79 year-old French New Wave master Jacques Rivette once directed a film called Out1 that clocked in at just under thirteen hours, but The Duchess of Langeais, his latest film which plays at a traditional feature length, comes across at times like one of those marathon efforts. Slow-moving to the point of stillness and comprised of an unremarkable succession of master shots that bespeak a director focused entirely on the performances and totally unbothered by cinematography, the film's only salvation is a remarkably graceful turn by Jeanne Balibar as the titular duchess -- a coy aristrocrat in Restoration France called Antoinette who alleviates her boredom with life by playing love games with Armand, a young Naval officer played here by Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard. Game is the operative word, because what they engage in over the course of the film is not a genuine passion but a kind of unhealthy mutual fascination that mostly revolves around her superior social position in French society and the ways in which it may frustrate his romantic intentions.
Based on Balzac's 1834 novel, the film begins with a late scene in which Armand encounters his other half in a Carmelite nunnery long after their affair has gone cold. Using his pull as an officer, he gains access to the convent and tries to broker some time alone with Antoinette, but there's very little useful information exchanged between the two of them before she interrupts the proceedings by screamingly confessing to her mother superior that the man in question is a former lover, which breaks everything up immediately. The film then jumps back to the very beginning, at the moment of the first encounter during a ball. This, it turns out, will be something of a running theme, with Armand almost pathologically unable to articulate his feelings -- if he has genuine feelings, something of a question -- and constrained by values of his own. It's those values that the film needs to shine a stark light on in order to understand Armand's later actions -- leaving the film, audiences may know little more about his motivations than when they entered the theater.