Monday, September 22, 2014

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon)

THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon)     B+               
France  Italy  Spain  (109 mi)  2007  d:  Éric Rohmer

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  
—Jaques, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, by William Shakespeare, published in 1623

Rohmer often comes across somewhat flat emotionally, over-intellectualizing, planting meanings under subtexts of hidden meanings, much of which is too subtle to even grasp as you’re watching his films.  In other words, lots of talk while not much happens, usually accompanied by an underlying sensuality where sex and love rarely meet while the much discussed subject is approached from a discreet distance.  Rohmer’s films display a detached reserve that some might find slow and languid, as his characters take their time, analyze and over-analyze their actions, as if every look and every gesture had some inner meaning that was apparent to the entire world, but missed, of course, by the one it was intended to arouse.  There’s a dry comic wit on display, but it’s so understated many may not notice it at all.  Certainly all is not what it seems here, as Rohmer has chosen to adapt a 17th century romantic novel by Honoré d'Urfé called L'Astrée, which was set in 5th century Gaul, to be viewed by a 21st century audience with modern sensibilities. 

One should acknowledge flat out that the depiction of a historical costume drama set in a time so long ago with a literary language that feels read, not spoken, will lose more than half the audience who will find it ridiculous.  A theater audience, on the other hand, might be more amenable, but nonetheless, in what is his final film, Rohmer has turned the world at large into a mythical fairy tale, an idyllic paradise where shepherds pass their time playing a flute in the fields while tending to their sheep, while also wooing maidens at every available opportunity.  Dressed in off the shoulder white tunics, the women with long, flowing curly hair, wandering from pasture to wood, this has an Old Testament era feel to it, but the characters here follow the post-Roman, pre-Christian teachings of druids, considered especially learned, and make pilgrimages to visit them from time to time.  Along the way the subject of love is much discussed, and sometimes even sung about.   

It’s hard not to like this film, as it’s so uniquely different from what we’re used to seeing, and there’s literally nothing else out there like it, making it a unique challenge where one develops an affection for the archaic language played so straight.  The film is more about the innocence and purity of love, truth, devotion, fidelity, notions that in the modern world have been altered to such a degree they are nearly unrecognizable.  Rohmer adapts a tale where they still resonated with the characters, where words affected responses, which had immediate impact in their lives.  The Druids also believed in only one God, but the Romans mangled the interpretations to fit their own culture, creating statues for each of their own gods, confusing the populace for generations to come.  There’s a single conversation in the film that clarifies their original intent.  They could just as easily have been talking about how Supreme Court cases have mangled the original intent of the founders of the Constitution, how decades or centuries of misinformation have transformed the views of the public.  The purity of intent becomes the subject of young lovers.   

As Rohmer was 87 at the time of the film’s release, it is interesting to note another film that comes to mind, especially in its languorous pace, Manoel De Olveira’s INQUIETUDE (1998), who was 90 when that film was released, in particular the third section of De Olveira’s triptych, which is a series of three one-act plays combined to form a single narrative, filmed entirely outdoors where Irene Pappas plays an ancient river nymph, which appears set during the times of Greek mythology.  Here similarly Druids and nymphs mix with shepherds and shepherdesses in this bucolic mix of pastoral bliss.  But from the outset, something is not right, as Astréa (Stéphanie Crayencour) catches her guy Céladon (Andy Gillet) kissing another maiden, an act of appeasement meant to please warring families, but causing her to tell him in anger that she never wants to see him again.  Taking her words literally, Céladon believes he has no choice but death, so immediately throws himself into the river and is believed drowned, as there is no sign of him afterwards.  Astréa, of course, has a change of heart, and blames herself mercilessly for losing the love of her life.  But Druid nymphs secretly rescue Céladon and nurse him back to health, where he actually believes he’s died and gone to heaven, as he may as well be in another world, which could just as easily be Valhalla or Tolkien’s Gray Havens.  Uncomfortable with such perfection, Céladon wants to be thrown back into his world where he remains shunned forever from Astréa, believing his devotion to her is abiding by her will when she commanded him to leave her sight.  Despite all rational discourse to the contrary, Céladon lives the life of a hermit hidden deep in the forest away from his true love.  

His reticence is challenged when Astréa joins a pilgrimage to the Druid castle, where Céladon finds Astréa still fast asleep in a state of sensual repose, where Rohmer’s camera lingers over her inert body gazing along with the character who secretly disguises himself as a Druid maiden to remain true to his oath.  This takes on comical dimensions as he continues to stumble all over himself to avoid revealing his true identity, as they immediately become the closest of friends, like The Magic Flute’s Papageno and Papagena, where their flirtatious behavior draws the notice of all except Astréa who is totally smitten by this new Druid maiden.  While remaining chaste and pure may have little relevance in the modern era where sex before marriage is fairly standard, not in the 5th century, where the concept of love retained its original intent, expressed here like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, where Astréa like Venus, the goddess of beauty, retains her immortal aura of innocence and pure love.  Rohmer seems to be implying how far we’ve come in altering (or butchering, much like the Romans) the essence of meaning over time, giving us a before and after snapshot, where the screen reminds us of our Renaissance-like idyllic roots, while our own lives serve as a crass and shallow alteration, reminding us how far we’ve strayed from what was once understood to be the transformative powers of love.

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