Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Romance of Astree and Celadon

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009 (before Eric Rohmer died))

One of my favourite DVD releases this year has been Eric Rohmer’s Les amours d’Astree et de Celadon, one of those few films I feel I could happily watch again every few weeks (although I’ve been resisting). Apart from showing at the 2007 film festival (to no particular attention), and then once recently at the Cinematheque, it never opened in theatres in Toronto as far as I’m aware, which as sure as any down-turning economic indicator tells you something is wrong in this world.

Eric Rohmer

Rohmer is an atypical great director (even allowing that they’re all atypical), but in his own way captures, perhaps as well as anyone ever has, something of cinema’s wondrous possibility. He was born in 1920, and has said that Astree and Celadon, made at the age of 87, may be his last work. If so, it’s a magnificent stopping point (nevertheless, we can hope for an even finer one). He was one of the original group of French critics who revolutionized the appreciation of American cinema in the 1950’s, before then starting to make their own films. He was already in his late 40’s when he hit his stride as a director, with a series of “Six Moral Tales” that won great attention, and even Oscar nominations.

Since then he’s made another 20 films or so, including a six film cycle of “Comedies and Proverbs,” a four-film “Tales Of The Four Seasons” cycle, and various one-offs often on historical themes. His last film but one, The Lady And The Duke, had him embracing digital technology for the first time. He’s a somewhat mysterious figure, not often giving interviews (although there’s a great, extended one on Criterion’s release of the Moral Tales), usually working with lesser-known actors. That’s the biographical outline.

Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves says that he once saw a Rohmer film and it was like watching paint dry. His films have very little, if any, action in the conventional sense, consisting mostly of conversations, often just between the same small number of people. The six moral tales share the general structure of a man desiring one woman and ending up with another. His protagonists, often young women, chatter endlessly about love, or philosophy, or immediate goals and logistics or about next to nothing.

Moral Tales

Admirers often cite the rare intelligence and delicacy of Rohmer’s dialogue. I remember one writer labeling it as being for the most part a load of twaddle. It wasn’t necessarily even a criticism, but rather a different way of analyzing the director’s real sociological interests. The moral tales aren’t exactly what they might sound like - you don’t come out of them bearing bite-sized pieces of transferable wisdom. The inventory of morals and proverbs after all, is stuffed with contradictions, obvious nonsense, gross simplifications…all of which might nevertheless be true and liberating in the right time and place. The distinction between wrong and right moves is highly conditional, subjective, and can turn on its head in a second. All we can do is diagnose and act on it the best we can, and of course life is much bigger than we are, so our attempts are inherently foolish, even if they sometimes skirt, or even wholly appropriate, profundity. And of course it never plays out the same way twice, however similar the dance.

Rohmer’s shooting style is usually very unobtrusive and simple; his films often have gorgeous settings, which they observe as matter-of-factly as his generally attractive female leads. It surprised me (although it shouldn’t have) on that interview how carefully he thinks about the colour scheme and art direction in his films.

Quentin Tarantino reportedly said: “You have to see one of [his movies], and if you kind of like that one, then you should see his other ones, but you need to see one to see if you like it." I question the implied one-strike-and-out test, but if we go with the premise, would Romance of Astree and Celadon be a good taster? Actually, I’d start elsewhere, maybe with My Night At Maud’s. Astree and Celadon is surely designed for long-standing Rohmer lovers (and, I imagine, as a gift from the director to himself) – one of those classic climactic films reflecting its creator’s lifelong project at its most elemental and sublime, while still striking out into new territory.

End Of The Pilgrimage

The film is set in the 6th century, among Gallic shepherds; Celadon and Astree are in love, but she wrongly accuses him of having eyes for another; he jumps in the river and disappears, presumed to have died. He winds up among a group of nymphs who nurse him back to health; then rather than disobey Astree’s last tempestuous command to him that he stay out of her sight, he goes to live alone in the woods, where he builds a shrine to Astree’s goddess namesake, adorned with images of his love. A benevolent druid persuades him, however, to interpret Astree’s command as allowing him to be close to her, if disguised as a woman.

And what can this possibly have to do with the price of gas? Well, as I said, divorced from Rohmer’s earlier films, perhaps not much. Viewed in their context, it’s transcendental. The film is set in a formative time; people debate the relative status of Gallic versus Roman gods, and the merits of courtly versus hedonistic love. They apply a moral code, but it’s distinctly arbitrary. They balance grand, categorical pronouncements and instinctive pragmatism. In other words, almost at the dawn of organized society, Rohmer finds his preoccupations already well developed, but not yet weighed down by everything built since then.

His opening titles deliberately distance us from the fiction, stating that the story’s original setting has now been devastated and thus filmed elsewhere, and that the film presents the 6th century as it would have been imagined from the perspective of the 16th. This is an artful misdirection, since the film’s idea of physical beauty belongs wholly to our own times. Elsewhere too, the film exhibits a playful specificity while moving toward utter ethereality. At the end, physical logic is largely jettisoned, giving way to pure sublime blissful momentum. Although still set on earth, it might virtually have been transposed into heaven.

There’s often been a spiritual dimension to Rohmer’s work, while also no doubt that the answers to his characters’ problems lie here on earth. But such a sustained, attentive cinema has more than an undertone of pilgrimage to it, and in his perhaps-last film, Rohmer finally allows himself an arrival point where, as far as the protagonists are concerned, all is as it ever should be. Astree and Celadon’s surpassingly beautiful ending confirms the belief and delight underlying his wonderful half-century of cinema.

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