In the world according to Jacques Rivette, a telling moment can run 15 minutes, and a film anywhere from three to 10 hours. If you're up for that — and few are in the canned world of taste-tested movies — the rewards can be infinite. In a single, breathtakingly long take in his 1991 masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse, all we see is the pen of a painter (Michel Piccoli) scratching away at a sketch of his model-muse (Emmanuelle Beart), revealing two lifelong Rivette obsessions — the artist's magnificently fruitless itch to nail form and meaning, and the mysteries of male-female connection. Along with Godard, Rivette has evolved over five decades as the least biddable of the French New Wave auteurs. His films walk a fine line between profundity and tedium — not that he cares — and, in principle, anyone who loves his open-ended sense of film performance as adventure, his adamant refusal to move a narrative along until he's good and ready, ought to thrill to Rivette's latest film. So why did I spend most of The Duchess of Langeais, the director's fourth interpretation of a work by his beloved Honore de Balzac, fighting to stay awake?
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She loves me, she loves me not.
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Compared to the rest of Rivette's oeuvre (La Belle Noiseuse, a sliver of a film next to the 10-hour Out 1, ran 237 minutes), Duchess, which is based on Balzac's novella about a married Restoration-era coquette driving her suitor right up the wall, is practically a short, clocking in at a trim 135 minutes. But the movie feels a lot longer, not least because both its subject and its method depend on perpetual erotic postponement. Like Balzac, Rivette reveals human passions through obsessive habit, in this case the manipulative push-me-pull-you tactics of the movie's titular damsel (played by the formidably haughty Jeanne Balibar), a moneyed cock tease with nothing better to do than give the royal runaround to army general Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), who comes from rougher stock but has distinguished himself at war. She comes, she goes; she switches outfits, the better to show off her creamy bosom. She plays piano and sings; she bosses her silent bruiser of a servant (Mathias Jung); she alternately crooks her finger and blows off her would-be lover in handcrafted little billets-doux; she gets religion. He comes, he goes, he begs, he pouts, he caves, he plots revenge, she caves. Meanwhile, arch intertitles paraphrasing the tumescent circularity of this ill-starred pas de deux propel the action, such as it is.
Like Robert Altman, from whom he could otherwise scarcely differ more, Rivette gives his actors ample room to invent the worlds they inhabit — the performance is the life, and a major part of the pleasure in his movies lies in the way the characters appear to make themselves up as they go along. Nothing is stated: The psychosocial hypocrisies of Antoinette's class-bound milieu emerge quietly from the stuffy force field of her rooms, without benefit of a score other than the snatches of music wafting in from ballrooms where, in the telling manner of the times, dancing couples maintain a mutually frosty distance by linking hands high above their heads. As the smooth uncle who exhorts his niece to have her cake and eat it too, Michel Piccoli is the movie's most fetchingly ambiguous character. Yet there's little else of Rivette's gift for enigma, and Balibar and Depardieu seem at a loss to know where to take the slow, deliberate camera that monitors their interminable swings to and fro, registering her every disingenuous sigh, his every pout.
The classic tale of the coquette, whose power trips last only as long as her beauty holds, lends itself more to pathos than to Rivette's chosen forms of melodrama or comedy. Personally, I couldn't muster enough interest in this peevish creature to wonder whether she was a misogynist's ugly fancy, a doomed heroine who learns to love too little too late, or nothing more than a flighty little airhead. The priapic menace of Montriveau's wooden leg, stomping up and down the creaky floorboards, smacks of bedroom farce. If anything, as it lathers up into an abortive attempt at scarlet-woman branding and a goofy siege on the nunnery where a dazed and confused Antoinette has holed up, The Duchess of Langeais works best as the comic bondage fantasy implied in its deliciously sly French title: Don't Touch the Axe.
THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS | Directed by JACQUES RIVETTE | Written by PASCAL BONITZER and CHRISTINE LAURENT, based on the novel by HONORE DE BALZAC | Produced by PIERRE ALLIO | Released by IFC First Take | Music Hall