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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: http://www.humanite.fr/2007-09-05_C...

by Emile Breton

Rohmer, film-maker of the 17th century.

Translated Friday 21 September 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

Emile Breton’s cinema chronicle. Rohmer’s adaptation of Honoré d’Urfé’s 17th-century novel Astrée.

“Near the old city of Lyons, in the direction of the setting sun, there is land called Forez, which despite its small size contains what is most rare in the rest of Gaul, for, being divided into plains and mountains, the ones and the others are fertile and located in so temperate an air that the earth is able to produce everything that the farm laborer desires. In the heart of this land is the most beautiful part of the plain, girded, as by a strong wall, by mountains that are close enough, and watered by the Loire river, which, having its source quite close by, flows almost through the middle, not yet too swollen or proud, but gentle and calm. Several other streams in various places also bathe the plain with their clear waters, but one of the most beautiful is the Lignon which, both wandering in its course and uncertain as regards its source, winds through that plain from the high mountains of Cervières and Chamazel to Fleurs where the Loire, receiving it, and causing it to lose its own name, takes it as tribute to the Ocean.”

Thus begins, with a description comparable to a 1/20,000 scale map and the bucolic charm of a translation from Virgil, Honoré d’Urfé’s novel Astrée, a best-seller, to use an anachronism, in the 17th century, and which is seldom read today. This tale of curly-headed shepherds, nymphs in Greek skirts and druids dedicated to the gods of the Carnutes, and who cut mistletoe every fourteenth moon; of sheep “wearing on their heads ribbons of various colors, like garlands,” is too often taken for a slushy, sentimental story. But this is due to misreading it and to forgetting the fact that the author purposely set his shepherd utopia in a very real place. And right from the second page, a tragedy takes root – a tragedy due to a misunderstanding between two people who love one another. Out of desperation, a shepherd jumps into the river and the beautiful Lignon with its clear waters becomes an impetuous torrent “doing violence to the bank on the other side, which breaks off.” Violence enters the heart of the pastoral.

In the unfinished novel’s nearly 3,000 pages, 293 characters, male and female, embody the different figures of courtly love, going so far as disguising themselves and reversing sex roles to better express the ambivalence of their feelings. There is so much sensuality in the description of the scenes between lovers that the precious style, at the limit of emphasis, can only draw the veil of modesty over the most secret and murky of human passions. To modesty one must add humor. For example, one thinks of the passage where, in order that the shepherd Céladon might see his Astrée again – she forbade him to appear before her – his protector, the druid Adamas, presents him as his daughter Alexis, a female druid on holiday, and dresses him in woman’s clothing. Adamas, who apparently knows a chapter in sexuality, hesitates to have this “disguised girl” sleep with one of his wives, Léonide, because “he did not think it well that Alexis and Léonide should remain alone in that bedroom, fearing that, by some miracle of love, he should become a shepherd again.” And later on, the same false Alexis, undressing in the women’s bedroom, “held her shirt and shirtsleeves over her belly, for fear that what she had below should be noticed.” The modesty and humor of this scene are also in the film.

This it is probably this distancing from a tragic subject which attracted the film-maker, who with this adaptation took on a film project of Pierre Zorca’s, whose death prevented him from realizing the project. Rohmer made the project his own, while strictly respecting Honoré d’Urfé’s work. He has limited himself to eliminating the secondary intrigues and focusing on the main plot. He has kept the somewhat haughty elegance, and the novelist’s preoccupation with putting flowery phrases in the mouths of his shepherds is echoed in the film by the beauty of the young, unknown actors, who give an adolescent freshness to the game of seduction. And even their distinct diction contributes to the stage setting impression produced by the novel and its tirades.

One is not surprised at this meeting, or at this achievement: this novel is a morality tale. “We are men,” says Lisandre, one of the novel’s shepherds, “that is to say that we are not perfect, and that the imperfection of humanity cannot be done away with at a single stroke.” As Rohmer said of his “La Collectionneuse” in 1966: “What interests me is showing people and showing that man is a moral being.”

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