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With: Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Anne Cantineau, Mathias Jung, Julie Judd, Marc Barbé, Nicolas Bouchaud, Thomas Durand, Beppe Chierici, Victoria Zinny, Remo Girone, Paul Chevillard, Barbet Schroeder
Written by: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette, based on a novel by Honoré de Balzac
Directed by: Jacques Rivette
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 137
Date: 02/15/2007

The Duchess of Langeais (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

In the Clutches of 'The Duchess'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great Jacques Rivette, who turned 80 this year, dips into Balzac for the second time, or third if you consider that his little seen, 12-1/2-hour Out 1 (1971) was "inspired" by Balzac. With the second, the masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Rivette and his frequent co-writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent very loosely adapted Balzac's themes to a modern-day context. But with the new Ne touchez pas la hache, also known as The Duchess of Langeais in the U.S., they try a more literal approach. The result is something considerably less interesting, without Rivette's usual daring or playfulness, but still a highly accomplished entry in the lazy, stagnant "costume movie" genre. It begins as General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) visits a castle in Spain and bargains his way into an interview with a nearby nun. It turns out that she's really Antoinette, the Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), and his former lover. We flash back to a simpler time, when the married Antoinette frequents society balls and meets the seasoned traveler Montriveau. He regales her with stories of his travels and falls in love with her. (She's masterful at using smiles and poses to appear irresistibly seductive.) She likes the attention and keeps inviting him back; though she flirts mercilessly, she never gives in. So Montriveau arranges a kind of revenge, which, ironically, finally awakens Antoinette's passion. Can they ever be together?

Like many period pieces, Rivette's film is about simmering yearning and an ever-elusive payoff. (Montriveau's stories of suffering in the desert are nothing compared to his love pangs for Antoinette.) A man who makes very long films, Rivette knows all about waiting, and the roiling emotions simply build from there. Unlike recent turkeys like Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl, Rivette simply lets the period re-create itself. He concentrates on simplicity, and allows the characters to become absorbed by their surroundings, rather than trying to cram them in. Floorboards creak, fireplace fires and candles constantly flicker and little piles of books lay about. There's a sense of characters existing within this space, rather than dressing up to tell stories about themselves. The Duchess of Langeais is an extremely minor Rivette, but it still shows how far he is above and beyond normal filmmakers.

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