Any review of the film "The Duchess of Langeais" should be prefaced with a warning, as should the film itself, stating "not suitable for the average moviegoer."
"The Duchess of Langeais" is a heady slab of cinematic art that will tickle the aesthete and stir the cinéaste into a tizzy, while sending the more pedestrian viewer groggily toward the exit. That elitist statement being made, the pretensions of "The Duchess of Langeais" are not necessarily an asset, and might ultimately doom the film to fodder for scholars and only the most effete of cinephiles.
Based on an oft filmed story by Honore de Balzac, "The Duchess of Langeais" weaves a darkly sardonic tale of love and misunderstanding and offers a somber meditation on sentiment versus civility. The French title of the film, and originally the book, is the much more appropriate "Ne Touchez Pas La Hache" ("Don't Touch The Axe"). Part of Balzac's series of novels ruminating on love fair and foul, and shadowed by the presence of the conspiratorial sect "The Thirteen," the latest interpretation of "Duchess" is more concerned with matters of the heart than matters of state.
Opening at a Spanish monastery sometime after the Napoleonic Wars, the film introduces us to Armand, the Marquis de Montriveau, military general and hero. We soon learn that the troubled Marquis is in search of a lost love, a love that used to be known as Antoinette, the Duchess of Langeais, but is now a simple servant of God in the guise of a barefoot Carmelite nun. Discovering her in this remote locale after many years, and after an all-too-brief audience in which she defends her conviction, Armand vows to liberate her from her spirituality and gain her back. The curtain literally closes on this scene and the film shifts back in time five years to when the two first meet.
Trapped in a loveless marriage, the Duchess has chosen to lose herself in the swirl of high society soirees for amusement. It is at one of these "balls" that she spies returning soldier Armand and, even though she is warned he is dull and ponderous, chooses to engage him nevertheless. A series of meetings follows and what begins as an obvious trifle for the Duchess soon turns more serious as Armand's ardor grows. Here the bulk of the film is given over to the cat-and-mouse mind games the unrequited lovers play. What transpires between the two provides the tension as misinterpretations become malignant and inevitability looms. When, as a result of a desperate act of Armand's, Antoinette turns from coquette to devoted lover, it is too late.
Directed by Jacques Rivette, one of the vanguards of French New Wave cinema, "Duchess" is a sly nouvelle vague rendering of the costumed romance melodrama. With the fluid camerawork and obsessive mise en scene the elder statesman is known for, "Duchess" is a voyeuristic endurance test that offers little solace. Filmed purposefully without a musical soundtrack, the claustrophobia is echoed in every spoken word and action of the characters.
Throughout these scenes Rivette is very conscious of time and nuance and allows his camera to unapologetically linger and the audience to become integral though unobtrusive contributors to the milieu. This creates a staginess to the proceedings that one will find either involving or disengaging.
The final minutes of the film have Armand returning to the monastery with a kidnap plan and an ending that is stark and remarkably resonant.
Guillaume Depardieu (Gerard's son) makes for a world weary Armand and Jeanne Balibar, while not strikingly beautiful, strangely entices as Antoinette.
"The Duchess of Langeais" is a cold exercise, but masterful. Whether it is ultimately a triumph or a failure is one for the books.