Having returned from the center of Africa, "held prisoner by savages for two years before fleeing," the Marquis de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) is the talk of Paris society. "How very amusing," deadpans the unflappable Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar). "None is more dull or somber," a friend sighs before consenting to introduce the Duchess to the brooding Napoleonic War hero.
Ah, the sophisticated drollery of the Gallic costume drama — and oh, what a queer spin given to the form by Jacques Rivette, canniest of the nouvelle vague masters, here adapting a Balzac text to his own strange and whimsical agenda. Written in 1818, Don't Touch the Axe (as the novella was originally known) is obliquely concerned with the Thirteen, a conspiratorial sect that pops up in La Comédie Humaine, Balzac's monumental cycle of interlinked novels.
The Duchess of Langeais contemplates an especially crazy case of l'amour fou. We begin near the end, at a secluded Spanish monastery, where, after long questing, the Marquis discovers the Duchess hiding out in her new capacity as a Barefoot Carmelite nun. An elegant bit of theatricality literally pulls the curtain closed on this revelation to open a view, five years earlier, on the candlelit, tension-fraught ballroom where our principals meet cute, nineteenth-century style.
"I shall make her my mistress!" announces the infatuated Montriveau upon the threshold of his nightly rendezvous, at 8 p.m. sharp. For her part, the maddeningly reticent duchess appears to be playing some sort of cinéma, as French conversation terms any willfully perverse charade. The Duchess of Langeais stages its drama with the help of its enigmatic actors. Depardieu doesn't so much inhabit a role as embody a principle of hunky, crag-like, inarticulate masculinity. Balibar responds with an impish, quizzical opacity, at once highly mobile and stubbornly fortified, flitting about with unfathomable coyness. The Marquis is hardly the only one perplexed by her inscrutable romantic game. Bemused, reflective, as keen to the contours of sentiment and ruse as a sentence by Henry James, Rivette's cinema (in both senses of the word) is detectable in the highly self-conscious blocking and framing of scenes, intermittently separated by title cards derived from Balzac, as well as the slyly awkward performance he elicits from Balibar, a live-wire intelligence whose unmistakably contemporary esprit cuts against the period grain of the picture.
Brisk by the measure of a typical picture, Duchess devotes its first hour to an agonizingly protracted non-consummation — or even specification! — of the lovers' (haters'?) sentiments. Pivoting on the point of a white-hot brand the Marquis threatens to press against the intractable head of his impossible mistress, the second half of the drama advances a new, equally confounding scenario as the Duchess drops her mask of capricious nonchalance and adopts the pose of a reckless supplicant for the Marquis's affections.
None of which, en route to the nunnery and beyond, would seem out of place on Masterpiece Theatre were it not so obvious, in its deliciously obscure way, that Rivette is thinking as much about bodies in space as bodice-ripping theatrics, pondering the nature of Balibar first and something called "the Duchess of Langeais" second, using the codes of the past to transmit curious messages into the present. He's teasing his way, thinking afresh, playing a game but tweaking its rules, telling a story, but only sort of — making, in short, not simply a movie, but that ineffable magic called cinema.