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.


J. Nyhuis said...

Some really insightful remarks here, Ed. I love this film, although it's been some time since I've seen it. I've always been attracted to tension that is created between the blunt artificiality of its decor and the complete sincerity of the performances, as you refer to in the final paragraph. But reading your thoughts here (esp. in paragraphs four and six) now leads me to suspect that Rohmer is also making a kind of sly commentary on the popular demand for "faithful" literary adaptations.

Great screen cap for your opening, by the way.

Sam Juliano said...

I saw this a while back, but I must admit it is one of my favorite Rohmers against all odds. The bottom line as you note late in your review is that despite the heavy and often disorienting stylization, the film connects on an emotional level. Rohmer has made greater films of course, but this diversion is far more than that. The patently artificial and theatrical world is alluring.

One of your finest reviews, for whatever its worth.

Ed Howard said...

J, I agree that Rohmer is probably making some subtle commentary about "faithful" adaptations. His version of the story is completely faithful to the text in every way he can be, and this is exactly what gives the film its utterly strange formal qualities. Rohmer seems to be suggesting that fidelity to literature necessitates a disconnection from reality; you can't be both truly faithful to a text and create a realistic world. He's also of course asking what it means to be really "faithful" to a text, beyond simply retelling its story.

Sam, it's really difficult for me to compare this to Rohmer's other very different films, but I agree with you that it's a great one and probably among his best. His other films just seem like the work of an entirely different filmmaker in comparison, not better or worse, just very distinct. One comparison I did think of was the staging of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale in the Rohmer film of the same name. That has something of the quality of Perceval, though of course that's an actual play within a film.

IA said...

A lovely film, and a perfect adaptation too, not only of Chretien's massively influential poem, but also of medieval textual illustration (some of the characters' postures are taken directly from such imagery)--it's one of the few medieval-set films that captures the era by merging its visual art with the "reality" of actors and sets.
Chretien's Perceval kicked off the multiple series of Grail tales in Arthurian romance, and if Rohmer ever wanted to do a sequel, I'd love to see him adapt the first continuation. But as it is Rohmer created a splendid conclusion with the Passion scene--it caps and dovetails perfectly with Chretien having Perceval forget God for five years, then returning to the church after meeting pilgrims. Along with Bresson's much different Lancelot of the Lake (itself an adaptation of the vulgate cycle that incorporated much of Chretien's work), Rohmer's Perceval is surely the finest of Arthurian movies.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, IA. Good catch on the way the film's visuals reflect the influence of medieval textual "illumination" -- the bright primary colors and formal poses certainly bring to mind such antique manuscripts as well as, possibly, stained glass windows.

Anonymous said...

I think yours is a very good review. I just saw the movie, after having read the book, and I really loved it. I like medieval music, and the music in that film is just fabulous.

I get the feeling however that you haven't read the book, or maybe not recently. It i incredible how faithful this movie is to the book. It is not for the movie convenience that they say "They feasted, I need not tell you what, only that they ate well" etc. Chrétien does it himself: he never describes the jousts or indeed really the meals.

In any case, I pity those who see it but can't speak French, as Chrétien's prose has no equal, and the English translation is much more trivial than the other-worldly formulations of the author, faithfully rendered in the film...

Anonymous said...

Don´t forget the master work of Nestor Almendros, the Director of Photography of many Rohmer´s films

Joel Bocko said...

Enjoyed reading this; watching this film more or less concluded 3 months of viewing Grail-related films including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Fisher King, Lancelot du Lac, Excalibur, Syberburg's adaptation of Wagner's Parsifal, and finally Perceval Le Gallois. Which wonderfully brought things full-circle because while watching all these movies, I also was reading about the Grail - a process which began by reading Chretien's Story of the Graal.

As Anon mentions above, it's amazing how much of the sly subversion is actually in Chretien's text: it's as if he's spoofing/playing and at the same time inventing a genre, not to mention a subject (the legend of the Holy Grail, one of the central metaphors of Western culture, is birthed in Chretien's romance with astonishing simplicity: a dazzling but not supernatural vessel for the Eucharist it is not yet the cup of the Last Supper or the blood-catching container of the Crucifixion; here it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself, yet something about the object and metaphor obviously stuck with readers/listeners and was amplified over time).

I also agree with IA's comparison to medieval artwork which especially struck me in the castle scenes. Strangely, precisely by NOT being realistic (unlike, say, Bresson's earthy Lancelot - although that has definite costume descrepencies and is more about realism of spirit, I think, than texture) Rohmer's film manages to capture the spirit of Chretien's work and medieval art in general: elementally simple yet dazzlingly rich. Perceval captures the world in a microcosm (Wes Anderson must love this movie). What a wonderful discovery this film was for me, and a perfect conclusion to my own Grail quest.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for commenting, Joel. You've got way more knowledge of the Grail and its history than I do; unlike you I saw this film in isolation, more in the context of Rohmer's other films than in terms of its source and subject. It's very fascinating that the original text is itself that subversive, since that fits well with Rohmer's general idea of literary faithfulness in this and his other films in this vein.

Yeah, I bet Wes Anderson is a big fan, the design sense in this film is a delight.

I'm glad you saw this one, it's very underseen (I can't even say underrated, because most who do see it seem to like it!), like a lot of Rohmer's films that fall outside his popular "cycles." He has a number of quirky gems that aren't part of the Four Seasons or the Moral Tales or the Comedies & Proverbs, and which thus don't get a lot of attention.