Things get ugly when passion goes south

Review B+

July 25, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Duchess of Langeais is a romantic dance of death. The two partners are the duchess (Jeanne Balibar), a coquette in the social whirl of Paris 1823, and a military hero, Gen. Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), who is so besotted with her that he lets her treat him as her orderly.

They're as discordant as a social butterfly and a raging bull. The married duchess lives in a world that rests on shared formalities of the ballroom or the boudoir. All that matters to her crowd is the appearance of taste and virtue.

The general, who thinks he follows in Napoleon Bonaparte's boot-prints, values experience and candor; even social hypocrites praise his honest soul.

The duchess sets out to enthrall him without sleeping with him. While she takes combative pride in what used to be called "feminine wiles," she also nurtures genuine fascination and attraction for this man who abjures the niceties of her effete friends. The general pleads his suit with stunning ardor and directness, until his raw bitterness explodes in an act of jaw-dropping extremity.

The director, Jacques Rivette, who adapted the Balzac short story "Don't Touch the Axe" with Pascal Bonitzer, paces most of the action to the courtly shapes and pacing of a quadrille, but lets us see that these two never quite get in sync. By the time she becomes devoted to him, his feelings have curdled into love-hate for her. Ultimately, each upsets the social machinery that runs like clockwork on hypocrisy and politesse.

Up to the halfway point, the steadiness of the movie can make you restless, but the even tone Rivette assumes early on pays off. He handles his characters' individual vortexes with unique and paradoxical understatement: a dizzying calm. He frames the movie with sequences set years after the main action. The general hears his true love leading a convent choir in Cadiz and discovers that she has become a nun. He remains an atheist; she believes in a religion that allows her to envision them happy together, in the afterlife.

Even after she forswears her former vanity and declares that her love for his soul is deeper than her love for his person, he refuses to believe her. His stubbornness leads to a surprise that is devastating in its cold, trenchant finality. The general's right-hand man advises him to think of this nonaffair as "a poem." And that's exactly what Rivette has wrought in The Duchess of Langeais.

The Duchess of Langeais

(IFC) Starring Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu. Directed by Jacques Rivette. Unrated. Time 137 minutes.

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