The Duchess of Langeais

Starring Guillaume Depardieu and Jeanne Balibar. In French with English subtitles. Rated G. Opens Friday, July 18, at the Park Theatre

Honoré de Balzac is not the easiest author to adapt to the screen. A typical novel can begin with 15 pages of architectural description, then segue into a 20,000-word conversation between two passionate people prior to whizzing through five paragraphs in which 10 years elapse, two duels are fought, and a key character dies. All of this is then capped off with a bittersweet denouement in some picturesque ruin under foreign skies.

Ne touchez pas la hache (literally, Don’t Touch the Axe, Balzac’s original title for what we now know as La Duchesse de Langeais) is even more difficult to adapt than most. For one thing, it’s part of a suite of three stories collectively known as L’Histoire des treize (the other panels in this triptych being Ferragus and La Fille aux yeux d’or). All of these stories deal in one way or another with the fragility of the restored aristocracy after the fall of Napoleon, a weakness born of remembered regicide.

Fortunately for us, director Jacques Rivette and cowriters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent have made things simple for us. Essentially, they’ve boiled down the story to a war of wills between the eponymous Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) and the bumptious Bonapartist general Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), who would like to crack her veneer of worldly piety and make her his own. Both protagonists are extremely prideful, and any perceived slight could send them sulking to the ends of the Earth.

The love story that ensues is as wild and irrational as anything conceived by Emily Brontí«. The chemistry between the principals is terrific, and William Lubtchansky’s cinematography is sumptuously intimate (without ever being erotic).

Best of all, it’s a movie of which Balzac might have approved.