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The Duchess of Langeais

This costume drama relives a thwarted love affair

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Adapting Balzac's 19th-century novel, Jacques Rivette opens his film with a mystery: What circumstance has driven the Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) into a Spanish convent, where her former lover, military officer Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), now finds her? We flash back five years to the couple's tortuous courtship, delicately executed amid the rigid, stultifying realm of Parisian society. But as Antionette and Montriveau spar and flirt, their unconsummated love turns to anger. The pair enacts a series of willful, if oh-so-polite slights, escalating in a bizarre act by Montriveau. Rivette's melodrama steps slowly, and the already languid narrative is frequently interrupted by intertitles (some as brief and seemingly unnecessary as "Later that evening ..."). For those seeking the heightened passions and snappy banter of a conventional costume drama, Duchess will prove a dull affair, and even more patient viewers better disposed to artistic exercises may find the film choppy and as unsatisfying as the ill-fated romance. In French, with subtitles. (AH) [capsule review]

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