Duchess of Langeais

Having returned from Africa, where he was "held prisoner by savages for two years before fleeing," the Marquis de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) is the talk of Paris society. "How very amusing," deadpans the unflappable Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar). "None is more dull or somber," a friend sighs before consenting to introduce the duchess to the brooding Napoleonic War hero — after all, "He is à la mode." Ah, the sophisticated drollery of the Gallic costume drama — and, oh, what a queer spin given to the form by Jacques Rivette, here adapting a Balzac text to his own strange and whimsical agenda. Brisk by the measure of a typical Rivette picture, Duchess devotes its first hour to an agonizingly protracted nonconsummation — or even specification! — of the lovers' (haters?) sentiments. Pivoting on the point of a white-hot brand the marquis threatens to press against the intractable head of his impossible mistress, the second half of the drama advances a new, equally confounding scenario, as the duchess drops her mask of nonchalance and adopts the pose of a reckless supplicant for the marquis’ affections. None of which would seem out of place on Masterpiece Theater were it not so obvious, in its deliciously obscure way, that Rivette is playing a game but tweaking its rules — making, in short, not simply a movie but that ineffable magic called cinema.
March 21-24, 2008

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