Not Reconciled: Close-Up on Eric Rohmer’s "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon"

The final film by director Eric Rohmer, adapting Honoré d’Urfé’s monolithic 5,000-page novel, demonstrates the sensual power of words.
James Slaymaker

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007) is playing August 12 - September 11, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon was the final feature Rohmer completed before his death, and his 5th period piece (following The Marquis of O, Perceval, The Lady and the Duke and Triple Agent). It is constructed around a handful of aesthetic principles: its action is confined to a handful of locations, mostly pastoral exteriors; the camera is either static or moving along a brief lateral pan; dialogues are captured in wide masters, cushioned by a border of negative space; alternate angles and reverse shots are rare; non-diegetic sound is avoided in favor of foregrounding the ambient sounds of the natural environment—the rustling of leaves, water running in a stream, distant birdsong (and this birdsong was the only element of the audio added in post-production, otherwise Rohmer sticks to direct sound); the film is set entirely during the daytime, almost entirely illuminated with natural light; the action is always captured with a neutral angle and at a notable distance.

Yet Rohmer, adapting a single subplot from Honoré d’Urfé’s monolithic 5,000 page novel L’astree (published in a series of instalments between 1607 and 1627), isn’t aiming for verisimilitude or naturalism. As in the period films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Rohmer constructs a mise en scène that is minimalist while also evoking a strong feeling of classicism. The visual scheme of The Romance of Astra and Celadon is deeply rooted in the tradition of medieval pastoral paintings—an effect created through the extensive use of bold primary colors, the flattening of the visual planes, and the fixed, iconographic blocking of the actors, often posed like romantic statues. It’s also informed by the sensual materialism of the nature; the impromptu expressionistic abstractions created by the patterns of light thrown on trees, the gentle fluctuations of leaves in the wind. Indeed, when asked what he hoped to bring to his adaptation of the work, Rohmer responded: “In this novel, landscapes are mentioned but not described. The sense of nature that appeared toward the eighteenth century, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, did not yet exist; one doesn’t feel nature really living. Thus what cinema contributes is elements like wind that are not at all in the novel”. The film’s aesthetic is based on a delicate balance of the carefully controlled (Rohmer’s tight framing; the pared down, theatrical performances), and the spontaneity of the natural location. Too often thought of as a primarily character-orientated filmmaker, Rohmer is also a master of landscapes, both natural and otherwise—it tends to be forgotten that early in his career Rohmer crafted two extraordinary structuralist films that simply present the viewer with montages of environmental features (Fermière à Montfaucon and L'ère industrielle: Métamorphoses du paysage). Rohmer’s pictorialist framing is on some level a manifestation of the Platonic belief in the connection between physical beauty and moral virtue. So the many finely-tuned shots of Celadon posed in carefully layered and textured tableaux serves as a material embodiment of an abstracted, pure notion of the good.

The project was originally developed by Pierre Zucca, who also worked from a fragment of d’Urfé’s novel yet a significantly more expansive one, and intended to realize on-screen a number of more fantastical and supernatural elements of the plot that Rohmer eventually eschewed, such as a literal fountain of love that allowed Astra to see visions of Celadon. Zucca struggled for years locating funding for the project, and it remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1995. Rohmer first picked up the adaptation in 1999, though it wouldn’t come to completion until 2007. Rohmer streamlined Zucca’s outline, making the couple the sole focus of the narrative and restricting all elements to the purely secular. Shooting with two 16mm cameras on the valley of the Sioule river in Auvergne, Rohmer constructs a story that is delightfully simple in its trajectory—the two titular Gallic lovers must overcome their respective reservations and come to the mutual realization that they are destined to be with one another. This inevitable union is delayed, however, through a comically complex web of misunderstandings, masquerades and deceits. As such, the narrative operates within familiar Rohmerian territory despite its period setting; in this sense, the film recalls another period piece made by a New Wave luminary released in the same year, Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe, though Rohmer’s ultimately idealistic vision of romantic love couldn’t be more different from the overwhelming darkness of Rivette’s sprawling portrait of a relationship constructed around a web of masochistic power games.

Rohmer’s films foreground conversation, but, more importantly, they explore the ways in which discussion can serve as a substitute for the gratification of furious desires. This therefore allows his subjects to externalize, contain and neutralize their desires, out of fear of what havoc their desires may unleash. Rohmer demonstrates, perhaps greater than any other filmmaker, the sensual power of words, and how sexual drives can be expressed through verbal gamesmanship. This quality of discursivity as the foundation of romantic couplings is shared by the pastoral genre, which tended to structure its comedies as strings of dialogues largely meditating on the ideas of romance and social graces. Astrea and Celadon are lovers who must hide their passion from their parents, who are at odds with one another. It has been agreed that Celadon must flirt with other women to maintain their cover, yet, when Astrea sees him advancing upon a local girl at a dance, she becomes so consumed with envy and paranoia that she expels him from her life. A distraught Celadon—a chaste, over-sensitive, faintly ridiculous romantic in line with so many of Rohmer’s male protagonists—impulsively throws himself in the river, leaving behind a lengthy suicide note scrawled in tree bark. He survives the attempted drowning however, and washes up on a part of the bank positioned next to a grand castle operated by three young women, self-proclaimed “nymphs,” who nurse them back to health. The nymph Galathée quickly becomes enamoured with Celadon, yet her attempts to seduce him are repeatedly frustrated, as he vows to remain faithful to Astrea while simultaneously honoring her desire to never see him again; his comical literalism aligns him with the protagonists of Rohmer’s earlier Moral Tales. The two characters lead lives shadowed by the absence of their lover. To avoid temptation, Celadon sets up a fort made of sticks and leaves in a secluded part of the forest, where he vows the stay. Meanwhile, Astrea, believing Celadon dead, isolates herself from the community in insular despair.

Rohmer sets up a peculiar structure whereby the two central lovers spend nearly the entire film occupying a separate screen space, yet they are constantly thinking about or talking about one another. It’s a story that foregrounds the fundamental obscurity of the desired other, the way we project our own insecurities onto those around us. For the most part, Celadon exists to Astrea as a phantom, a reticent, dour memory not physically present but colouring every element of her life; a sensation mirrored in Celadon’s desire to commit himself to Astrea in spite of not feeling his affection returned. Their relationship is thus based on a strange combination of distance and intimacy. A mirror to Celadon’s feeling of loving but not feeling that love returned. Rohmer constructs his narrative around gaping structural absences in order to explore the form love takes when the physical aspect is removed, a subject also given substantial consideration in Terrence Malick’s great To The Wonder (2012). Appropriately, one of the film’s central theoretical dialogues (drawing heavily from a section of Plato’s Symposium) concerns the nature of love in terms of presence, whether a love is wasted if it’s not expressed externally, and whether mental fidelity is equally as important as physical fidelity.

It is a performance that leads to the revelation of true feelings, as Celadon dresses as a young maiden to reclaim his woman through friendship. Following the advice of the druid uncle of one of the nymphs, Celadon disguises himself as a woman, assuming the name “Alexia” and visits the blessing of a new temple. It’s a brilliant contrivance that aligns the lovers back in harmony with one another, and reignites her old feelings for him. This, to Celadon, is a way of becoming close to his love while technically retaining his promise to keep away from her. The two are drawn to one another, inexplicitly for Astrea. Their feelings are gradually resurrected until they burst into a long sequence of erotic rapture. Astrea gradually becomes aware of the traces of Celadon’s affections enacted on her by Alexia, and prays that it is he in masquerade. As in The Green Ray and A Tale of Winter, the film ends on a sustained moment of ecstasy as Celadon gradually drops the disguise. 

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