Human Desire Becomes Almost Kinky In This French Historical Drama
Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) cuts a dashing figure. Between the careless thatch of blond hair, the broad and epauleted shoulders of his military uniform, and the untrivial scar stretching faintly across his cheek, he's more dynamite than those fops dancing the quadrille at every interminable social event frequented by the Parisian upper class--especially since rumor has it he's a hero of the Empire after surviving a disastrous expedition to Africa. Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) decides he's worth knowing and coos, "You went up the source of the Nile, you almost died, may I hear the story?" to Montriveau when they're introduced at a party. She doesn't seem to notice how he hobbles inside his shiny boots or, as he's retelling the story of his death march on bloodied feet across the desert, stares into his hands with haunted eyes. Perhaps this isn't a man to trifle with, but isn't it fun to stir his affections and dangle him on the end of a string--especially when Langeais' husband is nowhere to be found?
If you've been feasting on a steady cinematic diet of superhero blockbusters this summer, this adaptation of Honoré de Balzac's novel, directed by lesser known (in this country) French New Wave alumnus Jacques Rivette, is like switching to Melba toast after too many banana splits. But it'd be a shame if this movie's dry and sparse texture guarantees its dismissal in the hearts of moviegoers who've gotten spoiled by big and juicy spectacles. Granted, the first hour is all monotonous parlor-room intrigue, a historic romance minus the romance. Come visit me, Langeais says. Wait, don't come visit me. OK, come visit me now--but go home quickly. And forget about sex: It doesn't get any hotter than Langeais almost allowing Montriveau's lips to enter the airspace of her face. She's not just going to jump into bed with this guy. She's an honorable woman. She's quite Catholic. And she can't, or won't, decide whether she loves Montriveau, or whether he's just a sightseeing attraction on her journey to know herself. In the meantime, there's hairstyles to arrange and parties to attend, and if she figures it out, all the better--but there's no hurry.
At this point, some moviegoers will be staring at their watch, regretting they ever agreed to see a French movie about people who can't philosophically justify getting together. What's with these two? Don't they realize why we go to the movies? To get all the things we can't have in life, all the victories and excitement and beautiful people gazing into our eyes that we desperately need and will never have. It's no fun to wait . . . or is it?
That's where The Duchess of Langeais takes a sudden, kinky turn into the netherworld of desire. Just as moviegoers are fidgeting in impatience the same way Montriveau stalks off, rebuffed and frustrated, after every fruitless encounter with Langeais, he decides he's had just about enough, too. What he does next isn't sexual. It's more perverse--precisely because there's no sex involved. Suddenly, his lust jumps off the rails and becomes a desire for only more desire. And, slaveringly, pathetically, humiliatingly, it turns out the Duchess feels the same way.
The English language release of this movie keeps the underdescriptive title of the original Balzac story, but the French title of this movie is much more evocative: Don't Touch The Ax, a reference to a story Montriveau recounts to Langeais about seeing the weapon that decapitated Charles the First, his voice faint with menace as he eyes her neck. What is the ax? Is it the unpredictable Montriveau? Is it the dangerous games Langeais plays, skirting propriety in order to fulfill that unquenchable hunger for more frustration? Or is it acknowledging that once you care more about the delay than the gratification, there's no hope for you? Whichever it is, Rivette masterfully ratchets up the same delicious agony in his audience, exploiting the same gray area between boredom and fascination in scene after scene, right up to a conclusion that's satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. Oscar Wilde said it best: "In life there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what you want, the other is getting it." With apologies to the Rolling Stones, The Duchess of Langeais puts it a little differently: "You can't always get what you want--and isn't that great?!?"