Eric Rohmer has said that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is probably his swan song, and he’s not pulling any punches here; the movie has all the elements of a final testament even as it displays all the charming freshness of a first movie, or a home movie. Rohmer’s three other period pieces, The Marquise of O (1976), Perceval le Gallois (1978) and The Lady and the Duke (2001) all have the same curious makeshift feeling, as if the director was using the idea of “the past” to dispel the slick and often enervating professionalism of most studio-driven films. Jacques Rivette used this style in his recent Balzac adaptation, The Duchess of Langeais, and it has its precedent in the late films of Roberto Rossellini, where no attempt is made to distract us from the fact that we are watching contemporary people inhabiting spaces chosen by the director to illuminate the intellectual and emotional themes of the historical tale at hand.
Based on a seventeenth century novel by Honoré d’Urfé and set in fifth century Gaul, Astrea and Celadon begins with a title card set against a soothing background that lets us know the original location specified by d’Urfé’s book cannot be used because of “urban blight,” and that Rohmer has selected an alternate place that retains “its wild poetry and bucolic charm.” We may recall that Rohmer’s city intellectuals generally move away to the country for a holiday, where the shivering trees and the glistening water stand as a reproach to all their infamous, self-regarding talk. No other director films nature like Rohmer does; he has such an affinity for landscape and weather that we always feel the exact time of day he’s shooting, what the air feels like, if a storm is coming. This alertness to environment is what gives Rohmer’s movies their spiritual dimension, even when he shoots in oppressively ornate Parisian interiors. In Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer burrows deep into the forest, as if every twig and tweety bird could tell a separate story.
Celadon (Andy Gillet) is a highborn boy who chooses to be a shepherd in order to “earn his rest by honest work,” and he is involved with Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour), even though their parents are engaged in a long-running feud. Astrea sees another girl kiss Celadon behind a tree; he doesn’t want to kiss the other girl, but he doesn’t resist her, either. Consequently, Astrea banishes her lover from her sight, and a heartbroken Celadon says, “I’ll drown myself at once.” (That “at once” might get a laugh from wise-ass audiences, but even if they resist Rohmer’s essential message all the way through the film, that laugh will eventually boomerang back on their calloused hearts.) The nearby river washes a still-breathing Celadon ashore, but Astrea thinks he’s dead, and she fully forgives him when she sees that he carved a love poem for her in a tree. Meanwhile, Celadon finds himself the weakened, supine sex object in a house full of women, one of whom wants to keep him for herself, and we can hardly blame her: Gillet has to be one of the most beautiful men ever photographed, and his face is so open and vulnerable that he twitches slightly if it’s hit by any kind of light. He moves with the nervous gracefulness of youth, always shifting his body too far to the left or right (at one sweet point, he lightly trips over a log on his way out of the forest). Gillet does seem like a heroic figure from long ago, newborn and pure, and Crayencour is an interesting match for him; her big eyes are all at sea with slightly goofy intensity, and the tendrils of her blond hair are always escaping from the hold of her blue hair ribbon.
In his seventies prime, Rohmer filmed his tempting Chloe in her afternoon as an iconic plum, so ripe with sexual abandon as she waits on her bed that we can only admire the willpower of Bernard Verley’s Frédéric when he resists her in order to stay faithful to his wife. The weakness of Astrea and Celadon lies in the character of Hylas (Rodolphe Pauly), who ceaselessly, merrily, and unconvincingly sings of the pleasures of hedonism. Pauly looks like a dark-haired, funhouse mirror version of Gillet, and his character is little more than a pitiful buffoon; at this late date, Rohmer’s stern, serene Catholicism will not admit that indiscriminate sexuality has any means to tempt the virtuous. Everyone in the movie looks at Hylas as if he’s a tedious class clown, a minor irritation. Similarly, the wealthy woman who tries to imprison Celadon says, “only fools are swayed by fidelity,” yet when he escapes from her home, she’s neither seen nor heard from again. Rohmer gives no weight whatsoever to the opposing side of his argument: pledge yourself to monogamous romance, he says, or go drown yourself. At once!
As he languishes in the forest, Celadon refuses food, but he does request “a flute to sing my song of sorrow.” Gillet is able to say lines like that with perfect sincerity, so that we want to believe such a man could exist, even if all our modern experience tells us otherwise. Rohmer must know that his point of view is utterly against the grain of contemporary culture, yet he proceeds in an irresistible way, filming Gillet and Crayencour with loving attention to sensual detail; it’s no mistake that Rivette called Rossellini’s Catholicism “carnal to the point of scandal,” and this applies equally well to Rohmer’s religious fervor. When Celadon sees Astrea asleep in the woods, Rohmer travels down her bare leg and foot, and a voice-over tells us that Celadon “wishes he had eyes all over his body,” the sexiest thought imaginable to hear in the dark of a movie house. When they caress each other, in flashback, Rohmer makes it look like they’ve just discovered their hands and their lips and the backs of their necks; it’s a rapturous scene, so private that it’s almost embarrassing to watch. The clouds above are described as “a flimsy shroud” that cannot hide the sun’s radiance, just as Astrea and Celadon’s clothes cannot hide their beautiful bodies, moving inexorably toward sexual congress and Frank Borzage-style melding.
Gillet is dressed as a girl at two points in the film, which links up with earlier dialogue where we are told that the lover becomes the beloved, the man becomes the woman he loves, the woman becomes the man she loves. Celadon is Astrea. Astrea is Celadon. (“I am Heathcliff!” cries Cathy in Wuthering Heights). We have to accept the Shakespearian convention that Astrea wouldn’t recognize Celadon when he’s dressed as a girl, but this is easy to do, especially when Astrea’s white nightgown keeps slipping down over her snowy-white breasts and she gets cuddly with her disguised, seemingly deceased lover, through instinct, through fate. She kisses his hand, and he kisses it where she’s just kissed it; even if they aren’t one person yet, they’ll have lots of fun trying to be.
The last scene is a triumph of Catholic sensuality over sense, and it’s hard to imagine a lovelier, more lyrically intense last moment to end a career on. Audiences might laugh at parts of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and perhaps the more acute of them will be able to make a case against this ode to romantic fidelity (“It’s not realistic! There have never been men like Celadon! I’d rather laugh and booze it up and have sex with Hylas!”) But Rohmer has always created a wholly convincing moral world of his own. If our own world cannot live up to it, or bears no resemblance to it, then that’s our failure, not his.