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André S. Labarthe
In Majorca, in 1823, a French general, Armand de Montriveau, overhears a cloistered nun singing in a chapel; he insists on speaking to her. She is Antoinette, for five years he has searched for her. Flash back to their meeting in Paris, he recently returned from Africa, she married and part of the highest society. She flirts with him, and soon he's captivated. His behavior is possessive, insistent. Then, it is her turn to become obsessed. Letters, balls, scandal, a kidnapping, and an ultimatum bring her to the cloister and him to melancholy. Whose steel proved sharper? Is it tragic or grotesque? Written by
Casts aspersions on the artificiality of French high society
The novels of French writer Honore de Balzac concern themselves with the corrupting influence of society's illusions and express disdain for the shallow games people play. This theme is especially present in his short story "Don't Touch the Axe", later titled "La Duchesse de Langeais" after it was incorporated into his larger work known as "La Comedy Humaine". This story that casts aspersions on the artificiality of French high society in the early 1800s and the stilted rules that govern their affairs has now been brought to the screen by 80-year-old French auteur Jacques Rivette. Originally planned in 1948 as a collaboration of the talents of Greta Garbo and James Mason, directed by Max Ophuls, Rivette's thirty-first feature film, The Duchess of Langeais, is a period piece that faithfully follows Balzac's text yet contains touches of Rivette's wry humor in a way that Balzac probably did not envision.
Slow paced and exquisitely detailed, the film opens in a convent on the Spanish isle of Majorca. Armand de Montriveau, a General and a war hero in Napolenon's army is played by Guilliame Depardieu, son of the great French actor Gerard Depardieu. Armand has found his lover, Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), after a five year search and is granted one interview with the now Carmelite nun. Interrupted by intertitles that indicate a character's internal state or the passage of time, the story flashes back five years to tell the tale of the thwarted lovers and their sexless passion. At a social event, Montriveau asks for an introduction to the stately Duchess of Langeais, a scion of a highly placed family, who he views across the next room. It is apparent from the outset that the two live in different worlds. The Duchess exists in a society of dances and balls where everything revolves around manners while Montriveau is a soldier who is awkward and unrefined.
She is married but her husband is not seen, allowing Montriveau the opening to court her with stories of his desert escapades. His story becomes extended over several nights as the Duchess fakes illness and disinterest, and his telling of the story becomes only an excuse for their continued meetings. Balibar is mesmerizing as she draws her lover close then pushes him away until their romance becomes little more than a tug of war with intricate battle plans laid on both sides. Although Armand claims to be desperately in love, he is a passive suitor, devoted to satisfying her whims but not his desire. When he finally becomes the pursued rather than the pursuer, the table is set for emotional distress and increased psychological warfare. In the film's most dramatic moment, Montriveau stages a kidnapping that is intended to impress Antoinette with his intractable frustration but comes off merely as a means of convincing himself.
Rivette is a careful observer as he watches the two warriors thrust and parry, offering a view of love as a tool of power. The tension is played out for such a long time that irritation and boredom eventually sets in but is held in check by the film's elegance and delicate physical beauty. With a feeling of unreality, the floorboards creak as the characters pass over them, lost in their own world, engaged in their rituals as if sleepwalking through a museum. Like a stately painting, The Duchess of Langeais is more to be admired than loved and I was rarely moved, yet days later I find that the film's strange, sad, haunting quality has returned over and over to memory like a sly obsession that has insinuated itself into my mind and refuses to let go.
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