At the beginning of Don’t Touch the Axe, General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard) is seen rushing out of a Majorcan convent to get some air and to contemplate his bitter past. As he ruefully surveys the sea stretched before him, one might fancy that he is looking out for the radical New Wave which swept director Jacques Rivette to fame in the early sixties, but which has now cast him ashore to direct this unexpectedly faithful adaptation of Honor de Balzac’s classic 1834 novel ‘The Duchess of Langeois’ (originally published under the title ‘Don’t Touch the Axe’) right down to the intertitles that preserve Balzac’s original text.
The trigger for Armand’s unease is the discovery that his long-lost love the Duchess Antoinette de Langeois (Jeanne Balibar) has cloistered herself away in the convent and, under an assumed name, devoted herself wholly to the love of God. Flash back five years to Restoration Paris, 1818, and Armand, the talk of the town since returning from Africa a war hero, is introduced at a party to the married Antoinette. Armand cuts a sombre figure, and seems entirely out of place in this most civil of milieus, but Antoinette nonetheless targets him for seduction.
Yet for all her elegance and manners, Antoinette is at heart the Napoleonic equivalent of a prick-tease and over many months, she coquettishly resists Armand’s every advance, shielding herself with a combination of social etiquette and religious doctrine. Armand finds himself once again, as in his tales of desert travels, having to endure all manner of sufferings on the dubious promise of an ‘earthly paradise’ at the end of his arid struggles. Until, that is, the soldier retaliates with a strategic withdrawal, turning the tables on his tormentor until it is she who is begging – equally in vain – for his attentions, and even risking her place in society to get them. Eventually these two formidable combatants in love manoeuvre themselves into a position where rapprochement seems possible, only for the tragic vagaries of timing to separate them forever.
“I would wait patiently an eternity”, declares Armand, but viewers may not feel quite so ready for the long haul – and even Armand himself eventually tires of Antoinette’s cruelly unending deferrals. Patience, waiting, frustration, bad timing, lost opportunities – it takes a certain directorial boldness to highlight these as the principal themes of what is essentially a claustrophobic two-hander whose duration extends to nearly two and a half hours. While Don’t Touch the Axe is relatively short by comparison with Rivette’s only other Balzac adaptation, the 236-minute La Belle Noiseuse (1991), and is a veritable vignette when set against his 13-hour epic Out 1 (1971), nonetheless its length is hardly matched by any sense of economy.
So fine are the performances of Balibar (herself playing a skilled performer) and Depardieu (his missing leg only accentuating his character’s stiffness) that any amount of erotic sparring between them might be considered watchable, but that hardly serves to excuse, let alone cover over, the film’s meandering repetitions. Here, waiting for consummation becomes like waiting for Godot, and it may well stretch some viewers’ forebearance beyond the limits of tolerability.
Still, if you are looking for a witty dissection of eighteenth century French aristocratic mores, and a love story that switches deftly from social satire to kidnap adventure to tragedy, then Don’t Touch the Axe strikes home in the end – even if it is not as sharp as it might have been.