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DON’T TOUCH THE AXE

Director: JACQUES RIVETTE

FRANCE-ITALY • 2007 • SUBTITLED • COLOUR • DOLBY DIGITAL STEREO • 137 MIN


LIKE HIS NEW WAVE COHORTS CHABROL AND ROHMER, JACQUES RIVETTE CONTINUES TO CONFOUND THE PASSING YEARS WITH THIS MASTERLY COSTUME DRAMA, ADAPTED FROM HIS BELOVED BALZAC’S NOVELLA THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS.
It’s a story which revolves around how even the prospect of infidelity might affect a lady’s reputation in the polite aristocratic circles of the early 1800s. Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), who’s married into her title, finds herself taken with brooding colonial hero the General de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) after hearing his oft-told tales of survival in the wilds of Africa. For a while she teases him along, since he obviously returns her affections, but how to keep him close enough to share their mutual feelings without actually relinquishing her honour? What follows is an extended emotional sparring match which devolves into a kind of psychological warfare, where each side eventually resorts to extreme tactics in order to outflank their opponent. Somehow tragic yearning and sly comedy don’t seem so far apart, as Rivette marshals events at his characteristically careful pace and punctuates the unfolding tale with often acerbic intertitles, many of them taken directly from Balzac. It’s all done with such poised elegance, the story never spirals into pastiche, and Balibar in particular knows just how far she can push her coquettishly manipulative performance before it turns absurd. Depardieu junior, in the sort of role his dad would once surely have relished, also fits the bill as suffering romantic, with the actor’s own bad-boy reputation working for the part. Splendid cameos from Michel Piccoli (wise family friend) and Bulle Ogier (stern aunt) provide the icing on the gâteau. —Trevor Johnston.

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