The Duchess of Langeais

Stars: Jeanne Balibar, Guillame Depardieu

Director: Jacques Rivette


***** (out of five)

The Duchess of Langeais is a 19th-century chamber drama that unfolds in the stifling salons of French high society, with bookend sequences in a slate-grey Corsican castle. But don’t let the Masterpiece Theatre trappings fool you; octogenarian auteur Jacques Rivette’s adaptation of a Balzac novel — coming four decades after his monumental, Balzac-inflected 13-hour epic Out:1 — is as ferocious a film as you’re likely to see this year.

“Steel against steel,” vows Gen. Montriveau (Guilliame Depardieu), but he isn’t talking about the battlefield. He’s psyching himself for another rendezvous with the object of his tortured affections — the eponymous, corseted tease played, in a brilliantly modulated performance, by Jeanne Balibar. The Duchess, an exquisitely manicured public creature, isn’t exactly coy about her attraction to the hobbled war hero, but being married (we never see her husband) insists they keep their passions under wraps; receiving him in her boudoir, she wields her propriety like a bludgeon. And the general, a stolid, brooding type unversed in this sort of gamesmanship, practically marinates in frustration.

The moment at which the emotional poles reverse is the high point of the film — bluntly theatrical, darkly comic and charged with erotic threat (suffice it to say that a branding iron is involved).

Even as the beautifully deployed framing device undercuts any hopes that these non-lovers will ever consummate their affair — and even as Rivette’s distanced camera pointedly eschews intimacy — we’re rapt with suspense and anticipation. If it’s possible for frustration to be sublime, then The Duchess Of Langeais is a masterpiece.

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