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Jacques Rivette adapts a classic of French realist fiction

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Director Jacques Rivette, one of the celebrated generation of French filmmakers that included Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, turned 80 earlier this year. - PHOTO BY MOUNE JAMET/ IFC FILMS
  • Photo by Moune Jamet/ IFC films
  • Director Jacques Rivette, one of the celebrated generation of French filmmakers that included Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, turned 80 earlier this year.

Appropriately, coming from a filmmaker whose work contains so many doubles and mirrorings, Jacques Rivette's latest movie has two titles, which in turn reflect two successive titles of its source material, a story by Honoré de Balzac. In English the film is called The Duchess of Langeais, a direct translation of the new title Balzac gave his tale 10 years after he wrote it, when he decided to reissue it as part of a collection.

In French, the movie goes by the title Balzac originally gave his fiction: "Ne touchez pas le hache" (Don't touch the ax). If the latter moniker sounds less like a polite costumer about a duchess than, say, a Hitchcock film or even a Sex Pistols song—well, the sinister, anarchic, insinuating tones of that reading prove oddly appropriate to the turbulent undercurrents of Rivette's film, which superficially seems far more genteel.

Though the French title appears nowhere in the movie's English-subtitled U.S. version, its words are heard in a scene that comes exactly halfway through the drama. Until now, we've been watching as the gruff, stoic, handsome Napoleonic general Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) pursues Antoinette, the married, hyperflirtatious but unresponsive Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), through one 1820s Parisian drawing room after another, declaring his love to no avail.

In this scene, at yet another ball, Antoinette comes up as Armand darkly tells a female partygoer of something remarkable he heard in London recently. He was visiting the Tower of London when a guard told him, "Don't touch the axe." Said blade, of course, was the one used to decapitate Charles I in 1649.

In Armand's telling, the phrase falls strangely, but unsurprisingly, flat. There's nothing remarkable about it. It's like a punch line with no joke.

Except to Antoinette. Looking suddenly paler, she says to Armand, "I felt your eyes were on my neck when you said that." As indeed they were. Within seconds, he warns her that before the night is over something dreadful will happen to her. In the context of upper-crust swells making polite chat at a fancy-dress ball, the general's seismic declaration is as startling as a burst of gunfire. After it, everything about The Duchess of Langeais—or the other title, if you prefer—is completely different.

Jeanne Balibar in The Duchess of Langeais - PHOTO BY MOUNE JAMET/ IFC FILMS

Besides its dramatic importance, there's something else fascinating about this scene's dialogue: its discrete cultural and political resonances. In one sense, it draws certain parallels between England and France and their common experience with the trauma of regicide. It also recalls that the excesses of the English Restoration were later mirrored by those of the period on view in The Duchess of Langeais: the Bourbon Restoration, which was imposed on the French by the English and their allies after Napoleon's defeat.

According to those versed in Balzac—which I'm not—every nuance in fictions like this one is rife with political meanings. Rivette and his screenwriters, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, reportedly tried to make their film ultra-faithful to Balzac. Yet few viewers today, even in France, can be expected to grasp the intricacies or import of the Restoration context. So what's the point of that fidelity?

Admitting another motive, Rivette turned from politics to language, telling an interviewer, "From the very beginning, our aim ... was to transpose Balzac's writing into the grammar of film. His writing plays on contradictory forces that generate a kind of system of contained explosions. Long sentences interspersed with parentheses, surprising changes of speed, a way of recounting events almost by leaving out the most important things. That's why Balzac has to be read word by word. It's three-dimensional writing."

Respectfully, I would suggest that The Duchess of Langeais also can't hope to engage most viewers in how it translates Balzac's prose style into film. Only French Lit savants would get it, much less care. Yet Rivette's comment does prompt the thought that "language" suggests two possible perspectives from which the film can be understood. One is the language of today's commercial movies, the common coin we're all familiar with. The other is the cinematic parlance introduced by the French New Wave, a movement in which Rivette was, and remains, a leading figure.

Interpreted according to the first of those "languages," The Duchess of Langeais can no doubt seem old-fashioned, stiff, artificial. Here we have a tale of aristocratic passions divided (by the "Don't touch the axe" scene) into mirror-halves: Armand pursues Antoinette without success; then, after her heart shifts, she pursues him with equally dispiriting results. Most movies give us people achieving connection; here, all is baffling disconnection. Most movies allow their characters finally to speak their hearts. In this drama, what's striking is that one character is always speaking against his or her heart. The result is a tale that refuses to "say" what we want to hear (or rather, that obliges us to articulate what it won't).

Since the language of commercial movies is more and more about obvious meanings and ready satisfactions, such withholding and indirection can seem tantamount to failure. And today film style is mostly about transparency, fluidity, easy ravishment. What are to we make of a movie in which the drawing rooms seem like they could be on a theater stage; where the characters' boots creak noticeably against the floorboards and the camera always maintains a discreet, slightly formal distance from its human subjects? Are these not the marks of a misguided astringency?

Interpret those same attributes via the language of the French New Wave, though, and suddenly meanings are reversed: Empty is full, staid is fresh, the "failure" of conventional cinematic prose becomes the full flowering of a personal poetic.

Though the critics-turned-directors who revolutionized cinema in the '50s and '60s as the New Wave are best known for the doctrine of the auteur—the director as a film's author, which assumes that images rather than words are movies' primary language—their work also involved "reading" a film not just by its overt contents but also in light of, first, the director's previous work and predilections, and, second, the cinematic traditions he inhabits and revises. The Duchess of Langeais merits both viewpoints.

I recall going into L'Amour Fou, the first Rivette film I ever saw, at UNC-Chapel Hill circa 1972, staggered by the thought that it was nearly five hours long, including intermission, and figuring it better have lots going on to keep my interest for even a fraction of that time. There didn't, however, turn out to be much "going on" in the film; on the contrary, it was far more contemplative than dramatic. Yet I was so seduced by its elongated rhythms and utter originality that I came out, turned around and went back in for the next show.

For decades Rivette was known as the New Wave's poet of duration. His films averaged more than fours hours. (The longest, the 13-hour Out One, was legendary for having been shown only once, at Le Havre in 1971, before being revived a couple of years ago; it may be available soon on DVD.) His penchant for length was part of his reputation as the New Wave's most "experimental" director: He wasn't telling well-made stories as François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer did, or even crafting quirky personal essays in the Jean-Luc Godard manner. Rather, he was testing the limits of film form through improvisation, aleatory narratives and so on. His tendency to reflect on the processes and self-understandings of art—the sources of all those doubles and mirrorings, no doubt—drew comparisons to the likes of Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges.

The Duchess of Langeais, at a little more than two hours, of course is not unconventionally long, nor it is experimental in the overt sense of many earlier Rivette films. Yet it seems not to contradict but to subsume and affirm the tendencies of his previous work, and it does that in a way that recalls an axiom of the past century's art: Scratch an iconoclastic modernist and underneath you'll find a confirmed classicist.

Indeed, the teenage cinephiles who became the New Wave's key innovators were in love with the language of the classic cinema—the language of Griffith, Murnau, Renoir and Ford—and sought only to refashion it for themselves, as a means of personal expression. At age 80, it's little surprise that Rivette is still so in love with that language that he has no further need to experiment or reach for the personal; it now belongs to him, and he can use it with the nothing-left-to-prove supple understatement of a master.

Seen from this perspective, The Duchess of Langeais is something else again: a work of extraordinarily subtle beauty and concentrated meaning. Surrender to its premises—as I once did to L'Amour Fou's—and it sweeps you into an alternate cinematic universe where every scene contains small miracles (or "explosions") of light, movement, gesture, allusion, revelation, all of it founded on the brilliantly stylized performances of Balibar and Depardieu.

In this universe, we again contemplate the great antitheses bequeathed us by the Romantic era: Ego and God, Life and Art, Self and Society. But here the warring pairs are united by the very thing that eludes the tale's couple: an alignment of love and understanding, the product of one artist's serene yet encompassing insight.

The Duchess of Langeais opens Friday at Chelsea.

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