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.