Eric Rohmer David Shapiro

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David Shapiro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eric Rohmer has created a problematic Perceval, a rather intransigently autonomous work with many of the advantages of autonomy, and nonetheless a certain static delight in the Christology which is his topic. Rohmer has adapted the Chrétien de Troyes and maintained an almost didactically insistent rhyme-scheme throughout as part of the narration and dialogue. The sets are beautifully reduced, almost Kabuki versions of the real, as Rohmer insists on distancing us from any pathetic sense of mimesis. He is faithful to his form, committed, as Adorno has it, to the materiality of his art, and that paradoxically, is the political in Rohmer.

Perceval is "played" by a Buster Keatonish Fabrice Luchini. As a matter of fact, Rohmer has always displayed a particular affection for the master-comedian Keaton, and a certain expansive melancholy reigns over the work and sometimes mars its tone and at most moments induces both an elegiac and an anticipatory strain…. I perceived a montage of events with very little evolutionary zeal. This, for one viewer, was a wonderful anti-Aristotelian bonus. We have had enough student Waste Land's and Wagnerian climaxes….

One of the glories of the film is its use of music. There is a parody of 12th and 13th century themes by Guy Roberts and a Brechtian acceptance of music on stage. Rohmer's choruses produce lyrical interpolations, reminiscent sometimes of the canzones of Dante in his troubadour mode "interrupting" the prose in Vita Nuova. The music is a sudden swerve away from any attempt at mimesis again; it is part of the accepted artifice, even the paradis artificiel of this kingdom. But it is not mere; it is a major music that creates the norm of non-discursive, allegorical Existenz which is the film's poetry….

The movie is a masterpiece of ironic deviations from direct address. The characters will often suddenly announce themselves in the third person, with the most excruciatingly conscious results. The whole business is as self-reflexive as consciousness permits. The discipline of this self-conscious narration becomes a kind of allegory for the very fidelities of Perceval. The movie concerns Concern, or Sorge, or Care; it is a bildungsroman of Perceval; but within the closed system of Christ's courteous passiveness. The film's obliqueness is a way of not permitting ourselves to be lulled by "content matter," in Meyer Schapiro's phrase, away from real "subject matter," form itself. As Webern said, "To live life is to defend a form."…

Rohmer made a very astute choice in constructing all sets deliberately and eschewing natural occasions…. To watch the lean horses drift past his little iron trees, no higher than a human, or enter obviously cardboard architecture, is to watch film aware of itself as film, metaphor announce itself as metaphor. Everything here is en détail, nothing is sacrificed to generality. Little speedy reductions in one-stroke battle scenes show his extraordinary willingness to learn from the medieval tropes themselves. And in place of verbal formulae, he reiterates his scenes with decorous and decorative talent. (p. 18)

Rohmer has achieved what he feels resides in the Chrétien text: "a subtle type of comedy." Maybe the central comedy is resolutely against the artist if he feels it serves final pietistic norms. The movie as a whole seems also Buñuel-like in its transgressions. While the Marquise of O, the director's last successful adaptation with theatrical style, suffered from an almost-too-resolute handling of Kleist's sublimely sublimated expressionism, called sick by Goethe, Perceval has been permitted to come forward with a little de-sublimation of the original. The devices of indirect discourse, that constant profiling of...

(The entire section is 901 words.)