The fact that I have a difficult time taking seriously any character who responds to heartbreak with “I’ll drown myself at once!” and then proceeds to drown himself—at once!—is perhaps proof enough that Eric Rohmer needed to make The Romance of Astreé and Céladon, an inquiry into 5th-century sexual mores that sheds a bit of light on how far lovestruck mortals have regressed since. This is a film that aims to restore capital-L Love to its seat on the throne of high ideals, and it leaves little room for skepticism. It’s a rearguard action for the 87-year-old Rohmer, who has declared that the film will be his last. Morality has long been his pet subject, and with this retrograde (and pointedly anachronistic) project—an adaptation of a 17th-century pastoral by Honoree d’Urfe—he transplants viewers into a world unadorned by petty distractions in an attempt to parse the viability of Nature’s Law.
Astreé and Céladon unfolds in the Forez plain of ancient Gaul, a costume-party idyll of nymphs and druids, where men wear dresses and carve love poems into tree trunks. Its focus is the star-crossed coupling of the titular duo, the innocently pretty Astreé (Stéphanie Crayencour) and her cut-from-marble shepherd Céladon (Andy Gillet), who drift apart after she catches him behind a tree flirting with another belle. He is innocent, of course, and decides to drown himself after discovering Astreé‘s disappointment. But his suicide fails, and in the ensuing mix-up Astreé learns of Céladon’s devoted fidelity and mourns his apparent demise, while somewhere down the river Céladon is nurtured back to health by a band of seductive nymphs.
In the interlude between disaster and reconciliation, Rohmer treats the audience to various symposiums on the nature of romantic fidelity, the majority of which stop the film dead in its tracks. Naturally, the filmmaker stacks the deck in favor of his moral conservatism by portraying the story’s puckish anti-romantic as a pompous buffoon instead of letting his challenges provide the proper counterbalance, but Astreé and Céladon seems more interested in pursuing a near-utopian vision than giving credence to relativism. In that sense, Rohmer’s work here feels a bit too complacent, and the dialogue lacks the intellectual rigor of his best screenplays, My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee.
After all, maybe humankind ditched romantic fidelity because it isn’t exciting! The film’s third act restores a bit of romantic frisson by dressing Céladon in women’s clothing and having him confront Astreé disguised as the daughter of a druid priest. This being true love, she succumbs despite the confusing gender reversal. One scene in particular, in which a liberated Astreé embraces her new female friend with some irrepressible heavy petting, seems calculated to launch a thousand gender-studies dissertations. But the rest of this midsummer daydream, sweet and strange as it is, lacks the immediacy of romantic (or even academic) infatuation. To borrow the film’s vernacular, the words never stab into the soul.