Don't Touch The Axe
Adapted from Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, Jacques Rivette’s latest film tells the tragic story of a French general Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), back from a difficult trip in Africa, who falls for married Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar). What might have been a flirtatious piece of fun between the two of them turns serious as, initially, Armand obsessively chases her, and after failing in his quest, threatens Antoinette with revenge by branding. He then disappears and the duchess becomes obsessed by the general in his absence. All the while societal expectation hangs over their heads.
Rivette’s style has often been, by conventional dramatic standards, underperformed and even stilted, but this is because Rivette is as interested in the awareness of form as he is in the specifics of content. As he moves from coquettish foreplay to moments of intense, vibrating passion, Rivette wants us to be moved but not overcome. He may be observing bi-polar passion and frigidity but his own interest in using medium long shots over close-ups (along with a detached plot structure) keeps the melodrama at arm’s reach. Ditto a few odd touches, such as the sounds of gulls on the soundtrack (invoking Mallorca) while the characters are still in Paris. This great, now aged, New Wave filmmaker still knows how to keep an audience’s interest without resorting to ready convention. His characters aren’t quite so lucky.
GFT, Glasgow, Fri 29 Feb–Mon 3 Mar.