Eric Rohmer's announced last film, The Romance of Astrea and Céladon, is a costumed period piece based on a 1610 novel by Honoré d'Urfé that imagines what life was like in Fifth century Gaul. It is a work of sublime physical beauty and surprising eroticism that looks both backwards and forwards in time. While it appears to be a look back at a naive and outdated way of life, it may indeed be the opposite - Rohmer's final rebuke of the spiritual emptiness of the modern world, and a preview of a new world struggling to be born. This strange dichotomy is implied by the unusual preface in which a voice announces that the story had to be moved from the Forez plain, "now disfigured by urban blight and conifer plantations, to another part of France whose scenery has retained its wild poetry and bucolic charm." Rohmer transports the viewer to a world of idyllic streams and forests where shepherds dress in the tunics of the Seventeenth century. Celadon (Andy Gillet), a young man of noble birth has chosen the simple life of a shepherd and is deeply in love with Astrea (Stephanie Crayencour), a shepherdess of more modest family lineage. Though the film in lesser hands might have seemed a bit silly, Rohmer's straightforward direction reveals an emotional truth often obscured by modern cinematic techniques of fast cuts, hand-held camera-work, and curse words that are supposed to enhance "realism.
At a family gathering, Céladon pretends to be infatuated with Amynthe (Priscilla Galland) to mollify his and Astrea's parents who are bickering, but when Astrea sees him kiss the other woman, she is racked by jealousy and orders Celadon to stay away from her forever "unless I bid you otherwise". In despair, Céladon says "I'll drown myself, at once" and proceeds to jump into the river at once, but is rescued before drowning by the nymph Galathea (Veronique Reymond) who brings him to her castle and, with the support of two other nymphs, nurses him back to health.
When Galathea discovers how attractive he is, however, she wants Céladon for her own pleasure and forbids him to leave the castle but, in the film's first instance of cross-dressing (a notorious Shakespearean plot device), he is smuggled out by another nymph, Leonide (Cecile Cassel) and hides out in the woods. Astrea believes Céladon to be dead and with some regret, forgives him and loves him more than ever, though Céladon refuses to see her out of respect for her word. He begins to rethink his position, however, after being visited by a druid priest (Serge Renko) who hatches a secret scheme to reunite the two lovers.
The Romance of Astrea and Céladon is filled with a lightness that is absent from Rohmer's more talky Six Moral Tales and later films in which the characters pontificate at length on the ins and outs of romantic love. His philosophical (and Catholic) bent surfaces, however, in a scene in which Hylas (Rodolphe Pauly), a jester, who is regarded with complete disdain by others, berates the follies of indiscriminate sexuality while Lycidas (Jocelyn Quivrin) promotes love as an ideal that merges two souls into one and the film's robust final sequence demonstrates the extremes one may go to for love.
In The Romance of Astrea and Céladon, Rohmer, now in his 87th year, promotes the ideals of commitment, the integrity of one's word, and the poetry of romantic love without its modern day clatter. While these ideals may not seem terribly exciting (one film critic wrote that, "maybe humankind ditched romantic fidelity because it isn't exciting!"), they act to ground us in our noblest aspirations, to remind us of what it means to be human, a task that, in his six decades of film-making, Rohmer has exquisitely accomplished and which The Romance of Astrea and Céladon places a final exclamation point.
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