Elegance, austerity, high seriousness, barbed wit: this heady combination might not be to everyone's taste, but anyone susceptible to literary costume drama at its most intellectually substantial will be bowled over by Don't Touch The Axe, Jacques Rivette's surprisingly faithful adaptation of Balzac's novel La Duchesse De Langeais.
Moving between boudoir comedy of manners and dark Gothic romance, this unashamedly theatrical piece shows a veteran director enjoying a period of mature mastery, plus two commanding lead performances that set the air buzzing with (not always suppressed) passion. Jeanne Balibar - whose previous career high was arguably in Rivette's comedy Va Savoir - is especially imposing, making her claim to big-time diva status.
The highbrow tone will make the film a specialist item, but in niche Francophile markets, and on the festival circuits (it competed in Berlin), the film is certain to thrive - and the romantic costume-drama factor can only help its fortunes.
In an adaptation that comes surprisingly close to Balzac's text (and to the novel's original title), the film traces the ill-starred romance between a seasoned soldier, General Armand de Montriveau (Depardieu) and coquettish society belle Antoinette, Duchess of Langeais.
The story starts in 1823, some years after their liaison, with Armand finding that his lost-lost inamorata is alive and well and living as a nun in an isolated Majorcan convent. The narrative then flashes back to their meeting on the Paris salon circuit, where Armand, although reputedly a bore, is nevertheless highly à la mode, having recently returned from daredevil exploits in Africa.
The couple fall for each other, but while rough-hewn Armand takes a ruggedly direct approach to wooing, the Duchess deploys all her flirtatious skills to keep him dangling. Convinced that she is toying with him, Armand has her kidnapped in a scene crackling with overtones of sexual violence.
Rivette's adaptation is remarkably daring in steering so close both to the letter and to the tone of a text that isn't an obvious fit with modern romantic-cinema codes. The film's central section, wilfully talky in a poised theatrical manner, highlights the formal codes of 19th-century love-making, with subtexts drawn from the worlds of politics, religion and aristocratic etiquette: Michel Piccoli and Bulle Ogier excel in cameos as elderly representatives of courtly protocol.
But the film also retains the Gothic content of Balzac's story, notably in Antoinette's kidnapping by Armand's masked henchmen, and in the cloak-and-dagger coda - and the incongruity isn't in the least bit jarring.
But the film is essentially a contemplative two-hander, staged as a series of dialogues between the imposing, leonine Depardieu and a sometimes arch, but always sublimely expressive and intelligent Balibar. The latter's stage background as a Comedie Francaise player comes into its own, giving Antoinette the grandeur of a Racine heroine.
Sly intertitles add an oblique ironic touch to the operatic grandeur, and William Lubtchansky's artfully controlled lighting - as masterful with candlelight as Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - carries echos of Ingres and other period painters.
Pierre Grise Productions
Arte France Cinema
Les Films du Losange
Based on the novel La Duchesse de Langeais by Honore de Balzac
Manu de Chauvigny