79 year-old French New Wave master Jacques Rivette once directed a film called Out1 that clocked in at just under thirteen hours, but The Duchess of Langeais, his latest film which plays at a traditional feature length, comes across at times like one of those marathon efforts. Slow-moving to the point of stillness and comprised of an unremarkable succession of master shots that bespeak a director focused entirely on the performances and totally unbothered by cinematography, the film's only salvation is a remarkably graceful turn by Jeanne Balibar as the titular duchess -- a coy aristrocrat in Restoration France called Antoinette who alleviates her boredom with life by playing love games with Armand, a young Naval officer played here by Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard. Game is the operative word, because what they engage in over the course of the film is not a genuine passion but a kind of unhealthy mutual fascination that mostly revolves around her superior social position in French society and the ways in which it may frustrate his romantic intentions.
Based on Balzac's 1834 novel, the film begins with a late scene in which Armand encounters his other half in a Carmelite nunnery long after their affair has gone cold. Using his pull as an officer, he gains access to the convent and tries to broker some time alone with Antoinette, but there's very little useful information exchanged between the two of them before she interrupts the proceedings by screamingly confessing to her mother superior that the man in question is a former lover, which breaks everything up immediately. The film then jumps back to the very beginning, at the moment of the first encounter during a ball. This, it turns out, will be something of a running theme, with Armand almost pathologically unable to articulate his feelings -- if he has genuine feelings, something of a question -- and constrained by values of his own. It's those values that the film needs to shine a stark light on in order to understand Armand's later actions -- leaving the film, audiences may know little more about his motivations than when they entered the theater.
In her Times review, Manohla Dargis describes Depardieu's performance as one derived from "an actor in angry lockdown" which is a spot-on description of the curious malaise that seems to dog the actor's portrayal of Armand, a character who spends most of the film sulking behind a stone-faced mask of contempt and the other moments exploding in acts of unanticipated violence, one of which comes across as strangely antiquated. Without giving too much away, there's a key plot point in the film that seems so fixed in time that it begs for an updating or at least a reinterpretation to protect against the snickering it may elicit from modern audiences. Rivette, however, is steeled in his determination to create a film that stays completely rooted in its period both in terms of the political and social mores as well as its complete rejection of behavioral conventions recognizable to anyone living today. Not that any of that dooms a film at the outset, but it sets up challenges that require creative energies which I fear Rivette no longer has to spare.
Thankfully, Balibar has energy to spare and shines through the stagey and constrained backdrop of the picture to deliver a forceful and compassionate character who elicits sympathy even when the tables are turned decisively in her favor, as they are for most of the early part of the film. As Antoinette, Balibar paints a portrait of an aristocrat suffering from supreme boredom and fundamentally unsure of what she wants to achieve in this life -- why else would she invest such time and energy in playing an elaborate parlor game with a man who can hardly be bothered to crack a smile, much less emote any kind of romantic sentiments? It's clear that in this age of overwrought social codes, any opportunity for genuine human contact must grabbed at, whether the partner is unsuited or not. Ultimately, the weird dichotomy between the two characters and the stilted, borderline disinterested direction defeats Balibar. The dynamic flip that eventually occurs in the story, regarding Antoinette's relationship with Armand, is one that is only half-supported since Depardieu is barely engaged.
The Duchess of Langeias is much like this year's La Vie en Rose in that it works just well enough to support a dynamic performance but contains too many structural oddities, fights too many directorial idiosyncracies and stifles its own momentum too much to succeed on the whole. Still, what audiences can take away from it is a welcome introduction to Jeanne Balibar.