Based on Conte du Graal, Chrétien de Troyes' 12th-century Arthurian romance about Perceval's quest for the Holy Grail, [Perceval] exhibits the meticulous antihistoricism evident in Rohmer's The Marquise of O…. Once again, the director's intent is to strip away our preconceptions and present the work as it appeared to its original audience.
The problem with such an endeavor, of course, is that cinema is a 20th-century medium….
To counteract the modern inclination toward realism, he has set the movie on a sound stage with painted backdrops and artificial scenery; the highly stylized golden castles and silver trees give Perceval the look of an illuminated manuscript. (p. 19)
[This] does remove Perceval from our modern categories of drama and place it squarely in the middle of the medieval cosmos, at least as Rohmer perceives it. Yet in one respect the director has been too faithful to his material: The film, like the poem, contains as a subplot a lengthy tale about Gawain that has nothing to do with Perceval's adventures. But many scholars now believe that Conte du Graal, left unfinished after more than 9,000 lines, was actually two poems, combined only after Chrétien's death. In another respect Rohmer has not been faithful enough: Although Chrétien drew upon the tradition of the troubadours and trouvères, his tales were composed as literature to be read, not to be performed in dramatic recitations.
Even if we grant that this is correct 20th-century form for an Arthurian romance, the esthetic question would remain: Does Perceval succeed as art, not sorely as a solution to the intellectual problem of historicism? The Marquise of O…. certainly did; it was possibly the finest film adaptation of a literary work I have ever seen. Perceval, by contrast, requires so much literary knowledge and willful suspension of our modern conceptual framework that it left me wondering why in the world Rohmer chose to undertake such a curious project. (p. 20)
Robert Asahina, "On Screen: Filmed Fictions," in The New Leader (© 1978 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXI, No. 22, November 6, 1978, pp. 18-20.