Hatchet job

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews - MICHAEL DWYER

DON’T TOUCH THE AXE/ NE TOUCHEZ PAS LA HACHE Di­rected by Jac­ques Rivette. Star­ring Jeanne Bal­ibar, Guillaume Depar­dieu, Bulle Ogier, Michel Pic­coli, Bar­bet Schroeder Club, IFI, Dublin, 137 min

JAC­QUES Rivette, who turned 80 last Satur­day, was among that au­gust group of Cahiers du Cinéma crit­ics at the fore­front of the stim­u­lat­ing Nou­velle Vague move­ment when they turned to mak­ing their own movies. One of Rivette’s ear­li­est short films was Le Quadrille (1950) and, tak­ing us full cir­cle, the for­mal rit­u­al­is­tic dance of that name is fea­tured promi­nently in Don’t Touch the Axe.

Its use is ap­pro­pri­ate in a film where two char­ac­ters dance around each other, caught up in the for­mal rit­u­als of their era’s so­cial eti­quette, for one of cin­ema’s most ex­tended games of se­duc­tion. The ba­sis is a Balzac novella, The Duchess of Langeais, named af­ter the wo­man, An­toinette (Jeanne Bal­ibar), who is the prey of a Napoleonic war hero, Gen­eral Ar­mand de Mon­triveau (Guillaume Depar­dieu), un­til he even­tu­ally re­verses their roles.

The story be­gins in Ma­jorca in 1823, when Ar­mand vis­its an is­land con­vent where An­toinette has joined a clois­tered or­der of Carmelite nuns. This cues a flash­back to five years ear­lier when they first meet at a Paris salon. Wounded in bat­tle, Ar­mand walks with a pro­nounced limp (this may be be­cause Depar­dieu’s right leg was am­pu­tated af­ter a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent).

An­toinette is a so­cialite es­tranged from her hus­band. Her in­do­lent lifestyle is a swirl of so­cial en­gage­ments that al­lows her to ex­hibit her vast, el­e­gant wardrobe. Her wise, el­derly con­fi­dant (Michel Pic­coli) ad­vises her not to be co­quet­tish with Ar­mand, but this be­hav­iour is sec­ond na­ture to her, and Ar­mand’s frus­tra­tion mounts.

The film’s ti­tle comes from a line not­ing a su­per­sti­tion re­gard­ing the be­head­ing of the English king, Charles I, and it am­bigu­ously refers to the fears of the would-be lovers los­ing their heads in pas­sion. The film roots its pro­tag­o­nists in a so­cially con­scious, gos­sip-rid­den mi­lieu that reins in their emo­tions – mir­rored in the cru­cial ab­sence of any chem­istry be­tween Bal­ibar and Depar­dieu.

Rivette makes ex­ten­sive use of in­ter-ti­tles, quot­ing Balzac and even play­fully re­fer­ring to “the pre­vi­ous scene”, in a lo­qua­cious, ul­ti­mately over-stretched film that sug­gests he should have brought an axe to it in the edit­ing room.

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