IMDb’s Benoît A. Racine:
The novella this film was based on was written by Balzac in the 1830s as part of a group of novels detailing the adventures of a secret society of 13 men (“Les Treize”), of whom Armand is a member. This slightly sinister society was bent on acquiring power at all cost and by all means. It can be understood that Armand’s forceful quest to conquer Antoinette is part of that fascistic scheme. Armand is a general who was ennobled by Napoleon for his military exploits whereas Antoinette is an “Ancien Régime” aristocrat, like the French Queen she was named after.
Armand resents Antoinette as much as he “loves” her because (1) she is “just a woman”, (2) she thinks she is somewhat superior to him socially, (3) she refuses his advances and (4) she is highly desirable socially as well as sexually. Balzac also portrayed Antoinette as a caricature of a real-life socialite, the Duchesse de Castries, who had spurned his attentions. For all these reasons, it is permitted to concede that he was not altogether “sincere” in his depiction of an idealized, spiritual love, of which he probably knew nothing and was only serving his (female) public the usual clichés of Romantic literature which had been floating around the literary world since at least Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while simultaneously serving a warning that the penalty for refusing the conquering Napoleonic penis is death. Antoinette is, after all, a “castrating” coquette who deserves the “axe” that rids the world of aristocrats of her kind. It is rather telling that Antoinette’s public humiliation by her would-be lover was borrowed almost unchanged for inclusion in Alexandre Dumas fils’ “La Dame aux camélias”, where the heroine is a woman kept by an Ancien Régime aristocrat and her young would-be lover is a commoner.
What XXth Century playwright Jean Giraudoux did with this unsavoury hodge-podge is something else entirely. While remaining faithful to the sequence of events – including the very much contrived central plot point of a maliciously-substituted letter, Giraudoux makes his characters utter speeches that still resonate with contemporary audiences about the nature of love, fidelity, possession, domination, sex, idealism and transcendence. Antoinette, before dying in a spiritual blaze, in the Spanish convent to which she has retired rather than being humiliated further, discovers another facet of love – self-sacrifice – that women know about when men seldom do. This “Duchesse de Langeais” can be seen as the prequel to Giraudoux’s “Madwoman of Chaillot”, whose 1968 film adaptation is arguably the last “serious” film on the subject of love of the XXth century.
Giraudoux’s dialog is rendered by the very best of France’s stage talent, including Edwige Feuillère, whose aristocratic presence and Parisian “chuintement” could only be rivalled later by Michèle Morgan, who also would have been a natural for the role (and played Marie Antoinette on screen). Greta Garbo supposedly considered this script a proper vehicle for a comeback in 1947 with James Mason as Armand. The project never materialized.
The highly improbable subject of this film allowed it to escape censorship under Nazi occupation – although aspects of Armand’s and Antoinette’s husband’s character can be seen as “fascistic” and Antoinette’s “resistance” to those fascist forces “heroic”. It remains, like the novella itself, and in spite of itself, the epitome of the depiction of Romantic love as an otherworldly concept rooted in human sexuality.
The film is an impressive accomplishment in terms of sets, costumes, art and musical direction, photography, writing, acting and direction. It has stood the test of time, although a more realistic and contemporary depiction of the same themes can be found in René Clair’s 1956 comedy “Les Grandes Manoeuvres” (“Summer Manoeuvres”, starring Michèle Morgan and Gérard Philipe, about an exiled, divorced Parisienne with every thing to loose resisting the advances of a small-town womanizing Army lieutenant, link ; YouTube trailer: link ; Alternate ending similar to the “Duchesse de Langeais” : link).
“La Duchesse de Langeais” is probably not available in any commercial medium. I saw it on Ontario’s French TV channel TFO last Thursday, in a sufficiently well-preserved copy.
Those of you who have the stomach to tackle a more faithful – but terminally boring – adaptation of Balzac’s rather carnal, sado-masochistic and class-conscious original may want to see “Ne touchez pas la hache” (Don’t touch the axe – Balzac’s original title), which Jacques Rivette directed in 2007. Trailer: link
“La Duchesse de Langeais” is also the title of a 1973 play by Québec playwright Michel Tremblay about an aging cultured and conservative French-Canadian drag queen bent on settling accounts with younger upstarts.