Friday, August 20, 2010

On the ghostly unending of Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois


It's typical to understand the ending of Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois as didactically Christian (for example). By ending with a Passion Play, Rohmer closes up the wandering confusion that had come before, finds a terminus to the imperfect advice offered successively by Mother, mentor, and hermit, and resolves our gormless hero (a "Welsh hick" as one Wikipedia entry terms him) into a good Christian by going so far as to have his Perceval also play Christ. This scene is all the more an authoritative glossing of what came before because only here does Rohmer allow himself to add to Chrétien a new text and, as well, because this scene, uniquely, is in Latin, the paradigmatic language of clerical authority. As the standard line goes, Rohmer has does what we should have expected this good Catholic to have done.

The ending does not work, though, not quite. Here are Finke and Shichtman:
[The Passion Play] is not an apt conclusion to the film because there is nothing in the preceding two hours of film that hints of such an ending. It comes literally, like the Loathly Lady, out of nowhere, To be sure, it does have some basis in Chrétien's text, but there Perceval's visit to the hermit seems far from conclusive, nothing more than yet another episode in a relentlessly episodic--and ultimately unfinished--text. Rohmer clearly wants to create a spiritual film that reflects his Catholic morality and his scholarly sense of the Middle Ages, but he is, in the end, thwarted by his adherence to the letter of Chrétien's resolutely courtly text. The Passion play is not the logical conclusion of the film but a "tearing rupture" (Rider et al., 157) in its fabric that imposes a false sense of closure on the narrative, whose primary interests lie elsewhere. (263)
As much as I recommend Cinematic Illuminations--and I do, highly--I suggest that this reading, part of a larger project of reading the Grail itself as an irreducible anamorphic blot, needs to attend more to where the film actually stops. It's not the Passion Play. When the Passion Play ends, Rohmer cuts, quickly, and here, truly jarringly, to Perceval riding again in the forest, continuing his wandering, no longer in a quest for his mother, now dead, but on a quest for...what?

Such an ending recalls, of course, the ending of any number of Westerns (one version here); it also invites continuation, a properly medieval approach to a Perceval narrative. But this ghost ending (ghostly because it is an ending after an ending, barely acknowledged by the criticism) also frustrates the "false closure [of] the narrative." With this unending wandering in mind, we no longer need draw out Rohmer's symptoms, or accuse him of piety, as we good secular people often do. Rohmer beat us to it. He builds the critique of "false closure" into his film, or, understood differently, extends the film past its ending into an unending, haunting the Passion Play and his own glossing of the narrative with what frustrates any foreclosure or eschaton of significance.

Recall that in Chrétien, Perceval shares Easter with the Hermit. In Rohmer, however, we get only the Passion in a play that ends with the Lance entering Perceval/Christ's side. There is no resurrection and therefore no redemption. In what sense can it be Good Friday if Easter Sunday never arrives? The Fisher King remains wounded, the land diseased, Perceval's mother dead, Blanchefleur abandoned. Notice, as well, that this forest scene offers the film's sole "external" shot of night. Perceval rides off into darkness, back into the forest, aiming for nothing.

Incidentally, if you've not seen the film (I saw it for the first time last night) the clip above should give you a good sense of it. Boorman this ain't, and thank goodness.

(acknowledgements to my wife, ALK, whose observation about the wandering's "frustration of symbolic unity" grounds this post)


Tom Elrod said...

Speaking of differences to Boorman: I think it's interesting to consider the different approaches to Arthurian material in the major French film adaptations (this film, Bresson's Lancelot du Lac) and the major English/American adaptations (Boorman, Camelot the musical, the Clive Owen King Arthur movie), the latter of which seems always to be either "historical" or Malorian (with either no interest in or knowledge of Arthurian tradition before Malory).

I haven't seen enough non-English Arthurian films or read much medieval film scholarship (I will have to check out Cinematic Illumination and that book of Arthurian film essays edited by Kevin Harty), so I don't know what a non-New Wave French (or German or Italian) filmmaker would do with Arthur & friends. Nevertheless, it seems that English & American productions are more interested in Arthur and his knights as legendary "heroes" or somesuch, their downfall unfortunate and "tragic" in the mainstream 20th-century sense of that word (i.e., "sad"). The actual concept of heroism isn't very complicated, whereas Rohmer seems to understand that the medieval material is very ambivalent about the ability of rulers and heroes to save and not destroy, which is why Perceval's quest remains unresolved and the Passion Play offers no redemption. Arthur's agency in his own downfall in Boorman's Excalibur is not very important, and his final confrontation with Mordred is framed as heroic and brave (like standing up to a bully), whereas in the post-Chretien romances his actions and their consequences were central to his death and his kingdom's collapse. It's not all evil Morgan le Fay's fault. (And obviously, Rohmer's film isn't based on the Le Morte d'Arthur material, but ambivalent heroism is there in Chretien, too.)

If there are major cinematic exceptions to this, or some readings/analyses of French medievalism of which I'm just ignorant (and there probably are), I'd be interested to hear about them. I'd also be interested in hearing more of what you think of Boorman, as there are portions of his film I quite like, even though I think it attempts too much while in the end accomplishing very little.

Tom Elrod said...

I should also say that I'm only thinking about this in terms of film. There are plenty of modern English and American literary adaptations which are more ambivalent toward the Arthurian material. (T.H. White and Mark Twain jump to mind.)

Karl Steel said...

Tom, great comment, and I find this very convincing. I have to confess that my preference for Bresson and Rohmer's Athurian movies goes with my longstanding love Boorman, (Celtic) warts and all, a love matched only by my love for Zardoz. So: what do I THINK of Boorman? I don't much, actually, though I find his finessing of the grail legend in terms of a 'blood and soil' reading of England/Arthur at best embarrassing, especially with the vengeful temptress Morgan standing in as a kind of incarnated earth spirit. It doesn't make much sense.

But then again, it's been a couple years since I last saw the Boorman, so cum grano salis.

I honestly don't know European Arthurian film outside the arthouse (and even that I know pretty poorly), so I can't offer much here. A check of the list of films in David Williams, "Medieval Movies," The Yearbook of English Studies 20 (1990): 1-32 suggests that non-English Arthurian films are VERY hard to come by. There are basically none between the post-war and Bresson. Williams' list, I imagine, is incomplete. There's a larger list of Italian films in Jean-Pierre Bleys, "Filmographie des films italiens sur le Moyen Âge," Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque 42-43 (1985): 157-64. There also may be a long list in Richard Burt's brief medieval and early modern film book.

Richard Burt said...

Very nice observation about the "unending." Linda Williams has a great essay on the film. I discuss Perceval in my book Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media (Palgrave, 2008; paperback, 2010). I am especially interested in the one animated sequence in Perceval. Thanks very much for mentioning my book, Karl. I wouldn't call my book "brief," however. It was 50,000 word over the official word count (90k). Palgrave printed the book in a larger size to accommodate the large word count.

Karl Steel said...

Somehow I subtracted 100 pages from your book when I looked it up
in google books: no, not brief! Apologies, and I'll get my hands on it (congrats on the paperback): the animated sequence is quite odd, a surprising intrusion into a film generally happy to use real animals, human and otherwise.

Richard Burt said...

By the way, I have a review of Cinematic Illuminations coming out in JGEP (or is it JEGP?).

Richard Burt said...

Thanks again, Karl!