DON’T TOUCH THE AXE (Jacques Rivette, 2007)

“The Duchess of Langeais is my mistress!”
     Armand, the Marquis of Montriveau, is being premature when he announces this in solitude to whatever is keeping score. Indeed, he will never have Antoinette, who is married, and whose future cloistered marriage will be with Jesus Christ. Beginning in 1823, Armand is obsessed; for him, the consummation of the affair might provide an antidote to his battlefield experience. He is a national hero; he needs to be at peace and feel he is a man.
     Drawn from Honoré de Balzac’s 1834 novella La duchesse de Langeais, Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache is careful, deliberate, poised and elegant; form expresses content as the film itself constantly seems anticipatory of consummation. Be forewarned: This will drive some people nuts. However, Rivette, at 80, knows what he is doing. Every bit of his remarkably patient and cumulative film exudes the redress for war, for national service, that Armand psychically and emotionally requires—all that he will not get. Rivette’s most recent film—he is at work on another—will be (except historically) irrelevant when war is obsolete.
     The film’s signature is unmistakable but perhaps surprising. Throughout, we do not think “Rivette”; we think, “Rohmer,” Rivette’s elder, and long-ago fellow cinéaste and critic. It is their friendship that brought Rivette to Bazin’s Cahiers du cinéma, the legendary (and still existant) film journal. What makes Rivette’s film so personal is its sense of his never having adequately discharged the debt he feels he owes to Eric Rohmer. Rivette, one might say, has never consummated the expression of gratitude he feels. That is what this film is meant to do.
     Both Rohmer and Rivette were part of the nouvelle vague, cinema’s most important movement ever. Rohmer never seemed a perfect fit, perhaps because of the Roman Catholic determinism permeating his films. I wonder: Is Ne touchez pas la hache, on one level, Rivette’s apology for La religieuse (1966)—not to God, not to the Church, but to Eric Rohmer?

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