Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon
**/**** Image B Sound B+
starring Andy Gillet, Stéphanie Crayencour, Cécile Cassel, Serge Renko
screenplay by Eric Rohmer, based on the novel L'Astrée by Honoré d'Urfé
directed by Eric Rohmer
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Of all the Cahiers du cinema New Wave heroes, Eric Rohmer is the one I've thought about the least. His subdued, tasteful chamber drama never had the grab of the other four: he wasn't compellingly over-intellectual like Godard, entertaining to a fault like Truffaut, pointedly genre-ready like Chabrol, or off-book bizarre like Rivette. That's not necessarily a bad thing. To think about Truffaut and Godard is to think about a couple of grandstanders--one for "cinema," one for anti-cinema--who drew battle lines so intense and unreasonable that you felt dragged into a bloodbath. To think about Chabrol and Rivette--the popular artist and the intellectual--is to think of people working through their kinks without such alibis, and who are very good at the work.
The implication is not that Rohmer isn't good at his work, as he's great at it--it's just that he's keen on denying the kinks. Maybe the esteemed director has none, and he has every right to not air dirty laundry he doesn't have. Nevertheless, he's rather hell-bent on telling other people their business, from a position of health and authority possessed by no living thing. He's the only one who would baldly call his series "moral tales" and "comedies and proverbs," because he's confident he can show you the error of your ways. And really, he's one of the few who could get away with it, for his unhurried, quiet, leisurely Bazin-isms go down smoothly and put you at ease. But though I've grown to like some of his stuff, I never quite buy it, for Rohmer's moralism is so complete and obvious that there's not much to do but watch it and move on.
So it is with The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon). Where Rivette would take an easy-to-digest realistic novel (The Duchess of Langeais) and make it weirder than David Lynch, Rohmer takes the fantastical stuff of legend and makes it a mixer at the Sorbonne. Never one for mystery, he turns the fifth-century-set Honoré d'Urfé story into a relationship movie. Earthbound babes Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) and Celadon (Andy Gillet) have a tiff, prompting Celadon to hurl himself into the drink (it's the 5th century, they did that kind of thing). He is rescued by the nymph Galatea (Veronique Raymond) and, after much huffing and puffing about her amorous intentions, sneaks off into the forest to figure out how he got into this mess. Fortunately, he encounters the druid Adamas (Serge Renko), who gives the boy tips on how to win his woman back--which involves impersonating a female in the climactic festival scene.
D'Urfé's story has unfortunately given critics excuses to reference Twelfth Night and remark on the "perversity" or something in the cross-dressing element. The former is a coincidence, but the latter is about as perverse as an episode of "Will & Grace". Rohmer is aware of no perversity in the sexual behaviour of his humans and nymphs, and the film would have been intolerable had it drawn arrows to its risqué nonentities to titillate the genteel. Yet if there is no sensationalism, there is also no mystery. Give Rohmer a romantic contretemps, and he'll make it geometric and utterly comprehensible; the solution to the separation of lovers is simple enough that it doesn't stimulate you. Give him a natural setting, and he'll make it pleasant to be around without your particularly noticing it--which makes for a painless but barely-there viewing. And give him a parent-guide like the druid, and he'll come up with a pedant so full of wisdom and condescending smiles that you'll want to slap your forehead.
Rohmer is great at evoking a seamless reality that is credible, quiet, and non-obtrusive. One could note, correctly, that this is in aid of a bucolic conservatism that frowns on individual ideas, with the race to reunite the lovers overshadowed by the sense that the director is waiting for children to return to where they never should have strayed from in the first place. A more serious problem is that the world of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon holds few surprises. Where something like Chloe in the Afternoon did depend on the will-he-or-wont-he of its protagonist's possible straying (and the soul-searching involved in that internal battle), here the mood is so no-sweat that there isn't even that muted jolt. As a fable, it's a moral tale without telling you--and the resolution is pre-determined before you get there.
Beyond that, there's little variation on his standard formula--just a relationship movie set in ancient Gaul instead of contemporary Paris. One usually congratulates filmmakers for bringing their sensibilities to unusual material, but there's ultimately no stretching herein. Blithely sure about how it all works out, Rohmer sucks every ounce of punch out of the premise: with nothing to challenge, nothing surprising, the film is a mild massage that lulls you into inattention. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that if you like that sort of thing, and I'd much prefer to spend time with this trifle than be mauled by Michael Haneke. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is not a film I felt particularly inclined to chew over, however, because it's been chewed over for me. It's not a film I'm terribly excited about, because it's determined to reassure you that what you see is what you get.
Koch Lorber's R1 DVD release of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is acceptable but not much more. The image--1.33:1, per the film's anachronistic aspect ratio--is well-defined yet lacking in lustre: while Rohmer was never a lavish colourist, there could have been some more pop to this. Also, the transfer isn't progressive, though at least it's not a PAL conversion. The French DD 2.0 audio handles the dialogue fine and is challenged by little else in the first place. Trailers for Lagerfeld Confidential, Water Lilies, Changing Times, La Chinoise, and Triple Agent round out the disc.
108 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; French DD 2.0 (Stereo); English subtitles; DVD-5; Region One; Koch Lorber