Pazartesi, Ekim 06, 2008

Don't Touch the Axe

Don't Touch the Axe (France, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Jacques Rivette

There was, for a little while circa 2006, a bit of a Jacques Rivette revival. Rivette has always been one of the most underrated of the French New Wave directors, perhaps because his films were always more self-consciously theatrical than overtly cinematic. A touring program helped to reestablish his presence in the consciousness of film buffs internationally, screening prints of films such as Celine and Julie Go Boating (to date, his best-known and most highly-regarded film), Duelle, Noroît, Love on the Ground, and the sprawling Out 1. (Alas, when the festival came to my local UW-Cinematheque, they did not screen this last one, at 773 minutes his most legendary.) Oddly, the revival seems to have dimmed, and I'm still waiting on an announcement of some Rivette films on Region 1 DVD (ahem, Criterion?). Still, his latest film, released in the U.S. as The Duchess of Langeais, at least was released stateside, and to favorable attention, at that.

Anyone who has taken the time to come to know Rivette through his films will eventually come to Honoré de Balzac and Rivette's great affection for the author; and so it should come as no surprise that in 2006 he adapted "The Duchess of Langeais," a novella included in Balzac's collection The History of the Thirteen. Originally, Balzac intended to call the story "Don't Touch the Axe," after a pivotal line of dialogue. Significantly, Rivette restored the title to his adaptation, although, for reasons I can't quite understand, it was changed to The Duchess of Langeais for festivals and limited release in the U.S. Don't Touch the Axe is a rather savage title, which adds a bit of teeth to what will be, by necessity, a story told mostly through dialogue--a chamber drama of unrequited love, set almost entirely in the Duchess' boudoir. Guillaume Depardieu* plays Montriveau, a decorated general of the Napoleonic wars, visiting Paris with a gruff demeanor, like a seaman who hasn't gotten his land-legs; fittingly, he plays the part with a staggering gait, to imply a war wound, though he seems to move like Frankenstien's monster, and is just as out of place.** At a ball he meets Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), the wife of the wealthy, and perpetually absent, Duc de Langeais. Finding this fish-out-of-water entertaining, she decides to play with his affections for her own amusement. She invites him to her home, wearing only a flimsy nightgown and acting the engaged audience to his life story. As she intends, he falls intensely in love, declaring that she is the first woman who has ever stolen his heart. She is, of course, being the perfect coquette, building his expectations in perpetuity without ever intending to satisfy his desires. This echoes, ironically, the tale he tells her (in the film, stretched over several nights): of being taken through the African desert by a guide who promises him that the journey will be only a few miles more, a few miles more--until they have gone too far to go back. Montriveau is also being led on, so to speak, but when he reaches that "point of no return," he decides to turn the tables.

And here is the only departure from the novella, a minor one: in the film the implication is that Montriveau decides to have his revenge upon the duchess of his own will; in Balzac's story, it is at the instigation of his friend Ronquerolles. Ronquerolles does play a role in Rivette's adaptation, but it's a late and minor part; the result is that Montriveau becomes a more dynamic character here, and more responsible for the tragedy which unfolds. Yet this is a Rivette film, arid, sometimes clinical. We are removed from Montriveau's thoughts and feelings, so that he's somewhat more mysterious than he is the novella. Balzac presents a messy character, emotionally fragile, and given to a rage when he finds that he's been so emotionally exposed by the coquette's wiles. Guillaume Depardieu, to his credit, is effective and sympathetic, but Rivette seems to hold him back. Rivette, like Godard, has always been a little reluctant for the viewers to lose themselves completely in the story--he wants to emphasize the boundary between the viewer and the characters. In the novella, there is a distinct dividing line when the point of view switches from Montriveau to the Duchess. But since we are never entirely within Montriveau's head in Rivette's film, that narrative switch is never really applied. The dividing line of interest for Rivette is the emotional gap between the two characters. Montriveau falls in love with the Duchess, and then she falls in love with him; but they never seem to meet one another. In one of the final images of the film--a rare departure from the narrative, though a minor one--we see a cinematic illustration of this divide, although to avoid spoilers I won't describe it here. Really, this is an anti-love story, and Rivette's emotionally aloof approach seems strangely fitting, even if it was not Balzac's method.

Since this is not an experimental film by any means, or at least far less so than Rivette's early works, the result is a fascinating tension between artificiality and authenticity. The dim candles of the salons, the creaking of the floorboards, the dank corridors of the abbey and the clutter of Montriveau's apartment all lend a convincing verisimilitude. But Rivette keeps the emotions in check. He makes little effort to draw the viewer into sympathy with the characters. It is up to the audience to understand the dramatic stakes. Rivette's only cinematic trick is one he's used in the past: using interstitial title cards ("The next day--" "But, the next evening--" etc.), including some with extended quotations from Balzac's prose. He's always been among the most literary of directors; what is amusing is how Rivette, in his autumn years, seems to be pushing cinema toward the form of the novel. One could say that Out 1, which takes as long to see as a novel takes to read, was an early attempt to do just this; but an evening spent with any film of Rivette's is as intimate and as oddly comforting and involving as reading a book. That Don't Touch the Axe is a wonderful film is almost besides the point; it is another wonderful Jacques Rivette film, which is more than enough.

* Guillaume Depardieu tragically died of pneumonia just a short while after I wrote this review.
** Not entirely an artistic choice: Depardieu famously had to have his leg amputated following a motorcycle accident.

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