Friday, August 7, 2009
Perceval le Gallois
Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois must surely be a shock to those familiar with the French New Wave auteur's chatty, philosophical modern films. This deeply strange, idiosyncratic film is adapted from an unfinished 12th Century adventure poem by Chrétien de Troyes. The film follows the adventures of a Welsh youth named Perceval (Fabrice Luchini), who had been raised in isolation and ignorance by his mother following the deaths of his father and two brothers, all of them knights. His mother, wishing to keep her youngest and sole living son safe, ensured that he would never hear any stories of knighthood, knowing that if he ever heard of these adventures he would leave her. Sure enough, when Perceval one day encounters a procession of knights in the forest near his home, he is enchanted by their armor and weapons, amazed by their beauty, and he immediately sets out to become a knight himself. The story is standard, an Arthurian romance in which Perceval encounters various challenges, must right wrongs and woo damsels and fight duels, while learning about the world and the codes of chivalry and honor. He progresses from a callow, ignorant youth into a man of the world, mature and self-possessed, seeking to understand things and to correct his path when he does wrong.
What makes the film so unsettling, however, is Rohmer's odd, heavily stylized treatment of Perceval's narrative. The film is set in a theatrical, patently artificial world, with no attempt at naturalism or realism. Perceval wanders on horseback across a cramped stage where the backdrop is a painted wash of muted blues to represent the sky. The trees in the forest are abstract sculptures, and the sets are wooden and tiny: entire castles and towns, coated in gold paper, are dwarfed by the horses. In order to convey the impression of riding for long distances, Perceval most often guides his mount in circles around the stage, and each time he comes across a new castle, it is obviously the same awkwardly built little construction with different banners hanging from the walls. The mise en scène deliberately undermines the narrative at every turn, creating a strangely magical artificial world in which the poetry of the narration takes on an otherworldly quality.
This narration too is unusual, mingling stylized poetic speech with gorgeous singing, set off against medieval orchestrations for flute and stringed instruments, along with occasional cymbal crashes and bird calls for sound effects. The film is populated with a roaming band of singers and instrumentalists — among them Solange Boulanger, Catherine Schroeder, Francisco Orozco, and flutist Deborah Nathan, and many others — who play various roles depending on the setting, justifying their presence at the fringes of the narrative. Their presence, and the film's metafictional structure, is more reminiscent of the contemporaneous films of Jacques Rivette than of Rohmer's other work. The characters often speak in the third person, prefacing their dialogue with "he said" or "she said." At other times, they sing stage directions and descriptions of action before speaking their lines. This frequent stylized disruption of the narrative gives the film a haunting, dreamlike quality. Rohmer's approach to this material privileges its medieval origins and its mythic grandeur, and yet he doesn't try to realistically recreate the time in which it is set. Instead, his film gives the impression of antiquity while always maintaining a modernist perspective on the past, a slyly ironic sensibility that stands aloof from Perceval's story, observing from the distance of several centuries.
This is most readily apparent in the film's absurd little improvisational touches, like the way Perceval, riding nobly off into a painted sunset, is forced to duck to get under an overhanging tree, or the way, during one of his many fights, he has to quickly adjust his crooked helmet to push its central cross-beam back into place. There's something endearingly rough and loose about this film, in the way its narrative skips around from place to place without regard for continuity, eliding long stretches of time and important details. The narration sometimes comically comments on what it's leaving out, particularly when the original text leaves out a description of a feast Perceval enjoyed one night: Rohmer shows the table being set up, but then his camera pans away to a servant, who says that he will not describe what was eaten, since the tale says only that they ate well. The fights too are incompletely described, and the sung narration wittily apologizes for this fact with a rhetorical question: "They fought at length/ I could describe each blow/ but is it worth your time and mine?"
Obviously, this is far from a conventional Arthurian romance, since Rohmer makes no attempt to smooth out the bumps in the original poetry's incomplete narrative. Late in the film, the story shifts, without explanation, to an account of the adventures of Sir Gauvain (André Dussollier) as he tries to clear his name of a false accusation. If Perceval's story is about a selfish, arrogant youth maturing and learning about life, Gauvain's tale is of an already-mature and good-hearted man retaining his good nature even when everything seems to conspire against him. The narrative leaves Perceval behind without fanfare and follows Gauvain until it reaches what seems to be a climax: he's trapped in a city whose inhabitants mistakenly believe he killed their king, and he's facing an angry mob intent on getting revenge. Here, Rohmer abruptly cuts away, in the middle of a clearly unfinished scene, and returns for a short time to Perceval, before again detouring into a stylized, theatrical staging of the death of Christ.
Rohmer's strategy of discontinuity here is almost academically faithful to the original text, which was left unfinished upon Chrétien's death, and later added to by other poets. Both central stories, of Gauvain and Perceval, are left incomplete, cut off at pivotal moments, with Gauvain facing a horde of angry peasants and the prospect of either clearing his name or losing his life, and Perceval facing a moment of possible spiritual redemption. Neither knight gets to complete his arc, neither gets to fulfill his destiny by playing out the remainder of his undoubtedly heroic story. This abrupt ending leaves Perceval in an especially perilous place as a hero. He is a decidedly ambiguous character, in many ways rather foolish and brutish. His youthful inexperience and lack of knowledge about the world sometimes causes him to behave awfully, as when, early on in the film, he misunderstands his mother's advice about the proper way to treat maidens, and forces himself upon a young woman (Clémentine Amouroux), kissing her and stealing her ring.
Throughout the film, scene by scene, he begins to learn more about the ways of the world and the proper behaviors for a "worthy man." A nobleman (Raoul Billerey) teaches him about the virtue of silence, the finer points of combat, and also about mercy and compassion for a knight who loses in battle. The nobleman's lovely niece, Blanchefleur (Arielle Dombasle), teaches Perceval about love, about how to defend a woman and also how to romance her, how to love her. A supernatural experience in a vanishing castle teaches him that sometimes, what's good advice in one situation might not serve him well in another — taking his mentor's advice too literally, he errs by staying silent when he should have spoken. These incidents each advance Perceval's maturation, and yet the film cuts off at a point when he has just realized how badly he has neglected his spirituality, and also how badly he has treated his loving, grieving mother, who died when he abandoned her. The film leaves Perceval forever stuck at a moment of indecision and penitence, trapped between youthful ignorance and full adulthood.
This story of arrested maturation is off-kilter and often goofy, shot through with low-key humor, particularly in the giggling asides of the singing servants who comment on the main action. There's also a raw poetry to Rohmer's idiosyncratic approach, a strange beauty in his flat, stylized imagery. In one of the film's most arresting and unusual sequences, Perceval is riding through a stark white, snow-covered plain, framed in his red armor against a gray sky, through which flies a flock of animated birds. Rohmer cuts briefly to an animated closeup of one of these birds, wounded and bleeding into the snow. The marks it leaves behind, three bright red spots on the white ground, remind Perceval of his beloved Blanchefleur, and the abstract bloodspots fade into an image of her face, one spot the bloody smear of her lips, the others the color on her rouged cheeks. It's a haunting silent interlude, a reverie of love and longing, and the sudden intrusion of traditional animation into the film's theatrical world is another of Rohmer's disjunctive techniques. What's striking about the film in moments like this is how emotionally affecting it can be despite its arm's length distance from its material, its artificial sets and textual fidelity. Rohmer has created a romantic fantasy of startling clarity and ethereal beauty.