Any appreciation of the films of Jacques Rivette tends to be binary: Either you get it or you're out the door in less than 30 minutes. The least-celebrated director of the French New Wave, the 80-year-old master has been cranking out long, elegant, discursive meditations on life and artifice for almost half a century.
Some of them are beloved in a cultish way. "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (1974), a sort of feminist French "Alice in Wonderland," is one of this critic's very favorite movies. Some of them gained wider renown: 1991's "La Belle Noiseuse" was a decent-size US art-house hit, largely on the strength of Emmanuelle Beart in the altogether.
And some Rivette films lie there on the screen refusing to take on a life of their own, and "The Duchess of Langeais" is one of those. An exactingly filmed Balzac adaptation about l'amour fou between a Napoleonic general and the title titled lady, "Duchess" is short by Rivette standards (137 minutes; the legendary, little-seen "Out One" lasts 12 hours), but it feels like one of the longer ones. The film's a minuet fetishistically repeated until either the audience or the lovers go crazy. I'd say it was a tie.
And yet I'm glad to have seen it and can heartily recommend the movie to Rivette completists (all five of us). "Duchess" musters the director's unique patented tone of stateliness and intense emotionalism, and the sets and costumes are to die for.
Bookended by sequences in a Majorcan nunnery, the film proper begins five years earlier, in 1818, when the Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) meets General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) at a soiree. Newly returned from two years in savage captivity, he's astonished at her wit and refinement; she, in turn, is drawn to his rough, neurotic passion.
Sounds like a bodice-ripper, and in an attenuated, highly intellectualized way, it is. The two lovers spend the next years dancing around each other, never consummating but paradoxically getting closer to the flame. There's talk of religion and forays into light S&M, and there are gestures, both private and public, that carry heavy weight. The movie understands the sexuality of a man entering a woman's chambers unannounced; it understands, too, the scandal of a married woman's carriage standing empty before a single man's house.
Because every Rivette movie is about theatricality on some level - about the ways we stage-manage our lives to give them meaning - "The Duchess of Langeais" at times seems like a play put on by a dominant and a submissive for their own delectation. (Who's who? Hard to tell; the masochism keeps switching sides.)
To give in would be to end the drama unthinkably soon. "Will you always give your hand to me?" asks the general. "Yes, but we will leave it at that," responds his lover. These two want to live at the precipice of capitulation, which proves as impossible to watch as it is to sustain.
Balibar is enchanting as the duchess - she could have stepped out of a Max Ophuls melodrama from the 1950s - but Depardieu carries the movie's heartache. The son of Gerard, the 36-year-old actor has had a rocky, difficult life, one lived out as much in European tabloids as in his movies. The general's scarred weariness seems to flow directly from the man playing him.
"The Duchess of Langeais" proves enervating over the long haul, though, in much the way that lovers' games are often of interest only to the lovers. The director has created a passion play about intentionally thwarted passion, and it's as if Ophuls's romantic round-robin "La Ronde" (1950) were taking place between two people instead of a dozen. That's just perverse, which ironically may be as good a description of a Jacques Rivette movie as any. This particular Rivette movie, sadly, is summed up by the sigh of a minor character: "Such a fuss over an empty carriage."