Tuesday, June 28, 2011
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
Eric Rohmer's final film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, is a charming, deeply felt ode to the follies and pleasures of devoted love, a fitting subject for this last statement from a director who always concerned himself with both the emotions and the philosophies of love. The film opens with some text that suggests Rohmer's unique approach to realism and fidelity to his sources. The film is adapted from a 17th Century romance set in 5th Century Gaul, so its sense of period realism is of course already at a remove: the denizens of one century imagining what the inhabitants of another thought and acted like, and then Rohmer enters the picture to imagine about those imaginings, at an even further remove. Even so, he acknowledges that unfortunately he had to change the setting of the story, since the Forez plain that served as the original story's setting is no longer as pastoral and serene as the story requires, having been overrun with "urban blight" in the intervening centuries. The text conveys Rohmer's regret at having to make these kinds of changes, necessary as they are in adapting a story that's so remote from the modern era. It's a sly introduction to a film that purposefully places itself in an alien time and place, with foreign customs and ways of thinking that seem absurd and goofy to modern sensibilities. The sense of distance allows Rohmer to remain true to the spirit of the old source while always maintaining his own modern perspective on the material.
The film is a love story between the two title characters, the shepherdess Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) and her lover Celadon (Andy Gillet). Theirs is a Romeo and Juliet-style forbidden love, since their families have long quarreled over a trivial slight from the past. In order to disguise their affair, Astrea tells Celadon to pretend to be in love with another girl, but, due to his strong sense of duty and obedience, he pretends too well and causes Astrea to reject him in a fit of jealousy. He tries to kill himself, apparently succeeds, and is washed up in a land down the river, ruled over by nymphs and druids. This basic scenario prompts a convoluted series of misunderstandings and ruses that keep the lovers separated for the remainder of the film, with Astrea believing her beloved to be dead and Celadon refusing to return to her due to his strict adherence to his code of love. She told him never to come near her again, and though she now desperately wishes he were back with her, alive, he remains true to her final words to him.
Rohmer portrays love as a folly and a madness, a delirious devotion to a pure and impossible ideal. Much of the film is devoted to philosophical debates about love and religion. Celadon's brother Lycidas (Jocelyn Quivrin) represents the side of love and devotion in rhetorical battles with the lascivious singer Hylas (Rodolphe Pauly), who represents promiscuity and lust. In these discussions, Lycidas comes across as cool and collected, a rational proponent of love with his wife smiling sweetly by his side in mute agreement. Hylas, for his part, seems half-mad and wild-eyed, a Dionysian figure of lust and pleasure, his mouth constantly twisted into a sneer and his eyes popping with exaggerated desire. At the same time, Hylas' skepticism seems founded when Lycidas says that one who's in love literally becomes his beloved. Even the most cool-headed love, like the seemingly ideal relationship between Lycidas and his wife, contains an element of irrationality, a gap over which one must make a leap of faith without questioning or trying to understand the ineffable. The romance between Astrea and Celadon combines the stolid devotion of Lycidas with the mad lust of Hylas, and Rohmer suggests that perhaps this madness, which seems so absurd and even silly, is true love.
Indeed, the film's plot grows increasingly wild with each new wrinkle. In the final act, Celadon impersonates a girl, the daughter of a druid (Serge Renko), in order to remain close to his beloved without revealing his identity to her. The premise is fundamentally absurd, and must have seemed so even on the page, but when it's actually enacted and visualized it becomes a hysterical farce. Celadon, for all the talk of how pretty he is and how girlish he looks, is thoroughly unconvincing when disguised as a girl. The druid even explicitly says that he has a herb that will hide Celadon's beard — but then, in the subsequent scenes where he appears as a girl, he has a prominent five o'clock shadow that can't be missed. It's yet another example of the sly wit of Rohmer's literary adaptations: he remains fanatically true to the letter of his source even when the result onscreen is silly and hilarious, even when his images directly contradict the text. Perhaps this is a metaphor for love itself. Rohmer's devotion to his text risks absurdity even as the lover does in professing his adoration for his beloved, remaining true to strict codes of behavior that have meaning, if at all, only for him and his love. True love, in this film, creates its own world and its own rules, as remote from ordinary reality as this film seems from the present world.
Rohmer explicitly links this mad devotion to religion and spirituality, which abut romance throughout the film. The gods of the film are Roman gods, but the conversations between Celadon and the druid, which center around whether there are many gods or a single god with many aspects, obviously refer to Christianity without naming it as such. At one point, the druid, having tried to explain some of the "mysteries" of his faith, such as the division of a single god into several secondary aspects and the birth of one aspect of god from a human virgin, finally looks to heaven and declares that he can say no more, lest he taint the mystery. In a nice, subtle touch, Celadon's eyes follow the druid's towards the top of the frame, as though trying to see what the holy man sees above them. Love and religion are the twin "mysteries" of the film, the twin madnesses that possess human beings and make them behave in ways that may seem absurd or illogical or out-of-touch with the world. Thus, though the film's final act — in which a comical, "lesbian" desire develops between Astrea and Celadon, apparently without the former realizing that the latter is actually her lost (male) lover — can only be described as a farce, it's a farce with real feeling animating these unbelievable actions and contrivances.
Rohmer was always concerned with characters who stuck to rigid codes, embodied in the conflicted Catholic moralism of My Night At Maud's or the idealistic search for an abstractly "perfect" love in films like The Green Ray or A Winter's Tale. It's fitting that Rohmer ended his career with The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, since this film presents a vision of that kind of philosophical purity taken to its (il)logical extreme. Its pastoral beauty provides a languid setting for these musings on love, especially in an interlude where Celadon wanders through the forest, singing about his love as images of natural splendor fade into idealized images of Astrea smiling sweetly, flirting with the camera. This is a film that pays tribute to youth and beauty, to those who madly pursue ideals rather than settling for the more accessible pleasures that the world has to offer. It is a sublimely goofy film, and it's not the least bit ashamed of it.