All’s fair in love and war in Jacques Rivette’s threateningly titled “Don’t Touch the Axe,” which slowly but expertly depicts the jousting courtship of an ill-fated love affair between a Parisian socialite and a Napoleonic war hero. Effort reps the vet New Wave director’s return to his beloved Honore de Balzac, whose work he has previously adapted (“La belle noiseuse”). As with any Rivette, pic is assured festival play. In Rivettian terms, the film’s relatively brief running time also makes it a more commercial proposition than most of the helmer’s extensive works.
Adapted from the novella “The Duchesse de Langeais,” which makes up part of Balzac’s “La Comedie humaine,” the yarn begins with the grief-stricken French General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) lingering around a Majorcan church, which has a nunnery attached. Residing there is a French nun he believes to be Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), a woman he has loved and lost.
Using his influence as a Napoleonic soldier and hence a combatant for Catholicism, Montriveau convinces the presiding priest to grant him an audience with the cloistered woman. Speaking from behind a grille and chaperoned by Mother Superior, the two are reunited, showing glowing embers of their spent passion.
Action then jumps back five years to reveal how the fire began. A bored and married socialite on the Restoration-era Parisian circuit, Antoinette is intrigued by the wounded soldier, whose globetrotting adventures include two years as a prisoner in Africa. At a ball, she requests an introduction and begins to tease him with her coquettish ways. Upon going home that evening, Montriveau declares to himself that this woman will be his lover.
Narrative depicts the extended flirtations the mores of the era allowed a woman to inflict upon a willing male. If love is an art, then Madame de Langeais is a more skillful artisan than most. Over nights, then months, she mercilessly toys with the pompous man with all the precision of a chess grand master.
For the pic’s first half, Montriveau seems a stuffed shirt. But the second half sees the Napoleonic warrior aggressively turning the tables, and it is Antoinette who is made to look foolish for thinking she could so casually toy with an expert strategist.Protags are intentionally exaggerated, a fraction more restrained than caricatures. At Rivette’s command, both thesps are required to walk a very fine line. Balibar is given the more treacherous thespian journey, but both she and Depardieu manage to adroitly embody their characters.
Narrative becomes more serious as the romantic oneupmanship progresses. Rivette uses intertitles (including some direct quotes from Balzac) to move the plot along and underline the dry wit. Helming is both leisurely and exact, offering auds ample opportunities to intimately observe the selfishness and folly of two people who would rather fight than switch.
Costumes and sets are luxurious, tech credits solid.