lose herself in the twirling quadrilles of the ballroom floor. What follows, however, is pure Rivette: An abduction and a confrontation that, complete with branding iron, secret passageways, and the mysterious sound of seagulls, bring the filmmaker’s great themes of theatricality and conspiracy into the stifling, 19th-century chambers. Masterfully wrought and superbly acted (especially by Balibar, who excels at Antoinette’s increasing hunger for emotional violence), the film is a piercing pas de deux that excoriates romance even as its doomed characters are consumed by it.

 Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Anne Cantineau, Mathias Jung, Julie Judd, Marc Barbé, Nicolas Bouchaud, Thomas Durand, Barbet Schroeder  Director: Jacques Rivette  Screenwriter: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette  Distributor: IFC First Take  Running Time: 137 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2007  Buy: Video

Fernando F. Croce

Fernando F. Croce is a San Francisco-based film writer whose work has been published in Film Comment, Reverse Shot, MUBI, and Fandor. He runs the website CinePassion.

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