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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.

But the actors are, finally, the story. Their youth and their physical beauty are what we are being led to contemplate. It may seem perverse (more, perhaps, for younger than for older viewers) for a director in his late eighties to engage in such an overtly erotic homage to the joys and pains of youthful love—even filtered through the ceremonies and masquerades of a late Renaissance author—but it is the physical presence of the actors that gives the story its emotional meaning. A bare recounting of the plot would not amount to more than a footnote on the secret link between Greco-Roman pastoral and the modern novel, even if such secret links—all the ways in which the past leaks into the present—are important to Rohmer. It is only because people—precisely these people, with precisely these eyes and lips and hair—are acting it out that we can be so moved by its preordained narrative turns.

When the nymph Galatea exclaims “God! How beautiful he is!” as she looks down at the sleeping Celadon, she only confirms what the camera has already proven. When Celadon in turn finds Astrea sleeping in the forest and allows himself to gaze at her exposed legs, we are permitted—or, rather, obliged—to share his gaze, the effect redoubled by a voice-over reciting d’Urfé’s description of the scene. The whole narrative is a labyrinth of ritual encounters culminating in the baring of Astrea’s breast, as if the whole point of the travails and complications of the benighted lovers were to finally give full value to that ultimate revelation and the embrace it makes inevitable. The mood in the end is at once of sexual happiness and comic exhilaration, with a punchline worthy of the Moral Tales or the Comedies and Proverbs. The sadness held in check is all in what is not shown: the passing of youth, the passing even of the rural landscapes in which youth has enacted its passions and pursuits, the disappearance of the worlds that humans create in order to have a world they can bear to live in.

The disparate elements of which Astrea and Celadon is made are not fused but rather overlaid, a series of transparencies; we see them all at once, but can easily separate them out. There is the seventeenth century of d’Urfé, whose châteaus and paintings provide décor; the fifth-century pastoral Gaul of nymphs and shepherds imagined by him on models provided by classical antiquity, and here represented by paintings depicting such episodes as the judgment of Paris and Psyche spying on the sleeping Eros; the actual trees and hillsides and rivers and clouds of the Auvergne, not background but the very matter of the movie; the actual young men and women reciting d’Urfé’s text; the omnipresent birds ceaselessly reciting their own cheeping and twittering text—and, unseen but underlying everything, the camera that records what is going on in front of it in the first years of the twenty-first century, with a blank simplicity suggesting at moments that Louis Lumière might have set up the shot at the dawn of cinema.

It is a movie haunted by time, even as it exults in breeze and sunlight. The dead words of a novel whose full text sits, mostly unread, in the Bibliothèque Nationale are brought to life out of the mouths of the young. The substance if not the subject of a film can only be the succession of present moments which it does not describe but is. If this indeed is to be Rohmer’s last film, small wonder that he feels obliged to affirm once more that presence which is distinctly what cinema, in a different way than any other art, is about—or at least what his cinema has always been about. The trees are there, the wind is there, the young are there still young; and the words, even if they were taken from an ancient and perhaps unreadable book, are there too, brought to life not simply by being spoken but by being filmed as they are being spoken.

The oddness of film is that it continually forces us to reconsider what terms like “real” and “artificial” might actually mean. In A Tale of Winter, a film that despite its almost documentary tonality is only superficially more “realistic” than Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer’s hapless heroine Félicie, mourning a love lost (or at least seriously misplaced) through an absurd error, is taken to see a performance of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. She watches as Leontes, shown the statue of his supposedly dead wife Hermione, cries out “It’s her!”—and she dissolves in tears. On the way home her intellectual escort, thinking perhaps that the play was beyond her, apologizes condescendingly for its lack of realism. She murmurs, “I don’t like what’s realistic” (Je n’aime pas ce qui est semblable). The film then proceeds toward its own miraculous conclusion, having summed up in that cry of “It’s her!” the whole mystery of what the cinema seems at once to offer and to withhold: life caught hold of, life restored.

For all the words in his films, and for all the words he has himself written about films, his own and others’, Rohmer manages always to leave the essential unsaid. In countless utterances he has gestured away from anything that can be easily formulated: “In learning how to understand, the modern moviegoer forgot how to see.” “[Cinema] does not say things differently but says different things.” “My characters’ discourse is not necessarily my film’s discourse….What I say, I do not say with words.”5 In the same way, and despite the relatively high visibility of his films (the greater part of his work has been made available on DVD or video), Rohmer sometimes seems a director who hides in plain sight, a visionary masquerading as a harmless eccentric.

He seemed to have a formula; it was easy to pigeonhole his films as a series of endless discussions of, mostly, the dating problems of bourgeois French people, whether philosophy professors, hairdressers, or engineering students. His plots often revolved around the most trivial of misunderstandings between couples, the sort of devices that might once have shored up a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or for that matter Elvis Presley. (Imagine Boyfriends and Girlfriends remade with musical numbers as It Happened in Cergy-Pontoise.) Even if they weren’t condemned as “filmed theater” or “like paint drying” (Gene Hackman’s quip in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves), Rohmer’s films seemed for many to fall into the realm of more or less cozy pleasures. (Pauline Kael, while occasionally praising his craftsmanship, described his films variously as “glib,” “complacent,” “innocuous,” and “minor.”) His tendency to work variations on a theme as he moved through successive film cycles, like his predilection for a drastically restrained film grammar, fostered the notion that his work was in some way predictable—much in the self- deceptive way that his characters found their own lives predictable.

Rohmer was born in 1920—he is the eldest of that extraordinary generation of French filmmakers that encompasses Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Alexandre Astruc, Agnès Varda, Maurice Pialat, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Louis Malle, and Francois Truffaut—but he came to filmmaking late, after earlier careers as a provincial high school teacher, a failed novelist, a film critic (and, for a time, editor of Cahiers du Cinéma). At Cahiers he reverted continually to the directors who had marked him most profoundly: Griffith, F.W. Murnau, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, and Roberto Rossellini (whose Stromboli he described as “my Road to Damascus”).

With Claude Chabrol he wrote a study of Alfred Hitchcock, brilliant and endlessly suggestive, notorious in its day for attributing to the director themes that then seemed grandiose, such as ” le transfert de culpabilité” and ” la tentation de la déchéance.6 He was nearly forty when he made his first feature in 1959—the greatly underrated and sadly hard-to-see The Sign of the Lion, a small masterpiece about, precisely, la tentation de la déchéance. After its total commercial failure he worked as a writer and director of educational TV programs while proceeding slowly with his six-film project the Moral Tales, based on his own unpublished stories, of which he said, “If eventually I did turn them into films, it was because I had not succeeded in writing them.”7

The unexpected success of La Collectionneuse in 1966, followed the next year by the international sensation of My Night at Maud’s, finally gave him the chance to work more regularly; but that regularity was only possible because he made an art of economy. “Often in my films,” he has remarked, “the practical and financial choices dovetail quite well with the artistic choices”—choices including the employment of direct sound and natural settings, the absence of special effects, elaborate musical scores, or (except for his literary adaptations) period costuming, and above all the use of small casts of relatively little-known actors enacting stories devoid of complicated action sequences, stories in which the characters, often and at length, talk.

The characters—and this was another trait that made it easy to put Rohmer in a category off by himself—were of a sort that most films ignored or marginalized: they were, in various ways and to various degrees, self-absorbed, self-deluding, caught up in self-defeating habits, petulant, defensive, shy to the point of passive aggression: people who, encountered in life, might be dull or irritating, but who were just as much the heroes of their own lives—and of their films—as the characters portrayed by Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman. If they lacked glamour, they made up for it with the intensity of their absorption in their own problems. Neither inflating them nor condescending to them, Rohmer simply lured the spectator into becoming implicated in their doings, or more precisely their tellings. The spectator might find the experience either uncomfortably like sitting in a restaurant next to a couple whose conversation is full of gaffes and awkward pauses, or uncomfortably like looking into a mirror.

It was like watching people directing movies of their own lives, and led unavoidably to a contemplation of what one’s own life might look like if filmed in a similar fashion. There was no need to make up stories because people made them up themselves. Each life was a story, riveting to its protagonist, marked by scenes of emotional outpouring and violent confrontation which, exposed on the screen, were reduced to the tiniest of dimensions. A brief outburst such as the moment in The Aviator’s Wife when the hero’s older girlfriend broke away from him and ran into the midst of some parked cars felt, in a Rohmerian context, shockingly violent.

Likewise, in the same movie, a series of random encounters and pursuits on a bus and in a park assumed the dimensions of a Hitchcockian chase film in miniature. The characters framed the world around themselves: human action left to itself appeared to provide its own mise-en-scène, while all the time being observed by a godlike camera indifferently registering contradictions and distinctions. Not that Rohmer really believed in leaving things to chance—it was only that chance had a way of coming to the assistance of his already thoroughly meditated schemes, like the unsolicited gusts of wind that play such an exuberant part in Astrea and Celadon.

If there is a paradox in his work, it is the uncanny harmony between an ideal of total control and an aptitude for spontaneous improvisation and chance discovery. Seen in one perspective, his films are tart, sharp, exact, measured, limited, obsessive, the work of a logician, a pedagogue. In another light—or rather in the same light, but from another angle—they are open, airy, rapt, meditative, fundamentally mysterious. A young man (in Boyfriends and Girlfriends) recounts a banal fantasy of meeting a girl in the forest; the camera pans, in a rudimentary fashion that makes formal mastery indistinguishable from amateurism, across a cluster of trees, and you almost have the impression that Rohmer made the whole movie so that he could do that shot—except that the impression is not isolated. Such moments occur constantly. The supposed triviality of the situations in his films is the best concealment he could ever have devised for himself.

Taken one at a time, each of his films seems to show with perfect clarity what it is about; we could almost write a book on the kitchens and bedrooms and cafés and offices in which his characters (whom we come to know almost too well) pass their time. Yet seen as a whole—and it is a body of work that insists on being seen as a whole—they exert a lingering sense of open-ended fascination, as if perhaps they were about something altogether different from what we imagined while caught up in the moment-to-moment doings of Frédéric or Delphine or Félicie. Returning to the same film, we find always that it is never the same film twice; and it is never the same detail—whether a shrug or a turn of the head or a reflection in a shop window or an ever-so-slight forward glide of the camera—that suddenly takes on devastating immediacy. Film being film, the immediacy persists. These are windows that remain open, offering elusive but ineffaceable glimpses of the life within.

  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.

  5. 5

    Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, pp. 29, 73, and 80.

  6. 6

    Roughly, “transference of guilt” and “temptation of disgrace.”

  7. 7

    Eric Rohmer, preface to Six Moral Tales, translated by Sabine D’Estrée (Viking, 1980).

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