Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Duchess of Langeais

Jaques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais (titled more sharply in its original French as Don’t Touch the Axe, a reference to the beheading of Charles I) presents a spellbinding adaptation of Honore de Balzac’s short novel of the same title worthy of both our momentary rubbernecking and long-lasting artistic contemplation. The movie begins in medias res (or nearly at the end of the story actually) in 1823 on a Mediterranean island home to an order of Carmelite nuns where the film’s protagonist, Napoleonic war hero General Armand de Montriveau, has finally tracked down, after five years of fruitless search, the object of his unconsummated and tormented affection. Once known to friends as Antoinette in Paris, the Duchess is now known only as Sister Theresa on the island. Armand, through the help of an associate, uses his social status as a symbol of legendary bravery to gain entry into the convent, a place forbidden to any man not the confessor of the Sisters. The gesture represents entirely his character as a tragic figure in the Athenian sense. It’s his social status and stubborn will, after all, that lead him to Antoinette, and likewise those twin forces that ultimately forbid him from her--both during their affair, and here again, at the end of the story (and the beginning of the film).

What follows this deftly arranged, if ill-fated, meeting between the pair retells their story from the start. Their affair, if you can call it that, presents a fascinating study of inner contradictions and outer contrast. Consider, for instance, an early scene between the two when Armand asks to kiss Antoinette’s scarf. “I regard you enough to give you my hand,” she tells him. “Will you always give it to me?” he responds. “Yes, but we will leave it at that,” she adds, sliding a glove on slowly over her long fingers and wrist. Part Beauty and the Beast, part Fatal Attraction, Antoinette and Armand seem most at home testing the confines of their rigid social restrictions, as if inflating a balloon with as much air as possible without wanting the balloon to burst. As Armand, who meets Antoinette by chance at a ball one evening, tells her of his heroic past over a series of private meetings, his passion grows. But the more he offers her himself, the less outwardly interested she becomes. In fact, his affections toward her only repel, until she draws near again under the threat and intimidation of the General. Armand soon tires of this game. A soldier by trade, he takes matters into his own hands, blindfolding and abducting Antoinette one evening as she leaves yet another ball by carriage. His brute strength and desperation, though, only show Antoinette his elusive wit and seductive capabilities, and not his violent desperation, which attracts her to him once and for all, and eventually turns the tables between the two.

As a director, Rivette not only captures the brilliant performances of Guillaume Depardieu and Jeanne Balibar, but he also stylizes the movie into a perfect blend of colorful art and rash execution. (Balibar, with her round cheekbones, firm jaw line, and cream-colored skin, is nothing short of an otherworldly beauty, and an absolute showstopper.) Parts of the film are minimalistic: no music, save a ballad Antoinette plays on the piano and sings for Armand one evening ("River Tage"), accompanies the film. Instead, it’s the patient sound of background noise that punctuates the pair’s incessant series of flirtation and rebuke: the creak of wooden floors beneath the feet of 19th century aristocratic society, the pop and snap of wood in the fireplace, the incessant ticking of the clock, and, most notably, the pouncing sound of Armand limping to a stumble with every desperate step he takes. Yet, parts of the film are quite over-the-top in a way that’s both delicious and consuming, too. Borrowing perhaps from silent film, Rivette allows intertitles of text to splice the story, sometimes right in the middle of critical dialogue. Instead of contextualizing the action, though, the intertitles create perceptible voids in the narrative, deleting objectivity and rendering the heartbreaking into the wryly comic, and visa versa.

Of course, other noteworthy elements of the story remain at large: Where is the Duke of Langeais, and what has he done to the Duchess to make her even entertain the dangerous notion of an affair in a society so choked by etiquette? The questions are both rhetorical and inappropriate. Delight, in fact, is the only response to Rivette’s breathtaking film. Well, that and revelry.

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