The Duchess of Langeais

Original title: Don’t Touch the Axe; produced by Roberto Cicutto, Martine Marignac, Luigi Musini, Ermanno Olmi, and Maurice Tinchant; directed by Jacques Rivette; screenplay by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Jacques Rivette, based on the novella The Duchess of Langeais by Honoré de Balzac; cinematography by William Lubtchansky; production design by Emmanuel de Chauvigny; costume design by Maira Ramedhan Lévy; film editing by Nicole Lubtchansky; original music by Pierre Allio; starring Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Anne Cantineau, Mathias Jung, Julie Judd, and Marc Barbé. Color, 137 mins. An IFC Films release.

            The secret is out. Over the past two years, the cinema of Jacques Rivette has been touring cinematheques in the first comprehensive North American retrospective of the man’s work in decades. This has included screenings of works that have gone unseen for so long that they have attained mythic status, in particular the 13-hour experimental opus Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. For the first time in nearly a generation, cinephiles have had the opportunity to delve into the world of Rivette as one would visit a foreign country on an extended visa. Audiences have finally had the chance to discover broad stylistic and thematic resonances and, more abstractly, allowing a certain headspace to develop around the films, at first fumbling through and then gradually developing a cognitive map through the “lost continent” they represent.

            These aren’t equal-opportunity metaphors. They’re particularly apposite where Rivette is concerned because one of the characteristics fundamental to these films and their genetic code is the “secret world” phenomenon. Time and again in Rivette’s work, the close attention to the fabric of reality, and to the individual styles of human comportment that accommodate themselves to that reality’s measure, will eventually yield a tear in that fabric, a rupture not so much in the quotidian itself as in the quotidian’s claim to absolute primacy. Characters discover hidden plots, secret societies, barely concealed underworlds, or just countercultural spaces slightly apart from the everyday, in which radical new rules apply. (For an in-depth, intellectually expansive discussion of the concept of the “Other Place” in Rivette’s cinema, and an advanced introduction to Rivette more generally, the two-part essay by B. Kite in Issues 30 and 32 of Cinema Scope magazine are required reading.)

Along with the concept of side-by-side realities and secret spaces, probably Rivette’s other most consistent artistic “dominant” (in the Russian Formalist sense) is a deep, abiding concern with performance. This has often led to films which have been explicitly about actors and problems in the craft of acting, particularly in its experimental / phenomenological incarnations. Beginning with 1960’s Paris Belongs to Us, and including such major films as L’Amour fou (1969), Love on the Ground (1984), The Gang of Four (1988), Va savoir (2001), and of course Rivette’s signature film, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), to say that the concept of performance has been an extended concern of Jacques Rivette is an understatement. These inquiries extend beyond the realm of aesthetics, or, we could be good dialecticians and say that “aesthetics” expands in these films well beyond the safe confines of the traditional art object. It’s crucial that we remember that for Rivette, “theatre” is a means for understanding all human endeavor, a master trope not unlike Derrida’s concept of “the text.”

            Rivette’s latest film, The Duchess of Langeais, partakes of the classically Rivettian preoccupations of theatricality and secret worlds, although in a considerably different manner than many of his other works. The film is an adaptation of the titular novella by Honoré de Balzac, although this itself requires clarification. The film’s North American distributor, IFC Films, changed the name; the original title, Ne touchez pas la hache (“Don’t Touch the Axe”), actually better suits the film in several ways. Its strange, aphoristic character becomes meaningful only in context, and that context is a key moment in the film, a fulcrum denoting the power-shift between the two main romantic leads. The current title’s exclusive focus on the Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) makes Rivette’s careful dialectic sound lopsided. Moreover, within the film, the phrase “don’t touch the axe” refers simultaneously to a malediction and to a radical shift in character, one both performative and conducted in the shadows of the night, by the hidden prerogative of a military man and his masked fraternity. Rivette’s original title, then, points to what he himself found to be the single element in Balzac’s original text that was most in keeping with the director’s unique worldview. In this regard, the new name is more than mere false advertising; it’s a minor disfigurement.

All the same, one can easily see why some would see the film as, first and foremost, a literary adaptation, and a damned fine one that that. Compared with other recent work by Rivette, The Duchess of Langeais bears an almost classical cinematic surface, the auteurial peculiarities of the filmmaker blended ever so subtly into a rich overall mix. Although commercial success is absolutely no indicator on a film’s artistic value, it is nevertheless worth noting that Langeais is doing well enough to indicate that it has found an audience with filmgoers who, presumably, have little or no prior experience with Rivette’s cinema, and this does give some hint as to the degree to which the director’s philosophical commitments and idiosyncrasies can seem to exist as part of a tighter overall weave. One of the marks of Duchess’s richness and absolute mastery of craft is that one, in a sense, gets out of it the Rivette one goes looking to extract.

The film examines, in all its agonies, the star-crossed love affair between the titular Duchess, a young, married noblewoman whose largely absent husband leaves her free to be something of a flirt on the social scene, and Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a General under Napoleon’s command. We join their sad tale near its completion, as the General concludes years of searching for the missing Duchess by one day discovering her, quite by accident, in a cloister of Carmelite nuns. Following their curt, somewhat disastrous reunion, the film returns us to the moment of their initial meeting, gradually taking us through the love affair that culminates in the eventual dissolution of both parties involved. One of Rivette’s boldest stylistic moves, and possibly one of the most controversial, is his combination of a basic fidelity to Balzac’s novella with a radical terseness of presentation.

Even a cursory glance at Balzac’s novella, or a passing, collegiate familiarity with his prose style, will cause one to wonder about the probable success of filmic adaptation. Balzac, paradoxically, is indubitably “cinematic” and nearly impossible to convey beyond prose, for much the same reasons. His thick, careful description of characters, and how their life experiences and social trappings are virtually written on their bodies as forms of social comportment with an almost legible syntax, lends itself splendidly to actorly dramatization. But at the same time, Balzac’s elaborate verbal evocations of a time and place, and in particular of the historical circumstances shaping all characters and events, are the sort of textual knowledge that any filmmaker, even one as adept as Rivette, can communicate only through all-too-brief title cards and the specifics of mise-en-scène, such as set and costume design. And, too often, our engrained spectatorial habits prevent those period cues from conveying much more than an ill-defined “pastness.”

            As was the case in the earlier film La Belle noiseuse (1991), Rivette’s challenge is taking on Balzac is to turn the specificity of the writer’s language into a kind of temporal pressure, an accessible but resolutely “other country” that the film allows us hover around and move towards, neither simply visiting or observing at a comfortable remove. Although Rivette set La Belle noiseuse in “the present,” partially bridging our historical distance from Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece,” his actual solution was a hermetic enclosure of artist and model that rendered historical time moot. The only time that mattered was that of the struggle for creation, one that crisscrossed four points of a hypothetical rectangle: Piccoli, Béart, the canvas, and Rivette’s camera.

But historical time factors more directly in The Duchess of Langeais, and apart from a scene-setting text in the opening moments, Rivette transmits that pressure of history through halting camera movements, highly measured bodily gestures, and above all the temporal disjunction between the Duchess and General’s private assignations and the broader social sphere. This disjunction is not a neat public / private split, the sort that would become the clarifying gestures for a certain strain of 19th century post-Enlightenment thinking. Here, Rivette shows history as having generated two very different bodies whose attraction to one another instantiates the uneasy collision between incompatible modes of social comportment. The director has reconceived the complex specificities of early 19th century French political history as, unsurprisingly, a problem of theatre. This might have been a frivolous or blithely apolitical gesture in the hands of another director. But, true to form, Rivette understands “the world stage” as a set of possible maneuvers by social actors drawing on available historical resources. The meaning of these resources, naturally, is constantly shifting. Sociologist Raymond Williams once described cultural formations as being “residual,” “dominant,” or “emergent” with respect to larger social forms. In many ways, The Duchess of Langeais can be read as a cautionary tale of class obsolescence and the necessity of as-yet-intolerable modes of being.

The main action of the film, strictly following Balzac’s organization, unfolds during the wane of Napoleon’s imperial rule, just prior to the Bourbon Restoration of 1814. This is mostly left implicit in the film. However, when characters do discuss French royal / imperial politics, it serves to underscore the fundamental schism between the Duchess’s world and that of Montriveau, a gruff, taciturn nautical adventurer and self-made man whose fortunes were tied to those of the Napoleonic circle with whom he fell in. From his very first appearance at a court ball, Montriveau clearly doesn’t belong to this world. He is sullen, rather unkempt, and inasmuch as he engages verbally with the Duchess, he displays sincerity very much at odds with the smirking elegance and coded civility of courtly manners. By way of making chitchat with this intriguing, lumbering misfit, the Duchess asks him to regale her with tales of his adventures. When he obliges, telling of an arduous desert crossing and the useful duplicity of his Nubian guide, the Duchess shocks him by cutting the story short.

She does this not once but twice, effectively turning Armand’s travails into a kind of verbal foreplay of which he is only halfway cognizant. This is, of course, a completely deliberate gesture on the Duchess’s part, but when, prior to their second meeting we see her futzing around her boudoir, adjusting the candlelight and shifting about in order to find the most convincing sick-headache repose, it becomes clear that the Duchess is not just a social performer but a highly self-conscious one. The first half of the film, centered as it is on the movement between the Duchess’s private sanctum and the carefully controlled display of high society, is terrain on which the Duchess is the master at arms. 

Over time, however, what in other conditions might have comprised the thrusts and parries of a tumultuous and circumstantially compromised courtship soon becomes, to borrow Clausewitz’s metaphor, war by other means. Rivette and his sterling late-career team are able to ever so slowly elevate the stakes in this game between the Duchess and the General, and in so doing, they refer back, ever so discreetly, to the shifting historical pressures around them. In time, Montriveau, repeatedly described as “Bonaparte’s pupil,” becomes more than just an ill-fitting lummox in the waning social half-light of the post-Revolutionary aristocratic sphere. By the end of the first half of the film, he is barging into the Duchess’s dressing room, cornering her in highly compromising positions, and announcing that, “like a spoiled child,” he will get what he wants, and take it by force if necessary.

In short, Rivette has extracted from Balzac a mode of romantic calamity that displays irresolvable political tensions. The Napoleonic worldview is one that ransacks the seven seas and subjugates, all in a manner affording greater glory to the nation by way of outsized, almost Nietzschean will. Once this proto-bourgeois subject (referred, with some disdain, by a friend of the Duchess as being in possession of a “great soul”) has cause to develop and flourish, fluctuating political fortunes, the restoration or abolition of monarchy, or the economic imperatives for one “great” class to serve another, cannot restore the social order prior to his arrival on the scene. Thus, much can be understood by the persistence of both Montriveau and the Duchess in differentiating between “the Duchess of Langeais,” a title and social function, and “Antoinette,” the woman herself who, at certain moments during the boudoir skirmishes, appears free and willing to love “Armand,” the General as a man. What Balzac observed as an upheaval in the social order, one that his realist fiction had to describe with an almost historiographical fidelity, Rivette subtly reinterprets as a question of the status of human subjects. The imbrication of war and romance serves to highlight the early 19th century’s available styles of existence, and their limitations. After the worm has turned, when, as the General solemnly announces, the Duchess “has touched the axe,” his calculated cruelty, his well-honed skill at subjugation has, rather mysteriously and improbably, either prompted or coincided with an equally radical shift in the Duchess herself. In political terms, high society and its quaint coquetry have been vanquished in favor of bourgeois directness. Instrumentality has won out over gamesmanship. Patriarchy is now the province of machismo rather than patrimony and rank. The Duchess is, to all intents and purposes, a conquered land.

Rivette, along with his customary screenwriting team of director / film theorist Pascal Bonitzer and cinematic Renaissance woman Christine Laurent (actress, director, costume and production designer), have constructed The Duchess of Langeais with a formal precision practically reminiscent of the structural films of the avant-garde. Like the predetermined compositional shell of a Michael Snow or Hollis Frampton film, Duchess is divided into nearly equal parts. We are given a prologue of approximately twenty minutes; a 45-minute first act in which the Duchess and her society manners hold sway over the General; a roughly fifteen-minute pivot section wherein the tables are dramatically turned; a 45-minute act two which finds the General holding sway, from a distance, over the Duchess; and a fifteen-minute epilogue which resumes the action shortly after the end of the prologue. 

Within this highly formalized time structure one finds elegance and play, a relative fluidity of style that belies any overt determinism. William Lubtchansky’s cinematography, in particular, manages to slowly sweep through confined spaces with a strange combination of grace and precision, sometimes adjusting the frame ever so slightly so as to emphasize a seemingly minor shift in power or momentary deployment of the element of surprise.  Repeat viewings reveal just how much Rivette and his two leads (both delivering complex, multi-layered performances well outside the standard frame of Method “realism”) place at stake in momentary postures, glances, increased or diminished distances between bodies in a room.  And, more remarkably, all of this formal control, and all of this strategic elaboration of the presentation of self, culminates, like history itself, in certain acts and events well beyond the ken of any human agent. The General, at one point, assures the Duchess, “I have an appointment with Fate. I can slow it, or I can accelerate it as I wish.” Rivette, like Balzac, instead remind us that our lives are comprised not just of desire, but also of the times. That, unfortunately, is a clock we cannot wind all by ourselves.