(No longer in theaters)
IFC First Take
Feb 22, 2008
With the simplest of means, the director Jacques Rivette has cut a path to the heart of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, one of the author’s less transgressive studies in sexual obsession but dizzyingly potent in charting the pendulum swings of power between willful lovers. Rivette has pared the story down so that there isn’t a wasted frame. The Duchess, Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), estranged from her husband, brings a battered military hero, General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), into her orbit: She converses with him while wriggling on her settee; uses him to escort her nightly to extravagant functions; and preserves her “virtue” by airily withholding her sexual favors. (“She had so pretty an art of revoking the grant of yesterday,” writes Balzac.)
Balibar isn’t conventionally beautiful, but her face is pert, provocatively forward—you can see why Montriveau wants to seize her. Depardieu (Gérard’s son) is too stolid to capture the full range of the general’s emotions: What’s missing is the adolescent delight in the early scenes, when he’s giddy from the novelty of not holding the reins—a contrast with the Napoleonic near madman who emerges after months of denial. But Depardieu certainly evokes Montriveau’s masculine sense of entitlement and ease in commanding a secret male society with no checks on its power. No wonder Antoinette can only find (temporary) refuge in an order of Carmelite nuns.
Rivette has aged into one of cinema’s most ingenious minimalists. In The Duchess of Langeais he uses intertitles—bits of literary exposition—with cheeky understatement. It’s as if he’s reminding us that he doesn’t need pages of characters’ thoughts to show the fullness of their inner worlds. Even when the camera is still, the crosscurrents are electric.