The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

Artificial Eye Film Company
Eric Rohmer/France-Italy-Spain 2007

As clearly defined a director as Mike Leigh, an Eric Rohmer film conjures up a clear type - mainly middle-class French people obsessing about a very specific romantic problem and its resulting complications. Claire’s Knee is possibly the best-known of Rohmer’s films, in which an older man becomes obsessed with the knees of a friend’s teenage daughter. Rohmer and Leigh are also similar in that they occasionally break the mold with period pieces related to, but not obviously in line with, their usual style. Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake demonstrated that Leigh was capable of pushing aside his famed improvisational techniques for a more traditional focus on plot and period. Rohmer has done this in the past, with mixed results; films such as The Lady and the Duke are if anything more stylized than his modern pieces. But whatever way you parse it, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is a total departure from the films he’s made in the last 40 years.

The setting is fifth-century Gaul, presumably in the next village over from Asterix. Astrea (Stephanie Crayencour), a pretty young shepherdess, loves Celadon (Andy Gillet), a pretty young shepherd of high birth. His father is the same Alcippus who saved them all from the Visigoths some years ago. Celadon loves her back, but is enticed at a fair to kiss another village girl. Astrea is so upset by this betrayal that she tells Celadon she never wants to see him again. “Fine,” says Celadon. “If you don’t want to see me, I don’t want to live. I’ll go throw myself in the river.” Brilliantly, he does, but then washes up downstream into the arms of the local nymph, Galatea (Veronique Raymond) and her clever servant Leonida (Cecile Cassel, by far the best thing about the film). They are so entranced by his beauty they take him back to their castle and fight over him. But Celadon can only think of Astrea, who’s busy sobbing her heart out upriver, as she thinks him dead. How will they ever be reunited if she doesn’t want to see him? 

The plot synopsis has reduced me to sarcasm. But considering the screening I attended was full of snickering journalists, I am not the only one who feels this way. Based on a 17th-century novel by Honore d’Urfe, Rohmer has not modernized the story at all. But instead of creating a loving tribute to a less complicated time, Rohmer seems to have forgotten all of his skills with actors, nuance and plot. A great many scenes involve three characters debating something at great length, with several more characters pouting in shot the way I did when I was third chorus girl from the left in my high school’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. If this is meant to be a comedy, it’s impossible to tell whether Rohmer was deliberately going for laughs. Why have Celadon debating religion with a druid (Serge Renko) in a white dress and wimple as they pace a grove filled with statues nicked from my neighbor’s garden if you’re not trying for laughs? But if it’s not supposed to be funny, what is going on here? How can Astrea’s stupidity and inability to keep on her clothes be justified by explanatory voiceovers which make her seem not a heartwarmingly simple peasant but instead the village idiot? Most urgently, how can a castle guard actually dressed as Asterix appear without reminding us of the one-dimensional cartoonishness of the story?

After some consideration, I have decided that all of this is precisely the point. Rohmer is in his 80s and has stated in French interviews that he intends this to be his final film. I think what’s he’s done is made himself a comforting nursery rhyme to soothe himself into his retirement. In this story, there’s nothing so upsetting that a poem carved into a tree can’t solve, and no hearts so broken that a spot of crossdressing can’t cheer them up again. It’s a dress-up game, and nothing more. All Rohmer’s films have been about small actions which have larger consequences, but this film is so banal and frivolous it’s impossible to take it even semi-seriously. He’s wasted Pascal Ribier’s excellent sound design, which enables most of the film to take place outdoors without dialogue swallowed by breezes or the constant chirping of birds. In her film debut, Crayencour is all peaches and cream, while Gillet clearly does inspire women to embarrass themselves over him. It’s Cassel, who has done more than 20 films, who takes her flimsy part and flimsier costumes and controls them expertly, achieving only the laughs she wishes while inspiring real feeling in the audience. This is what Rohmer should have done. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is not the work of a director at the height of his powers. If it’s his departure from cinema, it’s a departure by someone so upset about the passing of time that he’s deliberately thrown all his talent in the river.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  1. Rohmer’s final film is proving to be quite an audience divider, and on the basis of the majority of negative reviews it has garnered I would go as far to say that it’s doing a sterling job exposing the perceptual limitations of many critics, reviewers and “snickering journalists”. Don’t get me wrong, a good critic is worth their weight in incisive cine-analysis, but they are a much rarer breed than is healthy for an art-form that is perpetually undermined by the imperceptive, often anti-intellectual twaddle of those commentators who fail to grasp the meaning of a work, even when it flickers in front of them for 109 blatantly obvious minutes.

    I might also go as far to say that one’s take on this particular film could act as something of a barometer with which to measure one’s cynicism and inflated sophistication against whatever might be left of one’s capacity to recognise and appreciate fundamental human truths, or to accept that naivety is not necessarily a dirty word. To an imperceptive eye, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon could easily be misread as the “banal and frivolous nursery rhyme” Sarah Manvel takes it to be. Ms Manvel finds it difficult to discern whether the film is supposed to be funny or not, seeing no value or substance in what she takes to be a “dress-up game and nothing more.” This inability to appreciate either the wit or the seriousness of intent of the film says much, I believe, about the widespread lack of understanding of the basics of cinematic language among contemporary commentators.

    The apparent lack of resemblance to other Rohmer films (or as Ms Manvel puts it, his “total departure from the films he’s made in the last 40 years”) is superficial. The emphasised theatricality and artifice barely conceals the fact that this is essentially another of Rohmer’s perceptive and wry examinations of the intricacies of love. Despite the distinctly odd period flavour (which vaguely recalls and might even be a subtle homage to Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne), this is one of Rohmer’s most deeply felt critical contemporary statements.

    The first thing a viewer must do when approaching this film is to bear in mind that Rohmer offers it as his last work, knowing full well that a self-declared swansong is likely to be viewed as a final artistic utterance and summation of his oeuvre. It therefore behoves the film commentator to give careful consideration to the work, lest their hasty misjudgements betray them. Rohmer has proven time and again that he is an insightful observer of human foibles and self-deception, so if one is tempted to dismiss the final work of a long-standing master of subtle and perceptive observations as a failure, one ought to have a darn firm handle on the piece. It seems that Rohmer (like Dreyer before him) may well end up having the last laugh – his last subtle expose of human foibles may in fact reach well beyond his young characters to include those who quickly misjudge his ultimate offering.

    Taking the form of a pastoral and bucolic romantic fable that recalls the mythic games played by gods intent on manipulating the lowly passions and concerns of humans for their amusement (embodied here by druids and nymphs, but subtly implicating the filmmaker and viewers into the bargain), Rohmer’s film has the appearance of an anachronistic concoction, seemingly as light and as frivolous as the wispy fabric that falls from the shoulders of the fresh young damsels paraded before us, but which conceals a contemporary examination of innocence, vulnerability and gullibility in the face of the persuasive power of authoritative (often pious) manipulative forces. It’s primarily critical of intolerance (particularly sexual intolerance), and the propagation of specious notions designed to perpetuate ignorance in order to exert control and influence. Rohmer espouses his ideas subliminally, located behind a deft lightness of touch, genuine charm, deliciously knowing wit, and a tenderly affectionate gaze.

    The underlying seriousness of his preoccupations is balanced by an equally strong and abiding faith in the clarifying and transformative power of genuine love. That love eventually wins the day constitutes a rare happy ending for Rohmer, an ending that leaves us in no doubt about the point he ultimately wants to make. For one to confuse the gaiety and deliberate naivety of this ending with the facile tropes of mainstream cinema is to miss the quietly profound and gentle wisdom lurking just below the surface. As relaxed and graceful as a summer’s breeze, the film is as fresh, sensual, youthful and optimistic as anything in Rohmer’s oeuvre. For those willing to suspend disbelief and delve a layer or two beneath the gossamer-light surface of the film will be richly rewarded.

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