AFI Fest 2007: Day 7

the-duchess-of-langeais-002-250.jpgThe Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas la hache)
France 2007

Jacques Rivette is considered among the more experimental of the French New Wave filmmakers so I was a little surprised at how ordinary The Duchess of Langeais seemed on the surface. Based on a Balzac novella, it begins with an obviously distraught Napoleonic era general (Guillaume Depardieu) in Cadiz, Spain seeking an audience with a nun (Jeanne Balibar) who he believes may be his former lover. It turns out she is and the story then cuts back 5 years to tell the story of their strange courtship.

I say strange because it’s more of a psychological, sexless dance. Though she’s married, she’s bored and the tales of the wounded war hero interest her. He professes his love for her, then she plays hard to get. He takes desperate measures and she resists. He acts indifferent, she crumbles and so on. You can see where this is headed because you know she ends up in a nunnery.

Each scene is separated from the ones before and after it with a cut to black and then a title card, usually noting a temporal break: “5 years earlier”, “the following day”, “a little while later” and that kind of thing. The scenes themselves have a theatrical quality. They’re mostly self-contained and the footfalls of the characters seem exaggerated as though they’re walking across a stage.

This is a world where women fan themselves when they’re upset and butlers carry around smelling salts. It’s a world of intricate and inscrutable courtship rituals, but underneath the surface there is this barely contained emotional component that keeps what should be a slow film moving along. There was also a wry, underlying humor that at times reminded me of the great Barry Lyndon.

I wasn’t quite sure what to take away from The Duchess of Langeais as I was leaving the theater (the foreign title by the way translates as “Don’t Touch the Axe” which is taken from an exchange between the characters that oozes connotation), but I’m finding it has stuck with me. I look forward to seeing it again.

[Update: Filmbo’s Chick Magnet reports that The Duchess of Langeais will open on February 22, 2008 at the IFC Film Center in New York. I assume that will be the beginning of a limited release as hopefully the film will make its way around the country]

I only took in one film yesterday so that I could get home early and get a good night’s rest for a non-festival midnight screening of No Country For Old Men tonight. Before that, I plan to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Also screening down the street at the Linwood Dunn theater are two documentaries, one about Val Lewton and the other about William Castle.

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6 thoughts on “AFI Fest 2007: Day 7

  1. If I may be so bold, I think your quicker, off the cuff writing is actually better. This isn’t meant as a backhanded compliment, I enjoy the site thoroughly in all its various mutations, but I’ve noticed a certain energy lately. Well done.

  2. Thank you, Chuck. Your 31 Days of Halloween was something of an inspiration, I have to say. You may be so bold and I appreciate the comment. I’ve been worried for months about a certain constipation that creeps into my writing and I’ve enjoyed the freedom the machine gun approach is allowing me.

    If I can capture the freedom and energy I’m tapping into right now with a greater degree of the care and control my personality demands, I think I might have something I’m really happy with. Finding that balance is hard, but hopefully this is a step in the right direction. It’s definitely something to keep in mind when the festival ends and I’m back to a more regular schedule.

  3. I’d like to second the comment above: I’ve really been enjoying your coverage of the fest, even if I haven’t heard of most films mentioned here.

    By the way, how is it to be in LA now with the strike? If you can believe Nikki Finke, it’s pretty exciting (and, as she says almost verbatim, the best chance to see celebs in the wild)

  4. I’m a rather huge Rivette fan and while he is fairly experimental in terms of form, he seems to be at a different artistic phase now. His obsession with how a mind — artistic and everyday — can create or alter reality has become more developed, but also more hidden within seemingly generic tales. I assume that Rivette’s concepts in his new film, much like Va Savoir and Marie and Julien before it, will be lost to most audiences.

    I’m really dying to see this.

  5. Hey filmbo,

    I hope you’ll come back and let me know how you liked it when you finally see it.

    I’m embarassed to admit Rivette is a rather large blind spot in my film experience, but one I hope to fill in very soon.

    What was fascinating to me about Duchess was that even though it seemed very ordinary on the surface, there was something strange going on underneath that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

    I can’t wait to see it again and I look forward to more Rivette. Any recommendations of where I should start?

  6. And thanks Hedwig. Your comments are always appreciated.

    I’ve been absolutely clueless as to the reality of the strike. I’ve beaten a path between work, my apartment and AFI Fest, mostly underground on the subway. Perhaps this weekend I’ll have to venture out into the world and see what’s going on.

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