A chamber piece for two tragic almost-lovers, a coquettish Duchess and a noble French General. A chance flirtation at a Fauborg St-Germain party initiates an arduous campaign of romantic outflankings, accomplished through feigned illnesses, epistolary sallies, evocations of God, and threats of force. Abstemious with close-ups, The Duchess of Langeais is a two-shot duet for Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu. The performances are precise in the extreme, the combatants' war games regulated by elaborate rules of engagement, incremental charges and retreats. In visits to the Duchess's residence, they push and pull their conversations between the bedchamber, drawing room, and foyer, the camera softly slipping after. The Duchess, however, has underestimated the fortitude of this suitor, whose continual, nauseous glowering at his loose forelock hides a master strategian.
The reason something so staid is playing in American theaters at all is that it happens to have been directed by Jacques Rivette (this is no indictment of the film, which I like more each time I see it, but rather of the grim mathematics of distribution). A once damningly oddball second-tier New Waver, Rivette's continued vitality and lissome touch has made him ripe for rediscovery. Click here to read Nick Pinkerton's review of The Duchess of Langeais.