During his long career, the now 87-year-old French director Eric Rohmer has made some 50 films, many of them literally “talkies” that follow the physical, philosophical and emotional wanderings of two or three attractive young people plunked down in a picturesque setting (the beaches of Brittany, for example, or the vineyards of the Rhone Valley). Most of these slow-moving, verbose films revolve around whether the characters will become lovers or not and why or why not, discussed at great length. One of his better-known efforts, Claire’s Knee, was all about a married man’s obsession with a girl’s leg joint. A Rohmer film might even be said to be the archetype of what we think of as a French film: all talk and no action, but so charming that no action or – in Rohmer’s case – explicit sex is needed to win us over.
Now, near the end of his career, Rohmer’s latest film, Les Amours d’Astrée et Céladon, departs from the formula that produced so many beguiling movies. This fairytale on film has an archaic look to it, as if it may have been made in the 1930s: the image takes up only the middle of today’s wide screens and the quality of the light and the color seems to have been deliberately shot to look like a period piece.
The simple plot is based on one of the stories in the 5,000-page pastoral novel Astrée, written by Honoré d’Urfé between 1607 and 1627 (one French critic called it the Harlequin romance of its time). It concerns the star-crossed love of two beautiful young shepherds, Astrée (Stéphanie de Crayencour) and Céladon (Andy Gillet). His parents will not let them marry because they feel Astrée is beneath them. The young couple hatch a plot to delude the parents into thinking that they are no longer in love: Celadon will flirt with another girl during a village festival. The ploy works all too well: the girl being duped throws herself at Céladon, and Astrée sees them kissing. Brokenhearted, she tells him she never wants to see him again. He runs off to throw himself in the river; she follows, but it is too late. Céladon has been caught by the rapids and has disappeared.
He is not dead, however, but washed up onshore unconscious, where he is found by an imperious nymph and her handmaidens and carried off by them to be nursed back to health. The head nymph wants to keep the boy with the angelic face for herself, but he loves only Astrée and goes off to live in the woods on berries and seeds and to write poetry, nobly refusing to seek out his beloved because she has forbidden him to show himself before her.
The plot, involving Druid priests and some cross-dressing, grows ever sillier, to the point where boredom sets in and we don’t even care whether the lovers are reunited. Like many of Rohmer’s films, it explores the love between two young people and is set in beautiful natural locations, but it feels dated and artificial and lacks the edgy cynicism that makes his best movies so absorbing in spite of their talkiness.
Some of the most demanding French critics have given this movie, which is really more like a play acted outdoors in front of a camera, their top rating. One can only imagine that their motive was to honor one of the lions of French cinema.
This is not the first time Rohmer has made a period film, but let’s hope that he will return to what he does best: exploring the foibles and follies of our loves and obsessions, and creating modern characters who are, in the end, far more timeless than these implausible lovers.Favorite