Nearing eighty, with a directing career of more than a half-century behind him, Jacques Rivette is a venerable icon of French cinema, but despite a connection with the Nouvelle Vague he’s always gone his own way, with extremely variable results. By his standards “The Duchess of Langeais,” at a mere 131 minutes, is an extremely brief effort; many of his pictures have topped the three-hour mark, and one of them actually ran thirteen before being hacked down to a mere four (shades of Von Stroheim!) Unfortunately, it’s a minor piece in ways other than length, too.
Based on a story drawn from Balzac’s “La comedie humaine,” it’s actually a tragic tale of romantic gamesmanship in the Parisian salons of the post-Napoleonic period. A famed general, the Marquis de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), wounded during two-year’s captivity in Africa, is seduced by Antoinette, the bored, coy titular duchess (Jeanne Balibar), whose husband is nowhere to be seen. Eventually frustrated and angry over her elaborate toying with him, the besotted general kidnaps and threatens her before setting her free—and the mistreatment apparently causes her to fall as heads-over-heels for him as he’d been for her. Now it’s his turn to play hard to get, and in her grief and misery she disappears from Paris when he refuses to see her.
This period pas de deux is staged for the most part with a sort of forced archness, with many scenes of characters pacing about their rooms so overextended that there’s little for a viewer to do to pass the time but count footfalls on the wooden floors of the prettily furnished but curiously cramped rooms. The simmering quietude is, however, punctuated by sequences of florid melodrama, in which the two leads break the bonds of their pent-up emotions and rage wildly. Nonetheless the whole comes across as an oddly passionless and cold visual exercise, inviting criticism of the sort that was often—but wrongly—directed against a film like “Barry Lyndon.” This one does seem like little more than a coffee table movie.
Within the limitations imposed by Rivette’s ascetic style—made even more ponderous by his decision to use intertitles to note the passage of time or explain transitions—Depardieu and Balibar try to create real characters, but neither really registers: he just seems perpetually choleric (or perhaps constipated), and she merely seems flighty (she can’t carry off the abrupt switch to mad love, but no actress could). Among the supporting cast, veteran Michel Piccoli stands out as Antoinette’s elderly uncle, because he actually seems like a human being rather than a piece on a chess board, and because he injects some much-needed humor.
All that remains is to note that the Paris action is bookended by prologue and epilogue set five years later in Majorca, where Montriveau, who regretted his treatment of the duchess as soon as she disappeared, becomes obsessed with a nun in a cloistered community of Discalced Carmelites and returns with a band of friends after being expelled from the convent to carry her off. The reunion, however, does not end happily.
A good deal of the critical reaction to “The Duchess of Langeais” is likely to be based more on reverence for an octogenarian filmmaker than on a bald assessment of the film. Don’t be fooled by it: this is a remote and chilly exercise, more museum piece than movie.