“Listen to this, it’s all here word for word.” So begins Éric Rohmer’s first period piece, adapted from an 1808 Heinrich von Kleist novella with such severe fidelity to the text that the director, a late titan of French cinema, taught himself German just to make sure he got it right. And the faithfulness of the telling is crucial, as this version of The Marquise of O is focused on the schism between how the text was written and how it’s now received: It’s an experiment about what happens when a contemporary audience is confronted with an unapologetically outdated tale. (That dynamic makes this film especially ripe for restoration.)
No use beating around the bush: Kleist’s drama of manners is a love story about rape. Set in an Italian citadel during the Napoleonic Wars that raged as the author wrote, the action begins with the eponymous marquise (Edith Clever) being cornered by a deviant faction of the Russian soldiers who are sacking her home. Suddenly, a gallant count (Wings of Desire star Bruno Ganz in his first major role) leaps to her rescue, introduced in a shot where he’s lit like Christ descending from the heavens. The count carries the marquise to safety, where he portentously watches her drink some roofie-strength poppy tea. When the Marquise discovers that she’s pregnant a few weeks later, the identity of the father becomes a mystery with only one plausible suspect.
For Rohmer, whose characters are invariably obsessed with the deviancy of their own passions and behavior, The Marquise of O must have been quite tempting. On one hand, the marquise is a victim who’s branded a hysteric, accused by her parents of being a slut and increasingly consumed by her own sense of guilt. On the other hand, the count’s sudden obsession with marrying the marquise is the sign of a man who’s struggling to reconcile his noble status with our damning suspicions. The casualness with which these tensions are resolved is perverse enough to unsettle modern viewers, but Kleist’s archaic understanding of rape is most disturbing for how contemporary it feels—the story of a woman whose violation is doubted and dismissed hardly needs to be set 200 years ago to feel believable. This minor Rohmer may not have much to offer beyond the clarity of its perspective (and the soft beauty of Nestor Almendros’s delicate cinematography), but its message will only grow more urgent in time.
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