Monday, August 18, 2008

Eric Rhomer’s Perplexing Perceval – A Recent Resdicovery

First, let me start off by saying that most people I know are simply going to hate this film. I’ll even go one further and say most human beings period will hate this film. In translating this for the screen, Rohmer has taken the Parsifilian myth, twisted it into an almost pageant-like stage drama creating a hybrid form of storytelling combing through the artifice and conventions of the world of theatre with the continuity we’ve grown accustomed to in the world of cinema. For some freaks (like yours truly) such a wedding of these two formats – ancient and modern – works in an almost otherworldly manner making it quite unlike any film a non-film student (or just plain weirdo) is likely to see. Although combining elements of several of the Parsifal legends, Rohmer’s retelling of it is particularly centered on the Chrétien de Troyes story moreso than von Eschenbach’s epic (and seemingly endless) poem.

Visually – here, at least – Rohmer remains firmly grounded in the world of theatre: his sets are often little more than painted flats, or smaller scaled models, more suggestive, or perhaps merely more representational, of the tale’s locations than they are meant to serve as visual recreations as typically found in film. Trees are constructed of metal as well as myriad other odd touches enrich the soundstage, all of which seems to be fitted onto an enormous, stylized turntable or disc that revolves, changing the scene as the story progresses. Visually this cylindrical motion lends a propulsive quality deliberately missing from the narrative of the film.

Portions of the film are narrated by a group of madrigal singers who, along with their ancient instruments, wander in and out of the picture (and the story) adding commentary and observation serving a function in the manner as might a Greek chorus. The effect it has in breaking up the tale’s tableaux is immediately charming and adds a further medieval/church mystery play quality unifying the many disparate elements Rohmer has chosen for his storytelling. (Conversely, it is also one of the elements that will – and has annoy(ed) the hell out of many viewers.)

Rohmer’s telling of the tale is primarily centered with the young Perceval's fascination with the world of knights and his desire to enter their chivalrous universe. In the title role, Fabrice Luchini portrays the young novice cool of manner and with an equally typically cool French sense of detachment, and not a little arrogance – yet somehow manages to balance it all with both humility and honor. Fearlessly he passes through all of his trials and in the process shows that arrogance need not always be wed with pride – how, when one knows himself to be right and aware of his own skill and abilities, he needn’t be boastful, the actions speak for themselves. It is, in every regard, a fascinating portrayal.

Interestingly, and more honestly than most Arthurian films Rohmer suggests more of the turmoil, weakness as well as the near dissolution of Arthur’s court than of its quickly faded glory. The young knight’s stint at Arthur’s castle, his integrity and eye for honesty wins the day earning him glory.

Rohmer’s pushing of Percival’s tale to include the story of Sir Gawain moves naturally, adding to – and connecting with – a deeper level of these Arthurian tales, as well as reminding us of the complexities, intertwining, and ultimately the timelessness of all of these legends.
Even those who may not like it will not be able to successfully argue against the Rohmer’s remarkable achievement for at least in the visual sense, he has created a world that is breathtakingly beautiful and through its very artifice magically believable. Indeed, many of his shots feel as though they’d been dropped before us from the glorious tapestries off of dank castle walls.

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