Ne touchez pas la hache
France / Italy, 2007
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 22 January 2008
Source 35mm print
In what is – as far as I can recall – Don’t Touch The Axe’s only close-up, Rivette’s camera holds on a piece of blank paper as a hand sketches a convent complex. Slowly each building takes form, and it’s only when the sketch is completed that the camera then tilts up to show us the cliff-top convent in reality. Here is a demonstration in essence of Rivette’s style, a calm and studious attention to the details at hand and a willingness to let the scene play out for as long as necessary. It’s also a sign of Rivette’s graceful trust in the viewer. Nowadays, this is a rare kind of filmmaking, and it makes the experience of this one shot, this drawing on a piece of paper, a thrilling one. Don’t Touch The Axe is admittedly no masterpiece but you’ll be hard-pressed to find as masterful a film.
Rivette, of course, has never been afraid of duration, of giving the necessary time to a scene, whether as here it’s observing a drawing coming into being from blank page to completion; or whether it’s following Guillaume Depardieu’s General Armand de Montriveau clumping on his wooden leg as he slowly, sometimes painfully even, makes his way down the full extent of a room’s wooden floor. Don’t Touch The Axe comes in at what is for Rivette a modest length of 137 minutes, particularly when contrasted with the four hours of La Belle Noiseuse (but what a necessary four hours, where the time spent on the process of painting, through the accumulation of shots of painter Frenhofer’s hand moving across paper or canvas, is exactly what you miss in the two-hour Divertimento version) or the legendary almost-13 hours of Out One.
So, in spite of the short-for-Rivette length and the straightforward nature of the story, by dwelling on this shot of the drawing, a brief moment in the film which many viewers may well take little note of, I mean to stress how much Don’t Touch The Axe is in keeping with Rivette’s other films. And I have to say I’m simply left in awe at the formal mastery of this film. Rivette’s firm, steady hand guides the film, scene by scene, with a calm precision; there’s a finely-calibrated weight and solidity to every level of the film, from individual shot to sequence to the effect of the film as a whole.
Two of Rivette’s consistent themes – or often they are better described as motifs, because of the lightness, indirection, and ellipsis that Rivette brings to his treatment of them – are those of the conspiracy and of theatre/performance, and it may seem surprising that we find both in Don’t Touch The Axe, given that it is such a literal and faithful adaptation of Balzac’s 1833/34 novel La Duchesse de Langeais. Uncertain, obscure conspiracies have been at the centre of Rivette’s work since his first film Paris nous appartient (and the brilliant, unsettling note to that film is the way we can never be sure that the conspiracy actually exists) and by all accounts reach their fullest treatment in the legendary – for me literally legendary, as like most people, I’ve never been able to see it – twelve-and-a-half-hour Out One. A variation on this conspiracy theme is the mystery that underlies films like Céline and Julie Go Boating and Secret Defence. In Paris nous appartient Rivette already linked his conspiracy theme with his other major theme of theatre/performance, and in this and similar films this theme can play out as an actual drama production (Shakespeare’s Pericles in Paris) or as the assumption of a role, the playacting in the real world (for example, Sylvie’s role-playing with Walser in Secret Defence). Another approach, where the conspiracy theme is not at issue, is the portrayal of the unstable, ever-shifting nature of putting on a play, as in L’Amour fou, Love on the Ground, or Va Savoir!
The conspiracy that forms the background to Out One is drawn from Balzac, the mysterious Thirteen that the novelist described as amoral, unscrupulous figures who move at will through a society which they are in revolt against and to which their identities are never revealed. Three short novels make up Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, and Don’t Touch The Axe is adapted from the second one. Although never named as such in the film (as in the original novel), the Thirteen make an appearance in the frankly bizarre Gothic turn to the story that occurs halfway through and they join with Armand de Montriveau, their fellow-conspirator, in an attempted rescue of his beloved Antoinette de Langeais at the end of the film.
The film’s structure – following Balzac – makes clear the failed nature of this romance between Armand and Antoinette. The story opens five years (as we later learn) after this love affair had run its course, in the seemingly romantic setting of a sunlit Majorcan convent where an increasingly distraught Armand rediscovers the Antoinette who had vanished from his life, now separated from him by the prison-like convent bars across which he is granted one single interview with her. The bulk of the film then follows their story in flashback before a final, despairing return to the convent setting.
Armand and Antoinette are the ultimate mismatched (almost-) lovers. She is the flighty, capricious, coy, enticing society woman, playing her role of society wife to the limit, able to play to an audience of male admirers but never crossing the limits that her society sets for this kind of playacting. He is the gruff, blunt, maladroit, blundering soldier-hero – he’s just returned from two years’ imprisonment in Africa – who simply can’t read the society he has now returned to, can’t follow the rules of behaviour that society (and Antoinette, for that matter) expect him to follow.
There’s clearly a historical subtext to this. Armand and Antoinette represent different political systems in the tumultuous changes that France underwent in the early nineteenth century, from the Napoleonic era to that of the Bourbon Restoration. When the film opens, it is 1823 and Armand is part of the French military operations to restore the absolutist King Ferdinand VII, who had been overthrown by a liberal revolution. Antoinette is with her never-seen husband part of the aristocratic restoration and Armand is representative of the previous Napoleonic order that now coexists under the new political system. The film doesn’t delve into these historical details but we’re still made conscious of the disparities in social concepts and behaviour between the true.
Both Antoinette and Armand are conscious of the playacting that is involved in their pursuit of one another, but they are also constrained within these roles by forces beyond themselves. (In Armand’s case this is illustrated in comic mode by the important meeting with Antoinette that he misses because of the politeness that forces him to listen to the interminably asinine conversation of his guests of the moment.) There’s a theatrical tone – here’s where Rivette’s favourite theme of theatre performance comes in – to the way they both lay out their romantic intentions in advance, rather as if the plans for a performance were being sketched out. Armand, prior to his first visit to Antoinette’s home, pauses dramatically at the door for a declaration of his intent to make her his mistress. In retrospect it’s an ironic moment as Armand is out of his depth in Antoinette’s world and abjectly unable to put this plan into effect.
For her part Antoinette initially takes on Armand almost it seems on a whim, spotting the famed hero of Africa at a party and asking to be introduced to him. She literally stages each meeting with him. For Armand’s first visit to her house, for example, she adopts the role of fever-stricken invalid, draping herself over the couch in a flimsy nightdress in deliberate imitation of portraiture of the day. There’s a conscious play of drawing Armand nearer and then pushing him away again. Armand is left bemused, disconcerted, and frustrated. He’s at a loss to understand the rules of the social game here, where the boundaries lie, as is illustrated when he crosses the physical boundaries of Antoinette’s house by trying to storm into her boudoir.
But in the end Armand effects a reversal of their roles through his own dramatic staging. It’s here that the Thirteen (though never named) make their appearance, and for those that are unfamiliar with Balzac’s original novel – which no doubt means most viewers – this marks a striking and even bizarre disruption in tone, where the film veers from a realistic recreation of a historical setting into the sensationalism of the Gothic novel. Armand and his co-conspirators kidnap Antoinette from a society party and in a secret location threaten her with branding on the forehead unless she acknowledges and submits to Armand’s love. The fantastical nature of this whole sequence is emphasised in the way distances seem to have shrunk when Armand returns Antoinette to the party, as he only has to lead her down a single corridor to the room she was originally taken from, and the soundtrack suddenly murmurs unrealistically with the sounds of the seaside—an intimation of Antoinette’s future in an island convent and of the film’s final scene at sea.
This drama that Armand stages is the turning point. It’s as if the way Armand has removed her from her familiar social world makes that world irrelevant to her in favour of committing to a love for Armand. But now the roles in this tug-of-war of love have shifted. Antoinette becomes the impassioned pursuer and Armand is the one to toy with her emotions. Fuelled by a resentment at the way she treated him, he plays this game to the full, but it’s a game over which he loses control, for the game becomes more important than his own feelings and he pushes things one step too far, to his ultimate life-long loss.
Armand and Antoinette are forever out of kilter, their emotional states and their desires never mesh, but unlike other adaptations of nineteenth-century novels – Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence or Campion’s Portrait of the Lady – the fault for the tragedy the protagonists suffer is not primarily ascribed to Society. Certainly, in Don’t Touch The Axe social modes of behaviour are an issue, but more central are the actions of the individual and the dangers, if you like, of undertaking matters of importance too lightly. This is the significance of Rivette’s title. The axe is the one that was used in the execution of Charles I, and in a passing conversation we’re told how visitors to the Tower of London are warned not to touch it for fear of the consequences. Similarly, the insouciance with which Armand and Antoinette embark on their affair inevitably brings on more complex emotions, ones that are harder to control and can lead to tragic consequences. In the end, it would have been best not to have touched that particular axe.