Majorca, 1823. France has invaded Spain, a Bourbon king (Ferdinand VII) has been restored to the Spanish throne, and French troops, led by battle-scarred Napoleonic general Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), have landed on the sunny Spanish island. As a courtesy to the island's officials, Armand attends Catholic mass at the island's ancient church, and even though the nuns of the adjoining Carmelite convent are kept strictly hidden from view behind a heavy velvet choir curtain, Armand immediately recognizes the distinctive touch of the secluded organist, particularly when she begins to play a plaintive French tune. It can be none other than Antoinette, the beautiful Duchess of Langeais (VA SAVOIR's Jeanne Balibar), who disappeared five years earlier without a trace and for whom a heartbroken Armand has been searching the ends of the earth for ever since.
Paris, five years earlier. Napoleon has been exiled for the second and final time, the Bourbon king Louis VIII once again sits on the French throne, and General Armand de Montriveau finds himself the unlikely toast of the recently restored aristocracy of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. With his pronounced limp, glowering countenance and thrilling stories of two years spent captive among the "savages" of Africa, Armand has captured the attention of a bored, idle gentry and one high-born lady in particular: The Duchess of Langeais, a notorious coquette who, during her husband's frequent absences, toys with the affections of one admirer before dropping him for another. The duchess sets her sights on Armand, to whom she extends the rare invitation to visit her at home whenever he likes. Sure enough, Armand falls deeply in love with Antoinette, but she isn't prepared for the fierce general's reaction once he realizes that she has no intention of ever really betraying her wedding vows to her husband, the duke. To exact his revenge, Armand calls upon the sinister services of his colleagues in the secret society known only as the "Thirteen," and the Duchess of Langeais soon realizes that when it comes to manipulating another's affections, General Armand can give as good as he gets.
Too much of Balzac's novel reads like a political pamphlet with Balzac scolding a decadent Restoration aristocracy for its unwillingness to meet the leadership challenges of a new era, a time when royals, revolutionaries and a rising bourgeoisie are all jockeying for position; the story itself is almost secondary. Rivette perfectly captures the stifling atmosphere of aristocracy grown bored and inbred, remnants of an ancient regime kowtowing to each other at suffocating balls and endless at-homes. The tediousness, however, becomes a little too palpable and the film's first half is frankly dull, despite some fine acting from Depardieu and Balibar. It's only with the sudden appearance of the Thirteen that the film gains a little momentum, but by then all but Rivette's most ardent fans may have abdicated their own thrones. leave a comment --Ken Fox
Still going strong at the ripe old age of 80, veteran Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Jacques Rivette adapts the second novel in Balzac's trilogy collectively known as "The History of the Thirteen." Rivette brings a refreshing realism to what could have been a stodgy costume drama, but it's still pretty slow-going.