The gorgeous floorboards creak — loudly — in the veteran French director Jacques Rivette’s fascinating drawing-room war of the sexes, The Duchess of Langeais. You can hear the crunch of the wood as people wander through rooms, striding past the towering gold-leaf doors and walls; those sounds help to make the movie more than just another creamy period piece. In the early 1820s, a courtship unfolds that is really a duel. Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a French general who’s like an angry, crestfallen lion, is wooing the Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), a world-class flirt married to a man we never see. The two spiritual adulterers declare their devotion, yet the duchess won’t take it any further than that. For her, ”manners” aren’t just protocol — they’re a stairway to God.
Rivette was born in 1928, so it’s tempting to describe this rigorous romantic talkfest as an old man’s movie, except that Rivette has always made old man’s movies. (If anything, he’s grown younger since 1974, when he staged that dilly-dallying Rorschach blot for snobs, Céline and Julie Go Boating.) The Duchess of Langeais may be stiff-jointed, but there’s real blood in its veins. As the duchess, Jeanne Balibar is milky-pale, with sharp, birdlike features; she’s like Sean Young as painted by Vermeer. Depardieu has the gruff nobility of his father, Gérard, but with less grandeur, and that recessiveness works for him. The Duchess of Langeais is a highbrow chick flick that made me feel older, in a good way. B+