Don't Touch the Axe (Ne Touchez Pas La Hache)

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BERLIN -- Nearing 80, French new wave director Jacques Rivette continues to display a fine touch with "Don't Touch the Axe," an intimate tale about the games lovers play taken to extremes.

Based on a novella titled "The Duchesse de Langeais" by Honore de Balzac, it's the story of a dedicated soldier back from the wars and the socialite lady he loves not wisely but too well.

Handsomely produced and featuring fine performances, the film will travel well to festivals and art houses where audiences respond to classy period pieces with a modern sensibility.

The film begins and ends with encounters taking place several years later than the central events, which are told in flashback. Guillaume Depardieu stars as Napoleonic Gen. Armand de Montriveau who returns to Paris following a time imprisoned by the enemy bearing his wounds and his dignity with equal solemnity. Introduced to the beautiful and mischievous Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) at a fashionable salon, the soldier is instantly captivated.

The lady is also intrigued but such is her taste for coquetry that she makes his seduction a game full of promises and teasing, almost driving him to distraction. Although smitten, de Montriveau comes to the conclusion that he is being played for a fool and determines that turnabout is fair play.

Now it's de Langeais turn to have her emotions toyed with although she continues to give as good as she gets. Rivette takes great care with these scenes, which are filled with subtle by-play and executed with finesse by the two actors.

Cinematographer William Lubtchansky captures beautifully Maira Ramedhan Levy's costumes and Emmanuel de Chauvigny's production design and the rest of the cast serve the story well.

The screenplay by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent employs several lines taken directly from Balzac, whose wit could be as deft and precise as Oscar Wilde's. The film's title comes from a warning given to de Montriveau at a display of the blade used to execute an English king that serves as a caution about keeping his head. Depardieu and Balibar relish the dialogue and body language of the battling lovers so that their clashes appear to be a tense but rapier-like combination of chess and fencing.

DON'T TOUCH THE AXE (NE TOUCHEZ PAS LA HACHE)
IFC Films
Pierre Grise Prods., Cinemaundici, Arte France Cinema.
Credits:
Director: Jacques Rivette
Writer: Jacques Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent
Producers: Martine Marignac, Maurice Tinchant
Director of photography: William Lubtchansky
Production designer: Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Music: Pierre Allio
Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan Levy
Co-producers: Luigi Musini, Roberto Cicutto, Ermanno Olmi
Editor: Nicole Lubtchansky
Cast:
Antoinette de Langeais: Jeanne Balibar
Armand de Montriveau: Guillaume Depardieu
Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry: Bulle Ogier
Vidame de Pamiers: Michel Piccoli
Le Duc de Grandlieu: Barbet Schroeder
Clara de Serizy: Anne Cantineau
Julien: Mathias Jung
Lisette: Julie Judd
Running time -- 137 minutes
No MPAA rating
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