Written for the Australian journal Screen Education 91 in 2018. — J.R.
What I say, I do not say with words. I do not
say it with images either, with all due respect
to the partisans of pure cinema, who would
speak with images as a deaf-mute does with
his hands. After all, I do not say, I show. I
show people who move and speak. That is
all I know how to do, but that is my true
subject. The rest, I agree, is literature.
Éric Rohmer (1)
Éric Rohmer’s least typical film, Perceval le Gallois (1978) offers a wonderfully strange and evocative version of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century poem — set to music and translated into contemporary French by Rohmer himself — about the adventures of a callow and innocent youth who becomes the Red Knight (Fabrice Luchini). It captures the essence of its medieval trappings like no other film, yet it does so without ever presuming or pretending to recreate a historical period about which we know relatively little. Thus it might be seen — and in fact was seen when it first appeared — as a bizarre exercise in literal literary adaptation, an odd experiment in representation itself.
At the beginning, we see four performing musicians in period dress with medieval instruments, two male and two female, comprising a sort of chorus, one of whom also sings the opening lines of the poem: “It was the season when trees break into leaf, when fields and woods turn green, and the birds in their sweet idiom, sing softly in the morning…” The camera pans right over the final phrase to three men in period dress performing bird sounds as sound effects while another man in period dress looks on at their activity. Then the four men join the musicians on their left in singing, “…bringing joy to all alive. That’s when the son of the widow lady, who lived in a remote manor-house, arose and without further ado, mounted his horse,” as we cut to Perceval on a horse riding out of the entrance of a small golden castle, “taking with him his three spears” (as we see a man on foot handing over the spears to him). “So armed, he set out for the great forest.” The camera pans left a few yards with Perceval as rides past “trees” that resemble contemporary abstract sculptures made out of sheet metal painted green. Then we cut back to the original musicians performing and singing before a closer shot of Perceval riding through the sheet metal is accompanied by Perceval himself reciting, ”Into the forest he rode. He rejoiced at the fine weather, and the merrymaking of the birds.” (In subsequent scenes, narration of this kind gets distributed democratically and equally, in a kind of relay, among the various characters, regardless of whose actions is being recounted; sometimes it’s delivered by Percival, sometimes by others.) Then we cut back to the men again performing their bird sound effects, as if to rub our noses in the artificiality, then singing with the others (as the camera pans left to them), “The merrymaking of the birds, all these things pleased him well.”
Deliberately contrived, theatrical, and highly artificial in both style and setting — the perspectives are as flat as in medieval tapestries, the colors bright and vivid — the film is arguably as faithful to its source as possible, given the limited material available about the period. Yet largely because of this radical and literal faithfulness, which confounds the expectations and habits of most viewers to the point where it winds up resembling both a stage musical and a studio-shot, minimal-budget Western (complete with artificial sky) staged on a miniature golf course, Perceval le Gallois also turned out to be the most spectacular critical and commercial flop of Rohmer’s career, attracting only about 145,000 spectators during its initial run, or less than half as many as Rohmer’s previous feature, The Marquise of O (1976), did.
The literalist approach of Rohmer as a literary adapter on these quite dissimilar features is worth considering in its own right. Probably the most faithful of all the disciples of André Bazin, he shared his mentor’s philosophical fascination with “ambiguity” in his criticism and films alike. A position derived from Catholic existentialism which adheres to a “realist” aesthetic whose prime model is the naturalistic novel as exemplified by John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Dashiell Hammett, this orientation was clearly also at the root of his version of Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, which subtly yet decisively betrayed the furious energies of the original while maintaining an overall fidelity to its plot and characters that is rare in contemporary cinema. The results proved to be compatible with the Masterpiece Theater notion of literary adaptation while also adhering to a domesticated, “good taste” notion of continental art cinema. Rohmer in effect transferred the offscreen rape of Kleist’s title heroine from the scene of battle (the Napoleonic wars in Italy) to her father’s chateau and substituted a sleeping potion for a fainting spell to motivate her state of unconsciousness. Such moves are emblematic of his approach to Kleist’s more transgressive impulses; as Pauline Kael has observed, these and related cosmetic “improvements” largely deprive the plot of “Kleist’s spirit, which made him an avant-gardist and a modern -– his acceptance of the id released by the chaos of war”. More generally, her apparent rapist, a Russian Count, was tamed in Rohmer’s treatment from a crazed compulsive character to a relatively charming eccentric.
I’m far less familiar with Chrétien de Troyes’ original than I am with Kleist’s novella, so I can’t comment on Rohmer’s faithfulness in this case. But based on my looser impressions, his comparable literalism in adapting a medieval poem paradoxically seems to convert the relative sanity of the unfinished epic poem into something fairly demented. Indeed, Fabrice Luchini, who would later play Octave in Rohmer’s far more characteristic Full Moon in Paris (1984), called Perceval “a scholarly project, touched by insanity.” That is both its charm and its ineffable peculiarity, enhanced by the fact that it represents an almost total departure from the carefully crafted realism of Rohmer’s other films. Not only the artificial sets with their painted backdrops but the aforementioned method of distributing its narration to various characters or chorus members already gives its narrative a kind of deconstructive, self-conscious address — what the Russian formalists called “baring the device” — that is far from the transparency of the storytelling found in Rohmer’s other films, including The Marquise of O. Arguably, this can be read as an attempt to view storytelling itself in a state of relative innocence, before it has learned how to cover its methodological tracks.
As Australian critic G.C. Crisp has described this realism, paraphrasing Rohmer, “The cinema is a privileged art form because it faithfully transcribes the beauty of the real world….Any distortion of this, any attempt by man to improve on [God’s handiwork], is indicative of arrogances and verges on the sacreligious.” (2) Though this might seem to make Perceval a betrayal of Rohmer’s aesthetic, his medieval musical cogently illustrates his stated conviction as a critic that a true preservation of the past ultimately produces a kind of modernity. Furthermore, working firmly against the grain of anything that might be regarded as quaint or old-fashioned in the film is the immediacy of the violence it shows and the utter lack of sentimentality about its consequences.
When I asked Rohmer after a New York Film Festival screening of Perceval how he could have managed to reconcile his realist aesthetic with this film, he responded by recalling André Bazin’s defense of Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc as a realist work: that at least the dirt in that film was real. Here, where there doesn’t appear to be any dirt at all, it still could be argued that it is actually the 12th century that emerges as real — real not as some fictional “recreation” or as a pretended embodiment of the period but as a brutal honesty about the material from the 12th century that he is working with. And the merit of this realism is that it brings something otherwise dead and forgotten to life–not because Rohmer’s imagination is especially rich but because he can see no alternative to his literalism, even if it makes some viewers laugh in disbelief. Sticking stubbornly to his methodology therefore might be appreciated as an ethical decision, with certain unexpected yet unmistakable parallels to the materialist methods used by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in utilizing other literary texts of the past as texts, not as imaginary landscapes derived from them.
In their biography of Rohmer, Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe begin their chapter on Perceval with a paragraph that helps us to pinpoint how and why such an undertaking was no mere academic exercise for Maurice Schérer (Rohmer’s real name), but a personal fulfillment:
Maurice Schérer’s vocation as a metteur-en-
scene originated in the house in Tulle where
he was born. With old wallpaper on the
stairway walls that represented medieval
damsels wearing hose. One day his father
found the little boy collecting tree branches
— with the intention of “burning [them], like
Jeanne d’Arc!” An early combination of the
taste for spectacle and for the Middle Ages
that he was never really to abandon: as a
professor of French, he took great pleasure
in having his students act out passages in
Perceval, ou Le Conte de Graal (Perceval, or
the tale of the Holy Grail), a fundamental
work in the French tradition of the novel,
a repertory of figures and situations that
were not yet complicated by metaphor.
“What interests me in this text,” Rohmer
was to explain, “is its concrete side: there
are no rhetorical figures, and this story
cannot be summed up. […] This story keeps
it understandable, more understandable to
children than Racine or even, sometimes,
Reading between the lines, and bearing in mind the importance of childhood, innocence, and purity in Rohmer’s cinematic universe, one might infer from this that Perceval represented for him the childhood of narrative literature, or, stated differently, narrative in its purest and most innocent state. We should also recall that Maurice Schérer was a novelist before he embarked on either film criticism or filmmaking, having published the novel Elisabeth, ou les Vacances (under the pseudonym of Gilbert Cordier) in 1946, when he was 26, two years before he published his first film reviews and four years before he wrote and directed his first film. And his background as a teacher, which dates back still further, is clearly even more relevant: Perceval should be regarded as an educational project first of all. The story itself can readily be seen as the education of its title character — a student of life who proceeds by error, as students commonly do.
Moreover, this is not an education in which innocence is invariably viewed in a positive light. The innocence about the world observed and sometimes (at least implicitly) celebrated or critiqued in the narrative most often belongs to Perceval, but sometimes it belongs to others as well, such as the knight of the maiden whom Perceval forcibly kisses and whose ring he steals, early in Perceval’s adventures, when he stupidly and brutally misunderstands his mother’s former instructions, and the maiden’s protector refuses to believe the maiden’s account of the incident and chooses instead to punish her for her imagined infidelity. Thus stupidity and brutality, like innocence, are viewed as a potentially universal human attributes.
From another standpoint, it could be argued that Rohmer’s idiosyncratic handling of narration by assigning it to multiple characters and diverse on-screen participants — so that many of them even refer to their own stories in third person, as if they were happening to other people — is above all a pedagogical method for showing that the story of Perceval is actually a story that belongs to everyone and therefore should be recounted by everyone — a claim for universality that unfortunately and ironically wound up helping to limit the film’s universality. By the same token, the deliberate confusion created with personal pronouns (when some characters are made to recount their own stories in third person) is matched by an occasional confusion of verb tenses (such as when Perceval belatedly orders the maiden’s knight and protector to confess his misdeeds to King Arthur and his Court, and his command overlaps with the actual fulfillment of this order when it becomes a voiceover.)
Indeed, the film’s commercial failure can be attributed to both the uncompromising rigour and peculiarity of its style and its running time of 140 minutes. Even though Perceval le Gallois does include such familiar commercial standbys as sex and violence, it can’t be said to articulate these elements in a manner that always conforms to the usual generic conventions and one’s expectations about them. Significantly, in his collected film criticism, The Taste for Beauty (4), Rohmer has called the American musical “the world’s worst genre” (in his guarded, ambivalent, and only partial defense of Joshua Logan’s South Pacific), and has also admitted that “I’m not crazy about westerns” in his celebration of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky. So it should be stressed that my earlier allusions to both genres to relation to Perceval might well be more pertinent to my own appreciation of the film than it was to his conception of it as a film. In fact, its status as an educational project ultimately interferes with its being easily read as either a “movie” in a popular sense or as an arthouse film (which might have allowed for some useful comparison of its neo-primitive visual style with that of Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates, for example). Yet one factor that may make the film more accessible today than it was in 1978, at least for Rohmer fans, is the fact that several members of its attractive cast — including Luchini, André Dussollier, and, making their debuts, Arielle Dombasle and the late Pascal Ogier — went on to become featured players in some of Rohmer’s better-known contemporary films, such as Le beau marriage in 1981 (Dussollier), Pauline on the Beach in 1983 (Dombasle), and Full Moon in Paris in 1984 (Luchini and Ogier).
Neither fish nor fowl, Perceval’s singularity as an educational project prevents it from being assimilated in relation to more familiar film genres. In effect, one feels that Rohmer wound up having to reinvent the cinema in order to articulate his own particular aims and concerns for Perceval — including even a brief and awkward stretch of animation to convey the flight of birds and the bleeding of a fallen bird on a snowbank, before proceeding to a match cut to the rosy cheeks of Blanchefleur (Dombasle).
All the usual coordinates of (fictional) time and space are affected by this reinvention — including the usual distinctions made between interiors and exteriors, and even those between past and present. But in keeping with the statement of Rohmer quoted at the head of this essay, these coordinates are shown, not stated or argued in either the words or the images. And they become the heart of Rohmer’s lesson.
- Rohmer, Eric, “Letter to a Critic,” The Taste for Beauty, edited by Jean Narboni, translated by Carol Volk, Cambridge/New York/Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 80.
- Crisp, C.G., Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988, 3.
- De Baecque, Antoine, and Noël Herpe, Éric Rohmer: A Biography, translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal, New York: Columbia University Press, 307.
- Rohmer, Eric, The Taste for Beauty, op. cit., 111 and 128.