The Duchess of Langeais

The Duchess of Langeais (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a French war hero, insists on speaking with Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), currently a nun in Majorca and formerly a Parisian socialite. It turns out that although Antoinette had been married with another man five years prior, Armand and Antoinette eventually come to share a love affair so intense, it has come to threaten their lives, reputations, and sanities.

Based on the novel “La duchesse de Langeaus” by Honoré de Balzac, the film is mostly composed of extended conversations between the general and the socialite. Neither is looking for love when the story begins. And yet when Antoinette spots Armand at a ball, something inside her is inspired to get to know him—a chance to soothe the gnawing need to break out her routine. She figures that since he had been in a war, he must have rousing stories of heroism and adventure—all for the sake of her own entertainment.

Balibar, although not classically beautiful, has quite a commanding presence. Watching her is like observing a venus flytrap: very calm but swift to react when her prey is exactly where she needs them to be. I loved the way the character uses her hands when she flirts, the way she stretches her neck when she suspects that Armand is gazing at her ravenously, and the way she utilizes her eyes to appear as though she wants to be taken right then and there in a poorly lit salon, providing a perfect ambiance for two flesh to come in contact.

Once I got into the rhythm of their flirtation, which, admittedly, had taken a tremendous amount of effort because the pacing is purposefully languorous, I found it quite entertaining because Armand has no idea that Antoinette is playing him like a harp. And just when I thought I had cemented an opinion of her due to her cruelty, the material changes gears and shows that Armand is no fool. He, too, has a darkness about him and there are times I was genuinely concerned about Antoinette, what he might do to her or, worse, what she might do to herself.

I mentioned the challenge in terms of its sluggish pacing—one that should not be taken lightly: for most, it is likely the determining factor between being immersed in the story and finding the emotions rather false and pointless. Although a period piece, lush cinematography and spectacular clothes and jewelry are largely absent. Under certain circumstances, it works. By stripping away the glitter, our focus is almost always on the couple and their internal struggles. In other ways, the austerity makes the picture look too bleak and depressing. With an already rather dreary love affair, the tone is at times unforgivingly monotonous.

Furthermore, the title cards which denote the passage of time such as “the next morning” and “that night” interrupt the momentum that the material works so hard to build. After seeing a black screen with white text on the foreground, I found myself wondering as to what purpose it serves. Obviously, for example, a ball would occur “that night” because the characters just finished talking about attending one as a pair. The title cards would have been more practical when months or years have passed since the last scene.

“Ne touchez pas la hache,” also known as “The Duchess of Langeais,” is like a slow dance: from afar, it’s quite nice to look at because thought is actually applied when it comes to the steps but the longer it is observed, repetitive movements take prominence. Certainly it challenges one’s attention span.

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