Following the success of his Six Moral Tales,1 Éric Rohmer turned his attention backward into history, and with Perceval, to one of the earliest narratives in French literature. The story of Perceval originates with Chrétien de Troyes’s telling in his fifth and final Arthurian romance, Le Conte de Graal, ou Le Roman de Perceval (The Story of the Grail or The Romance of Perceval). Written near the end of the 12th century and at the end of Chrétien’s life (Perceval’s tale was left unfinished), the romance recounts the adventures, the fall, and the redemption of a naïve young man who becomes a knight of the round table. The character’s journey begins with a chance meeting in the woods with a group of knights. Having been sheltered from the dangerous world of knight errantry by his widowed mother, Perceval is dazzled by these men, inquiring at length about their attire and their weapons, even wondering whether they might be devils or angels. After this meeting, Perceval leaves his mother in search of King Arthur. Perceval’s story, as told by Chrétien, include the first mentions of the wounded Fisher King as well as the grail, a holy and illuminated dish out of which the infirm king receives his sole sustenance: a single, daily communion wafer.
Before he became known as a filmmaker and a critic, Rohmer’s early work already reveals a longtime fondness for this particular courtly romance. After nearly ten years spent as a high school classics instructor, Rohmer became an affiliated director with Radio-Télévision scolaire (Educational Radio and Television), creating a dozen short programs for French students, and one of these was “Le roman de Perceval ou le Conte du Graal” (1964). Fifteen years prior, then, we find planted in this half-hour episode the seeds that would bloom in his feature adaptation: an emphasis on verse form and a desire to show the text as it was by filming many of the illuminations from a 13th century manuscript housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Sticking very closely to the medieval original, even completing his own verse translation and retaining the poet’s octosyllabic metrical form, Rohmer’s goal for his 1978 Perceval, as he explained in L’Avant-Scène Cinéma, was not to interpret but to re-present Chrétien’s text; “It is not so much the theme that interests us here, but the text, one of the most beautiful in French literature, and for which the cinema can provide an audience it no longer has.”2 Rather than insert his own vision into this tale, as is often the case in adaptations, Rohmer instead hopes to use cinema to bring back Chrétien’s text, to unearth it for a fresh audience.
His vision of adaptation, then, is one of strict faithfulness. This faithfulness, however, doesn’t place viewers into the world of the text. “In my view,” he explains, “fidelity to a period is fidelity to what remains of the period! It is not a futile quest for what the period itself might have been.”3 Since we cannot know how Chrétien and his readers may have seen and experienced their world, we can rely only upon the objects their world has left us: in this case, the words of the text and the artwork of the period. So it is this view that leads Rohmer to create the highly idiosyncratic and artificial visual style of Perceval, a style that feels a good deal closer to theater than to cinema.
In Perceval, Rohmer creates sets and instructs his actors to perform in ways that mimic the imagery found in medieval illuminated manuscripts. The actors, especially the members of the chorus who narrate and comment upon the action, often hold their hands upright and open, much as figures are portrayed in medieval artwork. The film’s few artificial trees that signal this or that forest are each composed of four large rounded leaves, again appearing more like an illustration than an actual tree. The space where the episodic narrative unfolds is a tightly bounded, circular area with a single set created for outdoor scenes and a single interior each doing double or triple duty as various castles and woods where Perceval follows his adventures.
So Perceval is visually quite distinct from Rohmer’s other films. We can hardly compare it, for instance, to the naturalism of his moral tales and his comedies and proverbs, the films upon which his fame largely rests. Perceval is also dissimilar from other contemporaneous medieval adaptions. Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974) was shot in countryside locations, in dense forests, in open jousting arenas, and inside imposing castles whose stone walls give the impression of realistic medieval settings. Rohmer eschewed this method, opting instead – in what we may view as a didactic approach left over from his days as a teacher and as a director of educational television – to reproduce only his versions of the extant traces of the Chrétien’s time.
Still, Perceval is a Rohmer film. It’s a showcase of Rohmer’s regular actors and actresses, a who’s who of Rohmerian cinema. Like so many of his films, it’s a story of one character’s sometimes awkward negotiations of the intricacies and rules that govern human relations. And in Perceval, Rohmer’s distinctive generosity toward his characters, some of them highly flawed, is as much evident as it is in all his other films. So while Perceval may look and sound unlike any of this director’s other films, it sits well within the Rohmerian tradition.
Perceval le Gallois / Perceval (1978 France, 140 mins)
Prod. Co: Les Films du Losange / FR3 Prod: Margaret Menegoz Dir: Éric Rohmer Scr: Éric Rohmer, after the roman by Chrétien de Troyes Phot: Nestor Almendros Mus: Jean-Pierre Ruh Ed: Cécile Decugis Art Dir: Jean-Pierre Kohut Svelko
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, André Dussolier, Pascale de Boysoon, Clémentine Amouroux, Marc Eyraud, Gérard Falconetti, Arielle Dombasle, Coco Ducados, Marie-Christine Barrault, Anne-Laure Meury
- The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Suzanne’s Career (1963), La Collectionneuse (1967), My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), Love in the Afternoon (1972) ↩
- Eric Rohmer, “Note sur la traduction et sur la mise en scène de Perceval,” L’Avant-Scène Cinéma 221 (February 1979): p. 6. (emphasis original). ↩
- Claude-Jean Philippe, “Interview with Éric Rohmer,” Le Cinéma des cineastes, France Culture, 25 February 1979. Quoted in Éric Rohmer: A Biography, by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, Translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 313. ↩