The Duchess of Langeais (IFC Films, NR)

film_duchess_sm.jpgIf you’re patient, The Duchess of Langeais is a ravishing experience.







When films like The Duchess of Langeais come around, the lines between critic and audience become much further apart. In fact, I imagine most of the general public’s disdain for the film critic comes into focus when praising a film like The Duchess of Langeais. Directed by Jacques Rivette (La Belle noiseuse), The Duchess of Langeais is neither your mother nor your father’s period drama. It isn’t a cutesy Jane Austen adaptation with an American starlet donning a fake British accent, nor is it a Rome– or Tudors-esque sleaze-fest with enough sauciness to hold your interest. Instead, it’s the latest from the 80-something-year-old director who’s made some of the best films the Criterion Collection has never told you to care about. And it’s long. And slow. And, simply based on what the people on the Internet Movie Database and Netflix had to say about it, you probably won’t like it.

However, it is in my respect for the director, who’s historically been usurped by his compatriot contemporaries like Godard, Chabrol or Truffaut, that I defend The Duchess of Langeais against most casual filmgoers’ better judgment. Comparatively, The Duchess of Langeais is a breeze at 137 minutes (against Céline and Julie Go Boating‘s 193 and La Belle noiseuse‘s 236). To say the film didn’t teeter around the lines of "boring" would be untrue, but don’t think Rivette is just out to torture you. His films are, obviously, for the patient viewer, and for them, he offers multitudes of reward.

Set in the early part of the 19th century, the film begins with the final hours of a quest. Bowlegged French general Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu, the handsome, less boorish-looking son of Gérard) finds his estranged lover Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), or best known as the Duchess of Langeais, in recluse at a Spanish convent, escaping the treacherousness of their doomed affair. From Armand’s rediscovery of Antoinette, the film moves back in time to their first meeting as courageous soldier and married duchess at an upscale ball. Their relationship then unfolds in games of humorless wit and searing manipulation with Rivette, working from a novel by Honoré de Balzac, never shadowing the lovers’ selfishness and despicability.

The Duchess of Langeais is a slow-boiler, for sure, but it’s in Rivette’s allowance of time that the menace begins to creep in. It’s also in this allowance of time that I’ve begun to understand the appeal of mass-produced Hollywood flick. The Duchess of Langeais is so unlike much of what you’ve seen before that it demands attentiveness and not simply the casualness (or laziness) of filling in the blanks of familiarity when your mind drifts to whether or not you fed the dog before you left. Attentiveness is not an easy thing, particularly when most people don’t place cinema at any high priority in their life, so for those who wanted to see pretty dresses, a sweeping orchestral and, worst of all, a happy ending, I’m sorry. For the patient ones, I can assure you that The Duchess of Langeais is a ravishing experience. | Joe Bowman

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