Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Perceval le Gallois (Eric Rohmer, 1978)


In itself, it would be mainly of academic interest that the apparent peculiarities of Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois can be explained by his emphasis on fidelity to the tone and content of Chretien de Troyes’ 12th-century source material, but Rohmer’s choices here also resonate fascinatingly against the main body of his work. For example, the film’s second half contains a startling narrative switch, abruptly putting aside the story we’ve followed to that point (the young Perceval leaves his home to become a knight, gradually accumulating in knowledge and understanding) to follow that of another knight, Gawain, who’s been only a secondary character to that point; later on, at what might seem to be just as arbitrary a point, it switches back. In this context, the device promotes a heightened reflection on the artificial and conditioned nature of all narrative coherence; when the film then culminates with an enactment of Christ’s crucifixion, there’s a feeling of all narrative, of all creation, deriving from Western civilization’s core origin story, underlining the sense of humility and fidelity that marks the entire enterprise. The film is in part a heightened version of the behavioral and ethical puzzles that mark Rohmer’s contemporary work: Perceval is initially a near-blank slate, who at the start of the film sees a knight for the first time and peppers him with basic questions; later on when a wise man advises him not to talk too much, he takes the advice too far, missing out on opportunities, and even unknowingly committing grave sins. Rohmer’s chosen style beautifully supports the project, emphasizing artifice and immediacy, the act of storytelling (with the characters, for example, often describing their own actions) as prominent as the story being told. And it’s delightful how his reversion to an ancient text carries the sense of a personal rebirth, with the cast containing several young performers (Pascale Ogier, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere) who he would use more prominently in later, modern-day works.

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