The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas la hache)
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.