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Honoré de Balzac’s ‘Madame de Langeais’

Posted by keith1942 on December 24, 2018

This is one of the most interesting and pleasurable of Balzac’s novels. Jay Weissberg in the Giornate Catalogue notes comments on the several film adaptations;

Antoinette, Duchesse de Langeais is one of Balzac’s most bewitching characters, the representative par excellence of a profligate nobility reasserting its power and privileges under Louis XVIII.”

Antoinette and he lover Armand are both distinctive characters and the story and its social milieu are fascinating. The novella, [it is barely a full-length novel] is part of a trilogy that the author grouped under ‘Histoire des treize’ [History of the Thirteen];

‘loosely connected by recurring characters.”

But they are also connected by the central theme of frustrated passion and by a vivid portrait of upper-class Parisian life in the 1830s. The novel has proved a popular source for film adaptations.

La Duchesse de Langeais, 1910 French film by André Calmettes: The Eternal Flame, 1922 American film by Frank Lloyd: Love (Liebe), 1927 German film by Paul Czinner: La Duchesse de Langeais, 1942 French film by Jacques de Baroncelli: Ne touchez pas la hache, 2007 French film by Jacques Rivette, [the last uses a line from the novel ‘Do not touch the axe’]. There was also a version by Rex, The Ultimate Sacrifice 1911 and a lost version by Carmine Gallone La storia dei tredici with Lyda Borelli and, noted by Jay Weissberg,

the most famous cinematic version … never got beyond the planning stage: Greta Garbo, directed by Max Ophuls.”

There are also two French television film adaptations. The roster of stars and directors speaks to the attraction of this novel. Jay also notes than several versions adhere to the tragic ending in the novel, but at least two change this for ‘happy endings’.

We were able to see two silent versions, the 1910 French version of about ten minutes and then the 1920s German version in a full-length feature.

The outline story involves the Antoinette, a Duchess through marriage, through the spouses live separately. She is a noted member of the aristocratic circle and a fashion leader. She practices coquetry but is careful not to step over the moral boundaries of married women. Armand is General in the French army. He led under Napoleon and after a period of adjournment is back in service. He is a rather taciturn character who has never had a serious romantic or sexual involvement. Antoinette practises her coquetry on Armand who succumbs. However, her refusal to consummate a relationship leads to estrangement. ‘Do not touch the axe’ is Armand’s warning to Antoinette when they meet at a ball. Soon the roles are reversed and Antoinette is the one seeking a serious relationship. When she fails she retreats to a convent. Now Armand’s passion is re-ignited and the finale occurs when he searches for his now lost love.

La Duchesse de Langeais was screened from a 35mm print. Only 171 metres survived of the original 215 metres. At 18 fps it ran eight minutes. Clearly this involved considerable compression of the source. Antoinette (Germaine Dermoz) meets the General de Meyran (The director, Andre Calmettes] at a ball where he spurns her initial advances. This leads to a breach and then her retreat to the convent. The finale, when the general breaks into the convent in an attempt to free and win Antoinette is close to the novel and the most dramatic sequence in the film. But, as with Balzac’s original, he is to late, and finds only Antoinette’s body awaiting a funeral. The leads are effective and the production is well presented; predominately in long shots with convincing sets. The final attempted rescue uses chiaroscuro and emphasises the sense of imprisonment and loss.

This early short version was followed by Liebe which Paul Czinner both scripted and directed. The plot is relatively faithful to the source novel and the changes are minor. Elizabeth Bergner plays Antoinette with, I thought, great skill and characterisation. The changes in the attitudes and behaviour of the Duchess as the story progresses are convincing psychologically and generate strong emotion late in the film. Hans Rehmann plays Armand, Marquis de Montriveau. I thought he was effective in portraying the taciturn and [to a degree] repressed character of the general. However, I did not feel that he was a successful when the character develops from a passion to genuine and powerful love.

Paul Czinner’s adaptation catches the novel with a fair degree of fidelity. It also achieves a sense of the psychology of Antoinette and Armand, which is important in the plot development convincing. The plotting has nice touches which bring out the characters. Thus on first meeting Antoinette a tile card informs us,

[she] ‘wears no gloves’. [so other women] remove theirs”.

When we watch the series of visits to Antoinette by Armand in pursuit of his initial passion there is a scene where she plays the piano. This is an important point as later in the convent it is when Armand hears an organ playing and recognises both the melody and the style that he realise he has finally stumbled on Antoinette’s hideaway.

In the later tragic sequence, when mischance leads to the lovers missing a tryst, Antoinette waits in the shadows and there is fine chiaroscuro as we watch the sad figure. This is where on of the minor changes from the novel occurs. In the source Armand fails to realise that a clock is running slow and arrives late. In the film a ‘friend’ of Armand deliberately changes the clock time when he realises Armand has an assignations. A nice touch bringing out the meanness of the social milieu. This is an aspect that is also pointed out in the balls that Antoinette and Armand attend.

The cinematography for the film by Arpad Viragh and Adolf Schlasy is excellent The interiors have atmosphere created by the lighting and the exteriors look naturalistic. The designers were Hermann Warm and Bellan with costumes by Ilse Fehling; this all appear realistic and add to the atmosphere in which the cast perform. This was a fine production to watch.

This screening was also from a 35mm print, which was about 200 metres shorter than the original. But I was not aware of gaps in the narrative. The print ran at 20fps for 106 minutes. And Günter Buchwald provided the accompaniment at the piano with an occasional flourish on the violin. There was an emotional point when Armand, punishing Antoinette’s coquetry, steps back from this for a moment. The violin points this up. And the piano was, clearly important in the moments in which Armand recognises the touch of Antoinette.
For me this was one of the high points of the Balzac programme. It was fine to watch and captured the ironic portrait from the pen of the author.

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