It's no mystery that men and women do unconscionable things in the name of love, but the way French-new-waver Jacques Rivette plays it in his adaptation of Balzac's Don't Touch the Axe, you would think it was an epidemic.
Titled The Duchess of Langeais, Rivette's Restoration anti-romance takes the structure of a courtship between General Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a celebrated war hero, and Antoinette (the astounding Jeanne Balibar), the titular married coquette, in the early 19th-century. At a ball in the upper echelons of French society, Antoinette becomes intrigued by the stoic Montriveau even before she meets him. Despite his lack of game, the general entices the married duchess with stories of his wartime campaigns. A student of Bonaparte, Montriveau becomes infatuated with Antoinette, who, in turn, begins to strategically toy with her soldier-in-waiting.
Antoinette's orchestration of her manipulative games with the general becomes the film's sole point of study early in the movie. The duchess finds the games a proper way of solidifying a man's intentions, even if the glint in her eye lets on that she enjoys it a bit too much. Uncompromisingly cruel, she leads the socially aloof general deeper into her parlor without the notion that he will eventually resist. He does, eventually, and the duchess' yearning for him leads to a grandiose set of spectacles that culminate at a nunnery in Spain.
Spectacle is just Rivette's point. Romance, as he puts it, boils down to mere theatrics: flares of pseudo-restraint, sexual innuendo, religion, and a bounty of other dreamt-up moments of hesitancy. A byproduct of the straightforward demands of the French military, Montriveau blindly stumbles into the traps that the duchess sets up, only to recant his emotions and then be coaxed back in. Rivette, 79 years old and sharp as ever, envisions these thrusts and parries of pride and uncertainty with patience, literary flair and just a dash of humor. His ability to map out the process of courtship here is just as meticulous and careful as his mapping of the artistic process in La Belle Noiseuse.
The title of Balzac's story comes from a line uttered by the general as Antoinette coyly teases his jealousy with her friend. It comes off as both threat and warning, coinciding with the brooding horrors that lie underneath Depardieu's strained face. The actor, son of the great Gerard Depardieu, works with the general's awkward behavior only to be continually upstaged by Balibar. Cruel and cold in the warmest of ways, Balibar gracefully sketches and colors in the trajectory not only of the duchess' need for ultimate confirmation but of her final inability to coax the general back. It's as much about the candid photos on the cover of People and the squabbling trysts of Rock of Love as it is the ice-veined couplings of the Bourbon Dynasty. Rivette's film so completely ousts love and romance as a mere act that you expect curtains to sweep in at the end.
Aka Ne touchez pas la hache.
Nobody's giving my duchess a foot massage.