Don't Touch The Axe Review
It’s a sign of the times that there appears to be so little place for experimental and auteur cinema in France at the moment that even legendary Nouvelle Vague directors like Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette struggle to get financing for projects. Although his work continues to appeal to French and international film critics, Rivette has failed to find a receptive audience that would allow him to continue his idea of film criticism through the improvisational filmmaking that has been one of the defining characteristics of his work. One presumes that Rivette’s return to classical and literary subjects, much like Patrice Chereau with Joseph Conrad’s Gabrielle, Pascal Ferran with D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley and Eric Rohmer with Les Amours d’Astrée et Céladon, is in Rivette’s case not so much providing the various funding bodies with a proven script as it is with actually having a script at all.
The lack of success that has met both Va savoir and Histoire de Marie et Julien saw another recent Rivette project go down in history as a “phantom film” - L’Année prochaine à Paris, a film that he hoped to make with Jeanne Balibar and his regular team of writers, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent. Still keen to work with Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu who had also been brought on board, Rivette turned again for inspiration to Balzac, the author whose work had previously been the basis for two of his films, Out 1 (L’Histoire des 13) and La belle noiseuse (Le chef d’oeuvre inconnu). Rivette has always regarded filmmaking as a collaborative process rather than the work of a single auteur, so with a carefully assembled team and a literary source that has always proved to be fruitful to the director, one would hope that Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais would provide a stronger framework for the director’s talents than his tedious and increasingly self-indulgent experiments with automatic writing.
Appropriately renamed, drawn from the source itself, as Ne touchez pas la hache (Don’t Touch The Axe), Rivette’s treatment effectively strips away the scarcely relevant political and historical context of Balzac’s period setting and gets directly, almost brutally, to the story’s universal themes of the flowing tides of love and passion. And brutality is the defining characteristic of the relationship that develops between the General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) and Antoinette de Navarreins, the Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) from the first moment their paths cross socially. For the Duchess, it’s an opportunity to flirt with an illustrious and handsome Napoleonic War hero, but Armand responds to her advances with the same passion and intensity that he would as a soldier towards the achievement of a military objective. With single-minded determination, his sole objective is to possess this woman and nothing is going to stand in the way.
The whole thrust and conflict of Don’t Touch The Axe then is determined by the obstacles put in the way of the General. Initially, the problem is more than the fact that the Duchess is married or even that she is a religious woman – she is soon advised of how such affairs are acceptable in society if conducted with discretion – but her reticence is perhaps more to do with the fear of the deep passions she has aroused in Montriveau. She has touched the axe, a very dangerous transgression, and she must pay the price. Her realisation of her own feelings comes however at the wrong time and then too late – the ebb and flow of love moves from one person to the next, the emotions becoming transformed and twisted by games of flirtation, encouragement and rejection, the two never seeming to share a common sentiment at the same time.
Such passionate material of attempted seduction by a powerful aggressor and its repudiation by a married, religious woman is certainly reminiscent of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but Rivette’s dry, stiff, theatrical treatment of La Duchesse de Langeais never makes this amour fou spark to life in the same way as Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos. Like much of Rivette’s work, Don’t Touch The Axe simply reeks of dull, dry academicism. It’s arch, self-conscious and studiously academic, the original source analysed, examined, dissected, and an approach formulated that is tasteful and considered in its historical references and literary allusions. More than that, one suspects that, in a very post-modern way, Rivette is conscious of his own approach and legacy, choosing and adjusting the material he works with to fit in with the typical Rivette themes and mannerisms. The two here simply don’t match.
Rivette certainly found a means to channel Balzac and Henry James and expand on the unspoken qualities of the relationship between an artist and his muse in La belle noiseuse through the scratching of pen and ink on paper, but the same cold, calculated intellectual approach applied in an attempt to fuse the coldness of death with the heat of passion in Histoire de Marie et Julien failed spectacularly. The same approach is adopted here in an attempt to show truly explosive pent-up passions barely restrained by the formalities and conventions demanded by social and religious propriety though creaking floorboards, rustling clothes and ticking clocks, but it simply renders the subject dull and lifeless. The approach ill serves the fine actors, making Balibar performance appear irritatingly mannered and reducing Depardieu’s intense performance (one that strongly resembles his father’s imposing presence) to one-note posturing.
Don’t Touch The Axe (Ne touchez pas la hache) is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The video quality on this DVD release is less than impressive. The use of low natural lighting from candles in many interiors may account for the graininess of the pushed film negative stock, but interiors show blacks that are flat, murky and prone to low-level noise spreading across backgrounds, while colours appear oversaturated and even slightly discoloured. Even exterior shots in bright sunlight appear dark. The flickering of macro-blocking artefacts can be seen throughout, causing the grain to dance around. The transfer is however anamorphic, presenting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and progressively encoded. The print itself is free from any marks or damage.
The non-anamorphic trailer hardly serves as a viable comparison, but it does show differences brightness and colouration that present a more natural tone than the actual feature. I don’t know which is closer to the original look intended for the film, but present comparative screenshots below to show the difference. The first is taken from the film, the second from the trailer.
Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included on this release and both are highly effective in distributing the sounds, tone and dialogue of the film. The sound is characterised by the creaking of wood, ticking of clocks, rustling of clothes and, in one notable scene, the crackling of fire, and these are all accurately conveyed with a cold crispness of tone. Dialogue is always clear and audible, punctuated by eerie atmospheric silences. There is no music score but for pieces played on screen and for the end credits.
Optional English subtitles are provided, providing a full translation, even for the Spanish dialogue where it is appropriate to know what is being said. The font is white and clearly readable.
Other than the film’s Theatrical Trailer (1:33) and Filmographies for Jacques Rivette, Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu, there are no substantial extra features for the film and perhaps not anything available, although the French edition contains an interview with Guillaume Depardieu and a featurette on the costume design.
Considering the source material, the performers involved and the pedigree of the filmmakers, it’s almost inconceivable that Don’t Touch The Axe would miss its mark, but it’s over-intellectualised where it should be passionate, mannered where it should be nuanced, and cold where it should be burning hot. On the other hand, this is exactly how you would expect Rivette, Bonitzer and Laurent to approach the subject, meaning that the film is likely to please fans of Jacques Rivette, but is unlikely to appeal to anyone else or, indeed, encourage any future investment in French auteur cinema. There are less extra features on this DVD than previous Rivette releases from Artificial Eye, and the transfer of the dim lighting is perhaps questionable, but the essential characteristics and tone of the film are well represented here.