With "The Duchess of Langeais," French New Wave pioneer Jacques Rivette has brought the Balzac short story to screen as a superb chamber drama. His is a graceful work of austerity and formality that perfectly captures the chaos of repressed emotions that see beneath the rigid conventions of aristocratic society.
After a revealing prologue set in 1823 Majorca, the story flashes back to 1818 Paris, where, at a grand party, a rugged military hero, the Marquis de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu, Gerard's charismatic son) is transfixed by the exquisite Duchesse de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar). She sets out to ensnare him, mostly to amuse herself.
She jousts verbally with the love-struck marquis, unaware that she is essentially trapped by the moral dictates of her social rank and position. She is as imprisoned as Anna Karina's unforgettable nun in Rivette's 1966 masterpiece "La Religieuse," who was confined to a convent by her impoverished noble family.
The two films are veritable companion pieces, complementing each other with illuminating irony, revealing the perverse ways in which social and economic pressures can twist and distort emotions.
"The Duchess of Langeais" is consistently compelling as the duchess and the marquis embark on a devastating journey of self-discovery. Balibar and Depardieu sustain highly demanding roles involving pages of polished dialogue with ease and aplomb. In key support are two Rivette favorites, Bulle Ogier, the star of his shattering "L'Amour Fou" (1969), and Michel Piccoli, star of the poignant "La Belle Noiseuse" (1991). "The Duchess" is a film of constant fluidity.
After more than 50 years of idiosyncratic filmmaking, Rivette, who turns 80 on Saturday, is as intense and rigorous an artist as ever.
"The Duchess of Langeais." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.