In an explanatory title, Rohmer informs viewers that he has taken only a single liberty with the story [Heinrich von Kleist's "The Marquise of O …": in the film, instead of raping the Marquise during the fighting at the citadel, the Russian Count rapes her afterward, when she has been given a sleeping potion. Rohmer has written that this alteration makes the story more believable for moviegoers. But it can't be an accident that he's taken out the central mad, impulsive action…. What's lost is not only the sense of the narrow experience of the virgin-hearted Marquise but Kleist's spirit, what made him an avant-gardist and a modern—his acceptance of the id released by the chaos of war. In the movie, since the rape takes place through furtive calculation, the Count isn't Kleist's wild, natural man—he's a Rohmer character, slyly slipping his hand over Claire's knee….
Attempting to achieve an objective version of Kleist's style, Rohmer gives us the surface—a quaintly amusing account of a woman whose idealism is betrayed…. The director missed the larger story, which was in the undercurrents (and, maddeningly, those who read the novella after seeing the movie are likely to get from it only what's in the movie)…. In the movie, we fail to recognize that the Count, the foreigner, carrying the threat of what isn't understood, is a whole man; impetuousness hasn't been bred out of him, and if the widowed Marquise would just wake from her civilized trance she could begin to live. He's Prince Charming with a rape for a kiss, and she's too repressed to know it.
Rohmer isn't the director to bring us Kleist's hero—a precursor of Dostoevski's and Lawrence's. Rohmer's even-toned method precludes animal passion. The movies that Rohmer has written himself are generally compared to novels, but his "The Marquise of O …" is like a documentary film of a play…. The film is so formal it's like a historical work re-created for educational television; the costumes wear the actors. (p. 67)
Rohmer, with the help of his cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, keeps everything serenely pictorial. But without Kleist's demon sitting inside all that calm and mocking it, asking when the sleeping beauty is going to come to life, there's no urgency to this film. It's tame and archaic. (p. 68)
Pauline Kael, "No Id," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 36, October 25, 1976, p. 67.