Grace Period

Nick Pinkerton on “Period Rohmer: The Marquise of O… and Other Films” at BAM

Éric Rohmer, The Marquise of O..., 1976, 35 mm, color, sound, 103 minutes.

ÉRIC ROHMER’S last completed feature, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in fall of 2007, when its director was eighty-seven years old, slightly less than three years before his death. The basis of the film was L’Astrée, a seventeenth-century pastoral novel by Honoré d’Urfé that concerns a protracted misunderstanding between Céladon, a shepherd of high birth, and Astrée, the woman whom he loves in spite of a feud between their families. The couple are torn asunder by Astrée’s jealous suspicions, and Céladon, played in Rohmer’s film by Andy Gillet, finds himself sought after by a smitten nymph, whose advances he must deflect out of respect for his lost love. Typical of Rohmer’s films, the drama is in the discourse, an ethical tug-of-war.

“Only fools are swayed by notions of loyalty,” she tells him.

“Is any act more shameful, more fickle, than to flit like a bee from flower to flower?” he replies.

Rohmer may be accused of many things, but fickleness isn’t one. The running conversation which is central to Astrea and Celadon—the value of a life of fidelity versus that of flitting from flower to flower, represented most memorably by Rodolphe Pauly’s horndog minstrel Hylas—is evident in his filmography as early as his 1963 short The Bakery Girl of Monceau, in which a young man (Barbet Schroeder) is briefly distracted by a flirtation with the eponymous bakery girl before finally returning to the original object of his affections, a stranger on the street who’d caught his eye. (Narrating from a future in which he and the first woman have wed, our protagonist finally, definitively dismisses this interlude as an “aberration.”)

Along with Claude Chabrol, a fellow critic turned filmmaker of the Cahiers du cinema class with whom Rohmer coauthored an early study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Rohmer was the New Waver who most epitomized the figure of the auteur as a monomaniacal obsessive-compulsive, forever rearranging the same themes to fit into new patterns. While Chabrol set about reconfiguring his various Hélène/Paul/Charles threesomes, Rohmer went so far as to formalize his themed “periods,” his filmography largely being defined by three cycles: The Tales of the Four Seasons (four films, 1990–98), Comedies and Proverbs (six films, 1981–87), and the Six Moral Tales (1963–72), of which The Bakery Girl was the first installment. In the interstices between movies belonging to these series, Rohmer made various unaffiliated one-offs—one of them, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, had a weeklong stand in 2010 at BAMcinématek, which last year screened the Four Seasons. Now BAM has grouped a particular subset of unattached films in a weeklong, five-film retro devoted to “Period Rohmer.”

“Period Rohmer” highlights two distinct acts in the director’s career. The first comes after the completion of the Moral Tales and consists of two films, The Marquise of O… (1976) and Perceval (1978). Starring Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz, Marquise is based on a 1808 novel by the German Romantic Heinrich von Kleist, who was the subject of Austrian Jessica Hausner’s excellent, Rohmer-indebted 2014 Amour fou. (Rohmer, who preserved von Kleist’s archaic German in his film’s dialogue, later adapted his work for the stage; the result, 1980’s Catherine de Heilbronn, was broadcast on French television, though it is not included in BAM’s program.) Perceval draws on Arthurian lore, in particular Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century Perceval, the Story of the Grail. In both, Rohmer is approaching in unfamiliar trappings familiar thematic territory, in particular the vicissitudes faced by individuals stubbornly loyal to codes of personal honor. In both, he attempts to solve the difficulty of the period film with different methodologies: Marquise was filmed entirely in real locations, while Perceval was shot on constructed sets. As is so often the case when directors depart from their established style or narrative, the movies were largely greeted with incomprehension, and Rohmer wouldn’t make another period piece for over twenty years.

Rohmer’s second round of period films, consisting of The Lady and the Duke (2000), Triple Agent (2004), and Astrea and Celadon, are the last films that he made, when it might be said that he had nothing to lose. That these late works were undertaken without the benefit of a larger series framework may have been a circumstance imposed by the pragmatic acceptance of mortality—at eighty, it is difficult to kick off a multifilm cycle with any reasonable expectation of finishing it—but this shouldn’t imply that Rohmer had become frail or overcautious in his old age. Lady and the Duke, his first film of the twenty-first century, was also his first feature shot in digital video, and offered a perspective on the French Revolution that, in some quarters, was received as distinctly revanchist.

The Lady and the Duke was based on the journal of Grace Elliott, the Scottish mistress of the Duke of Orleans who bore firsthand witness to the revolution, who is played in the film by Lucy Russell. Rather than trying to construct the lost, pre-Haussmannization Paris of 1790–94, Rohmer had his actors perform their outdoor scenes in front of a green screen, then superimposed them onto painted backgrounds, the work of one Jean-Baptiste Marot, inspired by period engravings; the resulting film embodies the central, unresolved contradiction of Rohmer, being at once retrograde and absolutely modern. The popular theory that Elliott perhaps survived the Terror by appearing to work for both Royalists and Revolutionaries may have inspired Rohmer’s next film, Triple Agent, set in the years of the French Popular Front, immediately prior to World War II, and likewise dealing with a character of ambiguous loyalties, a former White Russian general in Paris (Serge Renko) who trades information with Reds and Nazis alike. (Triple Agent is unique among Rohmer’s period films in depicting a time that the director himself lived through—he turned sixteen in 1936.)

Key to understanding Rohmer’s approach to period filmmaking is the fact that he is not endeavoring to revive the texture and rhythm of the past as it was in fact lived, as, say, Roberto Rossellini would attempt in his own cycle of histories, begun a few years before The Marquise of O… Rather, he shows us a past as it has come to us through representation, either by its own artists or by those of future generations, sometimes centuries removed. A prologue to Astrea and Celadon states that the fifth-century Gauls which the film depicts are portrayed “as seventeenth-century readers imagined them,” and the film heavily draws on period renditions of the world of antiquity by Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, and Simon Vouet, whose paintings Saturn, Conquered by Amor, Venus and Hope and Cupid and Psyche both appear in the film. The Marquise of O… is, for its part, structured around counterpoised quotations from the work of both French Neoclassicists and mitteleuropean Romantics, most notably Henry Fuseli and his The Nightmare. Painting even has a crucial role in Triple Agent, where discussions of aesthetics—representational versus abstract work—is a coded extension of political debate.

Small beauties constitute great art,” Rohmer wrote in Cahiers in 1961. “We accept this in painting, why not in cinema?” The analogue between Rohmer’s filmmaking and painting is important, for his work is above all concerned with beauty—the tricky relationship between moral and physical allure, as well as the restorative effects of the natural world. Reliant as they are on the ineffable quality of beauty, Rohmer’s films are more than usually vulnerable to degradation by clumsy, insensate “restorations” of the digital kind; last year I saw a squeaky-clean hackwork DCP job of A Tale of Springtime (1990) that was bad enough to make me beat feet out of the cinema. The Marquise of O… and Perceval will be showing at BAM in DCP, the former for a full week, while the latter-days histories will all be showing in 35-mm prints. It is to be hoped that, in cleaning the patina off of Rohmer’s first histories, they haven’t been sanitized into oblivion.

“Period Rohmer: The Marquise of O… and Other Films” runs August 28–September 3 at BAMcinématek in New York.