The clomp of fancy shoes on the floors of a cold Parisian manor provide a hard percussive beat - and an element of sonic suspense - to Jacques Rivette's classy, compelling The Duchess of Langeais, a 19th-century period piece about a married tease (Jeanne Balibar) and the poor smitten military man (Guillaume Depardieu) who can't get her out of his head.
A tale of coquetry and compulsion set against a backdrop of Restoration soirees, Rivette's slow-moving but seamless study of the rituals of courtship has a disarming grace, even as its downcast hero, Depardieu's Gen. Armand de Montriveau, limps around stiffly - a wound from battle and imprisonment, the details of which he recounts to the Duchess de Langeais, Balibar's Antoinette, at their first encounter.
Rivette, who's been at this game since the early '50s, is a master, and he puts his stars to work - the dour Depardieu (son of Girard) and the pale and fascinating Balibar - exchanging witty words, declarations of love, and pent-up erotic heat.
Based on a Balzac story, Rivette's Duchess (the French title, Ne touchez pas la hache, or "Don't touch the axe," is loads more interesting) manages to be both old-fashioned in its settings and circumstances, and coolly modern in its view of thwarted passion and despair.
The Duchess of Langeais ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jacques Rivette. With Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu. Distributed by IFC Films. In French with subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 18 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.