Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe is having its two SFF screenings on Friday 22 June, a mere few hours apart. Having had a glimpse of the film already I thought I might try and help fill the house with this note. Be warned. I don’t think the film is ‘lavish’ or ‘witty’ and I didn’t discern much ‘mischievous joy’. It is the product of an ascetic film-maker who has always ploughed a sometimes uncompromising, occasionally unpromising road.
Honore de Balzac and Jacques Rivette could hardly be more different as men or as artists. Balzac was a huge figure given to massive over consumption and prodigious bursts of energy that produced prose that bursts off the page. Some belittled him and his claim to be the greatest French novelsist of all time. Rivette is an aesthete, a film-maker as refined as can be found. He has spent his life involved in politics and plotting and some claim he still pulls the strings behind the scenes at Cahiers du Cinema, even though his name no longer appears on the editorial list.
Balzac lived merely fifty one years but finished 95 works and left many more unfinished. Rivette is almost eighty and has made a couple of dozen films, all meticulously complete although the extreme length of a couple caused them to be re-issued in shorter versions. His films are an acquired taste and only a small number have been seen much outside France. His previous two films, the vampire tale The Story of Marie and Julien (2004) and Va Savoir (2000) both came out on DVD in Australia. (I have written some short notes about Marie and Julien on the website mentioned at the side.) As far as I know, of Rivette’s other films only Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), La Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Hurlevent (1986) had any screenings at all here.
Yet it might be that both of these major figures in their nation’s cultural life of their times are rounded up by a passage from Balzac’s ‘La muse du departement’:
“There is no great talent without great willpower. These twin forces are need to build the huge monument of an individual glory. Superior men keep their brains in a productive state, just like the knights of old kept their weapons in perfect condition. They conquer laziness, they deny themselves all debilitating pleasures…Willpower can and should be a just cause for pride, much more than talent, whereas talent developsd from the cultivation of a gift, willpower is a victory constantly won again over instincts, over inclinations that must be disciplined and repressed, over whims and all kinds of obstacles, over difficulties heroically surmounted.” (quoted in an article by Simon Leys in the New York Review of Books,12 January 1995)
In Paris Nous Appartient (1960), set in the then present, the characters sought to comprehend a political conspiracy that had vague derivations, particularly from ‘Ferragus’, from parts of Balzac’s ‘LHistoire des Treize’ a trilogy of stories about modern Parisian life. Rivette returned to that source again in an episode of his mammoth, made for TV but never shown there, Out One (1971). There, Eric Rohmer plays a professor of literature who is asked questions by Jean-Pierre Leaud. But Leaud is feigning mutness and has to write his questions onto pieces of paper that Rohmer has to decipher. It’s very drole and I assume that Rohmer was able to ad lib his way through the banalities posed to him by Leaud. In 1991 Rivette adapted Balzac’s ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ into La Belle Noiseuse, the story of a painter whose meeting with a young girl causes him to recommence work on his masterpiece. Now the film-maker has formally adapted ‘The Duchess of Langeais’ for Don’t Touch the Axe setting the film in its time, 1834. Again the source is one of the three stories from ‘L’Histoire des Treize’
The story is done as plainly as can be. There is no attempt to create Balzac’s extravagant prose or heated drama. With the exception of a couple of scenes set at Parisian society’s nightly ball, the attention is almost entirely upon the mature but coquettish Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) and her ‘love’ for the besotted Marquis de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu). But her mannered distance isn’t enough for Montriveau and he sets out, brutally, to bring her to heel, to make her grovel …. Other people hover in the background of both characters but the attention is entirely on the two.
As always with Rivette, the sequences invariably take place in real time. The director has again eliminated those elements that might create some artificial sense of drama, most notably by refusing to use any music beyond those few bars played by the orchestras at the balls. Its effect is to intensify the words, the looks, the objects. The grim game being played out by the ‘lovers’ can have no distractions.