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APRIL 11, 2008

Domestic Disturbances

Reviewed: The Duchess of Langeais,
Alice's House, Chaos Theory

By Mark Jenkins

Alone Together: Depardieu and Balibar play out Balzac's tale. (IFC Films)

DISCOVERING HIS LONG-LOST LOVE in a Spanish nunnery, a French general conspires to kidnap her. The abduction will actually be his second one, and the second of the two action scenes in Jacques Rivette's THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS, which is devastating if not exactly swashbuckling. Set mostly in drawing rooms, this impeccably crafted movie is as talky as a Eric Rohmer picture, if significantly less cheerful. The duchess and the general prattle themselves into grand passions, but their feelings are never in sync, which proves to be not simply an inconvenience but a tragedy.

Although among the most demandingly experimental of French new wave directors, Rivette has based many of his films on 19th-century authors: Poe, James, and especially Balzac. The Duchess of Langeais is derived from Don't Touch the Ax, an 1834 Balzac novella whose title refers to the European taste for hacking off royalty's heads. Set in the post-Napoleonic period, after the kings of France and Spain have returned to power, the story doesn't feature any actual decapitations. It's a cruel tale, nonetheless.

The action begins on Majorca, after Gen. Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) has helped put a Bourbon king on the Spanish throne. He learns that there's a Frenchwoman among the barefoot Carmelites in a nearby convent. Armand uses his war hero's status to arrange an interview with Sister Theresa (Jeanne Balibar), who is indeed Antoinette, the Duchess of Langeais, vanished from Paris five years earlier. She blurts that Armand is her lover, and the mother superior abruptly pulls the curtain closed — the film's first suggestion that Armand and Antoinette's relationship is a stage play.

Most of the movie is a flashback, beginning when Armand and Antoinette first meet. He tells a bleak anecdote of adventure in Africa, which she coquettishly and repeatedly interrupts. He is a brave man uncomfortable in the salon, a battleground she has long since has mastered. He declares his love; she notes that she's married. (Her husband is never seen, another hint that the film is essentially a two-character drama.) Eventually, the fervid Armand has Antoinette abducted, and she responds by confessing her love. His passion instantly cools, and he sends her away. Only after she disappears does Armand's interest return. Finally, five years later in Spain, the two are reunited, but only briefly.

If The Duchess of Langeais is unapologetically literary, it's also quite physical. The swan-like Balibar (who also starred in Rivette's much lighter-hearted Va Savoir) trembles and swoons, her vulnerability achingly real. The limping Depardieu, who lost a leg in a motorcycle crash, is suitably strong and awkward. He reveals little of Armand's thinking, but then perhaps there's little to reveal. The general is a man of action, who ultimately returns to the same gambit he tried before, only to lose even more utterly the second time.

Scripted by longtime Rivette collaborators Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, The Duchess of Langeais demands a certain patience. It's elegant and measured, with snippets of the novel's text appearing on screen to slow the already leisurely pace. The director has always drawn parallels between life, literature, and theater, with characters who either unwittingly or quite intentionally — as in his masterpiece, Celine and Julie Go Boating — enter an existing narrative. Yet that's not the only reason this film moves so deliberately. Rivette constructs a lyrical tone to contrast the film's shattering conclusion. Armand's final words are self-consciously poetic, but that doesn't blunt the impact of an outcome that's not at all academic. (2007, 137 min; at Landmark E Street).

LIKE THE RECENT CARAMEL, ALICE'S HOUSE depicts the beauty salon as a place of refuge for women in a macho culture. But middle-aged Brazilian stylist Alice (Carla Ribas) needs the sanctuary more than any of the Lebanese women in that predecessor. Her home, a Sao Paulo apartment, is occupied by three full-sized but not exactly grown-up sons, as well as her husband, a taxi driver who regularly uses the erotic license that comes with picking up women for a living. Mom strives to keep her lazy, horny, underdressed boys out of trouble, and acts to end her husband's liaison with a teenage neighbor — the one who actually asked Alice (who deals in love potions on the side) with help in luring an unidentified older man. Seeking revenge or simply a change, Alice begins an affair with an old boyfriend who's now living with her best client — the one who brags about keeping her man interested by shaving her pubic hair. Director and co-writer Chico Teixeira began as a documentarian, and that background is evident from his use of handheld camera, found-sound audio, and harsh, natural light. The real-world vibe doesn't quite balance the melodramatic plot, which inserts a few too many calamities between the naturalistic vignettes. The film's events are upstaged by the skillfully evoked milieu and characters. If the story doesn't quite convince, Alice and her wayward boys do. (2007, 90 min; at Landmark E Street).

ALTHOUGH IT'S A PARABLE OF ACCEPTANCE, CHAOS THEORY begs to be rejected from its very first scene: Frank (bland Ryan Reynolds) waylays his anxious about-to-be-son-in-law just before the wedding, and tells a story that should undermine the kid's desire to get married at all, let alone to Frank's daughter Jessie. The bulk of the movie is a flashback recounting the sequence of events that, some 20 years earlier, led Frank to almost abandon Jessie and her mother, Susan (iffy-accented Brit Emily Mortimer). What Frank learns is so implausible that it sinks the movie, but the script's logic checks out well before the big revelation. The silliness begins when Susan tweaks her husband, an uptight time-management consultant, by setting back the kitchen clock. That makes him late for the ferry, which runs only every 30 minutes. The uptight time-management consultant lives in a place — outside Seattle, presumably — where his schedule is ruled by a twice-hourly ferry schedule? Buy that, and maybe the rest of director Marcos Siega's dramedy falls into place. "It's chaos out there," Franks warns his clients, but inside the movie all is contrivance, and a dozen song cues (including the Kinks, ELO, and Hot Chocolate) can't drown out the creaking of the plot. (2008, 85 min; at Landmark Bethesda Row.