“The remarkable dash”, as Éric Rohmer called it.1 A simple grammatical break becomes the rupture in which an “unspeakable” and “unthinkable” crime is committed.2 The dash, which occurs barely three pages into a 45-page story by Heinrich von Kleist (1808) is its moral dividing line, the gendered threshold crossing which an angel turns into the devil. Rohmer’s translation of this singular dash into a fade to black that punctuates the entire film transforms it into the formal and moral structuring principle of his richest and most troubling film.
Die Marquise von O… begins with a martial tattoo beaten over the opening credits on a black ground. After a deceptive and teasing prologue, the narrative proper begins with the image of an Italian family group, a group of women, in a neo-classical interior being bombarded by Russian forces during the Napoleonic Wars. This contrast of military and female principles sets up the central dialectic of the film – the patriarchal assault on women, and the policing of female sexuality. Almost schematically so – the heroine lives in a citadel where her father is commandant.
As the family flees their besieged home, the Marquise (Edith Clever), named for her deceased husband rather than in her own right, is attacked by a band of lustful Russians, only to be saved at the last moment by Count F- (Bruno Ganz), backlit and shot from below astride a broken wall. His long hair with a wild life of its own, his shining eyes, and his tight-fitting, sexy white uniform, signal the transgressive Napoleonic or Byronic anti-hero of contemporary culture as much as the Christian ‘saviour’ or ‘angel’ the Marquise mistakes him for. His appearance is preceded by his voice – the Count is momentarily frozen as an icon before springing into action and saving the Marquise.
Many of the film’s compositions are borrowed more-or-less ironically from contemporary art, work created in the transitional period when the idealised and socially-sanctioned order of neo-classicism was giving way to the individualised and boundary-bursting disorder of the Romantics.3 The extraordinary effect of bending a real woman – actress Edith Clever – into the ‘idealised’, unnatural, distorted poses of neo-classical womanhood, even in the most ordinary domestic settings and situations, is Rohmer’s visual analogue for the cultured, ideological violence done to women by family and society.
When the Count approaches the prone Marquise, who has just taken a sleeping draught to calm her nerves after her distressing experience – the film is as full of disillusioning references to fairy tales as it is to Christianity4 – he sees her as the sleeping woman straddled by an incubus of The Nightmare (1781), a famous painting by the neo-classically-trained but Romantically-inclined Swiss artist Henri Fuseli. Many critics have noted the allusion, even going so far as to claim that it constitutes the Marquise’s unconscious “invitation to rape”!5 The shot, of course, is a construction of the Count’s. We see him tilting his head like a painter or filmmaker examining his composition – an aestheticised alibi for the assault he is about to commit, a rape the Marquise’s family spend the rest of the narrative trying to incorporate into their rigid haute-bourgeoisie worldview. When they cannot, it is the victim they punish. In a world where morality and class are synonymous, they cannot even conceive that the Count could commit such an act.
If I over-emphasise this one aspect of a multi-layered masterpiece, it is because few of Rohmer’s (male) contemporaries did. Only three years after the film’s release, Kleist’s English translators could write of ‘The Marquise of O-’ :
It would be a mistake to take either the story or its ending too solemnly…Although it must be conceded that the Marquise has in a certain sense been raped and that rape is not an unserious matter, it is worth noting that at no point is she threatened with anything more grave than a certain amount of social scandal and at worst a breach with her aristocratic family, of whom she is in any case financially independent.6
Well, that’s alright then! The blurb of the published script quotes the New York Times view of the film as “witty, joyous, and beautiful”’.7 The Marquise’s rape and forced pregnancy is for Alan Spiegel a “dilemma” in a film of “rich humor”; the Count, a rapist who allows subordinate comrades to be executed for his crime, is said to “teach” the Marquise’s family “how to reach out to each other” .8 Colin Crisp calls the rape an “error”, and suggests that the narrative is the Count’s quest for spiritual redemption.9 I don’t recall Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), with its protracted scene of male rape, ever being described in such terms.
With attitudes such as these, it’s not surprising that the 1970s was the decade of rape-revenge movies like Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) and their bone-headed ilk, where the spectacle of sexual violence on women was merely a pretext for embattled males to prove their masculinity. One could dismiss them as the knee-jerk reactions of aging men to the second-wave feminism emergent in the period. This is certainly one context for Rohmer’s film, citizen of a country always tardy in respecting women’s rights. Rohmer’s story of pregnancy and patriarchy offers a useful counterpart to the following year’s L’une chante, et l’autre pas by fellow New Wave veteran Agnès Varda, a modern-day, genuinely “witty, joyous and beautiful” hymn to abortion and women’s liberation.10
More fundamentally, the failure to adequately apprehend the violence beneath the film’s “exquisite”, luminous surface11 is part of a general and still-persistent failure in the appreciation of Rohmer’s cinema, which too often revolves around pleasure derived from the sparkling dialogue and plots of misunderstanding of romantic comedy.12 The dialogue is the least interesting thing about Rohmer’s films; or rather, what is important is not what is said, but how and why it is said, where and when it is said, what is not said, and how dialogue is counterpointed by action (and, more often, inaction). Like Luis Buñuel – about whom he wrote as a critic13 – Rohmer had such mastery of mise-en-scène, the pacing of and editing between shots and scenes, the manipulation of space and light, and the coding of colour and costume, that the mastery became invisible and therefore easily overlooked. If you simply attend to the surface of Rohmer’s films, you fall into the same traps as his deeply flawed protagonists. Rohmer was a teacher by profession and a director of schools television in the 1960s. His films are didactic in the best eye-opening, cliché-questioning, prejudice-shaking sense. I for one am always refreshed by the lessons.
Die Marquise von O… (1976 France/Germany 102 minutes)
Prod Cos: Les Films du Losange, Gaumont, Janus, Artemis, & United Artists Dir: Éric Rohmer Scr: Éric Rohmer, from the story by Heinrich von Kleist Phot: Nestor Almendros Ed: Cécile Decugis Cost Des: Moidele Bickel Art Dir: Roger von Möllendorff Mus: improvisation on Prussian tunes of 1804
Cast: Edith Clever, Bruno Ganz, Peter Lühr, Edda Seippel, Otto Sander
- Eric Rohmer, “Notes on the Direction’” in The Marquise of O- : film by Eric Rohmer, novella by Heinrich von Kleist (New York: Ungar, 1985), p. 10. ↩
- David Luke and Nigel Reeves, “Introduction’” in Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O- and other stories (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 21; first published in 1978. ↩
- For a description of the visual texture of Rohmer’s film, and its formal and thematic functions, see Alan Spiegel, “Critical Afterword”, in Unger, The Marquise of O-, pp. 132-134; first published as Spiegel, ‘The Cinematic Text: Rohmer’s The Marquise of O… (1976) from the story by Heinrich von Kleist’ in Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation, Andrew S. Horton and Joan Magretta eds., (New York: Ungar, 1981). ↩
- For fairy tales, see Spiegel, pp. 131, 135; for the religious dimension, see C.G. Crisp, Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), pp. 75-76. ↩
- Crisp, p. 78. ↩
- Luke and Reeves, p. 18. ↩
- Blurb to Ungar, The Marquise of O-, back cover. ↩
- Spiegel, pp. 134, 135. ↩
- Crisp, p. 75. ↩
- It should also be noted that another important contemporary feminist film, Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) by the theorists Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, was a very different adaptation of a Kleist text, his tragic play Penthesilea, written the same year as ‘The Marquise of O-‘ (1808). ↩
- Blurb to Ungar, The Marquise of O-, back cover. ↩
- Geoff Andrew, ‘This Charming Man’, Sight and Sound, 24.2 February 2014, pp. 94-95. ↩
- See Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 146-148. ↩