Legendary French director Jacques Rivette is renowned for the fluidity of his camera moves, but his isn't the kind of cinematic choreography that calls attention to itself. In The Duchess Of Langeais, based on Honoré de Balzac's short story "Don't Touch The Axe," Rivette's camera drifts slowly across rooms, or pushes in toward characters' faces just a little, taking the role of an unobtrusive observer—while also keeping Rivette's long takes and long scenes from seeming inert. Which is important, because even though The Duchess Of Langeais runs more than two hours, the whole plot is dispatched in less than a dozen scenes, each a variation on a theme. The coyly seductive duchess, played by Jeanne Balibar, entertains taciturn military adventurer Guillaume Depardieu, and while she coaxes him into telling stories about his campaigns, he tries vainly to convince her to sleep with him. Though not exactly a "comedy" of manners, since it's more melancholy than funny, The Duchess Of Langeais is very much concerned with how the rules of social etiquette interfere with raw human need.
Balzac's original story is part of his "History Of The Thirteen," a set of tales related to a secret society—exactly the kind of thing that would've appealed to Rivette back when he was making films like Out 1 and Duelle, which reveled in the world of the clandestine. But his Duchess Of Langeais barely acknowledges Depardieu's membership in The Thirteen. Instead, this is one of Rivette's most accessible films, staying true to its literary origins by including the occasional Balzac text passage, and staying true to the actors by letting them develop a rhythm over the course of long setpieces. The storytelling is so direct and assured that Rivette can take a few minutes to watch someone sketch a fortress in real time, and not test the audience's patience.
At the same time, the lack of anything even remotely lunatic—like the oblique ghost story that threaded throughout Rivette's last film, The Story Of Marie And Julien—keeps The Duchess Of Langeais at low boil. The stakes rise only at the end, when Balibar and Depardieu's lovers' games give way to a far direr political conflict. In an intellectual sense, The Duchess Of Langeais comes to a devastating place, but the emotion is a little absent. Like Rivette's camera moves, Duchess is restrained and tasteful. As Depardieu tells one of his comrades about his fitful love affair, it's "not a book, but a poem."