Eric Rohmer, 2007
No other film in this year’s Festival arrived with more divided critical opinion than Eric Rohmer’s THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CÉLADON. Rohmer has indicated that this could be his last film, so critics and reviewers have looked to it for the kind of life’s-work summation that neatly enables them to celebrate the artistic continuity of one of cinema's great auteurs. However, many have struggled to get past what they regard as the film’s banal anachronistic superficiality, and while It’s unlikely that Rohmer set out to scuttle them, this one-time critic has nevertheless produced a work that appears to have challenged the cine-literacy of many film commentators.
Admittedly, it isn’t immediately apparent where Rohmer is going with this happy-ever-after fable about romantic misunderstanding. Of course, we’ve seen it all before, but few filmmakers manage the task with such buoyancy and critical potency, and contrary to its seeming triviality there’s a teasing sense of subtext behind every scene in this deceptively simple film. He may be almost 90-years-old, but Rohmer’s cinematic heart beats with the clear-eyed integrity of an iconoclastic youngster, and as he has proved time and again he is an insightful observer of human foibles, a master at depicting romantic self-deception. His films are remarkable for their seemingly effortless but always sophisticated and penetrating perception, intelligence, compassion, wit, and wisdom. No matter how absurd or embarrassing things get we never lose empathy for Rohmer’s characters, but in The Romance of Astrea and Céladon he tests our empathetic patience more than ever.
At the beginning of this partial adaptation of Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astree, a title card informs us that the film will depict a 5th century tale of romance refracted through the 17th century sensibilities of the folk it was originally intended for. What Rohmer doesn’t tell us is that it’s actually an examination of 21st century cultural and social mores told from a 21st century perspective disguised by a framework of bucolic folly. Put simply, it’s all about us. Rohmer also tells us that it was shot in a location far from where the novel was originally set because that area has been replaced by concrete jungles. This tells us something about his green-tinged intentions, an early indication that the film is likely to have a contemporary political component. Rohmer doesn’t hide the fact that everything is staged expressly to illustrate his themes, and if one commits to looking beyond the surface frivolity, one might discover that the film is strongly critical of the indifference that underpins contemporary socio-political dysfunction. So yes, there are big themes behind the deceptive facade of this seemingly naive fable of pure and inevitably triumphant love, but Rohmer never loses sight of his life-affirming optimism and faith in humanity.
Taking the form of a pastoral romance (which recalls, and might even be an homage to Jacques Demy’s Peau d’Ane), the whimsical theatricality barely conceals the fact that this is another of Rohmer’s wry meditations on the intricacies of love, replete with philosophical ruminations on morality, fidelity, and hedonistic temptations. At times the narrative is reminiscent of mythic tales about the gods (embodied here by druids and nymphs, but implicating filmmaker and audience alike) amusing themselves by manipulating the passions and destiny of their lowly human playthings. Rohmer’s film might at first appear to be as breezy as the gossamer fabrics that drape the numerous nubile damsels who airily glide through it, but the film soon reveals a thematic concern for the vulnerability of the innocent and gullible in the face of powerfully persuasive forces (religious, political, social, etc.) intent on perpetuating ignorance in order to exert control and influence. The implications stretch to the equally manipulative tropes of commercial mainstream cinema and our acquiescent relationship to it: the proliferation of films that reinforce specious reassuring notions of the world.
The key to appreciating the film is that the deception under examination is not that of Astrea and Céladon so much as that of the audience, to whom Rohmer has essentially thrown down a subtle gauntlet. In light of the mixed response to the film, one could say that it was too subtle, but in my view he couldn’t have pitched his argument better, particularly as it appears to have effectively separated the sheep from the goats within the critical community. The film’s critical subtext is offset by an abiding faith in the clarifying and transformative power of love, which is as genuine as the attractive and unforced eroticism, handled with chaste delicacy and without a hint of prudishness.
As such, The Romance of Astrea and Céladon can be read as a heart-felt plea for tolerance: sexual, political, religious, etc. The fact that love eventually wins the day constitutes a rare happy ending for Rohmer, but one that also leaves no doubt about the point he ultimately wants to make. He has obvious affection for those who are willing to embrace the requisite naivety romantic love demands. To confuse the gaiety and optimism of the film’s ending with the facile habit of mainstream cinema is to miss the conviction and relevance of Rohmer’s gentle wisdom. As relaxed and sensual as a warm summer’s evening, the film is as insightful as anything in Rohmer’s oeuvre, and those willing to suspend disbelief and delve beneath its surface charms will be richly rewarded. .
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader