Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 11:15 am 
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Passion vs. the rules

Jacques Rivette, the grand old late-bloomer of the French New Wave, is a sacred cow. You must either worship him or turn on him and shatter an idol. It's no use calling this new film "dull," though Armond White and Andrew Sarris have emphatically done so. That will make the cinephile fans call you stupid and impatient and without finesse or taste. It will only signal that you lacked patience. Had you endured the film's considerable longueurs with more fortitude, you would be proud and wear your multiple viewings as a banner of accomplishment, of authenticity. No, don't fall into the obvious trap of calling this film "dull." But on the other hand, it's only jumping on a fashionable little bandwagon to call it a "masterpiece." It's more appropriate to describe it as a reexamination of history and culture--a film more to be studied than enjoyed. Though it does offer some pleasures. It's not hard to look at. Its authentic period interiors and rich costumes are beautiful and presented with an austerity than only enhances them. It has moments that bring Patrick Chéreau's Gabrielle to mind (though it's set later)--the recreation of a period through male-female sparring that's so starkly emotional it almost becomes contemporary (because we subconsciously think of historical people, especially famous or rich ones, as lacking raw emotions). The crackly fires and creaky floors and flickering candles might seem clichés, but handled with a sure, unadorned European touch they seem fresh, like the Brechtian vérité of Versailles in Rossellini's stunning 1966 La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV.

Bu there are basic problems. Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu, who play the sparring love-withholding lovers, the Duchesse Antoinette de Langeais and General Armand Marquis de Montriveau, just are not cool. The fact that they never make love and only toy with each other only brings out the fact that these two actors haven't much presence on screen or chemistry with each other. Balibar is thin and long-necked enough to wear her Empire dresses well, but she's no beauty and has no spirit and alas, her voice is a bit whiny. Depardieu, the terribly overshadowed son of the famous father, as Armond White in his review writes is a "former dreamboat...hidden behind acne and unkempt facial hair." Supposedly playing the hero of a desert campaign, Depardieu actually limps from a car accident and (despite good hair and profile) has a face that when seen dead-on seems to disintegrate as from depression or drug abuse or both. That may do for the shattered war hero look, but there isn't much about Guillaume that suggests officer material.

These ill-fitted, unmagical actors are brought together to play two neurotic characters, who, in an unusually focused and formally scripted work for this director, seem like the characters in Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress (2007), people trying to live the lives of eighteenth-century rakes but overcome by nineteenth-century romantic emotions, and in this case a kind of Victorian guilt alternating with the temptation to commit perversion. The colonel has the duchess kidnapped and threatens to brand her. Earlier she's said he's looking at her at a ball as if he had an ax in his hand; the French title is Ne touchez pas la hache, "Don't touch the ax," referring to a superstition about the ax that killed Charles I of England.

She welcomes being branded. So of course he has the hot iron taken away. Isn't this the essence of S&M--to provide the most exquisite torment by withholding torment? Armond White says "Rivette sticks to the melodrama of manners, as if observing a war of social proprieties. Each rendezvous--or missed meeting--of the would-be lovers becomes a game of one-upsmanship. These people are trapped in conventions that they adhere to more than anybody else. They're tragic 19th-century fools--figures from an unfamiliar age who test a modern audience's patience." They do that no doubt, but Rivette deliberately exaggerates the constricting conventions to go beyond naturalism or historical accuracy and make this almost a conceptual piece--and hence not really "Masterpiece Theater" at all (despite Nathan Lee) but something different and more intense and more like Gabrielle---though lacking Gabrielle's excitement.

And without context. Gabrielle's emotional intensity is achieved by great acting and casting (Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory have a kind of high-octane negative chemistry) and by the vividly conveyed sense of a surrounding society that is shocked, even as it looks the other way. In The Duchess of Langeais we see only a few relatives, soldiers, and pals, mere appendages, so that despite all their adherence to constricting conventions the protagonists seem isolated and free--living in their own invented hell. We don't know what the world thinks about them of if it even cares. That's much more a modern idea. Beware a historical film that feels authentic; it's probably even more anachronistic than a conventional one. Despite the duchess' allegedly constant attendance at balls and a couple of dance scenes with nice music, little sense of a rule-imposing society is evoked.

Though she's enamored of Armond or of his love for her, the duchess won't give in to him because she deems it undignified to become his mistress. But why? We need to learn more about the rule book she's following; you can't have a real sense of passion till you know the rules are that it makes people want to break.But despite plenty of cards and letters (most of the latter unopened however), a plethora of chronological intertitles and a few moments of voice-over, this is one of those times where a film from a book (or in this case a Balzac novella) is direly lacking in verbiage to make sense out of what's going on. You can't say nothing happens--besides the kidnapping there's an attempt to storm a convent. But the story is all about the withholding--and we need to know more about its inner repercussions. Despite Rivette's self control and ability to tease, this is a literary adaptation that doesn't quite work cinematically.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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