The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
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.
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 …