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Our Nights Chez Rohmer

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

a film by Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer, who turned eighty-eight this year, has indicated that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (which was released in France in 2007 and recently opened commercially in New York) is likely to be his last film. An adaptation of an immensely long early- seventeenth-century novel, filmed on the cheap in natural settings with young and mostly untried actors, it is in every aspect a film no one else is likely to have thought of making—even if the same could be said of pretty much all Rohmer’s films.

Back in the Sixties a French producer rejected the script of My Night at Maud’s as “filmed theater”; but even when—after all those Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, and Tales of the Four Seasons—some thought they had Rohmer typed, he continued to surprise them with excursions into regional politics (the operetta-like L’Arbre, le Maire, et la Médiathèque), the French Revolution seen from a more or less royalist perspective (The Lady and the Duke), and the tragic exactions of political loyalties in the 1930s (Triple Agent). This time, to judge by the fair number of pitying or scornful reviews that have cropped up on the Internet and elsewhere, many in the audience seem prepared to dismiss Astrea and Celadon as an old man’s folly.

In his career as a film critic, as one of the strongest voices on behalf of auteurism at Cahiers du Cinéma, Rohmer was many times a defender of other such supposed follies. Of an alleged decline in the work of Jean Renoir, for example, he observed:

The history of art offers us no example of an authentic genius who, at the end of his career, had a period of real decline…. We are prompted to seek evidence of the desire for simplicity that characterized the final works of a Titian, a Rembrandt, a Beethoven or, closer to us, a Bonnard, a Matisse, or a Stravinsky.1

He might well have been preparing his own brief in advance. In Astrea and Celadon Rohmer seems almost to savor the opportunity of frustrating contemporary expectations with regard to relevance, acting styles, or filmic rhythm. But there is no doubt that he has made precisely the film he wanted to make, a film steeped, indeed, in the “desire for simplicity” but likewise distilling a lifetime of preoccupations—aesthetic, historical, erotic, religious, and, not least, environmental—into a work as beautiful as any of his other films.

The Astrée of Honoré d’Urfé, from which Rohmer has carved out his 104-minute film, is a novel of some five thousand pages, published between 1607 and 1627 and unfinished at that: an immense digressive pastoral romance modeled on a Spanish predecessor of the previous century (Montemayor’s Diana) which itself harked back to the classical models of Heliodorus, Longus, and other ancient novelists. In a France just emerging from the savagery of the Wars of Religion (in which d’Urfé, a career soldier, did his share of plundering and massacring), the book’s influence was pervasive. Here was the portrait of a world governed by civilized amorous codes, dedicated to the pleasures of peace, and providing models for the shifting circumstances of love and courtship. If Astrée ceased to be widely read, it was only because its basic elements had already become part of the ground of modern French literature. In rediscovering d’Urfé, Rohmer explores the roots of his own art, with its tireless parsing of love and jealousy and fidelity.

But it is not that Rohmer wants to recreate the seventeenth century—any more than d’Urfé wanted to recreate the stylized fifth-century Gaul where his novel takes place. The film, an opening title announces, will show us the ancient Gauls as seventeenth-century readers saw them: but that is a matter of props, costumes, and musical interludes, not to mention the cadences and vocabulary of d’Urfé’s courtly language, which Rohmer has modernized only sparingly.

What he shows us—what the cinema, in his often repeated view, is always showing us—is the world in the moment of its being filmed, at least as much of the world as is still capable of displaying an affinity with the world of d’Urfé’s imagination. While the novel was set in the plain of Forez in what is now the department of Loire, the film’s foreword clarifies that

unfortunately, we were not able to situate this story in the region where the author set it, the plain of Forez being now disfigured by urbanization, the expansion of roadways, the shrinking of rivers, and the planting of conifers.

The film was actually shot at various locations in the Auvergne. Rohmer’s environmental protest had the unexpected effect of prompting a lawsuit against his production company by the Conseil Général de la Loire, for denigration of the region.2

The narrative salvaged from d’Urfé’s interlacing subplots is quite simple. Astrea dismisses her suitor Celadon when she sees him apparently flirting with another shepherdess, even though she loves him and even though it was she herself who had instructed him to pretend affection for the other: one of countless scenes in Rohmer’s films in which a character spies on someone but completely fails to understand what she sees. When she orders Celadon not to show himself to her again unless she tells him to, he throws himself in the river in despair. (The unadorned panning shot of the roiled waters is perhaps the most epic moment in any Rohmer film.) Washed up on a distant shore, he is rescued by Galatea, the somewhat petulant leader of the nymphs who rule the region from a neighboring château. She becomes infatuated with him and holds him prisoner; in the meantime Astrea comes to realize that she has misjudged him and is guilty of sending him to his death.

The further inevitable complications of the intrigue—whose progression is interrupted by a number of rather extended discussions of the relation of the body to the soul and the hidden Trinitarian significance of Gaulish mythology—are resolved by a game of transvestite disguise in which Celadon is finally reunited with his lover by masquerading as the daughter of a helpful local Druid. (The hero’s transvestism seems almost a belated acknowledgment of the extent to which Rohmer in film after film has sought to inhabit a female consciousness.)

As thus whittled down, the story comes to resemble in essence one of Rohmer’s own cinematic tales: a story of stubborn adherence to a self- imposed delusion and the consequent multiplying of difficulties, in a perplexity that might seemingly have been resolved in a matter of moments. Astrea inflexibly declares that “I never go back on what I say”; Celadon inflexibly chooses to take her at her word. But whether they are to be seen as admirably or foolishly stubborn is left open.

A contemporary audience would be likely to accept the mechanisms and trappings of this plot only if it were treated in a spirit of burlesque, but that is just what Rohmer has no interest in doing. He takes the material on its own terms, right up to the moment, at once solemn and sublimely silly, when a band of bearded, white-robed Druids gathers in a circle waving branches of mistletoe. It is hardly that he is blind to the ludicrous aspects of d’Urfé’s pastoral fantasy, but that he finds so much else there as well, precisely in the heart of what might seem absurd. The wise old Druids and love sonnets carved on tree trunks, the cartwheeling libertines and lovesick nymphs are just another language to play with, no more unreal than the imaginary scenarios and willful self-deceptions of his contemporary protagonists.

He has not made the film to comment on L’Astrée—to find in it a message relevant to the modern condition, or to update its psychology—but to film it: the text is there, in the same way that the actors and the French countryside are there. Just as we find unexpected depths in what the camera seizes on in the expressions of the almost too young and beautiful performers, and are perhaps more moved than we might have anticipated by simple shots of a river or a cloud, the literary text opens up like an excavation—not of buried spaces but of buried time. He is not so much “adapting” the text as permitting it to exist again, and then filming what happens.

Even more than in his earlier literary films—The Marquise of O (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978), both filmed very much “book in hand,” as if he had merely let Kleist or Chrétien de Troyes call the shots—the cinematic language of Astrea and Celadon is spare to the point of seeming to vanish altogether. The movement of his Gauls in their landscape not infrequently evokes a kind of B western, or a kind of home movie—or, more precisely, one of D.W. Griffith’s early Biograph shorts. Rohmer has explicitly acknowledged Griffith’s influence on the film, as the “great master” of filming in natural settings, an appropriate influence for a film which is a myth of origins.3 From first to last the mode is blunt presentation, without embellishment of a work that already carries its decoration with it.

The special effects consist of the scenario itself. Three young women in white robes walk along a riverbank. Celadon wakes in darkness, then pulls aside a curtain and recoils in dazzlement from the sunlight. A shrine to love is constructed out of saplings. A tiny cameo portrait of Astrea fills the screen as it is held in an open palm. The images come to us without fanfare, with no extra ingredient to underline their importance. “I make silent movies,” Rohmer remarked once, and the comment has never seemed more apt.4 His approach should not be confused with austerity or minimalism, or still less, as some seem to have concluded, with the incapacity of an aging director.

As in his first films, his shots are simply no more detailed or complicated than they need to be. The initial quarrel between the lovers is filmed in a single shot, taking us from tight close-ups to a distance from which we can observe their estrangement, and then following the now isolated Astrea as she runs after Celadon. The sequence’s rigorously conceived abstraction can pass just as easily for a casual, almost accidental unfolding; but it is also a cunningly imagined enfolding, wrapping the whole history of the couple into an unbroken spatial continuum, just as in a later shot he will show them enfolded (like an egg in its shell) in a single blanket, hands intertwined, falling slowly and almost without volition into a kiss.

The actors were chosen as much for their physical appearance—“They had to be young and beautiful”—as for their ability to speak the text the way Rohmer intended, and the naive quality of the performances has met with considerable resistance. While admittedly the roguish mugging of Rodolphe Pauly as the capering and inconstant Hylas takes some getting used to—he seems placed there to establish an upper limit of theatricality, consonant with the philosophy of fickleness that he espouses—the overall tone established by the actors seems to me exactly right. They do not portray inexperience so much as embody it. The same scenes played with mature actorly authority would not have brought out what Rohmer was looking for: the primary freshness that is the innermost concern of pastoral. The traces of awkwardness and inhibition in Stéphanie Crayencour as Astrea and Andy Gillet as Celadon express, more fully than the words, the requisite shifting moods of desire and vulnerability and regret. Clearly Rohmer intended that the text be spoken straightforwardly, preferring a relatively flat delivery to any attempt at period grandiloquence or modern psychologizing. It is as if the actors were simply vehicles to let the story tell itself.

  1. 1

    The American Renoir,” Cahiers du Cinéma, January 1952; in Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, translated by Carol Volk (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 174.

  2. 2

    Justice: fin de la polémique autour d’Eric Rohmer,” posted on the Web site Allocine.com. The suit was dismissed in October 2007.

  3. 3

    See “Fidèle à la fidélité: Entretien avec Eric Rohmer,” Cahiers du Cinéma, October 2007.

  4. 4

    See “Moral Tales, Filmic Issues,” a filmed conversation between Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder, included in the Criterion Collection box set of Six Moral Tales. He goes on to observe that no movies had more dialogue than silent movies, with their long scenes of scripted even if unheard talk.

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