"The Duchess of Langeais" sees 80-year-old French filmmaker Jacques Rivette getting a bit confused. For one thing, he appears to think that "stuffy" equates with "classy."
This is an adaptation of an Honore de Balzac novel that has a considerably more interesting title than the one it's given here (the French version actually translates to "Don't Touch the Ax"). And the resulting film is so slow-moving that it's nearly impenetrable.
That's especially true for American audiences who are used to more lively filmmaking than what they'll get from this talky, too-often-set-bound historical romantic drama.
Of course, it would also help if we could understand what's supposed to be so alluring about the title character, Antoinette de Langeais.
As played by Jeanne Balibar (2001's "Va Savoir"), she's the snooty and bored wife of an aristocrat. So, Antoinette is amused by the attention that's suddenly lavished on her by Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), an army general and war hero.
He regales the duchess with his tales about surviving various battles and other difficulties, and she in turn allows him to escort her to balls and other social functions.
However, that leads to mounting frustrations, as she insists that they keep their relationship "respectable." She is a married woman, after all.
But Armand wants more from this relationship than Antoinette can possibly give him.
Rivette and frequent collaborator Pascal Bonitzer co-wrote this adaptation but can't find anything new to say about repressed emotions, about illicit affairs and about Napoleonic France.
And frankly, nothing can really make us feel sympathy for these characters. They're both unpleasant and manipulative. If anything, we're more interested in the supporting characters, such as Antoinette's discreet, trusted servant Julien (Mathias Jung).
"The Duchess of Langeais" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for brief violent scene (a kidnapping that includes violence against women), a particular suggestive gesture and brief language, and some mild profanity (mostly religiously based). Running time: 137 minutes.
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