Simao loves neighbor Teresa and Teresa loves Simao, cousin Balthasar also loves Teresa, servant Mariana loves Simao, Joao loves his daughter Mariana, and all these loves are doomed, doomed, doomed. Simao and Teresa’s families hate each other, Simao kills Balthasar and is sentenced to prison, old enemies of Joao kill him, and finally Teresa wastes away in a convent, Simao dies on a prison ship and Mariana jumps into the ocean during his sea burial.

Teresa:

So it’s quite unhappy, and reminiscent of Mysteries of Lisbon since they’re by the same author, but also an idiosyncratic movie, with different stylistic tics than the Ruiz. Some notes I took:

– Mirror dissolve to scene of mythology
– Lots of mirrors
– Narrator, rushing through backstory
– Tadeu stomps around yelling insults but all we hear are his footsteps
– Night scenes are just a black screen with subtitles
– Letters are filmed, narrated in their entirety, or their writer will recite into camera
– Flatly delivered dialogue
– Sometimes narrator tells us what would easily have been shown
– Actors stand by patiently waiting for the narrator to finish, like in a Peter Watkins movie.
– Narrator describes Simao killing Balthasar right before it happens

Simao kills Balthasar:

Set in the early 1800’s. Each episode opens with Simao’s younger sister Rita summarizing the previous episode into camera. There are other characters and events – Simao’s brother Manuel, who runs off to Spain with a married woman, and Simao’s mom, a former queen’s lady who misses the splendor of her old life and pulls strings to get her condemned son preferential treatment, and Joao, who gleefully murders Balthasar’s men in order to help Simao – but these are secondary to the whole doomed-love thing.

I used to think of convents as good places before this and Mysteries of Lisbon, The Devils, Mother Joan of the Angels, The Nun, Les Anges du peche, Don’t Touch The Axe, Black Narcissus, and so on. There’s little religion in the convent where Teresa is committed by her family – she’s immediately told not to trust the mother superior, and all the nuns run around gossiping about each other.

There have been at least eight film adaptations of Doomed Love, plus there’s a mysterious 2006-07 series on IMDB with Branco as writer, listing all the Doomed Love characters as well as Father Dinis, Angela and Eugenia from Mysteries of Lisbon – a Branco Universe crossover?

Mariana with Simao:

J. Rosenbaum called it “The Masterpiece You Missed” in his review, reprinted in his collection Placing Movies, which I read at the beach thirteen years ago and I’ve been seeking this movie out ever since. I’m still seeking it… hopefully a better copy surfaces on video someday. I think there are different versions, and I saw the television (color) miniseries. The great Oliveira died between my watching this and finally writing it up, but I’ve got about forty more of his films to watch, so his art lives on.

Rosenbaum:

Intricate dovetailings of narration and dialogue produce some elegant displacements and overlaps in and on the sound track. When the heroine’s father shouts at her in close-up, the sound of his voice ceases at the precise moment that the male narrator announces that the (off-screen) daughter doesn’t hear him because she’s left the room. Much later, the imprisoned hero responds in person to the narrator’s off-screen report of Mariana’s blacksmith father’s announcement (visible but not heard) that his daughter is delirious — a scene much easier to follow than to describe.

Watching this classically wrought example of controlled madness for 270 minutes … I was reminded once again of the battles between narrative and nonnarrative cinema that used to be waged in this room. (Today the battles are over, the warring tribes shipped off to separate schools or summer camps, and a mongrel like Doomed Love, doomed by its own integrity, has to walk the night without the sponsorship of either ghetto.)

Duarte de Almeida of City of Pirates and Past and Present as the ship captain:

P. Cunha in Senses of Cinema:

In Portugal, the film’s critical reception was very hostile. It was also devastating for its director, who was accused of wantonly producing the most expensive Portuguese film made with public subsidy at a time of serious financial crisis. Oliveira was also criticised for moving away from the naturalistic language mandated by television, undermining the legacy of author Camilo Castelo Branco, and not being concerned with the reality of the class struggle Portuguese society was undergoing in the aftermath of the socialist revolution. The debate about Oliveira’s work was so intense that it was even discussed in the national Parliament and inflamed arguments about public financial support for Portuguese cinema.

Doomed Love belongs – along with [Past and Present, Benilde and Francisca] – to the “tetralogy of frustrated loves”, a series of four films that are adaptations of works by some of Oliveira’s favourite literary authors (Vicente Sanches, José Régio, Camilo Castelo Branco and Agustina Bessa-Luís).

Titles have varied: L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close) and House of Tolerance and House of Pleasures, but I’d prefer Bonello Bordello. I didn’t have high hopes despite all the best-of-year placements and Bonello’s 50 Under 50 crowning. Didn’t love The Pornographer, and the promo photos of pretty girls in fancy dresses drooping on a sofa didn’t look thrilling. But the movie is thrilling and engrossing in a way I can’t explain. Scenes are repeated from different angles and through split screens, and a final time-jump to the present day doesn’t even seem out of place in the dream-world of the film.

I can no longer remember all the characters, but let’s try: Marie-France Dallaire (Noémie Lvovsky) is madam of Bonello Bordello, looks vaguely like Meryl Streep. Madeleine (Alice Barnole) aka The Jewess is easily recognizable, having been given a Joker face by a sadistic knife-wielding client. Samira is Hafsia Herzi, Rym in The Secret of the Grain. Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) “Le Petite” is the youngest one who arrives after the time jump from Nov. 1899 to Mar. 1900. Lea (Adele Haenel of Water Lilies) is shortish, blonde, has an arm tattoo. Julie/Caca (Jasmine Trinca of The Son’s Room) has a neck tattoo. Clothilde (Celine Sallette of Rust & Bone and the TV series Les Revenants) has dark hair, looks like Maggie Gyllenhaal and gets addicted to opium. I paid less attention to the men, but apparently some of them were played by filmmakers.

Played in competition at Cannes, nominated for eight Cesars, winning for costume design. One of Cinema Scope’s favorite movies of 2011.

from P. Coldiron’s excellent article in Slant:

House of Pleasures‘s pièce de résistance comes when, following the death of one of the ladies from syphilis, the women of L’Apollonide gather in the parlor for a moment of grieving set to the Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin,” one of a handful of anachronistic pop songs deployed diagetically across the film. This moment of both grief and its exorcism via its performance comes to a halt when, at the song’s final notes, Clotilde emerges from an opium session and passes out upon entering the room. She awakens in the arms of the recently deceased, and the tender conversation that follows (“If we don’t burn how will the night be lit?”), which isn’t dismissed as a dream or hallucination, but simply presented as it is, perfectly distills Bonello’s project: the days of history as a succession of ghost stories are over; death, taken as inevitable, becomes irrelevant; and freed from the fear of looking forever forward toward death, we can look backward and see in the mirror of a truly lived history an image of a better future. Not an inevitability, but a possibility; this is all we can ask for.

Surprised how much the newspaper critics disliked it. I thought P. Bradshaw was supposed to be cool, but he gives it one star and calls it “weirdly nasty”.

Bonello:

I was obsessed with manipulating time because I did not have space; that’s why you have the flashbacks and a change in aesthetic point of view. I was trying to show a rich amount of time because I did not have a lot of space. I knew the film would be tough in a way, so I wanted to give some beauty and a lot of attention to light. We became obsessed with how light was seen during this period, which we can see in [paintings] from this period. We did research on the mix of electricity and candles because 1900 was when electric lights started appearing in Paris. So we decided that in the salon and the main rooms downstairs there would be electric lights and then upstairs there would still be candles. There were many little details used and the sum of the details give the aesthetic of the film. The whole film is made inside with no windows, so I wanted it to be theatrical with movement and beauty.

A strangely excellent movie – beautifully shot and performed. It’s very straightforward, plot-wise. The central mystery is set up in the first scene (taking place at Cafe Exposition, populated by extras filling each other in on backstory), and the movie spends the rest of its runtime dropping hints as to the solution to the central mystery, until finally even people like me, who don’t try to guess the endings to movies, know very well what’s going to happen. The NY Times considered it obvious enough to reveal the answer outright in their original review. But somehow that didn’t keep me from loving the movie, more than Perceval to be sure. One complaint: the title made Katy think of the Marquis de Sade, and made me think of The Story of O – so the movie should have been far sexier than it was.

The story was written in the early 1800’s and set in Germany, so of course Rohmer makes a German film that looks like it is happening in the early 1800’s, with a Barry Lyndon level of attention to light and costume. The Marquise (Edith Clever of a couple Hans-Jurgen Syberberg movies) is rescued from Russian marauders by their commander Bruno Ganz (not long before starring in Herzog’s Nosferatu). She is given sleeping pills after her ordeal, and the family is ever grateful to Ganz. Thing is, he’s now strangely, hurriedly insistent on marrying the Marquise, and she soon realizes she is pregnant.

Bruno makes an awesome entrance:

It becomes increasingly obvious to the viewer that Ganz knocked her up while she slept from the pills and is trying to run damage control, but this never occurs to the Marquise or her family until he admits it in the final scene. Instead, her mother tries to pin it on faithful servant Leopardo, while her father shuts his ears and bans her from setting foot in the house again.

Rohmer himself stands distractingly against the wall:

A super talky movie, of course, but possibly my favorite so far of Rohmer’s. Intertitles and fade outs at the end of scenes provide what little stylization is allowed into the movie. It’s funny to me that in the last line of the movie the marquise calls Bruno an angel – he and the actor playing her brother (Otto Sander) would later co-star as angels in Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close.

Thought I was supposed to be impressed with Jane Campion. I’ve liked her movies that I’ve seen – this, Sweetie and Holy Smoke – but I can’t say I love ’em to death. Very capably-made dramas with unique performances, nothing especially transcendent though. Maybe my expectations were too high… I’ve been hearing that this is a must-see classic important film for a decade and a half now.

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Local Georgia girl Holly Hunter, who I haven’t seen since O Brother Where Art Thou, is a mute pianist come to secluded New Zealand in the mid-1800’s with her daughter (10-year-old Anna Paquin) to marry landowner Sam Neill (the year before his finest hour: In the Mouth of Madness). Right away, Holly meets brutish tattooed native-wrangler Harvey Keitel (on a roll, in between Bad Lieutenant and Pulp Fiction). He takes ownership of her precious piano and invites her over to play, offering her it back in trade if she’ll let him touch her. Harvey is obsessed with her and a music lover, which is more than Sam Neill’s got going for him, being impatient with Holly’s muteness, her music and her daughter, so eventually Holly is sleeping with Harvey. Sam finds out and chops off her finger, then apologizes and lets her go away with Harvey to live happily as a piano teacher with a Harvey-made false finger.

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I didn’t mean to watch a bunch of oscar-nominated films from 1993 all in a row, it just worked out that way. So now I can look at the list of nominees and see how this stacked up to Orlando and The Age of Innocence, while cursing Schindler’s List and Philadelphia. At least it’s good to see that Dave and Farewell My Concubine each got a chance, and can’t argue with Nick Park winning for a Wallace & Gromit movie. Personally, in ’93 I was more psyched about Jurassic Park, In the Line of Fire, Groundhog Day, A Perfect World and Wayne’s World 2.

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So this movie, The Piano Teacher and The Pianist all contain scenes of horror and mutilation, and Shoot The Piano Player has a perfectly unhappy ending. I wonder what awful things lie in wait with The Page Turner, The Tuner and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.

Emory played this for us on 35mm, introduced by poet and politician Gyula Kodolányi who watched it in Hungary during its opening run… and this is the night after I saw a perfect print of The Age of Innocence introduced by Salman Rushdie. If their film screenings are about to stop, as has been rumored, at least they’re going out on top.

Scary movie. First 90ish minutes I’m wondering “where are they going with this”, then it all comes together in the last five. Set in the 1860’s but meant to illustrate and refer to interrogation techniques of the 1960’s (surprised he got away with it). Stark black-and-white, artfully composed in widescreen, with long-ish shots (nothing over a couple minutes), set at a prison out on the plains and a few surrounding buildings.

A hundred or more prisoners are being held together, a few in solitary covered with hoods and the rest in a large courtyard, but the guards don’t know whether they’ve captured the rebel leader and which of the prisoners are his horsemen. Threat of execution turns one prisonder, a pointy-hatted murderer, into a not-so-covert inside agent for the jailers. Guards capture a local woman and torture her to death in view of the prisoners, provoking suicides. Ultimately the jailers succeed through some twisty psych tricks into getting two elder rebel soldiers to identify themselves. A competition is staged, and the winner gets to select a troop of men to leave prison and join him. It’s announced that the rebel leader has been granted amnesty, and the new troops all cheer. The guards, now having identified the rebels, descend upon them with hoods…

Bright Lights:

In the concise (20-minute) but revealing interview included by Second Run with The Round-Up, Jancsó pauses to explain the larger context intended by these films, that is, how they were meant to universalize human cruelty beyond apparent, coded references to the then recent 1956 Soviet action. Speaking carefully and succinctly, Jancsó offers two themes: “the humiliation by the powerful” and “the defenselessness of the people.”

Not gonna say too much except that I was hella impressed by this movie. It’s the sort of high-society period piece I usually stay away from, but with balls-out film technique and beautiful cinematography.

Swell, stringy music by Elmer Bernstein (Sweet Smell of Success, every 80’s comedy, Far From Heaven). Beautiful opening titles by Saul Bass. Shot by Michael Ballhaus (The Departed, Quiz Show, tons of Fassbinder) and edited by Powell’s widow. Production designer worked with Fellini and Pasolini, costumer (who won the film’s only oscar) worked with Ruiz, Gilliam, Leone and Fellini, and the set decorator worked on RoboCop 3 and The Lathe of Heaven.

Glad to see macaws and peacocks. Noticed a Samuel Morse painting that I’ve seen at the High. Spent a whole scene staring at the actors’ clothes and the surrounding paintings, thinking about the color combinations. Distracting but very brief cameo by Scorsese as a wedding photographer. Playful transitions, irises, fades to color, rear projection and some super matte work.

The story, okay I might not have given it my full attention because of the colors and the irises, but fully modern man Daniel Day-Lewis is paired with innocent traditional girl Winona Ryder, but then he falls for fiery scandalous Michelle Pfeiffer instead. Eventually DDL is so widely suspected of having an affair with Pfeiffer that he may as well have – but never did. Lots of unspoken thoughts going on, DDL/Ryder’s marriage in the 20-years-later epilogue seems like the Crane Wife, like society would fly apart if they ever spoke what’s on their minds. All the actors very good – I thought Pfeiffer stood out, but the academy preferred Ryder. Great to see Geraldine Chaplin, looking good a decade after Love on the Ground, though she had very little to say or do. Richard Grant played as much of a villain as the film had, a sideways-smiling scandal-slinger, and Jonathan Pryce showed up towards the end as a Frenchman (dunno why, with all the opulence on display, Scorsese couldn’t afford an actual Frenchman).

Appropriate to watch this right after the Michael Powell movies, given Scorsese’s love for Powell’s films. I wouldn’t have guessed the fight scenes in Raging Bull were influenced by The Red Shoes ballet before I heard it in the DVD commentary. Also appropriate to watch this soon after Orlando and soon before The Piano, a sort of 1993 oscar-campaign review.

Action of the movie spans 400 years, with title cards telling us when we are.

1600 – Death
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Young Orlando is favored by Queen Elizabeth I (gay performer/activist Quentin Crisp – I must see his 70’s Hamlet), who orders him to never grow old.

1610 – Love
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Orlando is smitten with a visiting Russian princess (Charlotte Valandrey). They ice skate together, O. pledges his undying love, and when she leaves the country he attempts a romantic rescue but gets his ass kicked.

1650 – Poetry
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Orlando is obsessed with poetry, and decides to sponsor acclaimed poet Nick Greene (Heathcote Williams of Jarman’s The Tempest). O. tries his own hand at poetry, unsuccessfully.

1700 – Politics
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Orlando goes to “the east” as an ambassador, hangs out with the Khan (Lothaire Bluteau of Jesus of Montreal), accidentally gets involved in a war. Filmed in Uzbekistan!

1750 – Society
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Back home, Orlando wakes up one day as a woman. She puts on the most massive gown she can find and goes out to a small party held by Archduke Harry (John Wood of Richard III). She’d met Harry in 1700 (he’s barely aged – the movie does not treat its timeframe very literally) and he is very intrigued… offers to marry her, then curses her when she refuses. Also at the party: high-haired Kathryn Hunter (who played a plot contrivance in the last Harry Potter), Roger Hammond (Demy’s Pied Piper), Peter Eyre and Ned Sherrin.

1850 – Sex
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Orlando runs through a hedge maze straight into 1850, where she meets and falls for Billy Zane. I know, right? Billy Zane!

Birth
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No date in this segment – set in the present. Orlando motorcycles to her publisher’s office, where they tell her they won’t publish the book she’s been writing for 400 years without some changes. She doesn’t take this hard, goes to the park with her daughter (played by Tilda’s daughter). Daughter has a video camera, they see an angel flying over the trees, segue from that totally nuts image into the closing credits.
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Must say I had high hopes and this movie smashed them all Godzilla-like. The movie is a mighty masterpiece, scoffing at my insufficiently-high hopes! It has as much to say about life and how to live it, fleeting relationships and the nature of time as The Benjamin Buttons, but it says them more elegantly (I know I’ve been hard on The Ben Buttons lately – I actually liked it a lot). Plus it must be the most beautiful super-feminist film I’ve seen… I’ll bet college kids love to write theses on it (a google search reveals this to be true).

Potter says the movie is “about the claiming of an essential self, not just in sexual terms. It’s about the immortal soul.”

Music cowritten by Potter, has Fred Frith on guitar, mostly good, peppered with some late-80’s-sounding beats. Same cinematographer who shot Potter’s Yes. Movie was nominated for a buncha awards, incl. oscars, but lost to The Piano, Age of Innocence and Schindler’s List. Won some stuff in Venice and Greece and I feel pretty good about that.

It took me two or three years to finally watch The Golden Coach and then I loved it to pieces, so anticipation was unreasonably high for this one. At first it’s just another Renoir movie, light and magnificent even when being grim and serious, but as the plot threads started to mirror those of The Golden Coach (woman deciding between three lovers) it built to a similarly wonderful ending. So no, not up to Golden Coach standards, but close!

Jean Gabin:
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This was Renoir’s big return to France, his first French movie since the distrastrously received Rules of the Game, so he made a nationalistic crowd-pleaser with lots of dancing girls, just to be safe. In the late 1800’s, Jean Gabin (fresh off Touchez pas au grisbi) is having financial trouble with his high-class variety theater, decides to buy a new place and revive the low-class can-can dance as a popular middle-class spectacle. Calls it the Moulin Rouge, ho ho. Recruits and trains non-dancers including washwoman Nini and gathers old favorite companions including hot-tempered star dancer (and part-time girlfriend) Lola, famous whistler Roberto, and singing assistant Casimir, and gains financial assistance from a visiting prince.

Trouble: Nini is fooling around with Gabin, also has longtime boyfriend Paolo, and is also being courted by the prince. Paolo tells her it’s over if she dances the cancan in public, and she breaks up with the prince (leading to his suicide attempt), so she tries to stick with Gabin, under the condition that he see no other girl but her. His reaction:
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So now, boyfriendless, she throws herself joyously into the dance, choosing art over a steady love life, the same ending as The Golden Coach but in exhuberant dance instead of a solemn speech. Wonderful! Can’t believe Katy didn’t want to watch this back when I kept suggesting it in the apartment. Anyway, I’ll gladly watch again when she changes her mind.

Color and sound and costumes are all brilliant. Acting is usually great, and when it’s not, Renoir keeps things moving fast enough that you can’t tell. I was surprised when Gabin wakes up in bed with Lola – I’d forgotten that you could do that in 1950’s Europe. His scene at the end is great, sitting backstage tapping his foot, imagining the action on stage, knowing all the steps and smiling without having to see. The Criterion essay (or did I read it somewhere else?) points out that this scene lets us know that he choreographed the dance and practiced it with the girls over and over without showing us the actual practices… very effective.

Françoise Arnoul (Nini) had previously appeared in Antonioni’s “I Vinti”, is still acting today
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María Félix (jealous Lola) was a huge star in Mexico. Giani Esposito (the prince) starred six years later in Rivette’s Paris nous appartient.
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Franco Pastorino (Paolo) died a few years later, only appearing in one more film.
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This is the earliest Michel Piccoli appearance I’m likely to see (his earlier films are quite obscure). That’s him in the blue.
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Cameo by Edith Piaf:
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I was looking forward to this, due to my recent Rivette obsession, but didn’t expect to love it, since it’s a period piece about upper-class people unable to declare their love for each other because of societal restrictions, and I tend to hate that kind of story. It’s nice to watch fave Rivettian actors Bulle Ogier and Michel Piccoli and Barbet Schroeder (all sharing a scene) but they’re hardly in the movie and they play gentle, wise elder friends and relatives, with a bit of dialogue but no passionate acting showcases. I got my Rivette themes and trademarks served up: conspiracies, secret rooms, performance (explicitly at the convent, but throughout as the two toy with each other), real locations with creaking wood floors, oceanside drama, but all enslaved to this book-to-film adaptation of Balzac – something that I thought Rivette just said he’d never do in the DVD interview on Belle Noiseuse, that he dances around Balzac in his film writing (that one and Out 1) because a direct adaptation would be impossible. In the story, Montriveau is one of the notorious 13, but the name of the group is never stated here. Anyway, we also get very good performances from the leads – Guillaume Depardieu, lookalike son of Gerard who once played his dad in flashback in Les Misérables, with his false leg used to great effect here on the wooden floors… and Jeanne Balibar, who I don’t remember from Code 46 or Clean, and haven’t seen yet starring in Va savoir.

Not much outward passion to the movie, emotions seem detached (I know, that was the point, sorta) but it has a quietly affecting ending aboard Montriveau’s ship after he breaks into the convent and finds the Duchess dead. The plot being easy to follow, I started paying attention to nerdy cinema stuff like the quality of light (all supposedly from sunlight and candles) and the sound (music used very sparingly, as usual). Sound was rough because of the loud hissing and gurgling noises coming from the ceiling at the Landmark, and picture was even rougher since the film was projected out-of-focus (except for the left third of the screen, which looked lovely). So it was easier to measure the quality of light than, say, the details of costumes and decor. I’m not much for decor anyhow.

Definitely closer to Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights) than to anything else I’ve seen Rivette do. At least I learned how Duchess of Langeais is pronounced (vaguely: “lawn-jay”). This Balzac story was previously filmed a few times, from a 1910 lost silent to a 1995 TV version adapted by the co-writer of Goya’s Ghosts.

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Excellent analyses found on other sites:

E. Howard:

Games are the film’s central conceit, in fact, whether they be word games, mind games, literary games, games played between appearance and feeling. The game being played at the narrative level takes place between a General and a Duchess … But this is only one game that Rivette is toying with, and he plays an entirely different one with the audience, a game of subtle winks and sly nods that continually disrupts the placid surface of the narrative … This narrative disruption is mirrored in the way the General’s story to the Duchess, about his time lost in the desert after escaping from the enemy’s imprisonment, is continually interrupted, usually by the listener’s short attention span and her tendency to divert the flow of the conversation just as the story is reaching a critical juncture. This results in the General’s story being doled out across three successive evenings that they spend together early in their relationship. On the third night, as they settle in to continue the story, Rivette frames the Duchess in a tight closeup as she asks her would-be lover to finish the tale. At this moment, she turns a sly sidelong glance directly into the camera, maintaining eye contact with the audience, as though to include them in the game.

This game of narrative interruptus is also carried through in the way Rivette uses the text of the film’s original source, a novella by Honoré de Balzac. This is a rigidly faithful adaptation… with texts from the novel periodically included as intertitles to highlight certain moments or get at the characters’ internal states. The titles are also used to convey the passage of time, which is parceled out in scrupulously precise measures: “one hour later,” “twenty-two minutes passed,” “she waited twenty-four hours.” These titles often seem to abruptly cut off the action, sometimes flashing up on screen when, after a long scene of near-stasis, a character is right in the middle of completing the scene’s first real movement or action (most often: leaving the room). The passage of time, like everything else in the film, is subject to Rivette’s subtle humor. After the Duchess kicks her friend out of her house, a title informs us that it one hour passes (a very common interlude), and surprisingly in the very next scene there’s the General again, still standing in her parlor, walking around it aimlessly, looking like only five minutes has passed since she ordered him to leave. Rivette’s use of these titles is obviously very sardonic and mannered, as when he uses a long series of images of the Duchess at a party as though it constituted a clause in between two dashes in a sentence: “the Duchess searched for him —” followed by the visuals and then, when the dangling phrase had almost been forgotten, “— in vain.”

J. Romney:

Characterised as a sort of Napoleonic wild beast ill at ease in the tameness of Restoration Paris, Armand – a general newly returned from Africa who initially fascinates married duchess Antoinette with stories of his exploits – is associated from the start with the great outdoors, prowling Mallorca’s windlashed ramparts, while Antoinette is first seen doubly imprisoned, in nun’s cowl and behind a grille.

The film is largely set in a series of enclosed salon and boudoir interiors, an overtly theatrical domain in which Antoinette is a surpassing mistress of mise en scène. Preparing for Armand’s first visit, she arranges herself for maximum effect on a canapé, in discreet déshabille, ordering her servant to lower the lighting (the thematics of light and heat later extended in the fireplace that Armand pokes with barely contained sexual frustration, and in the brand with which he threatens Antoinette).

As actress, Antoinette is skilled at the well-timed entrance and exit, whereas Armand habitually arrives too early, or storms inopportunely into the star’s dressing room. It is part of Armand’s revenge that he at last masters both mise en scène and performance, in a startlingly excessive scene that replaces Antoinette’s poised comedy of manners with a lurid melodrama: in it, he plays a menacing Byronic ravisher, supported by masked men hovering around a brazier. This sudden eruption of violence in the middle of an analytical drama may seem wildly incongruous, yet the tonal discontinuity comes directly from Balzac’s story, and Rivette achieves the seemingly impossible in making such a disjunction work convincingly on screen. The violence at the heart of the story, together with its cautionary-tale aspect, is foregrounded by Rivette’s reversion to Balzac’s original title for his novel. The reference is to a veiled warning that Armand gives Antoinette, the axe being the English one that beheaded Charles I – the implication is that the reckless cause their own downfall. In reality, however, Armand himself figuratively wields the axe that will destroy his own chance of happiness.

D. Kasman:

How strange that a filmmaker who through the years has so loved process, often in terms of acting and theatre, of seeing the expression of things worked out awkwardly before us, and conspiracy, in terms of the hints that everything out there, out of sight and out of the film frame, may be connected, has decided to adapt a reserved, 19th century historical chamber romance. Oh, but with such a surprise we then get to engage in the pleasures of the hunt! For then we find things like this: how is the navigation of social rules and norms—a very real thing with a very allusive existence—like the theatre and how is it like a conspiracy? Well, it is not without reason that Rivette opens the film at the melodramatic peak of the couple’s aching separation—the Duchess a nun on a remote Spanish isle and separated from the General by the convent’s metal bars—and then transitions and flashes back five years to the couple’s meeting and affair through two sweeps of a theatre curtain. The stage then is not the actual island (filmed on location), but is the interiors of the Restoration period, in all their glory, wood boards creaking like an empty stage. …

It is like a game played again and again with different moves but the same results, the repeating drama inside the haunted house of Celine and Julie transposed to thinking, feeling participants. The drama exists in a hanging kind of closed-off world, all frustrated performances that are almost content, as the playfulness and acting gets close to true expression, true connection. But something holds everyone back, holds the drama back, holds the love back, and gradually both General and Duchess become obsessed with this vague, menacing limitation, a mysterious stopgap to happiness that can neither be seen nor surmounted.

Whew, I love all these themes that get read into Rivette’s work. I always wonder whether he’s aware of them and consciously shaping his films in this way, or if the themes are unintended and they are more or less created by the critics, or if they’ve just become a part of his creative process, so much that he doesn’t think about them as consciously as he used to, and they become more subtle and have to be drawn out by a viewer well familiar with his previous films.

D. Ehrenstein:

The film is “dryly funny. Especially so when “the 13” make their appearance in the last act, looking more like a left bank version of the Keystone Kops than a fearsome secret society.