Like its central character, The Duchess of Langeais is at once enticing and infuriating. This adaptation of Honoré de Balzac's novella is both beautifully wrought and maddeningly oblique, impossible to dismiss but difficult to embrace. Director Jacques Rivette, now 80, is one of the grand old men of the French New Wave and, although his work has often seemed more rarefied than his peers, he's no less a provocateur than his fellow critics-turned-auteurs.
With The Duchess of Langeais, he's found a cinematic language that blends a startling naturalism with a constricting theatricality. Rivette presents France in the post-Napoleonic Restoration period with a directness that eschews all the usual period gloss (as epitomized by another Balzac film, the overstuffed Cousin Bette). But as he brings the audience into the 1820s, he also stages much of the action as if he were restrained by the limits of a proscenium. This push-pull dynamic mirrors the tension of the central characters.
Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) enjoys the title and wealth provided by her absent husband, and she frequents Parisian soirees, enjoying the company of the newly resurgent French aristocracy. When she encounters Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a morose army general scarred from defending the empire in far-away battles, she senses his immediate interest and begins to amuse herself by encouraging his affections.
What initially seems like a teasing courtship soon becomes something more insidious and disturbing. Antoinette sternly refuses to become his lover while taunting him with coquettish displays of her sexuality, which inflames and allures Armand, who doesn't give up without a fight. But the battle that ensues, despite their adherence to a strict code of manners befitting their era and social status, is the emotional equivalent of bloody hand-to-hand combat.
As the tensions get heated, The Duchess of Langeais keeps its cool. Known for employing very long takes and glacial pacing that make his films feel much longer than their running times, Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse) actually keeps things moving along here, aided by enough intertitles to rival a silent movie.
Those frequent title cards are yet another old-fashioned touch to this very modern tale, which explores Antoinette and Armand's affinity for inflicting and receiving pain, and their intertwined romantic obsession, which can't end until one finally possesses the lifeless form of the other. What Rivette achieves is sadomasochism without any actual sex, creating a contained frenzy of polite brutality.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 4-5, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 6. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.