Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Don't Touch the Axe (The Duchess of Langeais)

Jacques Rivette's newest film, Don't Touch the Axe (I prefer the original French to the American retitling The Duchess of Langeais) is a sublime game by an old master at the top of his form. Games are the film's central conceit, in fact, whether they be word games, mind games, literary games, games played between appearance and feeling. The game being played at the narrative level takes place between a General (Guillaume Depardieu) and a Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) whose circumspect courtship, constricted by the rules of polite society and the oppressive etiquette that goes along with them, turns into an increasingly barbed battle of wits and stubbornness. This perennially unconsummated couple veers between flirtatiousness and withdrawal, culminating eventually in the Duchess' retreat into a convent and the General's vain attempts to rescue/kidnap her from its cloistered, heavily barred confines. In one of his earliest films, the short Le coup du berger, Rivette already viewed love as a game of chess, and this wry perspective on human relationships has apparently survived intact from then all the way into his latest feature.

But this is only one game that Rivette is toying with, and he plays an entirely different one with the audience, a game of subtle winks and sly nods that continually disrupts the placid surface of the narrative — which on its most apparent level resembles any number of more typical period pieces — with a clever humorous slant on the material, a sense that the director is looking slightly askance at these people and their bizarre rituals of love. This narrative disruption is mirrored in the way the General's story to the Duchess, about his time lost in the desert after escaping from the enemy's imprisonment, is continually interrupted, usually by the listener's short attention span and her tendency to divert the flow of the conversation just as the story is reaching a critical juncture. This results in the General's story being doled out across three successive evenings that they spend together early in their relationship. On the third night, as they settle in to continue the story, Rivette frames the Duchess in a tight closeup as she asks her would-be lover to finish the tale. At this moment, she turns a sly sidelong glance directly into the camera, maintaining eye contact with the audience, as though to include them in the game.

This game of narrative interruptus is also carried through in the way Rivette uses the text of the film's original source, a novella by Honoré de Balzac. This is a rigidly faithful adaptation, in a manner similar to Fassbinder's interpretation of Fontane's Effi Briest, with texts from the novel periodically included as intertitles to highlight certain moments or get at the characters' internal states. The titles are also used to convey the passage of time, which is parceled out in scrupulously precise measures: "one hour later," "twenty-two minutes passed," "she waited twenty-four hours." These titles often seem to abruptly cut off the action, sometimes flashing up on screen when, after a long scene of near-stasis, a character is right in the middle of completing the scene's first real movement or action (most often: leaving the room). The passage of time, like everything else in the film, is subject to Rivette's subtle humor. After the Duchess kicks her friend out of her house, a title informs us that one hour passes (a very common interlude), and surprisingly in the very next scene there's the General again, still standing in her parlor, walking around it aimlessly, looking like only five minutes has passed since she ordered him to leave. Rivette's use of these titles is obviously very sardonic and mannered, as when he uses a long series of images of the Duchess at a party as though it constituted a clause in between two dashes in a sentence: "the Duchess searched for him —" followed by the visuals and then, when the dangling phrase had almost been forgotten, "— in vain."

This idiosyncratic approach to literary adaptation dominates the film, as Rivette remains literally true to the source material while slowly worming his way underneath it in order to get at the basic absurdity of this situation. This is a period piece where all the characters look distinctly uncomfortable in their clothes, especially Balibar, who never looks glamorous in the succession of ludicrous dresses she squeezes into; she's a rather frumpy and unappealing duchess. This discomfort is part of Rivette's agenda of deconstruction, and he accentuates the ridiculousness of this all in a way that should make it impossible to look at any straight-faced period piece quite the same again. The sound design is also a crucial element. The film's characteristic onomatopoeia are the "thud" and the "clank," heavy, awkward sounds that correspond especially to the loping gait of the General, who walks with a stiff-legged limp. His heavy footsteps are only one noise in the film's orchestration of incidental sounds, in which footsteps play an especially important part — the General's thumping walk is contrasted, in one scene, against the quiet shuffling of the Duchess' maid, who walks around in socks. Rivette also calls attention to the popping of logs in a fireplace, the rapping of canes, and the creaking of wooden floors loaded with people. One scene, at a grand ball, becomes a comedy in sound as the elegant dancing and string music is accompanied by the constant squeaking of the floor whenever someone moves.

It's odd, but Don't Touch the Axe definitely functions as a comedy, despite the often melodramatic thrust of its narrative. Rivette's whimsical touch is evident everywhere, perhaps most memorably in the scene where two of the General's friends engage in some drunken and utterly inscrutable language games as the Duchess waits impatiently for him outside. These two seem to be making jokes on their own personal level, cracking each other up over variations on the usage of words like "drama" and "stunning." The repetition of these jokes, and the tension built up by Rivette's cross-cutting from this scene to the Duchess waiting outside, culminates until the duo starts to actually seem funny to the audience, rather than just themselves. This same duo provides another of the film's funniest scenes, this time a purely pantomimed one with no dialogue, in which they draw straws to figure out which of the General's friends will have to be disguised as a nun for the convent raid at the end of the film. This is not to say that Rivette disregards the seriousness of his story, and there are moments of surprising pathos, well-played by the two leads, who throughout the second half of the film practically seethe with barely suppressed emotions. Rivette understands the sturm und drang inherent in this story, but this doesn't prevent him from also seeing the humor. In a way, this humor arises because Rivette, unlike other directors of period romances, looks at the conventions and surfaces of this type of film from a distinctly modern perspective, rather than simply accepting the social mores of the time in which the story is set.

Don't Touch the Axe is a delight in every way, a film that functions on its surface level as a straightforward melodramatic romance, even as Rivette plays gleefully with the form of his storytelling in order to infuse the film with his love of gamesmanship and multi-layered constructions. He employs his actors as pieces in this game, and Balibar and Depardieu do an excellent job of delineating the rigid boundaries of their characters, both of whom oscillate between stubborn refusal and open yearning. Balibar especially gives an interesting performance, breathless and flighty, her flute-like voice bringing an otherworldly vibe to her unattainable Duchess. Depardieu is more stoic as the unflappable General, who possesses shadowy connections and nearly unlimited resources but is no less flummoxed by love. Ultimately, though, both characters are simply pawns on Rivette's meticulously arranged chessboard, playing games that have little to do with the story they're ostensibly involved in, and everything to do with the pleasures of narrative deconstruction and the director's sly sense of humor.


DavidEhrenstein said...

A gem, this was a big hit in France (rare for Rivette) and it's easy to see why. Stateside critics are allergic to "costume films" and claim to be "bored" (ie. they can't follow the plot.) Back in the late 40's Ophuls wanted to film this story and Garbo was to be the lead. James Wong Howe even shot screen tests of the immortalm divinity. But they couldn't raise the money (!!!!!!) So Garbo went back to prowling the streets of New York (in her ineffably elegant fashion) and Ophuls went to France where he made La Ronde, Le Plaisir, Made de... and Lola Montes.

The still you've posted shows a "family resemblance" between this new Rivette and his great La Religieuse. This film, however is dryly funny. Especially sor when "the 13" make their appearance in the last act, looking more like a left bank version of the Keystone Kops than a fearsome secret society.

Unknown said...

after a long scene of near-stasis, a character is right in the middle of completing the scene's first real movement or action (most often: leaving the room)

That's exactly what this film did to me. For me, exasperation can spill over into ridiculous humor, but I don't find the exercise useful. I trust your judgment that this film is a deconstruction of period-drama conventions, but I fail to see why this is something we need to do. The historical and intellectual dishonesty of most costume dramas is a convention audiences understand and either decide to go with or laugh at already. Either way, it's a lot more entertaining that literally trying to put a book on screen as a new motion-picture technique.

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn - To my mind, the deconstruction of period-drama conventions is only one level at work in a film that is, really, quite complex. It's about human relationships viewed as games (which can have serious consequences), and also about playing with form itself in a multitude of ways. And it's just delightfully fun. Rivette's not for everyone, but you have to be open to the great joy he takes in the formal possibilities of narrative, cinema, acting, and theater. To me, Rivette's obvious pleasure with the film's formal gamesmanship is infectious.

Unknown said...

Our ideas of delightful fun are different. I'm open to new approaches--I even hang with the uber-languid Bela Tarr--but this one put me off completely. Maybe you could recommend a more accessible way into his sensibility?

Ed Howard said...

Ah, so this was your first exposure to Rivette? The idea of "accessible" Rivette is an odd one, but History of Marie and Julien might fit the bill -- it's a very charming ghost story/noir with Emmanuelle Beart at her sexiest. It's languidly paced, and not Rivette's most complex work by any means, but it might be a good choice for someone who didn't like the somewhat arch sensibility of this newest film. Celine and Julie Go Boating is the most (relatively) well-known of his films, and it's great indeed, but I hesitate to recommend it here because it's pretty close in approach and themes to Don't Touch the Axe.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Ed.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I don't quite see the connection between Celine et Julie and Don't Touch the Axe

To my mind the easiest Rivette is his marvelous version of Wutheruing Heights --Hurlevent. It introduced Fabienne Babe and Lucas Belvaux as the doomed lovers and was visually inspired by the paintings of Balthus. A modern dress adaptation it was set in rural France between the wars.