Duchess of Langeais, The

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Jacques Rivette’s latest, a bitterly

romantic adaptation of Honoré de Balzac, is exquisitely

realized, even by Rivette standards. Costume design, art direction

and cinematography all work together in concert: early scenes in

which the titular Duchess is a woman of great mystery and allure are

lit like Caravaggio paintings; a later passage, which takes place

after we see how she’s been wrecked on the inside — she stands on a

Parisian street in buttoned-up clothing, wearing a tall hat and a

lost, wistful expression on her face as autumn leaves swirl around

her feet — has the look of classic Hollywood melodrama, or even

the arch magic of Pressburger-Powell. (I admit, Black Narcissus was

never too far from my mind.)

It’s a simple story, with bookends.

Guillaime Depardieu plays General Armand de Montriveau, a war hero

who’s scouring convents in search of an elusive Carmelite nun –

a woman whom he once loved. (He knows he has found her when he hears

her singing from afar.) Upon her rejection of him, the film quickly

moves

into the flashback narrative that constitutes its bulk, in which the

Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) essentially cockteases Montriveau

within an inch

of his life. He responds with the fury of a wounded ego — bolstered

by all the sexual menace a man can muster without actually becoming a

rapist — then retreats abruptly, leaving the woman suddenly alone

and insecure.

In Rivette’s hands, The Duchess of

Langeais is a great tragic romance, rather than romantic tragedy.

It’s performed by actors who portray great personalities sniffing

around their own thwarted destinies, but whose presence on screen is

suffused with erotic potential. I’m thinking mainly of Balibar’s

near-constant state of décolletage (and the way that, called out for her behavior, she trills the word coquette

as though it’s a non sequitur), as well as the bum leg with

which Depardieu pounds the floorboards of any room he enters; the

priapic metaphor is hard to dismiss. It’s the emotional jousting,

the sense that these two characters must engage in some kind of

intercourse, no matter how painful the results, that gives the

romance its unusual flavor. In this context, the film’s melancholy

denouement has the unexpected, deeply felt heaviness of poetry.

And those performances are commanding.

Depardieu has little to do but smolder and scowl, and he

manages both tasks with admirable dedication. And then there’s Balibar, tasked with confounding the man’s every sexual

ambition. What could have seemed like a simplistically sexist

creation is given arresting life through Balibar’s marriage of fierce

intelligence, unremitting gamesmanship and helpless emotion. She’s a

creature of great wit and occasional malice, but also of great

feeling. It’s the tragedy of The Duchess of Langeais that pride,

foolishness, and the impossibly twisted impulses of ego conspire to

block the consummation of their love; it’s the romance of it that,

for some period of its running time, the drama on screen is full of

that intoxicating possibility. B+

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