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Quality of Tradition: Éric Rohmer’s "The Marquise of O"

Éric Rohmer’s remarkable adaptation of Kleist opens with wry distance followed by a jarring plunge into chaos.
MUBI is showing Eric Rohmer's The Marquise of O (1976) in the United States from August 27 - September 26, 2016
A pronouncement—a mysterious pregnancy and an offer of marriage. Incredulity and laughter. “Suddenly, the war—.”
Wry distance followed by a jarring plunge into chaos—so opens The Marquise of O, Éric Rohmer’s remarkable (and remarkably faithful) adaptation of the 1808 novella by Heinreich von Kleist. Set in Italy during the Napoleonic Wars, the story begins with the assault of a castle inhabited by a colonel and his family. During the attack, the colonel’s widowed daughter, Julietta (Edith Clever), is set upon by invading Russian soldiers, but is rescued by Count F (Bruno Ganz), a Russian officer. After the castle has been surrendered, the Count visits the Marquise in her bedchamber, and, in the most delicately composed sequence of the film—a shot of the Marquise in a potion-induced slumber; a cut to the Count and a flash of desire; a fade to black—he rapes her. (It's the cinematic equivalent of what has been called "the most delicately accomplished rape in our literature": startling violence contained in a single dash: "Then—the officer.")
Made in 1976, after the end of the Six Moral Tales cycle, the film was the first of only five period pieces that Rohmer would make over his entire career. Taken as a unit, Rohmer’s period dramas tend to be overlooked in favor of his other “cycles,” from the Moral Tales to the Comedies & Proverbs to the Tales of the Four Seasons; and although rightly celebrated upon its release (it won the Grand Prix at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival), The Marquise of O has fared similarly. That’s understandable, perhaps, given the consistence and quality of Rohmer’s output, but part of the reason, it seems, is the film’s narrative subject, which presents something of a challenge for contemporary viewers. The shock is not necessarily the rape itself nor the myriad horrors that it brings upon the Marquise and her family, but that the crime—extraordinarily, perhaps even scandalously—gives way to forgiveness and love.
It would be possible to view the film with casual detachment, to use its delicate humor and cool irony as a defense mechanism. One could even go so far as to read the ending—the Count and the Countess in loving embrace—as a sarcastic joke similar to the one that ends Agnès Varda's Le Bonheur, which revisits the film's opening image of familial bliss, but with the man's wife—having been driven to her death by his adultery—now replaced by his mistress. But to do so would be to ignore the film’s emotional locus; it would be to overlook the gravity with which Rohmer treats the very act of living, whether it be in 1800s Italy or then-contemporary France. What results is a bracing mix of visual stylization and psychological realism—literate and composed, but also fraught with ambiguity and roiling emotion; at once ridiculous and sublime; improbable, scandalous and yet entirely plausible. The miracle of The Marquise of O is not an immaculate conception (though that’s floated as a possibility), but that every aspect of the unfolding narrative is accorded genuine weight. The competing social and moral dimensions—the Count's abrupt offer of marriage; the initial assumption of Julietta's guilt; the colonel's banishment of his daughter; the urging of the Marquise’s family to marry the Count—have an emotional immediacy that forces the viewer to reckon with the characters’ humanity first, and their actions second.
That's not to say that Rohmer doesn't bring a modern touch to Kleist's material—how could he not?—but what he doesn't do is treat the moral and social codes of the time, archaic as they may seem now, with derision. To approach film with high-minded modernity, however well-meaning, is to fall into the same trap that the Marquise's family does; that is, presuming to know what is right based on the governing conventions of their day. Can we really judge them for acting as they do, when we are—and will always be—in the same precariously limited position? It’s not a mistake to see art as instructive; but to say, for example, that Rohmer is somehow condoning forced seduction, is extremely limiting; it forces the film to be representative, when it is, in both incident and treatment, startlingly exceptional.
This isn’t to suggest that films need be uncritical of the past or that viewers should somehow suspend their values and beliefs when approaching art—that would be both impossible and undesirable. But there's a marked difference between a critical outlook and a blanket assumption that the past has no wisdom to offer. (Derisive laughter and snickering at repertory film screenings is a by-product of the latter approach; ditto films that do little more than congratulate the audience for being born at a particular time.) Viewers may balk at the colonel's cruelty or doubt the sincerity of the Count’s love or be incredulous at Julietta's magnanimity. But to dismiss their actions as simply of the past, instead of grappling with the thorniness of the characters’ present-tense predicament, is its own form of close-mindedness. After all, it's not as if human cruelty or abjection or forgiveness are any less universal today. To question the film is one thing; to dismiss it as merely “outmoded” or “dated” is another entirely.
In the biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, Rohmer is quoted as saying: "The sense of balance, of harmony, suggests that we respect tradition in its contemporary aspects.” That outlook is arguably a political issue, a product of the director’s well-known conservatism, but it’s also, in my view, what makes his work so enduringly vital. Navigating the governing social codes of the present day is a difficult, at times impossible task, so why should we assume that it hasn't always been so?
To watch The Marquise of O is to step into an entire phenomenological world, one that we may find unsettling for how much it resembles our own. And like the best of Rohmer’s films, it ensures that when we step out, that reality looks a little different—less simple, more precarious, more beautiful than we might have remembered.

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