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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.
Rivette has already shown he is a master in directing movies in
historical settings, as in Jeanne la pucelle or Suzanne Simonin. But in
this one he actually surpassed himself. I find it incredible how he
recreates the atmosphere of the early 19th century, how everything
comes naturally and how details that probably took a lot of time to
research are presented "en passant" rather than pointing out how
different the world was back then, which is a frequent flaw in historic
movies. Also the pictures are are incredibly dense and of rare beauty.
If you want to get an idea what bored aristocrats in the early 19th
century felt like and how they killed their time, this is the movie for
If you are looking for action, a simple plot or references to current issues, stay away from it. Actually I think it is one of the greatest strengths of the movie that Rivette leaves the story in its time and does not try to adapt it to the taste of today's audience (also a very common flaw in historic movies - and a reason why I generally hate them).
As for the story itself, I find it quite plausible and the actors get it across very credibly. However, if you are a sane person with no neurotic traits (I admit I have some) you might find it difficult to understand why the main characters torture each other that way. On the other hand, much of this is also rooted in the time in which the book was written.
And yes, it is artificial, but it is so intently and I don't see anything wrong with that...
Jacques Rivette knows how make his feelings bare, then have them
mysteriously vanish into dark corners. The same could be said about his
characters. The disappearing act takes place when another actor takes
over, but the actor who has gone, stays with you; doesn't move but lies
A modern masterpiece from Rivette which gave me the excitement and awe I experienced when I first encountered Truffaut, Chaplin, Vigo, Renoir, and Becker. For others, it may be Rohmer, Godard, and Rossellini. It will be different for everyone else. I have seen almost all of Rivette's work up unto this point, so by saying this, I don't mean I am experiencing him for the first time. This film just displays that subtle love of film-making I experience when I first saw these filmmakers. The daring moods the film shifts between, carefully holding you tight through the games of passion being battled out between the two main characters.
Its a shame people did not appreciate this; I'm very sorry you didn't. The entire time your minds raced around the desire to hate the pacing of this film, thus the film itself, a great thing of beauty passed by you. You may never see it. I even came across someone who said they had been annoyed by Depardieu's character's wooden leg and found it ridiculous. That is the character and that is also Depardieu. His father's greatness has certainly passed onto him.
To loosely quote Henri Langois: "People are accustomed to crap when they have been fed crap their entire lives. Their throats become coated with it." To the people that have walked out of this film, or the others who have chosen to believe "they know the film's proper length" over the filmmaker's, I'm sorry. But it is an injustice on anyone's part to think they know more about the films of Rivette than Rivette himself.
But to the people out there, the adventurous lovers of the cinema, DO NOT listen to the hostile words surrounding this film. It is splendid. It is another masterstroke in the career of a master like Rivette, and also a blow of justice to the wondrous pages of Balzac.
Jacques Rivette, the grand old late-bloomer of the French New Wave, is
a sacred cow. You must either worship him or turn on him and shatter an
idol. It's no use calling this new film "dull," though Armond White and
Andrew Sarris have emphatically done so. That will make the cinephile
fans call you stupid and impatient and without finesse or taste. It
will only signal that you lacked patience. Had you endured the film's
considerable longueurs with more fortitude, you would be proud and wear
your multiple viewings as a banner of accomplishment, of authenticity.
No, I would not want to fall into the obvious trap of calling this film "dull." But on the other hand, it's only jumping on a fashionable little bandwagon to call it a "masterpiece." It's more appropriate to describe it as a reexamination of history and culture--a film more to be studied than enjoyed. And for anybody, really, it does offer some pleasures. It's not hard to look at. Its authentic period interiors and rich costumes are beautiful and presented with an austerity than only enhances them. It has moments that bring Chereau's 'Gabrielle' to mind (though it's set later)--the recreation of a period that's so starkly emotional it almost becomes contemporary (because we subconsciously think of historical people, especially famous or rich ones, as lacking raw emotions). The crackly fires and creaky floors and flickering candles may seem clichés, but handled with a sure, unadorned European touch they seem fresh, like the Brechtian vérité of Versailles in Rossellini's stunning 1966 'La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV.'
Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu, who play the sparring love-withholding lovers, the Duchesse Antoinette de Langeais and Colonel Armand Marquis de Montriveau, are not cool, and since they play with each other and never make love, it's all the more evident that neither of them has much presence on screen or chemistry with each other. Balibar is thin and long-necked enough to wear her Empire dresses well, but she's no beauty and has no spirit and alas, her voice is a bit whiny. Depardieu, the terribly overshadowed son of the famous father, as Armond White in an excellent if dismissive review writes is a "former dreamboat...hidden behind acne and unkempt facial hair." Supposedly playing the hero of a desert campaign, Depardieu actually limps from a car accident and despite a noble profile and good hair has a face that when seen dead-on seems to disintegrate as from depression or drug abuse or both. That may do for the shattered war hero look, but there isn't much about Guillaume that suggests officer material.
These ill-fitted, unmagical actors are brought together to play two neurotic characters, who, in an unusually focused and formally scripted work for this director, seem like the characters in Catherine Breillat's 'The Last Mistress' (2007), trying to live the lives of eighteenth-century rakes but overcome by nineteenth-century romantic emotions, and in this case a kind of Victorian guilt alternative with the temptation to commit perversion. The colonel has the duchess kidnapped and threatens to brand her. Earlier she's said he's looking at her at a ball as if he had an ax in his hand; the French title is 'Ne touchez pas la hache,' "Don't touch the ax," referring to a superstition about the ax that killed Charles I of England.
She welcomes being branded. So of course he has the hot iron taken away. Isn't this the essence of S&M--to provide the most exquisite torment by withholding torment? Armond White says "Rivette sticks to the melodrama of manners, as if observing a war of social proprieties. Each rendezvous--or missed meeting--of the would-be lovers becomes a game of one-upsmanship. These people are trapped in conventions that they adhere to more than anybody else. They're tragic 19th-century fools--figures from an unfamiliar age who test a modern audience's patience." They do that no doubt, but Rivette deliberately exaggerates the constricting conventions to go beyond naturalism or historical accuracy and make this almost a conceptual piece--and hence not really "Masterpiece Theater" at all (despite Nathan Lee) but something different and more intense and more like Gabrielle--but without Gabrielle's excitement.
And without context. That excitement is partly achieved through great acting and much better casting (Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory, who have a kind of high-octane negative chemistry), but also through a vivid conveyed sense of a surrounding society that is shocked, even as it looks the other way. In The Duchess of Langeais we see only a few relatives, soldiers, and pals, mere appendages, so that despite all the adherence to constricting conventions, the protagonists seem isolated, and free, living in their own invented hell. That's much more a modern idea. Beware a historical film that feels authentic; it's probably even more anachronistic than a conventional one. Despite the duchess' constant attendance at balls, and a couple of dance scenes with nice music, there's not enough sense of a larger society with rules.
Though there are plenty of cards and letters (most of the latter unopened however) and a few moments of voice-over, this is one of those times where a film from a book (or in this case a Balzac novella) needs more verbiage to make sense out of what's going on. You can't say nothing happens--besides the kidnapping there's an attempt to storm a convent. But the story is all about withholding--and we need to know its inner repercussions. Despite Rivette's self control and ability to tease, this is a literary adaptation that doesn't quite work cinematically. The duchess's withholding is due to the fact that, though she is enamored of Armond, or of his love for her, she considers it undignified of her to become his mistress. We need to be told more about the rule book she's following; you can't have a real sense of passion till you know the rules are that it makes people want to break.
FSLC Film Comment Selects Feb. 2008; IFC release.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A crumbling cloister perched high on a cliff on the Spanish coast, a
wounded and rather pathetic general attempting to see a particular nun
in the order living therein, who shun the outside world. This might
seem an unusual beginning for a film by Jacques Rivette, who has more
often traversed a fantasy-land of sorts in modern Paris, but those
familiar with the byways of his filmography will remember several
period films over the course of his long career, most notably the early
The Nun which in many ways foreshadows this late film. An adaptation of
a story by Rivette's favorite writer, Balzac, this story of thwarted
love and societal repression also at various points recalls the
director's obsession with theater, with performance as a daily part of
life, and an ambiguous relationship with Catholicism.
After a short introductory scene where we find that the general's object of longing has indeed joined the convent, a curtain closes as if to suggest that the principals are indeed play-acting, and opens again on a scene 5 years earlier in the drawing rooms of Napoleanic Paris. The eventual nun is Antoinette, the Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), and it is she who begins the cat-and-mouse game that occupies most of the film, spying the limping Marquis de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) at a party and immediately commanding him to call upon her. He does so and from then on a tug of war between the obvious passions, and the duties and strictures of the formal and unforgiving society around them takes over both of their lives with ultimately tragic consequences.
The unattainable or impossible love affair has been a major theme in many of Rivette's works, most obviously "L'Amour fou", "Hurlevent" and "The Story of Marie and Julien". Duchess is cooler, more detached, and has an aura of inevitability or fatalism about it, and it lacks the carnality of those earlier films also, being almost entirely a talky mood-piece - though there is one extraordinary "kidnapping" scene which brings briefly to mind the conspiracy-world of many earlier works. And yet Rivette's always remarkable and thoughtful mise-en-scene, his slow camera movements punctuated by title cards (often at unpredictable points) does develop an aura of suspense and growing fascination. Will Montriveau's eventual finding of his lost Antoinette ultimately result in happiness? In death? In scandal? The film is too honest and stripped of inessentials to allow us an easy guess - its only foreshadowing lies in whatever we bring to it of our own knowledge of human nature.
As usual in Rivette's late work the period detail is exceptional, William Lubtchansky's camera-work is as fine as ever, and the acting is committed. It's nice to see Bulle Ogier again, still beautiful and mysterious in her late 60s, now playing a supporting role (the wise and imperious aunt) but still dominating the screen in her couple of scenes. The production design (by Emmanuel de Chauvigny, who has worked with the director for years) is also wonderful - one of the things I love so much about Rivette is that he pays so much attention to texture, to the look and feel of doors and wallpaper, lamps and tables. Only David Lynch comes to mind as a contemporary director so consistently committed to these kinds of details and the "feel" of objects.
Overall this doesn't feel quite like major Rivette to me, but like his previous "Marie and Julien" I'm still thinking about it, and liking it more the more I reflect. Canadian-release DVD watched.
France is one of those few film making nations where the tradition of making films based on best selling as well as famous books continues to flourish as there is a huge cinema literate public which is always willing to welcome such films. This phenomenon has also a lot to do with the fact that a lot of French writers have transformed themselves into directors after having started their careers as writers. One can cite the names of writers such as Michel Houellebecq, Virginie Despentes, Yann Moix and Vincent Ravalec who have also worked behind the camera. By directing 'The Duchess of Langeais'/'Ne Touchez Pas La Hache' in 2006, it is after a long period of 41 years that French director Jacques Rivette has made a film based on a famous classic of French literature. Famous French writer of 'enlightenment period' Denis Diderot was the first person whose name was included in Rivette's Filmography as in 1965 when he chose to direct "La Religieuse" based on Diderot's famous novel about the tough live of a young nun. For the film 'The Duchess of Langeais', Jacques Rivette decided to film one of Honoré De Balzac's famous novels "La Duchesse De Langeais" which appeared in 1834 under the title 'Ne Touchez Pas La Hache". By making this film, Rivette has done an excellent job of faithfully adapting Balzac in order to give his actors Jeanne Balibar & Guillaume Depardieu a chance to render some true to life performances. There are also good performances by some big names of French cinema namely Bulle Ogier, Marc Barbé, Michel Piccoli and Barbet Schroeder. Rivette's film is about the cunning games of love and seduction which noble men and women played in olden times. Those were brilliant times when duels were fought on amazingly simple pretexts to protect one's honor in love. This is a film for those who enjoy good cinema as well as for all admirers of French culture, civilization and language.
Honoré De Balzac's novel 'La Duchesse Du Langeais' has been transformed
by screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer for the screen as 'Ne Touchez Pas a la
Hache' and the result is a mixture of proscenium stage pictures, and
scenes separated by written dialog that merely lets the viewer know
such unnecessary details such as that fact that time has passed, and
well over two hours of an uninvolved courtship between a sensualist and
a coquette. While it is a pleasure to remember the times of Balzac and
his way with lusty themes, watching this film version can be tedious -
Fans of director Jacques Rivette will find much to enjoy in this adaptation: the pacing of the film feels important to his concept of the development of the story - the stifling boredom of the evenings of balls in Paris and the isolation of the soldiers' lives, deprived of the companionship of lovely ladies. He has cast Jeanne Balibar as the title character Antoinette De Langeais , a married lady of means with a penchant for flirting and coquettish behavior with important men, and Guillaume Depardieu as General Armand De Montriveau, a war hero who lost his leg and returns to Paris vulnerable for love, namely in the instant attraction to Antoinette. The tale is one of a game of the General's passionate love and the duchess' toying with his advances until a climax is reached which changes the approach of each character with rather disastrous consequences for both.
As a period piece the film works well: the costumes and settings are splendid and the scenes in the endless ballrooms are full of grace and lovely music. But the flow of the encounters between Antoinette and Armand are an interminable series of momentary repetitious encounters with a sound track that seems bent on capturing the opening and closing of doors and the loud pacing of the crippled general as he enters and leaves the naughty lady's chamber. There is little to draw us into caring for the characters and after the first hour and a half of the film the courtship begs our indulgence. In French with English subtitles. Definitely recommended for fans of Jacques Rivette's films or Balzac's stories, but a 'long song' for casual viewers. Grady Harp
Okay, I'll admit it. I've only seen a couple of Jacques Rivette's films apart from this one (Celine & Julie Go Boating & Le Belle Noisettes). I had heard prior to seeing those that Rivette was always one to make it difficult for audiences (timing being one:a standard Rivette film clocks in no less than two and a half hours). 'Ne Touchez Pas La Hache' is a beautifully filmed exercise cinematic narcolepsy. The characters seem to sleepwalk their way throughout this film. A few of the other cinephiles in attendance seemed to get their jollies from this film. To each their own, I say. I guess I should see some more of Rivette's work before I toss in the towel on him (I still prefer Trufaut,or even Goddard,among the French "new wave" directors).
Set in the earlier part of the 19th century in Europe, this story is about a war hero General and the duchess of the title. They carry on an affair which in this film is more words as promises than words as actions. I like the fact that the film begins far from where the film is mainly set, years later. Antoinette, played by Ms. Balibar, is a pretty lady, and their affair is carried out over time. The duchess, however, is married, which of course complicates matters. The film may be a little too long to get to its conclusion, but it is well acted and somewhat absorbing. I would recommend it to anyone who likes these kind of period pieces, if not anyone who craves action mostly. It held my interest though, as I said, it would have been better if they shaved twenty minutes off of it. You may like it.
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