Columns | Film/Art

In the enchanted land of pewter trees, Rohmer’s line describing a semi-circle

By Andréa Picard

“What gives truth to a Cézanne is not the pseudo-likeness to the model, it’s the trace it carries within it of the process by which the painter perceives it.”

“Like painting, sculpture, architecture, and the ballet, the cinema is an organizer of space.”

“My aim was to give as authentic an expression as possible to Chrétien’s intentions—not to interpret the text from a Modern viewpoint…but to visualize the events Chrétien narrated as medieval paintings or miniatures might have done…Only the starting point has a claim to authenticity.”

—Eric Rohmer

All hail Perceval le Gallois, Eric Rohmer’s masterpiece maudit, undoubtedly one of the most original, daring, and meticulously devised films in all of cinema. Now that Rohmer has left and assessments and re-evaluations of his oeuvre are in full swing (mainly the contes, comédies et proverbes, and saisons), Rohmer’s 1978 medieval moral musical deserves not only reappraisal but to be seen (again and again), and especially on the big screen. With the Films du Losange subtitled print a little worse for wear, Perceval could benefit from restoration and circulation. Criminally underrated or simply unknown by the masses and many a Rohmerian, though of cherished cult status for a fair number of cinephiles (and academics), Rohmer’s near-literal adaptation of Chrétien de Troye’s incomplete 12th century Arthurian epic poem has induced as much awe as it has consternation, and misguidedly, a fair dose of derision. Admirers and dissenters alike have deemed Perceval a variation of any of the following: naïve, primitive, childlike, theatrical, stylized and stilted, fantastical, baffling, old-fashioned, anti-cinematic, postmodern, literary, and punishing—all of which resound with an air of casual insouciance considering the film’s creator was a man whose extreme erudition ensured enlightened exactitude. Rohmer’s interest in the creation of original forms (forma = Latin for beauty), like those he situated at the hearts of both Mozart and Beethoven in his delicately astute treatise, “De Mozart en Beethoven”—an intimate, semi-scholarly musicology informed by his love of the two titular composers, his approach to filmmaking, and his own predilection for free-floating ideas and essences—is not so much a pastiche panoply in Perceval; rather, it is a seemingly insuperable double translation, that of the text itself and of its modern translation into cinema form.

Left unfinished at the time of de Troyes’ death in 1190, Perceval, le conte du Graal (Perceval, the Story of the Grail), generally considered the first French novel, was translated into a modern French prose that Rohmer considered rather dull and sluggish, and fundamentally responsible for the work’s considerable languishing in its native country. His affection for the original text—its use of rhyming couplets, as well as its tale of a clumsy, peripatetic spiritual and romantic quest replete with great moments of humour, self-reflection, and an eventual apotheosis—led Rohmer to translate the 9,234 verses into modern French, then back again into octosyllabic verse, ending up with a text closer to the original in sound, spirit, and poetic structure (even reserving some archaic words where he deemed them imperative).

Not wanting to update the story of the Holy Grail (though he did substantially shift its focus onto the bumbling character of Perceval), Rohmer was then confronted with the even more daunting task of adapting his version into the spirit and imagination of the Middle Ages, as opposed to Bresson’s non-primitive, naturalist version of Lancelot du Lac (1974)—yet he was well aware that he could not expect a contemporary audience to relate to feelings and thoughts that would have been expressed in the 12th century. Visually, however, his references would and could be many—the art of the illuminated manuscripts common to the times, as well as liturgical chorals, and madrigal and troubadour music performed on instruments from the era, such as flutes, lutes, rebecs, and citterns. This music would later turn up in his sadly underrated swan song, Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (2007), a film whose importance will undoubtedly accrue over time, as will the rest of Rohmer’s historical films, which are too often overlooked or treated as anomalies.

But whereas in Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon, a nimble and flirtatious retelling of Honoré d’Urfé’s 17th-century druid pastoral set in the 5th century, Rohmer included self-conscious anachronisms—perhaps as a nod to the historical conflation between text depicted, text written, and text adapted—his Perceval adheres more rigidly to the idea of a reality forever lost, or everlastingly out of reach. As such, the only means of representing de Troyes’ epic was to construct a symbolic space, a sort of Schopenhauerian representation of the world through painting paired with an ontological one born of cinema, an art composed of reproductive images. A potent combination of imagination and the act of seeing, Perceval has an artificial studio-set mise en scène in which plein-air is categorically sans air, in which real horses and real people wear weighty costumes made of brocade, piped gold, and 18 kg coats of mail like those of medieval times. The cumbersome costumes inevitably produced belaboured movements through which Rohmer teased out a new form of gesticulation. (“Well, we discovered a kind of truth in those coats of mail,” he said upon the film’s completion.) As a Bazinian, Rohmer always stressed the ontological properties of the cinema and its absolute need to show proof of reality, but also the symbolic truth of the past it seeks to represent. Painterly traces, and those from literature and music, act as forms of transcendent imagination and testimony to a time long past, forever longing to be regained.

Like an omniscient Pantocrator casting his pensive and piercing gaze from a Byzantine apse, Rohmer created a controlled plenitude in the shape of a curve. Hewing to the rounded frames of most medieval manuscripts, like Psalters and Breviaries (see, for instance, the famous Book of Kells), the film encloses its mise en scène within an elliptical space, which mimics the vertical, foreshortened storytelling found illuminated on parchment paper at the time of de Troyes. In these manuscripts, the frames literally contain and constrain the depicted characters, squeezing them into a hieratic, non-perspectival picture plane; figures crouch, kneel in submission, and bend as if literally being crushed by the borders. Similarly, in Perceval, the knights and damsels delicately interact with their papier mâché world, their tactility governed by the fragility of their surroundings. The mini toy-town castle seems absurdly too small to be real; that is, until one of the demoiselles pokes her head out and dangles her long tresses from the window, confirming its scale.

Miniature castles are standard iconography in medieval manuscripts, as are young women physically and spatially bound, perched atop them. Rohmer’s actresses’ angelic, incandescent skin and almond-shaped eyes are the equivalent to the semi-abstract beauty of the head-scarfed, fully draped women and girls depicted in the Middle Ages. When it comes to women, Rohmer has always let his aesthetic bias be known (whether or not we share his taste, and one must keep in mind that the ‘80s were cruel to us all), with beauty to him being another expression of iconological form. Even Fabrice Luchini as Perceval, extremely svelte, young and effeminate (and looking uncannily like a wan, inelegant version of Humbert Balsan’s melancholic Gauvain in Lancelot du Lac) embodies the airy, ethereal quality that defines many of Rohmer’s characters (Marie Rivière as exemplar in La femme de l’aviateur [1981] and Le rayon vert [1986]). He also looks strikingly similar to Arielle Dombasle’s Blanchefleur; both are symbolic types, and typically Gallic, down to the whiffs of narcissism.

Despite the size of the sets, horses do fit through archways, though just barely. Benches seem breakable and the Fisher King’s rickety boat floats in a pool of broken-glass water. Replicating the stylized gestures of the figures in illuminated manuscripts, Rohmer instructed his actors to keep their elbows cocked and pinned to their hips, limiting their movement to a pivoting of their forearms in wide-armed sleeves. In full imitation of medieval representation, which is flat and pre-perspectival, Rohmer had to address the question of three-dimensionality, as well as the squarish (given the 1.37 aspect ratio) form of the film’s projected image. Shot on a semi-circular sound stage at Studios Éclair by Néstor Almendros, Perceval demonstrates a radical rethinking of filmic space. The effect of its design has been compared to that of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but Rohmer’s film does not actively seek to destabilize and disorient, rather to flatten its compositions and eliminate as much depth of field as possible.

Though the sets may appear deceiving, Rohmer made no use of trompe l’oeil. With great help from Almendros’ precise, straight-on shooting style and extremely level lighting casting scant shadows, it’s principally the spherical set that gives Perceval its unique look, its builds and axes contributing to a symbolic form approximating the manuscripts Rohmer had researched and envisioned. Its lapis-blue cyclorama sky, its all-purpose wasteland featuring a meadow that looks like a funny hybrid of mini-golf Astroturf and a Polly Apfelbaum velvet flower-patterned carpet, and its pièces de résistance, the pewter globular trees that a nay-saying critic once likened to Belgian cabbages, all contribute to a flattening, figurative, and wondrously magnificent storybook world come vividly alive. Indeed, the trees are perhaps some of the most imaginative and adoration-worthy set decorations in the history of cinema. Their trunks are steely, and their circular metallic crowns are comprised of exaggerated acanthus or oak leaves, one on each side, that wrap up and curl in upon themselves. Their overall shape and outline can be found in the Middle Ages, as on the floral capitals in Reims cathedral (c. 1230-45), but could equally have been modelled on Bernini’s Daphne (1622-25), plucked from a Cranach painting, or an Art Nouveau design book, reminding us that Klimt’s famous Tree of Life (1909) is an updating of a motif from late medieval painting and engravings.

Those bizarre, glorious trees stand for an entire forest (several actually), and Perceval must traverse them to get from one castle to another on his journey to becoming a fine, seasoned knight—long distance day-to-night horse rides filmed in single takes. A curvilinear track ensures a sense of frontality, as the camera consistently and fluidly pans in semi-circular movements along the set. Circles and curved motifs abound, as they do in medieval imagery; in Perceval, we encounter not only the globular trees, but rounded archways, curved corridors and colonnades, which all contribute to a sense of spatial tension, cropping, and compression. Not unlike the ornamental “inhabited initials”—an illuminated initial containing a human or animal figure, elaborate vines, or other symbols, at the top left-hand side of a leaf—the film’s vignette episodes deploy a sense of picaresque narrative compression in which all of the straight-ahead movements in fact describe a curve. Perceval’s trajectory is similar to a life frieze, which turns back upon itself in what’s called “continuous narration” in medieval art (often shaped along the letters “S” and “C” in illuminated manuscripts). As film threading its way through a projector eventually hits the screen, no two points are reached via a straight line, and Rohmer successfully transcends the rigid, rectilinear cinema frame (not unlike the sculptural, phenomenological projection of Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone [1973]). The imperceptible curved movements through a resolutely three-dimensional space, rehearsed throughout the entire film as if on different time continuums, create an ingenious correspondence to the miniature artist’s curved illuminations—ones in which ornate letters provide the interstitial spaces for a symbolic microcosm, with no aspirations toward realism. They are visual and textual metaphors for the soul’s spiritual quandaries and journey through life, almost surprisingly lacking in pathos and relying on crass humour and blatancy to convey messages.

Rohmer eschews visual effects except for two startling instances: a black-and-white animated goose which dissolves into Blanchfleur’s winsome face, and a bleeding lance. In both cases, the flourishes add to the film’s uncommon beauty and strangeness, testifying to the authorial presence guiding this translation along. All of the music in the film is diegetic and the actors sing their lines, as troubadours lend commentary to the state of the action representing mores and manners (not unlike the voyeuristic busybodies in most of Oliveira’s films). As in the original, text is spoken in the first and third person, engaging the audience directly, something most critics identify as Perceval’s Brechtian nature. But the breaking of the fourth wall does not exist here, as there is no wall to break given the film’s spatial design, its staunch frontality, and the fact that Rohmer has so meticulously created a world in which the consciousness of perspective had not yet emerged. This so-called Greek chorus details events, expedites episodes, and has the actors both performing and commenting simultaneously in a melding of the objective and subjective. Actors also inhabit several roles, and the narrator-animators who judge the hero (who often appears more of an anti-hero) inform us when parts are being skipped—a message from de Troyes, confirmed by Rohmer who adamantly backs up the text by refusing to excise the playful authorial imprints. (Perceval often adds “says he” following his metered rhymes.)

In the penultimate scene, a shocking denouement in a brazen deviation from the unfinished poem, Perceval is transfigured into Christ and is forced to endure the Passion in order to access a state of grace allowing him to think of others, not just himself. Suddenly, Perceval, the character and the film, enter a space in which the historical imagination collides with that of the present, the tone dramatically shifting as the Latin text of the Gospel is sung in a grave and austere fashion, and the Passion is enacted in a spine-tingling stylized pantomime. Perceval-Christ is forced to carry his cross in tight concentric circles around the constricted space of a chapel. As unreal as the scene may appear, its deviation away from the unseen semi-circular structure elicits a deeply disturbing and intensely affecting feeling whether or not one is religious, not unlike the devastating effect of a Rogier van der Weyden or Dieric Bouts Deposition.

The other instance of non-linear narrative occurs midway through when Rohmer rather laconically abandons Perceval (who has been rather unsympathetic in his gaucheness) for the story of Gauvain, a valiant and chivalrous knight (a very young, ginger-haired André Dussollier), one of the only Monseigneurs in the Arthurian court. While the episode breaks the narrative flow of the film and lends it an experimental or abstract quality, this diversion complies with the original, which was left incomplete in more ways than one. But it is the Passion, which many have condemned as a tacked-on, ill-conceived coda, makes the film so brilliant, so Rohmerian. In the continuous tug of war between flesh and spirit, Rohmer uses film—the art of time—to transcend literal, symbolic, and historical time, managing so magnificently to merge disparate moments into an eternal present. Through the mimesis of artifice—his own circle squared as it were—Rohmer’s medieval mindset uses a bumbling character to demonstrate how human limitations can be transcended through faith and the act of creation itself. Always slightly out of time, Rohmer was eternal, in life as he is in death.