So it has finally come to this, Jacques Rivette adapting a Balzac novel about the Thirteen, the mysterious group of do-gooding conspirators that a May ’68 cabal tried and failed to emulate in the imagined pre-history of Rivette’s magnum opus Out: 1 (1971), and whose existence would obsesses Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character in that film as representing of a secret, hidden order behind things. In contrast to that film’s sprawling ambitions and literal evocation of the Thirteen, Don’t Touch the Axe (Ne touchez pas la hache, also known by its significantly less arresting English title, The Duchess of Langeais) seems downright quaint and cozy, an initial impression that does not do justice the film’s pinnacle example of masterful direction, as well as the abyss-like darkness of the story’s creeping sense of the fruitlessness of romance, and possibly of life.
It is a chambered little period piece about the sexless courtship between the Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) and General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), the latter of which is a member of the secret cabal in Balzac’s book but whose association is not uttered in the film. The duet between these two actors—the Duchess, acting out a coy romance, the General, sincere to the ears—brought to life by two great actors—Balibar, who gets to see beyond the façade of it all, and Depardieu, whose lack of imagination forces him to live with bitterness—is captivating. It is pure cinema, a masterpiece, driven to the hilt by Jacques Rivette, who rends the material in its complete respectfulness to the text, in its complete understanding of the text, of the actors, and of their melancholy, absolutely vital little play.
The Duchess coyly attracts the rough and unsocial General, who quickly falls for the woman’s ethereal flirtations and superior manipulation of social protocols and conventions, inciting Montriveau’s passions while keeping the physical contact to the minimum. She resists the General’s impassioned pleas in turns with excuses religious and civil, citing her absent and unseen ducal husband and the social immorality of what would be an obvious love affair as her apt reasons for lack of consummation. The General, recently returned the hero from a perilless journey “to the center of Africa” and possessing neither the patience nor effortless performances people in fashionable society inhabit to navigate their courtships and their play, quickly gets frustrated at the limit to his flirtations with Antoinette.
In the film’s central pivoting point and the sequence that most directly implies the guiding hand of the conspiracy of the Thirteen, Montriveau stages a kidnapping of Antoinette and performs a cruel romantic ritual to impress upon her not the extremes of his romantic yearning, but now, rather, his complete and utter frustration. The theatrical ruse works—or perhaps it is the visible might of Montriveau’s destitution—and Antoinette flip-flops, becoming devoted to the love of the General, writing him letters, dying to see him. But it seems too late; now aloof, the General tragically seems to have expunged his passion in the melodramatic effort, and has turned his back on the Duchess after their elaborate affair.
How strange that a filmmaker who through the years has so loved process, often in terms of acting and theatre, of seeing the expression of things worked out awkwardly before us, and conspiracy, in terms of the hints that everything out there, out of sight and out of the film frame, may be connected, has decided to adapt a reserved, 19th century historical chamber romance. Oh, but with such a surprise we then get to engage in the pleasures of the hunt! For then we find things like this: how is the navigation of social rules and norms—a very real thing with a very allusive existence—like the theatre and how is it like a conspiracy? Well, it is not without reason that Rivette opens the film at the melodramatic peak of the couple’s aching separation—the Duchess a nun on a remote Spanish isle and separated from the General by the convent’s metal bars—and then transitions and flashes back five years to the couple’s meeting and affair through two sweeps of a theatre curtain. The stage then is not the actual island (filmed on location), but is the interiors of the Restoration period, in all their glory, wood boards creaking like an empty stage.
The man and woman must find their place to play; or at least, the elegant society lady who is the Duchess expects such play from her pet of an adventurer and their little romance. For their first meeting she feigns an illness that—gasp!—requires her to meet the General in an outfit as flimsy and revealing as a nightgown. But Montriveau will have none of it, refusing to play the part and thus labeled “dull” by society despite his fashionable limp and aura of military single-mindedness. His pain, the one which may later haunt the Duchess in a different way, is related in the way he tells the story of his travails in the desert. Depardieu speaks with a sullen monotone not as if he were weaving an adventure but rather recounting a deeply troubled, mystical experience truly unexplainable in the boudoir or at posh parties.
Coming back from the brink of faithlessness in an arid desert of betrayal, it is perhaps understandable that he brutishly reacts to Antoinette’s devoted attention and coy come-ons with quick declarations of passion and love. It is only when he is turned away from her body again and again that he plays a game, puts on the mask, and gets deeply in the part, kidnapping her in the dark of night, his masked men leading her around dark corridors, bound and gagged into a room lit by the flickering flame of a torch and the threat of a branding iron.
That wonderful sense of play in Rivette’s work, so freeing in that film that is as close to joyful as this often-grim director can get, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), is here the stifling conventions of society and religion that requires its participants to take part in elaborate flirtations that cannot be allowed amount to anything, joy and play turned ironic and endlessly blunted. If the conspiracy of the Thirteen is literally evoked by the General’s willing and “discreet” group of masked men ready at an instant to kidnap a Duchess or torch a nunnery to get the beloved woman, the more terrifying conspiracy are those entwined rules and rationales of Parisian society that encourage such flings as that of the Duchess and the General but prevent true consummation or satisfaction in any sense of the word. Rejection of the game and the conspiracy leads to just as much melancholy as a full and accepting engagement and participation in it (so plainly evoked in the mechanically and passionlessly twirling dancers at one of the many balls attended by the Duchess).
All is melancholy, and Rivette’s later style of subdued elegance in slow tracking movements of the camera, and lighting that is supple and shadowed but high-key enough to remind one of the theatrical and artificial (camerawork by the always masterful William Lubtchansky) depicts the melodrama all the more at a sad distance, engaged and interested but always apart. The title cards—quintessential Rivette, and often speaking of either a great deal or very little time passed in between shots, or excerpting the book in an abrupt explanation of a momentary feeling of the General, or a description of the Parisian streets that we cannot see but must imagine from the text—similarly make much of the interplay between the lovers as arbitrary as it is exact. It is like a game played again and again with different moves but the same results, the repeating drama inside the haunted house of Celine and Julie transposed to thinking, feeling participants. The drama exists in a hanging kind of closed-off world, all frustrated performances that are almost content, as the playfulness and acting gets close to true expression, true connection. But something holds everyone back, holds the drama back, holds the love back, and gradually both General and Duchess become obsessed with this vague, menacing limitation, a mysterious stopgap to happiness that can neither be seen nor surmounted.
The magic that Rivette can call to the cinema at will is very rarely seen directly in such a sad film, just as the love itself is mostly elusive, but nevertheless that magic erupts most fully in the alabaster pirate island that becomes Antoinette’s self-imposed romantic exile, in the exaggerated rituals of the Duchess’ kidnapping, and is most often suggested by the gaps the film’s title cards cover up or introduce, as if between the drama on-screen there is perhaps a possibility, an incompletion to the stifling rules and conduct. But this is also perhaps Rivette’s most sober film, and so strongly respectful of its literary source, and as such attains a level of doomed fatalism—romantic as it is—that reminds me of the tragically resigned almost-ending of The Story of Marie and Julien, only without that film’s unexpected, awoken happiness.
Or maybe, more than anywhere else, one must retreat from the confinements of the plot and, like those more giddily free films of Rivette from the 1970s, find the magic of Don’t Touch the Axe not so much in the rich shadows, eerily realistic sound design (cracks of the fire and the floorboards, clumping feet, cawing gulls, and ticking clocks), and independently-minded camera, than in the actors themselves, in the sad stubbornness of Guillaume Depardieu’s refusal to playact, and of Jeanne Balibar’s magnificence as a kind of wraithlike, untouchable spirit that comes to earth in sorrow. She tries, through all the back alleys and secret codes of social restriction, to commune with her man physically and spiritually with a real, concrete presence to the limits that her world will allow. That simultaneous strive to jump so deeply into the setting, the stage of things, and to break through it all to the other side free of such conventions and structures, that is the sadness of Rivette. And it is this most unexpected of melodramas from the director that must fully expresses this vast sadness in this tiny space, and has become a sublime masterpiece.