Eric Rohmer John Simon - Essay

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eric Rohmer's film version of Heinrich von Kleist's 1808 novella, The Marquise of O …, is as intelligent and successful as such an undertaking can get….

There is no way for a filmmaker to convey the Pyrrhic victory over chaos of Kleist's utterance on screen, even if, like Rohmer, he wisely makes the film in German and follows the text with almost fanatical fidelity. The very fact of Kleist's obsessively indirect discourse, with the wonderfully alienating device of those conditionals and subjunctives its use in German requires, cannot be rendered on film; it has to be put into direct discourse and into the characters' mouths, thus conventionalizing, de-electrifying, and slowing down the speed of thought to that of action. Rohmer's insistence on dissolves—which may be necessary to convey the passage of time—further delays what in the text hurtles ahead….

Rohmer's … liberties taken with the text are minimal, and generally inventive as well as dramatically justifiable. (p. 76)

What does distract and detract is the comic tone Rohmer gives to a good many scenes that are absolutely earnest in the text. This may have been all but unavoidable: A mass audience cannot help being amused by the moral scruples, the fineness of compunction, the exaltation of etiquette evinced by a bygone age. Too bad, then, for the mass audience—if not, indeed, for our overpermissive society—but in turning, however unpreventably, The Marquise of O … into a proto-comedy from a rigorous study of individual moral growth to heroic dimensions, Kleist's work has been, charmingly and cogently, cheapened….

Rohmer's direction is, as always, theatrical, but that fits in with the major part of this material….

Rohmer's transposition of Kleist, then, is not without fault but generally impressive; it would have been even better, however, to have desisted. (p. 79)

John Simon, "Coming Close to Kleist," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1976 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 9, No. 45, November 8, 1976, pp. 76, 79.