Don't Touch The Axe

Don't Touch The Axe


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

1820s Paris: a world of dances and social calls, where everything is dependent on manners. Antoinette, with her calculated charm, is the belle of the ball. Armand, a general with a reputation for heroism, draws plenty of attention, but is no sophisticate. When Antoinette sets her sights on him he is doomed to play her game, appearing and disappearing at her will, telling her stories, satisfying her whims, falling desperately in love with her. It's a game she's played before, but in this case she has underestimated her prey. A sudden act of passion on Armand's part turns the tables. When she falls in love with him, will she survive? And can they ever truly be together?

Adapted from Honoré de Balzac's romantic yet acerbic La Duchesse De Langeais, this is a love story told in long, slow takes, reflecting the ethos of a society at leisure and also the cultivated approach of its director, the great Jacques Rivette, now in his eighties. Each frame is elegantly composed, many referencing Renaissance art. Carefully chosen lighting encloses us within this twilight world, and it's full of sumptuous colours, elegant decor and ravishing gowns. It's Antoinette's world as she would have wanted us to see it. But Balzac, in constructing such tales, never lost sight of the ugliness which lay just under the surface, and he never actually bought into his characters' illusions about themselves. As Antoinette toys with Armand, Rivette permits her to toy with the audience, too; but the audience isn't so easily seduced, and admiration may turn to irritation and boredom.

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Jeanne Balibar, in the central role, is everything Balzac could have wanted. Delicate and beautiful (without any of the blandness Hollywood mistakenly conflates therewith), she glides through the film like something from another world. Although we see her scheming clearly enough and understand her frivolity, it would be difficult not to care about her. Yet Guillaume Depardieu, through whose Armand we should be doing so, is awkward and affected, never really evidencing the strength of passion on which the story depends. In what ought to be the film's pivotal moment he is simply blank - not aloof, simply not quite there. As a result, it's hard to feel engaged by the story, hard to care about what happens to these people as a (potential) couple.

Anyone with a decent education in literature and art will find a great deal in this film which can be treasured, but for the general viewer it is likely to be an exercise in frustration. It is best viewed as a marvellous painting, just don't expect it to move much, nor to be moved by it.

Reviewed on: 24 Dec 2007
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A Paris coquette seduces and toys with a heroic general, only to fall suddenly and tragically in love with him.
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Director: Jacques Rivette

Writer: Pascal Bonitzer, based on the story by Honoré de Balzac.

Starring: Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Anne Cantineau, Mathias Jung, Julie Judd

Year: 2007

Runtime: 137 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: France, Italy


London 2007

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