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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. —L.P. Hartley

I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple. —Jean-Luc Godard

Catherine Breillat‘s The Last Mistress (now at Landmark’s Century Centre) wants to tell the story of the last romantic couple too. Or is it the first romantic couple? Since in terms of literal historical period we’re obviously nearer the beginning than the end—the age of capital R “Romanticism” and everything that implies, about prevailing cultural attitudes and standards of human behavior in the post-Napoleonic brave new world of 1830s France. But then why do these dandified lovers, impeccably decked out a la July Monarchy—in plush, exotic fabrics, colorful toques and mantillas, with oriental hookahs on the plein-air carpets, etc—seem so anachronistically like ourselves? Since however meticulous the period reconstructions—gilded rooms, railings and balustrades, statuary—the behavioral signals seem almost intimately familiar: could be us up there, since that’s how we’d be responding right now. Which makes you wonder how foreign this country of the past can be …

Same period,* different film. Jacques Rivette‘s The Duchess of Langeais, which played in town a couple weeks back, seems as chilly and distant in its neoclassical reserve—Ingres contra Delacroix, the polarities of the era—as Mistress is romantically hung out. As in his earlier Joan the Maid (1993), where late medievals discuss theological dogmas like transubstantiation as if their lives depended on it (which in fact they did), Rivette’s characters in Duchess seem driven by assumptions about life, behavior, ideology, etc, that we’re not in a position to share. These people aren’t us—if you want to “relate,” be prepared to fight your way into the mind-set.

So what’s to choose between them? Obviously a matter of inclination and taste, since both deliver their own brand of delectables. Whatever her merits as historian, Breillat’s micromanaged attraction to the vagaries of human passion invites a complicity that Rivette, more austere and abstract, isn’t inclined to give. On the other hand, Duchess fascinates out of sheer obliquity, its terse, alienating distance—everything less predictable since less familiar, a matter of epistemological cunning rather than identification strategies unleashed. Yet despite its raw immediacy, it’s the Breillat that arguably wears you down and out. Too much us, not enough them. Where’s negative capability when you really need it?

(*Actually it isn’t, though every review I’ve read apparently thinks that Duchess is set in restoration France, in the early 1820s or thereabouts. But as the film’s introductory title makes clear—not to mention Balzac’s own source novel—the relevant “restoration” is of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, not France’s Louis XVIII. So Napoleon’s empire would still be alive and kicking, if only for a short while more. No wonder everything’s so neoclassical—it’s exactly as it should be!)