Jacques Rivette returns to the rigorous formalism and claustrophobic interiors of La Religeuse to create a refined, bituminous, and cooly smoldering tale of seduction, obsession, and manners in The Duchess of Langeais. Remaining faithful to the spirit of Honoré de Balzac’s nineteenth century novel (the second installment featuring the adventures of a secret organization known as the Thirteen), the film, nevertheless retains the imprint of Rivette’s recurring preoccupations with the stage, performance, conspiracy, and malleable time. In The Duchess of Langeais, the tell-tale signal for the start of the performance is cleverly concealed behind the rakish military officer and Napoleonic war hero, Armand de Montriveau’s (Guillaume Depardieu) impatient tapping of his cane during mass at a remote Spanish cloister, sullenly registering his displeasure at not being able to catch a glimpse of Las Descalzas, the barefoot nuns of St. Theresa, during services. Having arrived at the desolate peninsula on the Mediterranean after sailing to the ends of the earth over the past five years in search of his lost love, a Parisian aristocrat named Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), Montriveau is quick to dispense with formalities and exploit his influence in order to obtain a meeting with the order’s sole French initiate who, accompanied by a Spanish-speaking chaperone, seems willing to consent to Montriveau’s request for an audience by claiming him as her brother (note the reinforcement of the theater image in the parting of curtains that separate the cloistered nuns from the outside world). However, when Antoinette exposes the ruse in order to escape Montriveau’s desperate entreaties, he is forced to confront the ghosts of their unreconciled past as he hatches a plan to liberate her from her spiritual captivity and compel her to return to face their impossible destiny. In presenting Antoinette and Montriveau’s courtship as a choreography of performance, mise-en-scène (especially in Antoinette’s feigned illness during one appointment, adjusting the room’s lighting and accoutrements that reinforce their encounters as exercises in role-playing), and timing (in Antoinette’s insistence on punctuality that provides the irony – and denouement – for their uncoupling), Rivette creates a potent metaphor for performance as both a mask and a nakedness, where the impenetrability of the human heart is exposed through frustrated, arbitrary rituals and untenable desire.
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