Friday, March 14, 2008

On Screen: Don't Touch The Axe!

That's the original title of Jacques Rivette's 'Duchess of Langeais,' the Balzac-based film now playing in NYC that I saw with Steve N on Saturday at IFC Center in Greenwich Village.

It's about the attraction between an early 19th century war hero and a flirtatious married duchess. While the movie is not short (2h 10m) or action-packed, it is memorable visually, emotionally, and thematically.

Visually: whoa! I remember Bernard Pivot, the French intellectual talk show host, liked to ask filmmakers whether, if born in the 19th century, they would have been a novelist or a painter. Rivette is decidedly in the latter category.

On to the 5 Parameters!

1. Four Words That Encapsule: "Repressing Passion Benefits Nobody"

2. Haiku (5/7/5):
"Playing with fire
a girl gets woefully burned;
I say 'Just do it!'"

3. Oblique Commentary: a) Why the original title, 'Don't Touch The Axe?' Its mention in the film went over my head but the NYT's Manohla Dargis points out in her rave review that risking having your neck chopped was very palpable to Balzac's noble French reading public just 20-30 years after Robespierre.. b) Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard... can really act! The only other time I saw him was naked, when he was 20-ish back in 1992's 'All The Mornings of the World,' and my overall reaction to his performance was the same as that of my French friend Denis: 'he has a nice ass.' He's also starting to look like his Dad did at age 35 when he first gained international attention (though Depardieu père was famous at home very young.)

4. Insight: Rivette must - and does - weave quite a spell to engage you through two hours of cat-and-mouse sexual attraction that leads nowhere. How to do it? First, you cast very talented, beguiling lead actors (Depardieu and Jeanne Balibar, pictured here) and give them a psychosexual dynamic that feels very modern but is believable in period. Three parts Balzac, one part Edward Albee? or David Cronenberg? Second, every frame of this film is visually stunning - you're mostly indoors in lush, palatial early 19th century French homes, and the period wardrobe is, like the decor, pure eye candy. Outdoors, you're on and around a castle/cloister imposingly perched on Spanish seaside cliffs in abundant sunshine. Translation: you're practically getting a European vacation here for $11 admission. The outdoor scenes bracket the movie, which is about 80% flashback.

5. Link: Metacritic summary of reviews give it a 73 average from 13 reviewers. That's a 'B' grade, whereas I'd give it a 'B+.' It got a 100 grade - A+ - from both NYT and LA Times!

The trailer for 'Duchess' below is a good one - it gives you a small taste, whets your appetite but gives away nothing...

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