Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 19, 2007 5:06 pm 
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True romance? Perhaps. But transferring pastoral to screen may require more elaborate techniques than this.

Eighty-seven now, the indefatigable Eric Rohmer still explores his obsession with love, and especially young lovers. In this, his declared swan song, he follows the theme at one remove, via the pastoral romance of Honoré d'Urfé, penned in seventeenth-century France and set in the Forez plain in fifth-century Gaul. This is a classic star-crossed lovers tale with a happy ending that involves some cross-dressing by the pretty Celadon (Andy Gillet). He thinks his girlfriend Astrea (Stephanie Crayencour) has forbidden him to come into her sight, so he poses as the daughter of a high-born Druid priest. Though too tall, as cross-dressers often are, the striking Gillet is certainly beautiful enough to pose as a girl (Crayencour, though appealing, can hardly compete for looks—till she bares a breast, one area where Andy is out of the running). When Celadon, as a "she," gets so friendly with Astrea they start kissing passionately early one morning in front of some other girls, there's enough titillating gender-bending going on to give this otherwise odd and dry piece a closing shot of contemporary interest.

As opening texts explain, the film was made in another region because the Forez plain is "urbanized" and otherwise ruined today. The mostly young cast wears costumes designed to evoke the seventeenth-century conception of what d'Urfe's antique (and largely mythical) shepherds and priests wore. Just as Rohmer's contemporary young lovers in his Moral Tales have little to distract them (or us) from their flirtations and love-debates, d'Urfé's characters are those of an ancient pastoral tradition who never get their hands dirty and spend their time engaged in quiet, paintable pursuits like dancing, singing, or frolicking in the grass discussing the ideals of courtly love. Rohmer uses this idealized world as a more detached version of his usual emotional landscape. However, this film is, to its detriment, closer to the artificial and somehow un-Rohmer-esquire late efforts The Lady and the Duke and Triple Agent than to his most charming and characteristic work.

In the beginning of the story, the lovers have apparently had a spat. Celadon allows Astrea to see him dancing and flirting with another girl at an al fresco dance. Later he insists it was only a "pretense," but Astrea jumps to the conclusion her boyfriend is a philanderer and is so angry she banishes him forever from her sight. His reaction is to throw himself into the river. While Astrea and her girlfriends go looking, he's washed up on shore at some distance, nearly drowned. He's rescued and nurtured back to waking health by an upper-class nymph (Veronique Reymond) who lives in a (presumably seventeenth-century) castle.

A druid priest (Serge Renko) and his niece Leonide (Cecile Cassel) supervise Celadon after he flees from the nymph's clutches. He pouts in a kind of pastoral tepee for a while, and then is persuaded to put on women's clothes so he can be close to his beloved. One wonders if Rohmer hadn't lost control of the casting when we see the over-acting, annoying Rodolphe Pauly as Hylas, a troubadour who opposes the prevailing platonic tradition in favor of free love with multiple partners. Pauly completely breaks the heightened, elegant tone and introduces an amateurish note, which is the more dangerous since the simplicity of the outdoor shooting already risks evoking some French YouTube skit. Things liven up considerably when Celadon is in drag, but by that time Rohmer will have lost the sympathy of many viewers.

Adapting seventeenth-century pastoral tales to the screen may be a far-fetched enterprise at best, but there must be better ways of attempting it than this. Paradoxically, though the pastoral ideal is about purity and simplicity, recapturing it is likely to require more elaborate methods. The Sofia Coppola of Marie Antoinette, with its gorgeous, eye-candy mise-en-scene, might have managed it—and that film does have a pastoral interlude, though not "pure" pastoral but aristocrats camping it up as shepherds and shepherdesses. Rohmer's pleasing but essentially bare-bones style worked well for most of his career because his people and their conversations were interesting enough in themselves; the intensity of his own interest made them so. Such methods don't work so well here. The talk in The Romance of Astrea an id Celadon is too stilted and dry most of the way to hold much interest. For dyed-in-the-wool Rohmer fans, of course, this mature work is nonetheless required viewing. Newcomers as usual had best go back to My Night at Maude's and Claire's Knee to understand the perennial interest of this quintessentially French filmmaker.

Seen at the press screening for the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center in September 2007.

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