Discovery and attainment: Rivette characters are always trying to open doors onto new rooms and worlds, to escape through discovery; immobility, whether it’s staying in place, in character, or attaining one’s goal, is death. Significantly, The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas la hache), faithful to the plot of Balzac’s novella, if not to his saucy tone, changes one insignificant detail. In Balzac, the Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) hears a story about Montriveau’s (Guillaume Depardieu) days as a soldier—itself a story about the impossibility of escaping or attaining anything without delusions to assist—as high society patter. In Rivette, the story practically turns into his courtship as he tells it. Extended over nights as the duchess feigns sickness, disinterest, and distraction, and closes her eyes to listen, it becomes an excuse for their meeting, but only as long it remains unfinished. The story is no longer the point; the telling is.
Some satisfaction! Attainment isn’t really likely, but even the options for discovery are limited—the characters of Duchess want to escape their lives, and yet closing their eyes and fantasizing romances seems to be the best they can manage; gossip is about as much diversion as the characters are allowed. No longer are protagonists banging on doors and trying to pry them open. Until the film’s climax, the only point when attainment even becomes a possibility, and the moment when a door crucially doesn’t open, the goal is not to open doors but to keep them closed: the Duchess is constantly trying to lock herself up from the rest of the world, Montriveau is constantly trying to lock himself up with the Duchess from the rest of the world (which includes her servants and his friends), and the entire plot is bookended by her culminating decision to lock herself up in a convent fortress. Escape isn’t exploration but resting in place and trying to pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Here, the characters can only escape from the entrapments of petty high society into the more exacting entrapments of courtship and love, or what they perceive as love. And they do so quite deliberately.
Really, Duchess is a new film by Max Ophuls, once slated to direct it with Greta Garbo. Like any Ophuls film (and La Ronde in particular), Duchess sees history as staged: not only one artificially by the present, but artificially by the era itself. After a prologue, Rivette transitions into the story with the close and opening of curtains (contextualized), as if to emphasize that there is no leaving the stage—as in Last Year at Marienbad, the other main influence, 19th century propriety is automation, and society is institutionalized role-playing. Rivette films with minute attention to all the material sounds of the scenes, with particular devotion to the creaking of floor-boards as the characters walk, and as in Oliveira’s recent films, what’s ostensibly realism is total theatricality. Amidst the squeaking footsteps, as in PBS productions of Shakespeare tragedies, it’s impossible not to be conscious of actors walking around in the present tense in costume in a hermetically sealed world, a stage severed from anything organic or natural—which is exactly the point. As they move around, marking their steps one at a time, and leaving shadows on the furniture, they barely seem to inhabit their roles or their world at all. Duchess opens with tracking shots through the convent, devoid of all life, as it sets up the place without the people; it might as well open in modern times. Everyone seems to be passing through a museum.
The usual Rivette structure would put the theatrical rituals in context, by allowing everyone to imagine, quite mistakenly, that the stage exists apart from them and is something they control—that the play is play. In Duchess, almost every framing device only stresses their inability to control their movements and the futility of their resistance: besides the doorframes quite literally framing them in about half the shots, there is the narrative frame, in which the film starts with the end and works its way toward it; there are the intertitles, which hint at what’s to come and give us the thoughts the characters can’t express themselves; and there are the society elders always at the story’s outskirts, who drink tea, scorn love as naiveté, recapitulate the rules of what is done and what is not done, and nevertheless assist the lovers out of amusement—they don’t really have anything else to do. In this most fatalistic, Langian of films, there’s still a homage to Renoir, in the added character of Lisette, a servant-girl, but even her bawdy foreplay with Julien, another servant, only mocks the Duchess’s civilized coquetry and Montriveau’s lofty sentiments of one true loves. It’s all gloss over the real goal, sexual diversion, or just sex; Duchess isn’t so much a movie that finds love the only thing worth living for, but more one that prays to god that this hellish thing isn’t really as good as earthly existence gets.
Ostensibly, Montriveau is the usual Rivette protagonist, who sees society as a bunch of nonsense—and perfectly, in this film of footsteps, a limping Depardieu comes lumbering across the set every scene, crashing down on the floorboards, a soldier with no sense, or possibility of sense, of the delicacy and grace 19th century society requires of its denizens even in their sauntering from room to room (he grumblingly sits out on the nightly balls). But the preposterously mopish Montriveau lacks Rivette’s love of nonsense, of the inanity of social interaction, of the unnecessary beauty and splendor of the fortress-homes they’ve confined themselves to; for his part, Rivette drolly surrounds the suffocating love story with lads on the street lecturing each other on Spinoza, a girl who declares the Duchess to be a feminist revolutionary, and best of all, a bemused Michel Piccoli, waiting for the plot to start up again and, as if a stand-in for Rivette himself, humming a song and tapping his foot by himself. The Duchess might be a better Rivette character, putting everything into perspective through her sniggering pretences of propriety, but whereas most Rivette characters role-play their way out of a fixed identity, the Duchess finds every mask equally constrictive, and her eventual, quite genuine desire for Montriveau is clearly a desire to avoid defining herself at all: to let him do what he will with her, define her as he pleases, as long it takes her out of society. The only place to go, of course, is a locked, barren room. Even in L’amour fou and Histoire de Marie et Julien, the characters only want to lock themselves up so that they can define the boundaries they’ll transcend, by tearing down walls or teleporting out. In Duchess, they only want to go where there’s nowhere to go. Immobility, first the enemy, becomes the goal.
Yet few films—Gertrud, maybe some Oliveiras, maybe Marienbad—have quite gotten the power of people sitting staring quietly, literally lost in their own world, themselves themselves only in their eyes, as they ponder their complete domination over the world, or at least all of its men. In a few resigned moments, Jeanne Balibar simply sits and stares at the camera, smiling enough to try to acknowledge that it’s all a joke, but clearly, in doing so, trying to position herself at a comic remove from it all—as when she closes her eyes to listen to Montriveau’s story, to daydream her way out of this world if necessary. Only at the moment when she thinks she’s fallen in love with Montriveau does she possibly succeed. As Montriveau leads her along a dusky corridor after kidnapping her, she closes her eyes, and Rivette, in this most materialistically-grounded of movies, suddenly plays with non-diegetic sound. Her words on the soundtrack—that she is in love—don’t correspond to whatever she’s saying on-screen, in the only voice-over of the film; and in this dividing halfway point in the plot, Rivette brings in the sounds of nature, elsewhere heard prominently only at the film’s very beginning and very end. As seagulls caw loudly, as if she is at the border of the ocean (or a parking lot), the Duchess seems removed from the scene altogether. Then she reenters society, at a party, as she opens her eyes and a door—yet another one—slams shut behind her. The sound immediately becomes grounded in the scene once again, but in the following shot, the Duchess walks through the party as the dancers spin silently behind her, and the only sounds we hear are her footsteps passing through, as she clearly has no idea what’s going on around her. It’s deathly, of course, but for a moment, she finally seems to exist worlds apart, if only through the force of her own delusions.