We like to look at superb period detail and the struggle between passion and the ornate, complex requirements of 19th century social convention as much as the next guy, but maybe not for 137 minutes.
The Duchess of Langeais, based on the novella by Honore de Balzac, is a tale of social mores and manners wrestling with obsessive love.
Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) spies General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) at a ball one evening. She is married, but never mind about that -- she seems smitten immediately with the taciturn General. On his side, he tells himself he will have her as his mistress. The tussle begins.
Initially, the duchess holds all the cards. She leads the General on a merry dance, greeting him in her house in various states of dishabille, letting him touch her hand, getting him to speak of his battle experiences. He generally works himself up into a frenzy of desire, and then she dismisses him. "Let us consider appearances," she scolds. Yikes.
Then things change. The duchess is warned by her friend Vidame (Michel Piccoli) not to trifle with a man such asa Montriveau -- "You cannot tame him," Vidame tells her, but the duchess believes she knows better. She and the General argue about a priest. They argue about their relationship. The duchess is sure of herself, but the balance of power slowly shifts. Once General Montriveau turns his back on her machinations, the duchess begins a slow descent into obsession, jealousy and despair.
As the standoff escalates, there's a nifty kidnapping scene, complete with branding iron and intimations of S&M, but it's unusual. Action is not at the heart of The Duchess of Langeais, unless you count manipulation. Jacques Rivette, the filmmaker Francois Truffaut claims kick-started the New Wave in cinema, is generally a tough watch, and his Duchess of Langeais is no exception. The mood of the film is austere and sombre, and yet, as the lovers' standoff starts to become ridiculous, it's impossible not to laugh. Rivette has created a contemporary vision of love and hypocrisy and social rules.
Both Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu are quite compelling in their roles, and after about an hour, you fall into this film as completely as you'd fall into a book. Here is the war between men and women in fancy dress, and for Rivette fans, it will be nirvana. Everyone else can expect the experience to feel a little too much like heavy lifting. The Duchess of Langeais is in French with English subtitles.
(This film is rated PG)