If the words "simply" and "complication" seem at odds with each other, they are, which is very much to the point of a story characterized by seemingly oppositional terms like speech and action, love and hate, women and men. In brief outline, it concerns a Napoleonic hero, Gen. Armand de Montriveau, stiffly if touchingly played by Guillaume Depardieu, and a married Parisian with whom he becomes infatuated, the Duchess of Langeais, given strange pathos and trembling vibrancy by Jeanne Balibar. The duchess, known to her intimates as Antoinette (perhaps in echo of another unfortunate French woman), meets the general at a ball where etiquette reigns supreme and serves as a mask for the intrigues of a hopelessly corrupt society.
Like the novel, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent's screenplay - an austere, scrupulously faithful and, in the film's devastating close, improved-upon adaptation - opens in 1823 on a wind-swept Mediterranean island. There, in a church fixed on a foundation of rock and faith, Armand finds Antoinette tucked inside an order of barefoot Carmelites, who know her only as Sister Theresa. Five years earlier she had disappeared from Paris, a departure (or an escape) that deepened his ardor. Now, inside the church where bars separate the religious and the secular like the free and the condemned (who is who?), he confronts her. But when she cries out to another nun that Armand is her lover, a heavy curtain falls between them, putting an end to Act I.
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