2007 // France - Italy // Jacques Rivette // April 26, 2008 // Theatrical Print
D - The Duchess of Langeais brings to mind a fundamental question about film quality: Can a movie be reasonably well-shot and well-acted in the service of Very Serious Themes, and yet still be a dull, dreadful mess? Are the two mutually exclusive? Last year, Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley, a film that seems increasingly like a fumbled embarrassment with the passage of time, suggested that the two aspects could coexist in the same film. Now here is another French adaptation of a revered author's work that evokes a comparably contradictory sensation. In this case, the author is Honore de Balzac, and the director is New Wave icon Jacques Rivette. I have a hard time calling this a Bad Film, but it is almost certainly a failure. If I squint very hard I can almost be convinced of the phantoms of an engaging work, and maybe even understand—but not share—the praise that this film has received from my admired critics such as Glenn Kenny and Noel Murray. Yet I can't lie to myself: I just don't see it.
The film opens in the early nineteenth century. Guillaume Depardeiu—son of, yes, that Depardieu—portrays Armand de Montriveau, a French officer on a diplomatic visit to Spanish Majorca. While listening to a cloistered order of nuns sing at a local convent, Armand is overcome with emotion at the sound of one sister's voice. It is the sound of a woman he knows, a woman that has haunted him for years. Armand makes arrangements to confront the nun and confirm his suspicions, and the film then returns to their first meeting, a flashback that will comprise most of the film. The melodious nun was once Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), a comely Duchess wed to a man the viewer never meets. She moves through the splendor of Parisian aristocratic society, sly and moody and slender as a statue. At an evening ball, she chances upon Armand, a wounded war hero recently returned from exploits in the heart of Africa.
There is attraction. She is intrigued by this worldly man, rougher than the powdered gentility she is accustomed to. And although initially standoffish, Armand is quickly and completely smitten with her. Unfortunately there is a disparity of passion and a cultural gulf in their relationship that leads almost immediately to frustration and conflict. Armand is forthright and savage in matters of the heart. He declares on the first night that he loves Antoinette, begging (and later demanding) that she reciprocate his affection. Antoinette is flighty, alternately preoccupied with coquettish games, social propriety, and religious guilt. These people, however strong their attraction might be, are not likely to share a happy ending.
It's a challenge to detect anything instructive or even coherent in the way that Armand and Antoinette behave. Rivette approaches the cruel game of the relationship is a way that is unaccountably distant, shapeless, and meandering. Despite the film's apparent interest in the monstrous character of aristocratic gamesmanship, the viewer doesn't see much of that world, or the evidence of its immorality. Too much of this film consists of Depardieu and Balibar alone together, urgently delivering lots and lots of obtuse and mannered dialogue. The dialogue isn't awful, per se. On the contrary, it's often quite poetic. It's just unfocused, rambling, and far less torrid than it imagines. I had difficulty discerning the characters' motivations from moment to moment, save for the plainest and most understandable impulses. (Armand's frustration at Antoinette's dithering at least evokes some sympathy.)
Don't misunderstand: the performances are fine enough. Depardieu in particular displays a flair for conveying Armand's strange blend of longing and loutishness. And that's another problem. Armand is a thick-headed, sadistic, selfish brute, while Antoinette is a creepy, maladjusted, juvenile flake. I'm supposed to care if such people find love together?
The most frustrating facet of The Duchess is that while it reveals scattered flashes of delicious drama, these moments never culminate in anything that justifies the heaping helpings of blandness. It's not a good sign when the film's most powerful emotional moment occurs ten minutes into its running time. Rivette finds little nodes of electricity here and there that hint at his august and allegedly potent cinematic storytelling talent. (This is my first of his films.) When a vengeful Armand ominously and obliquely warns Antoinette at another ball, "Don't touch the axe," the viewer begins to feel her rising, clinging dread. There are some juicy twists to the plot, but these seem oddly diminished in their impact due to the film's overall ambivalence about its characters' virtues or the cruelty of their circumstances. By the time the bitter irony of the film's ending is revealed, my empathy with anything going on up on the screen had long expired.
To the credit of the filmmakers, The Duchess is a gorgeous film. The sets and costumes are all richly detailed, giving off just the right glow of dazzling beauty and moribund excess. I should also point out that Rivette and cinematographer William Lubtchansky exhibit an uncommon skill: they know how to light period interiors in a manner that is utterly authentic. I can't think of a film in recent memory with such a convincing shroud of pre-Industrial gloom. Now that I've said something nice, can I talk for a moment about the irritating sound design? I'm not sure what possessed Rivette to highlight every single creak in the floorboards when any character takes a step. Is this a metaphor for the warped and incessant character of French aristocratic society? All I know is that twenty minutes in, with the creaking actually obscuring the dialogue, I wanted to slap him.
At best, The Duchess of Langeais is a visually exciting muddle that aims high and falls flat. It's really the French literary equivalent of a big, dumb, superhero movie, and that's mighty disappointing. Want to see a masterpiece about the institutionalized malice of aristocratic society? Do yourself a favor and rent The Age of Innocence instead.