Wooden floors creak with stiffness and codes of propriety bind, but The Duchess of Langeais feels nothing at all like a stuffy period piece. It beats with the rawest emotions hidden just beneath the fading social veneers of Restoration-era Paris: lust and love, humiliation, alienation and, most delightfully, a sense of intricately calibrated game-playing that will bring to mind the great romantic duels of cinema’s past, films like Dangerous Liaisons, Eyes Wide Shut and the underseen Gabrielle. The movie is delicious, dark fun that I suspect will work as the bleakest of comedies for many.
Based on a Balzac novella originally called Don’t Touch the Axe, the plot concerns a pair of impulsive, attractive people, each grasping for the upper hand in a crazy courtship. Antoinette (Balibar) swims in male affection. General Montriveau (Depardieu, the big-mugged son of Gérard) is smitten. Though his intentions are plain, Antoinette leans into a coy, hard-to-get withdrawal. Little does she realize that this is a man who survived the desert and near death: a Napoleonic warrior. “Steel against steel,” he declares. “We shall see whose heart is sharpest.”
If that kind of dialogue doesn’t get you pumped, you may be too addicted to Kate Hudson cutesy crap. The director is France’s legendary Jacques Rivette, who here finds uncommon discipline in scope and running time. At 79, he’s still plumbing the depths of human pain and ridiculousness—an endurance that’s perhaps the season’s greatest gift.