July 26, 2016
I am ending my Summer of Rohmer series with a film set in the spring. Yes, it is a shocking betrayal of the series’ seasonal brand, but I was eager to revisit The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), and extend my stay in Rohmer’s world. Over the last six weeks I have traveled to a variety of France’s hottest vacation spots for romantic anxiety, from a Saint-Tropez country house in La Collectionneuse (1967) to Dinard, the beachside town in A Summer’s Tale (1997). The Romance of Astrea and Celadon transported me to the valley of the Sioule in Auvergne, a bucolic green landscape for star-crossed lovers in 5th-century Gaul to suffer in. For his final feature (he passed away in 2010), Rohmer adapted Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astree (ca. 1607 – 1627), a 5,000 page hit at the royal courts. Rohmer focused on the spine of the digressive novel – the romance between the shepherd Celadon and the shepherdess Astrea, and the miscommunication, madness, and masquerades that delay their union. Though set millennia in the past, the film works over familiar Rohmerian ground, as it ponders the nature of love and fidelity, while trying to square the contradictory impulses of each.
Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) and Celadon (Andy Gillet) are secretly sworn lovers, their passion closely guarded from their feuding parents. Celadon pretends to flirt with local girls to protect their cover, but one afternoon he goes too far, allowing one of these faux-paramours to kiss him. Astrea happened to be walking by, and immediately ejects him from her life, forbidding him to ever enter her line of sight again. Celadon, a sensitive poet-type with model cheekbones, takes this to heart, and attempts to drown himself in the river. But three upper-class nymphs spy his soggy body, and nurse him back to health in their castle. Galathée (Véronique Reymond) wants to seduce this shepherd, but all he cares about his living his life in solitude away from Astrea, to fulfill her wish. The nymph Léonide (Cécile Cassel) sympathizes with the poor lover, and tries to convince him to return to Astrea, who believes him to be dead. A stubborn literalist, Celadon cannot adjust to the new reality. His fidelity instructs him to honor their love, he has to obey her request and remain sequestered. But such actions drive both Astrea and Celadon to melancholy tears. Only the intervention of a kindly druid and timely cross-dressing can bring Celadon within Astrea’s sight, reigniting their passions.
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon had a long gestation. Originally it was to be developed by Pierre Zucca, a filmmaker who Rohmer admired and advocated for. As Noel Herpe and Antoine de Baecque write in Eric Rohmer: A Biography, Zucca also planned his feature around the central romance, but was ready to include some of the novel’s more fantastical elements, like a “Fountain of Love that allows Astrea to see her heart’s desire again”, and a “rather mad final sequence in which Celadon contemplates the body of the sleeping Astrea, which is transformed into a fabulous landscape while Celadon himself visibly shrinks.” Zucca could not find financing for the project despite Rohmer’s vocal support. Zucca would pass away from cancer in 1995. Rohmer thought about mounting the adaptation as early as 1999, when he did some location scouting, but nothing came of it until 2007.
Rohmer did not have the same vision as Zucca, eliminating the more fantastical elements and focusing solely on the central couple. He was after a pared down lucidity, into which nature, and accidents, would intervene. For the first time he shot with two cameras (both Super 16mm) , which were operated by DP Diane Baratier and Francoise Etchegaray). Shooting with two cameras saved time, which was of the essence because Rohmer was suffering from scoliosis, which hindered his mobility. As with his previous adaptations like The Marquise of O or Perceval, Rohmer was slavishly faithful to the text, and when asked what he added to the Astrea and Celadon if the text was verbatim, he responded:
Nature! In this novel, landscapes are mentioned but not described. The sense of nature that appeared toward the eighteenth century, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, did not yet exist; one doesn’t feel nature really living. Thus what cinema contributes is elements like wind (I was lucky to have wind) that are not at all in the novel.
This response is strikingly similar to what D.W. Griffith lamented to Ezra Goodman in 1944: “What the modern movie lacks is beauty – the beauty of the moving wind in the trees.” That beauty is almost the subject of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, the gusts whipping the actresses intricately braided hair and letting Celadon’s lanky locks flutter over his face. The further Rohmer went back in time the more radical his aesthetic, as in the flagrantly artificial theatricality of Perceval and the presentational period piece of Astrea and Celadon. Rohmer recorded mostly direct sound (except for his precious birdsong that was added in mixing), and so wanted a location in which 21st century sounds would not be audible. This eliminated the Haute-Loire (which was slagged in the opening crawl for being “disfigured by urbanization” – for which they sued him and lost), choosing the unspoiled area around the Sioule river instead, a remarkably pristine stretch of hilly forests and glades.
The lead performers have a challenging task of navigating d’Urfé’s demanding, archaic text while wearing period dress (draping cloth and lots of exposed nipple). Stéphanie Crayencour is a diaphanous blonde who Rohmer chose because “he liked the way she held her head and her generous bosom.” Andy Gillet looked carved out of stone or a Calvin Klein ad, with his high, razor sharp cheekbones and wide-set eyes. They float lightly over d’Urfé’s dialogue, seeking music in the language, both performing in a lyrical, light footed style. They remain in disharmony until the final act’s glorious plot contrivance – in which Celadon dresses as a woman and arrives at a guest for the blessing of a new temple. As “Alexia”, he begins an intimate friendship with Astrea, until their closeness sparks into kisses. To Astrea she is giving herself over to a same sex attraction, while Celadon is indulging his love while technically honoring her request. She is not seeing “Celadon”, so he is not in her sight. But the masquerade cannot last forever, and when Astrea turns and prays that “Alexia” is really Celadon, he drops the mask. Love and fidelity again come into alignment, and they embrace in a new, tear-stained awareness of the other’s truth. It is an ending of ecstatic revelation, one only rivaled by The Green Ray in Rohmer’s work. And in a career forever concerned with exposing the feminine in his personality, to end with a scene of cross-dressing, of entering into the female domain and learning its secrets, is a lovely wish-fulfillment fantasy for one of cinema’s great directors of women.
For those who have traveled with me on this Rohmer Summer Vacation, I thank you.
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is available on a watchable DVD from Koch Lorber, and on the crazy expensive Region B Blu-ray Rohmer box set from Potemkine. For the previous five entries in the Summer of Rohmer, click below: