The Marquise of O... (Die Marquise von O...) Review
Eric Rohmer made his first feature in 1959 (his first short nine years earlier) and his last film in 2007. However, the Seventies were his least prolific decade. Between finishing the Moral Tales with Love in the Afternoon in 1972 and beginning a new series, the Comedies and Proverbs with The Aviator's Wife in 1982, he made just two films for the cinema, with a third for television. All three are literary adaptations with historical settings, which must have seemed a considerable departure at the time, though Rohmer made more such films later in his career. Also, in the two cinema films at least (I haven't seen the 1980 TV film, Catherine de Heilbronn), Rohmer experimented with visual style. Rohmer's reputation is for unadorned naturalism, but that's misleading: location, set design, costume design and the use of light – especially in the films photographed by Nestor Almendros – are all carefully chosen, even in the contemporary-set films, although they intentionally do not draw attention to themselves. However, it's certainly more noticeable in the historical subjects, the first of which was The Marquise of O..., based on the novella by Heinrich von Kleist. The film was another departure in that, although it was a coproduction with Rohmer's usual production company Les Films du Losange, it is the only one of his films entirely in a language other than French, namely German.
It's the late eighteenth century, and the Russians have invaded Italy. The film takes place in M..., a town in Northern Italy. (The film follows the old literary convention of abbreviating foreign names, hence the title.) The widowed Marquise of O... (Edith Clever) places an advertisement in the newspaper: she is pregnant, but as she has been chaste since her husband died, she asks for the father of the child she is carrying to make himself known so that they can be married. When the Marquise was threatened with rape by invading soldiers, she was saved by Count F... (Bruno Ganz). Overcome by the ordeal, the Marquise takes a sleeping draught...and that is when the deed was done.
Like many of the best novellas, Rohmer's film is small in scale but made with a jewel-like delicacy. Taking its cue from painting, Rohmer and Nestor Almendros ensure that each scene is precisely and more formally composed than they would have done in a contemporary subject. The film was shot in a real castle (Obertzen Castle, in Franconia, Germany), and Almendros found that he needed very little lighting to supplement the sunlight coming in through large windows. The interiors are lit by candlelight, something made possible by advances in lenses and the sensitivity of colour film stock. This breakthrough is usually credited to Barry Lyndon, but Stanley Kubrick and his DP John Alcott and Rohmer and Almendros were working independently of each other, and neither pair had seen the other film at the time of making theirs. (Both were asked if they had, though.) In his book A Man with a Camera, Almendros says that he made a mistake he could never forgive himself for - a microphone boom reflected in a mirror – though I've never spotted it. Moidele Bickel's costume design is first rate and won a BAFTA Award.
As an actor's piece, the film belongs to Edith Clever in the title role, who covers a wide range as a woman whose reputation is at stake. Bruno Ganz is fine, if restrained, as the Count, and other cast members give solid performances. Rohmer turns up uncredited as a Russian soldier.
The Marquise of O... won the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Cannes Festival. I have to confess that Rohmer's historicals aren't my favourites of his works, but for admirers there's a lot to appreciate in this film. Rohmer would go even further back into history – and myth – with his next film, Perceval.
Arrow's edition of The Marquise of O comes on a single-layered disc encoded for all regions. It is available singly and as part of Arrow's eight-disc Eric Rohmer Collection. (If you're sufficiently Francophone, you could check out the French DVD release which contains a second disc with the otherwise unavailable 1980 TV film Catherine de Heilbronn, which was also based on a work by von Kleist. However, this edition is not English-friendly, and to the best of my knowledge there are no subtitles available at all on Catherine, not even French ones.)
The film was shot in Academy Ratio, so the DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.33:1. As this is an older disc (2004) I'm reviewing for the record, some allowances should be made. This DVD predates high-definition masters: it's a little soft by today's standards. Grain is quite noticeable and skin-tones tend towards the reddish, but given the low-light conditions (and concomitant forced development) that's not unexpected.
The soundtrack is mono, recorded with direct sound, and there are no especial issues with the soundtrack. English-language subtitles are available.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer (3:59), which is even darker and cropped to 1.66:1. Although this trailer is intended for French audiences – as witness the caption at the end, which tells you that the doors will be closed once the film has started – there are no subtitles at all here, neither French nor English.