A chamber piece for two tragic almost-lovers, a coquettish Duchess and a noble French General. A chance flirtation at a Fauborg St-Germain party initiates an arduous campaign of romantic outflankings, accomplished through feigned illnesses, epistolary sallies, evocations of God, and threats of force. Abstemious with close-ups, "The Duchess of Langeais" is a two-shot duet for Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu. The performances are precise in the extreme, the combatants' war games regulated by elaborate rules of engagement, incremental charges and retreats. In visits to the Duchess's residence, they push and pull their conversations between the bedchamber, drawing room, and foyer, the camera softly slipping after. The Duchess, however, has underestimated the fortitude of this suitor, whose continual, nauseous glowering at his loose forelock hides a master strategian.
The reason something so staid is playing in American theaters at all is that it happens to have been directed by Jacques Rivette (this is no indictment of the film, which I like more each time I see it, but rather of the grim mathematics of distribution). A once damningly oddball second-tier New Waver, Rivette's continued vitality and lissome touch has made him ripe for rediscovery.
His film's narrative comes, often verbatim, from a story in Balzac's "L'Histoire des Treize," a collection of tales concerning "a secret society of men devoted to each other's interests... all working together, by fair means or foul, for good ends or bad" (per critic George Saintsbury). This confederacy doesn't show up here until the last reel, but the resonance of this theme to Rivette is easy to guess: He's long cherished conspiracies, the alliance of theatrical troupes, and something like Forster's "aristocracy of the sensitive."
His sets are famously collaborative, the collaborators unusually consistent (the dulcet compositions are the domain of DP William Lubtchansky, who's faithfully manned the camera for Rivette going on thirty years). And no director has depended more heavily upon his women; the genius attributed to him is really his chemistry with Juliet Berto, Emmanuelle Beart in her more malleable years, or Bulle Ogier (who appears in "Duchess," along with Michel Piccoli, for old time's sake)--what they pull out of him, and he them. Balibar, whose tremulant, doe-like loveliness has never been so well admired, is one of his best, fluttering with concentrated life every moment she's on-screen (like seemingly every French actress, she has a side career as a chanteuse, and she has a devastating song here).
This is Rivette's third film to draw from Balzac, but the first actually set in the Restoration period. This distinction may not be particularly important; his filmmaking has never, even when couched in the most contemporary of milieus, seemed the property of this century: who in this hectic millennium has time to watch such famously endless movies? This is much of what makes Rivette so likable; his work is so singular as to be completely improbable.
He turns eighty this March. The usual angle when an octogenarian makes something this lucid is to suggest that it resembles the work of a younger man. This isn't the case. Such simplicity is the accomplishment of a lifetime.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a weekly critic for the Village Voice.]