Friday, March 14, 2008

Great Period...period.

Admittedly, the spell that Jacques Rivette casts in the course of his best films is one I am constantly under. Sometimes meandering, constantly conspiratorial and infinitely obsessive, Rivette is one of the directors that I am most obsessed with having flown to New York to see his 13-hour masterpiece Out 1 after having seen only of his films (Celine and Julie Go Boating, for the record). Rivette’s early films have a manic sense of style, story and improvisation that go to the extreme end of the French New Wave making Rivette, in my mind, even more iconic if equally inaccessible. To call Rivette’s latest film, The Duchess of Langeais, a change of pace from the previous Rivette films I have seen is an understatement. All the same, this playful period piece exudes the sprightliness of of a teenage sex comedy while foregrounding the tonal differentiation in character that leads The Duchess of Langeais to its unexpected clarity and profundity.

Adapted from a novella by Balzac (one of Rivette’s obsessions that has equal prominence within the “narrative” of Out 1), The Duchess of Langeais follows the romantic entanglement between Marquis de Montriveau, a war hero who has recently returned to Paris from Africa, and the Duchess of Langeais, a vicious coquette who is not afraid to gamble to see how far love will go. Starting in a Spanish monastery where the Marquis has found his lovely “Antoinette” (posing as Sister Theresa), the Marquis forces a confrontation that the other Sisters find none to pleasant, literally pulling a curtain between the Marquis and the Duchess, and providing one hell of an act break for the filmic audience.

Flashing back 5 years, the elongated courtship of the Duchess is followed in great detail, highlighted by Rivette’s use of intertitles of text from the novella. Although it is easy to jump at the literariness of the intertitles, Rivette and the character’s mode of communicating allows the film to gloss over the intertitles without breaking up the film’s drama. In using this disjunctive sense of time, Rivette’s adaptation makes time something that may be a factor, but is ineffective in stopping the fates of the characters. When the Marquis vows that the Duchess will be his mistress, neither he, nor the film, take into consideration the amount of time this may take, especially without understanding how strong the mind games of the Duchess are. Is this just a playful attitude on her part? Is there something more vicious behind it? And maybe more importantly, does the Duchess really care?

Rivette’s narrative, of course, complicates matters to the nth degree making The Duchess of Langeais on the brink of the theatric at all moments. Not theatric in the sense of melodramatic, although it certainly is that, but theatric in the sense that this could be theater. Rivette continually miffs the line between theater and film plus the real and the unreal throughout his features. Though these obsessions are a constant in Rivette’s work, they never feel rehashed or tired in The Duchess of Langeais. Rivette’s ability to keep material fresh and alive no matter the datedness of the material (whether it be a period costume drama, an 1818 novella, or his obsessions) is an incredibly remarkable quality that many may overlook. However, when a 135 minute (long in general, short for Rivette) period piece can feel this fresh and (hey!) fun, there is really some feat behind the scenes that must be recognized.

At the same time, even more compelling is the film’s ability to sway from the typical theatrical melodrama into Rivette’s full on conspiratorial assault. Without giving away too much of the darkly comedic drama in the second half of the film, when the major shifts in story occur, there is never a sense of confusion or displacement. This not only signals that this may be Rivette’s most traditional work, but that the subtle intricacies of the story all lead to its most dramatic, and tragic, moments. Beyond splurging all credit on Rivette, the performances by Guillaume Depardieu (as the Marquis) and Jeanne Balibar (as the Duchess) are beyond phenomenal. Given Rivette’s highly improvisation style, Depardieu and Balibar match a level of intensity in their battles with the other even with the enormous differences in wit, presentation, and mood. Depardieu is at times a weak man crippled by love, but can quickly become a thundering herd that will not be denied. Depardieu is crippled in real life, having lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, but that weakness becomes a forceful attribute of the Marquis. Balibar matches this with a constant face of innocence, while not shying away from her inner devil when the time is right. The scheming, devilish tactic all lead to a surprising, if inevitable, conclusion that is executed with a stylishly calm grace, perfectly fitting given the film’s other unexpected variations.

More appropriately titled Don’t Touch The Axe (its literal title from Balzac, and also the film’s name in every other country but the United States), The Duchess of Langeais seems too formal a title put in place to sway older viewers into seeing another film about royalty of some sort. However, if this is the only major misstep for the film and its release, so be it. The Duchess of Langeais is as much a tease of a movie as the title is. Rivette, at age 80, has made a uniquely complex period dramedy that, if it does not transcend it, certainly is a play on a genre that the younger readers may not be drawn to. Do not let yourself be fooled. In the midst of what has been a winter film drought, The Duchess of Langeais is a intricate, timeless, beautiful poem.

by James Hansen


Brandon Colvin said...

Man, it would be sweet if I could actually SEE a Jacques Rivette film.

I'm going to try and get to this new one.

James Hansen said...

Celine and Julie has a nice Region 2 DVD, and is on VHS here and there. Would have been a great forgotten VHS if it weren't for the Region 2 release. Oh wellz.

This is a good one to start with, although I slightly prefer the more abundant wildness of his early stuff I have seen.

If I ever get that DVD of Celine and Julie, I'll make sure to get you a copy...somehow.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

I just recently got a copy of Rivette's Merry-Go-Round and will be posting my thoughts on it soon with some screen shots at Moon In The Gutter. Can't wait to see his newest...thanks for the post...

Ed Howard said...

Nice review, I loved this film as well. Its humor is so wonderfully subtle that it takes a while for it to actually sink in that you're watching a comedy, if a somewhat arch and dark comedy. Lots of Rivette's films are actually on DVD now, and I'd recommend that anyone taking a first stab at his unique sensibility should try out Celine and Julie or the utterly charming History of Marie and Julien as an entry point to Rivette's world. But I have yet to be disappointed by one of his films, even though each one of them is in its way very distinct from his others.

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comments, Ed. I really think this in the top tier of all the films that Rivette has made although CELINE AND JULIE and OUT 1 (obviously) are really the stand-outs. I'm working through MARIE AND JULIEN right's ok, but doesn't have the same manic qualities that I like so much about Rivette;'s best work (such as this one.)

Ed Howard said...

Marie et Julien was my introduction to Rivette, and it still holds a special place for me among his films. Emmanuelle Beart's performance is a wonder, and the film is stunning in its languid pacing and brilliant sound design. It's funny, I wouldn't ever really think to apply the adjective "manic" to Rivette, except maybe for the conclusion of Celine and Julie. Even his most surreal films, like the utterly bizarre Noroit, are very evenly paced and meditative.