The Duchess of Langeais

01/30/2008 12:00 AM |

The first of the Cahiers gang to make the leap to director, Jacques Rivette is the toughest nouvelle vaguer to pin down, with the commercial result that his films have also been among the most difficult to see here. Typified by games, theatrics and irresolvable narrative enigmas, the Rivette oeuvre is aggressively cerebral. And if that weren’t already enough to keep the multiplex at bay, his movies have a mean run time of about four hours.

In recent years, however, Rivette has become positively accessible. Age perhaps is a factor — he turns 80 next month — but he now shows some respect for film conventions, sort of (two hours and forty minutes is the new standard). What’s remarkable is that in the face of these concessions he hasn’t sacrificed ambiguity and his preference for the long-take. His latest, The Duchess of Langeais, is proof.

Fresh off Napoleon’s defeat and a subsequent near-fatal expedition through Africa that left him limping, General Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) returns to Paris and meets a notorious coquette (Jeanne Balibar) who will tease him to the brink of madness. Although Depardieu is handsomer than his iconic pop, he has his father’s brute simian gait. Rivette renders audible every last jackbooted step the actor takes across the Faubourg St. Germain’s parquet floors.

High fidelity will kill a literary adaptation. Rivette wisely pumps up the irony found in the Balzac original, awakening its dormant class invective. At the same time, Rivette somehow ingeniously translates the essence of his source through the use of intertitles — which, in providing pacing and humor as well as exposition, are worthy of the masterpieces of the silent era.

Opens February 22 at IFC Center