Ne Touchez pas la Hache

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Distant Love

The duchess (Jeanne Balibar) pushes away the importunate general.

Jacques Rivette’s Ne Touchez pas la Hache (Don’t Touch the Axe), an adaptation of Balzac’s novel La Duchesse de Langeais, is an object lesson in how to take a story about passionate love, suck the blood out of it and turn it into a dry, boring, overlong (two hours and 17 minutes) film.

Briefly, this is the story of one of Napoleon’s generals, Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), who falls heavily (this is the right word: the general is a morose man of few words) in love with the beautiful Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar). The duchess is amused by his passion and plays the general like a marlin, alternately reeling him in by allowing him to visit her alone every evening, and then telling him to make himself scarce. When he becomes too insistent, she reminds him either that she is a married woman or that she has strong religious convictions. When he rebels, she grants him a few indulgences to keep him coming back.

Needless to say, when he finally pulls away for good, she decides she is madly in love with him, (although nothing in the film makes this sudden conversion convincing). When she can’t get him back, she checks into a Carmelite convent in Spain.

The richness of this (very) slow-paced film is visual, not emotional. Each beautifully lit scene is worthy of a period master painting, and the sets and the ladies’ Empire gowns are gorgeous. That may be one of the problems: We feel that we are looking at a picture, not entering into a story we can empathize with.

The arch device of using written text as bridges between scenes – perhaps in homage to Balzac, lest we forget that this was originally his novel – only serves to further distance us from the story. Even a potentially dramatic scene in which the frustrated general kidnaps his beloved and threatens her with severe bodily harm is strangely bloodless and unaffecting.

Rivette, now 78 and one of the original New Wave directors, has crashed to shore with this film. For those who want to see what he was up to in his glory days, the Centre Pompidou is currently holding a retrospective of his films.

Heidi Ellison

Centre Pompidou: Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Closed Tuesday. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €10.

© 2007 Paris Update

Heidi Ellison

© 2007 Paris Update

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