Éric Rohmer’s last film is a rare thing: an enthusiastic engagement with literary pastoral at its most mannered. Particularly in its Renaissance iterations, pastoral was rarely, if ever, geared toward the realistic representation of country life, but instead traded in idealised images of shepherds and nymphs at amorous play within what the Marxist critic Raymond Williams called an “enamelled world.”1 Often thought to look back to a lost Golden Age, the form flourished in the courts of early modern Europe, where its fanciful depictions worked within the economies of aristocratic patronage, serving ends of self-stylisation, flattery, and political and religious critique.
Rohmer’s late-career turn to this most self-consciously artificial of literary forms is in many ways an odd one, so much of his work being famously committed to a Bazinian concept of film’s grounding in, and responsibility to, realism. Against the enamelled worlds of pastoral, Rohmer declared, in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, that “Art’s task is not to enclose us in a sealed world. Born of the world, it brings us back to it”.2 But in other ways his adventure in the genre is not so surprising: Rohmer’s work has often been marked by a heightened literary quality or discursivity – in a word, talkiness – and by an interest in philosophical speculation, particularly on the part of the well-heeled, and particularly as regards the nature of romantic attachment. Much of the ‘action’ in his films takes the form of conversation.
Pastoral, for its part, has been prompted by similar impulses: from antiquity onward, works in this mode were often structured as dialogues, their leisured speakers sparring and meditating upon themes of love and loss. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is adapted from Honoré D’Urfé’s L’Astrée, a lengthy proto-novelistic romance about fifth-century Gallic shepherds published in several instalments between 1607 and 1627. In Rohmer’s much-winnowed version, a misunderstanding leads Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) to accuse her beloved Celadon (Andy Gillet) of infidelity; distraught, he attempts to drown himself, but is pulled from the river by a trio of nymphs. Nursed back to health, Celadon is nonetheless reluctant to be reunited with Astrea, who he believes has banished him from her sight. Eventually, the lovers are returned to one another, owing to a spot of cross-dressing at the behest of the Druidic uncle (Serge Renko) of one of the nymphs. Throughout, in spoken or sung musings and debates that draw substantially upon the philosophy of Plato (the dialogues of the Symposium are the main source), the characters reflect upon the competing claims of erotic and ideal love and upon the nature of the gods.
Of Rohmer’s previous adaptations, 1978’s Perceval le Gallois seems the clearest precursor for Astrea and Celadon. In that earlier film, a rendering of Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century Arthurian romance Perceval, le conte du Graal (Perceval, the Story of the Grail), Rohmer sought to re-create not so much the physical reality of the medieval world as its imaginary, and to that end the mise en scène drew heavily upon the visual style of medieval manuscript illumination: boldness of colour, pre-perspectival flatness of the visual field, and an iconographic approach to the representation of figures.3 Like Perceval, D’Urfé’s L’Astrée predates – and by a fairly significant margin – not only the invention of cinema but also the development of the realist novelistic tradition that lends itself with relative ease to filmic adaptation.
In Astrea and Celadon we find Rohmer calling, to some degree, upon similar procedures. A scrolling preamble tells us that the filmmakers hope to depict, not the lives of shepherds in fifth-century Gaul, but those lives as imagined by D’Urfé’s contemporaries; just so, the most arresting shots of the film are carefully-composed tableaux that recall the pastoral and mythological scenes of French Baroque painting, as well as the sensualism of the later Rococo period (Poussin, a master of pastoral subjects, is surely in the background,4 as is Fragonard). These moments of stillness support the Platonic meditations upon the relation between love, beauty, and virtue: beauty is indicative of virtue, so that a perfect physical form, such as that of Astrea in repose, is a revelation of a higher, abstract form of the good (like her namesake in Greek mythology, the character is associated in particular with justice, although she herself has treated Celadon unjustly.)
In the main, though, and especially in the film’s many nature scenes, Rohmer eschews high style in favour of a naturalistic kind of filmmaking that is less reminiscent of seventeenth-century Baroque than of the Romantic and nineteenth-century landscape traditions – aesthetic moments that, while prompted by theorisations of the picturesque, nonetheless privileged a concept of authenticity in their depictions of the physical world. To this extent, Astrea and Celadon has less in common with Perceval than with Rohmer’s many self-consciously realist treatments of the romantic crises of the French bourgeoisie. This kind of stylistic fusion of disparate elements is characteristic of the D’Urfé source material, which draws variously upon traditions of pastoral, romance, and historical writing, and is also typical of the pastoral genre more broadly, which has always been self-conscious as regards its appropriations of past forms (in this respect, it is an unexpectedly modern genre). But treating fanciful materials with a realist toolkit puts significant pressure upon the story’s more far-fetched conceits – Celadon’s immediately attempting suicide upon Astrea’s accusation of infidelity; her failure, in the film’s final act, to see through his disguise – and perhaps neither D’Urfé’s nor Rohmer’s innovations in their respective fields finally fares as well from the union as either would alone.
The author would like to thank John Edmond for his assistance with things Rohmerian.
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon 2007 France 105 mins)
Prod. Co.: CER/Rézo Films Prod: Jean-Michel Rey, Philippe Liegeois, Françoise Etchegaray Dir: Éric Rohmer Scr: Éric Rohmer, based on the novel by Honoré D’Urfé Phot: Diane Baratier Ed: Mary Stephen Prod Des: Christian Paumier
Cast: Andy Gillet, Stephanie Crayencour, Cécile Cassel, Véronique Reymond, Serge Renko
- The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973), p. 18. ↩
- “Such vanity is painting” (1951), in The Taste for Beauty (1984), trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p. 44. ↩
- See Andrea Picard’s account of the visual style of Perceval le Gallois in Cinema Scope 45, available at http://cinema-scope.com/columns/columns-filmart/. ↩
- See Erwin Panofsky’s essay “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition”, Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) pp. 295-319. ↩