Eric Rohmer's 'The Romance of Astrea and Celadon'
David Jenkins argues that Eric Rohmer’s latest – and possibly last – film is still very much in his style, despite its somewhat unorthodox tale of druids and nymphs set in fifth-century France
We open on a woodland feast, where chisel-chinned Celadon (Andy Gillet) is seen by lover Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) making merry behind a tree with another lass. When they meet the next day, she ignores him, so Celadon throws himself in a river. Unknown to grieving Astrea, Celadon’s body washes up downriver where he is revived by a lissom cadre of nymphs.
The film then charts the pair’s movements as Astrea mourns for her dead paramour while Celadon hatches a plan to win her back that involves building a shack in the woods, commissioning a druid to paint a picture of her and, ahem, dressing up as the druid’s ailing daughter. Like Marie Rivere’s philanthropic bookseller in Rohmer’s 1998 ‘An Autumn Tale’ who places a lonely hearts advertisement for her best friend, or Béatrice Romand’s overzealous romantic pursuit of André Dussollier’s meek lawyer in his 1982 film ‘A Good Marriage’, ‘Romance…’ again focuses on the embarrassing – and therefore amusing – risks that people take to secure their ‘perfect’ mate.
Unsurprisingly, in ‘Romance…’ Rohmer again adopts his notoriously economic approach to filmmaking (he is said to have shot improvised masterpiece ‘The Green Ray’ with a crew of four). Like Robert Bresson before him, Rohmer shows that not even the subtlest movement, expression or tonal inflection is lost to his gaze. Watching the film is like cinematic pearl diving, where pleasures can be gleaned as much from nuance, context and the poeticism of language as they can from character, intrigue and, here, song.
Many scold Rohmer for making the same film over and over again, yet, as with his previous two films (2001’s ‘The Lady and the Duke’ and 2004’s ‘Triple Agent’), ‘Romance…’ flaunts the universality of the heterosexual romantic set-up as myriad possibilities of the ‘same old story’ are allowed to play out against a historical backdrop. Though his adaptations of novels or other texts have been infrequent (others include 1976’s ‘The Marquis of O’ and 1978’s ‘Perceval le Gallois’), literature always plays a major role in Rohmer’s work, especially when it comes to deciphering love. Pascal’s ‘wager’ forms the basis of ‘My Night with Maud’ (1969) and ‘A Winter Tale’ (1992), while a discussion of Jules Verne’s ‘The Green Ray’ supplies a key moment of epiphany in the film of the same name. Even his dialogue often sidelines traits such as assertiveness, pithiness and naturalism (has there ever been a swearword in a Rohmer film?) in favour of full-bodied discourse which flags up his fondness of the French literary tradition and his background as a novelist and critic.
Perhaps the most typically Rohmerian aspect of ‘Romance…’ is the depiction of the body as unattainable objet d’art, with one scene seeing the camera linger suggestively over Astrea’s supple, sleeping form as Celadon tries to steal a kiss from her. The gentle eroticism of secrecy and proximity is something that Rohmer returns to repeatedly in his work, whether it’s the reverence of a body part (see ‘Claire’s Knee’), an innocuous stroll down a country path (see ‘A Summer's Tale’ or ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend’), or a platonic bed share with an attractive woman (‘My Night with Maud’). The film is also infused with an understated ‘will they/won’t they’ element, which is present in the final reel of just about every Rohmer film you care to mention.
Filmed in the lush Auvergne region, ‘Romance…’ is another of his films dedicated to France and being French. Though you’d be hard pressed to describe Rohmer’s films as easy on the eye, they do offer a chance to experience a France beyond the banlieus of Paris, from the beaches of Normandy (‘Pauline at the Beach’) or St Tropez (‘The Collector’) to the snow-swept streets of Clermont-Ferrand (‘My Night with Maud’) and even the ugly town of Cergy-Pontoise (‘My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend’).
If ‘Romance…’ does end up being Rohmer’s swansong, it would be naive to argue that it stands up against his very best work. Some critics, perhaps alienated by its unorthodox setting, may even chalk it up as one of his few failures. Still, if you’ve enjoyed the work of filmmakers such as Catherine Breillat, Jacques Nolot, Richard Linklater, Neil Labute and even Quentin Tarantino, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it a shot. It’s true that ‘Romance…’ is something of an oddity, but seen as a warm and wise dovetail to a 40-year ‘project’ that’s unmatched in modern cinema, it’s also a triumph of one man’s unflagging commitment to mapping the foibles of the human heart.
‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’ opens on Sept 12.
Author: David Jenkins
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