The Reeler


February 21, 2008

The Duchess of Langeais

A private affair grows stifling in Rivette's creaky story of obsessive love

Creaking floorboards: Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais may be the first post-Jacques Tati film where the sounds of houses and furniture settling upstage the actors. It's a story of obsessive love and fatal consequences, but the weight of the symbolic conflicts (Religion vs. Morality, Society vs. Inner Life) never seems heavier than the omnipresent ambience of a social, physical world.

Duchess opens in a cathedral -- a stone monstrosity on Majorca, where General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) can't make it through a choral recital by the nuns, shuffling loudly in his chair and fumbling with his stick. The acoustics amplify ambient sounds multiplex audiences take for granted, and there's something self-reflexive about de Montriveau's discomfort. The film's opening is a typical gauntlet throwdown from the ever-demanding Rivette, the camera slowly and reverentially taking in the stone walls before delivering us to human company. De Montriveau can't stick it out, running out without making his excuses; I sympathized.

Nothing if not structurally au courant, Duchess proceeds to give us the narrative climax before flashing back to the beginning: 1818, the seduction of Napoleonic war hero de Montriveau by the aggressively shallow duchess Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar). (This structural decision, a common narrative ploy right now, is actually straight from Balzac's source novella.) The General is a limping lump, a self-serious open wound whose sudden social cachet mystifies and intrigues the Duchess. Her artful seduction totally overwhelms the General, and for a while the power dynamic is clear: with Napoleon not in need of his services, he is hers to command. But the General declares, "I will make her my mistress," without counting on Antoinette's religiosity -- a convention, perhaps, but one she finds absolutely inviolable. Living apart from her husband and turning men into lapdogs is one thing; sleeping with them is another. Game on

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Is it wrong to be more entranced by the floors the actors are dancing over than the dance? Their affair is entirely private; for her initial seduction the Duchess drags the General into a separate room away from the rest of a party. Parties are her social lifeblood, while de Montriveau seems to attend more out of directionless malaise. Nearly every interaction the couple have in the first half of the 135-minute film is cordoned off from others; their appearances at parties, him hanging on her slightest wish, are alluded to but never glimpsed. Watching a stolid, humorless man face off with an out-of-her-depth coquette can only be fun for so long: Depardieu and Balibar are terrific actors, but they've got nothing to do besides escalate the stakes for an upper hand that's flipped exactly once, from the Duchess's control to the General's.

The General begins to use physical aggression, storming the doors through her many rooms, barging past the servants. It's an unthinkable violation of etiquette as much as sexual threat. The Duchess scores precisely one point in public: Whirling with a partner on the dance floor, her scarf expertly cuts not an inch from the General's nose. It's a thrilling moment, as much for her grace in pulling it off as her deftness in insulting him without anyone else noticing. The rest of the time, as the increasingly heated battle of Propriety Vs. True Love rages -- with its attendant concern, Religion vs. Morality, safely in tow -- I was more interested in the expertly rendered environments than the conflict. Because the biggest conflicts here are cast in terms of social ramifications (the Duchess's family counsels her to conduct the affair incognito rather than in public) the hermetic staging of much of the conflict feels unnecessarily constricted. The setting's the thing, there not being nearly enough background players to constitute "society."

Duchess isn't all bad, but it runs too short on surprises -- once the premise is laid out, there's little to do but wait for the worst. The worst, commendably, is even more dramatic than you would expect. And yet, like much of Rivette's work from La Belle Noisseuse onwards, the balance of power is shifted from focusing entirely on improvising actors to a deterministic scenario that swallows them whole. Generally, Rivette's most actor-friendly work is too indulgent for me to handle, but Duchess could have used some of the lurid verve of 1966's The Nun, a chronologically close (well, 50+ years anyway) period piece which told an equally over-the-top story with suitable enthusiasm, thundering histrionics and all. Duchess is as discreet as its protagonists must be in public; all that's left is the sound of the buildings.

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