Strange Love

Kenneth Crab Mar 4, 2008

The Duchess of Langeais
directed by Jacques Rivette
IFC Films, 2007

Few filmmakers have shown a stronger belief in the power of cinematic imagination than Jacques Rivette, and few have taken the conventions of film narrative less for granted. With his latest feature, The Duchess of Langeais, adapted – or, as Rivette would have it, “compressed” – from a novella by Balzac, the 80-year-old French master delivers his most brilliantly opaque work to date.

Set in the 1820s, the film details the exquisite yet exasperating unrequited love between Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) and General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu). In the frame tale, Armand tracks the Duchess down to Mallorca, where she has entered a convent to escape the trappings of romantic attachment to him. Their liaison of role- and game-playing took shape five years earlier in Paris, and the main storyline traces the development of its folie à deux. (In typical Rivette fashion, the poignancy of the leading players’ exchanges is enhanced by the contrast in the actors’ screen presence and performance style: Depardieu’s statuesque, weathered bearing and wry delivery versus Balibar’s mercurial, wondrous disposition and seasoned decorum.)

The fascination and complexity of the narrative derive from the ambiguity between codes of conduct imposed by social stricture and rules of engagement created by the protagonists. (One such rule is cited in the French title of the film – Ne touchez pas la hache, meaning “Don’t Touch the Axe” – and lost in the regrettably simplistic English translation.) Rivette and fellow screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer have stressed their fidelity to the very specific historical context of Balzac’s tale, which is factored in as one of the film’s many structuring absences, just like the Duchess’s elusive husband. It is precisely in the emptiness of form – intertitles drawn from Balzac’s text often articulate little more than temporal ellipses between scenes – that the radicalism of Rivette’s politics transpires. His films are quests for a shared mode of storytelling, rites of passage toward meaning.

In The Duchess of Langeais, the apex of meaning occurs at the point when the balance of power between the Duchess and her suitor shifts in his favor, as she wholeheartedly and selflessly declares her love for him. When he guides her along the enclosed gallery of a secret passageway, sounds of the ocean, of wind, waves and gulls, inexplicably permeate the soundtrack. The gallery becomes a loophole in spatiotemporal logic that blends the film’s Parisian haut monde chamber piece – marvelously contained through lighting and sound design – with its Mediterranean great wide open. Thus the settings of frame tale and back story, present and past merge to evoke the couple’s bond – not as lovers’ union, but harmonious narrative conception.

The film’s final vista of an empty ocean suggests the ultimate magical portal that solicits a leap of faith in tell-tale creativity, but also its flip side – the unspeakable void that looms large in Rivette’s oeuvre, and has led critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to suggest that all his films have a horror aspect to them. Viewed along those lines, The Duchess of Langeais could be deemed an existentialist upgrade of Fatal Attraction.

The Duchess of Langeais is currently playing at the IFC Center.

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