Although Eric Rohmer’s fresh, unadorned style rarely sits heavily on his films, The Romance of Astrée and Céladon, his adaptation of 17th century writer Honoré d’Urfé’s 5th century fable of affronted love, not only features an unusual absence of intellectual banter, but is more importantly the lightest and silliest the director has been in ages. These are not pejorative descriptions—the film’s wholesome delight in d’Urfé’s modest whimsy amongst the 5th century Gauls of druids, nymphs and many amorous declarations of assured sincerity and flighty infidelity, the director’s own sweet, unexpected eroticism, and the film’s gentle spirit simply make a work that is light, lovely, and strange.
The deception and gameplaying of so many Rohmer films here seems more carefree; freed from dramatic realism (but by no means abandoning cinematic realism), young and beautifully wooden Céladon (Andy Gillet) and his milky, quickly teary-eyed Astrée (Stéphanie Crayencour) love each other so much as to immediately wrest their love apart. Although Astrée herself sends Céladon into the arms of another woman to fool their rivaling parents, the young woman cannot hold back her jealousy even over a fake act of love, and irrationally banishes Céladon from her sight. Céladon does the only natural thing in the circumstances for someone so in love: swears to drown himself immediately. As in Shakespeare’s comedies, this couple becomes separated less by the flow of the river’s current (or fate’s) than by deception and miscommunication, here their mistaken belief in each other’s love— Astrée, thinking Céladon dead comes to forgive him and love him more than ever, and Céladon, rescued from the river by amorous nymphs, refuses to see his beloved out of his dutiful, loving respect for her angry banishment.
It is a bit convoluted, yes, which Rohmer clearly acknowledges with title cards that help move between Céladon’s idiotic self-exile and Astrée’s mopey tear sessions and her bungling, but sweetly faithful questions about the survivalibility of bodies and souls. In its general atmosphere of formal and diegetic weirdness the narrative also features sporadic voice-over which, like the text excerpts of Balzac in Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe, speak out loud moments so powerful that images alone cannot convey them (like the splendor of sunlight, or, say, that of an exposed thigh or breast). In fact, for such a spare scenario, with only obstinacy and physical distance keeping his lovers apart, Rohmer indulges rather freely in d’Urfé’s universe, letting a druid wax on about his crypto-Christian religion and an amusingly odd digression, part carnivalesque, part chorus-like, between one shepard who ascribes to the belief that love desires only itself and unites two people in one, and a shepard-bard who sings on and on about the bodily pleasures of multiple partners.
It all serves a purpose of course, these playful digressions that associate love and Godliness with the binding of two things in one (man and woman, the holy trinity), but to dwell on them would be to ignore Rohmer’s sprightly tone that, if leisurely paced, is well aware we all know what are keeping these lovers apart. The film takes pleasure not in the couple’s torment but rather in their delightfully adolescent throws of true love. Céladon’s illogical over-reliance on his girl’s word-as-bond is portrayed as typical human (if not teenage) silliness of obsessing over the smarting declarations of angry lovers and fastidious respect of social conventions. Indeed, it is in the film’s final act when Céladon cross-dresses to become closer to his Astrée that we not only see how arbitrarily he really held his exile from her vision, but also to what delightfully absurd lengths one will go for love. Likewise, as Astrée’s love blossoms out of her fickle faithlessness, she finds that she cannot reconcile her love for Céladon’s soul with signs of Céladon love in the real world—a poem carved on a tree, a temple shrine that bares her image—and she must eventually accept the obvious, that which is right in front of her eyes, and, eventually, under her caresses.
Unlike the blatant artificiality of some of Rohmer’s other historical adaptations—the computer generated backgrounds of The Lady and the Duke, the sung accompaniment and theatrical sets of Perceval—the director approaches The Romance of Astrée and Céladon with a nonchalant, gentle realism, made up almost entirely by his model-beautiful (and sometimes purposefully stilted) actors in lovely natural locations with a rare cut-away to a painting on a wall to illustrate a point or a story. This is a style so unostentatious that, in a verbal spar between Céladon and his captor-nymph (Véronique Reymond) which Rohmer shoots, like the rest of the film, from a freely panning tripod, only if one pays attention to the subtlety of Rohmer’s location does one realize that the two are dueling within a small, waist-level hedge maze.
This style and the simplicity of setting pare the mise-en-scène down to fit hand-in-hand with the 17th century story’s charming naiveté. Only in a film so matter-of-factly shot, so undesirous of weighting down the adolescent and therefore absurd but also sincere and rapturous pleasures and pains of its lovers can one have their male lead whistle a tune on his flute and sing of his past love as he tromps around the forest, dissolves to loving caresses in sweet times accompanying our anachronistic music video.
It is silly, yes, but delightfully so: we recognize and warm to the allegory only because its telling is so sweet, one that asks nothing but to enjoy the warmth and beauty of the tale, the gentle splashes of tears, the glance of milky, exposed skin, the wind in the trees and in the garments (oh the scene with Céladon and Cécile Cassel’s druid-daughter Léonide on the windy riverbank, it is sublime!). If it were not for Rohmer asking nothing but the acceptance of his young actors walking amorously through forests and castles could The Romance of Astrée and Céladon be anything but laughable? It is the filmmaker’s simple belief in his youths standing in nature professing their anguish over their love, and their finding love itself that makes the film so charming. It is an acceptance of the simplest element of cinema, of what is in front of the camera and its expression—however “outdated” or “naïve”—that lends the film its soft, flowing eroticism, its playful sensuality, and its unexpected strangeness.