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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
Jacques Rivette, who's almost 80 years old, seems now to have definitively abandoned the lighten world he gaves glimpses of in the wonderful "Va Savoir" and in the musical "Haut Bas fragile" (which has more down than up), two movies full of youth and wit. He gets back with "Histoire de Marie et Julien" in 2003 in a darker and saddest universe (and also, let's be honest, a way more boring one). "Ne touchez pas la hache", with its depressive tone, its damaged story and its Balzac's "Histoire des 13" adaptation, definitely belongs to the second part of Rivette's movies (that is darker and boring...), but manage to be much more passioning than Rivette's last opus.
The movie is a cinematographic translation of Balzac's "La Duchesse de Langeais", where everything, from the structure in three parts with a flashback, to the dialogs, is respected. This serious exercise is a little bit academic, but the lack of imagination is tempered by the Romanesque density of the book, which keeps the spectator's interest awake during the all movie. This fidelity to the sad and unconsumed love story sometimes brings interesting and unpredictable changes. The turning point of the movie, which tells the seduction of an intrepid General by duchess full of frivolity, has for example a very different aspect in the book and in the movie, even if it's exactly the same thing. The scene deals with Montriveau kidnapping Antoinette, as a demonstration of his will, love and power, and she'll deadly falls in love with him, as a consequence of this act. In the realistic yet dramatic world of Balzac's "Histoire des 13", this act is absolutely credible and logic, but in the soft and slow universe of Rivette, the scene almost appears unreal, as if it's only one of the Duchesse's phantasm, and you have to wait until the end to get ride of this unreality's veil.
The movie is for that reason absolutely faithful to Balzac, but also absolutely personal and definitely belongs to Rivette's personal universe. And the interest of the movie would have stayed relative, if the actors didn't bring live and movement to this static motion picture. It's indeed Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu (most impressive in a intense and tortured Montriveau-Balzac) that creates the tension and the emotions, which would certainly have lack to this movie without them.
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