Perceval (Perceval le Gallois) Review
Eric Rohmer's second literary adaptation of the 1970s delved ever further back into history for its source. In subject matter, it moves into the realm of legend, namely the Arthurian mythos. Perceval is based on the 12th Century narrative poem by Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval (Fabrice Luchini) lives with his widowed mother in the forests of Wales. A meeting with some knights makes him realise that he wants to be one. So, despite his mother's objections he sets out for King Arthur's court...
Perceval is a major test case for Rohmer's reputation as a naturalistic filmmaker, as it is far and away the most visually stylised work of his career, at least until The Lady and the Duke came along. The entire film was shot in a studio, so necessarily in artificial light, with a blue cyclorama for the sky and the studio floor painted green. Trees were made of plastic, with the castles gold-painted plywood. Rohmer and his regular DP Nestor Almendros took their cue from medieval miniatures: after all, castles then were not aged as they are now, and were colourful instead of a uniform grey. The production design by Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko is a tour de force. The Grail was covered in Scotchlite, a highly reflective material whose most recent cinematic use was for the lightsabers in Star Wars.
The stylisation extends to the narrative as well. Rohmer follows the Old French of de Troyes's text faithfully. He also employs a chorus who comment on the action and also act as narrators, sometimes sung to the accompaniment of medieval musical instruments, sometimes spoken, sometimes taking small roles in the action and referring to their own characters in third person. The film ends with a recreation of the Passion of Christ – with the chorus of four men singing in Latin. In small roles can be found future Rohmer leading ladies such as the late Pascale Ogier, Marie Rivière and Anne-Laure Meury.
Because it is so out of character for both Rohmer and Almendros, Perceval is frequently fascinating. But it's also a hermetic, rather oppressive experience, and a lengthy one – indeed, Rohmer's longest feature film. It was also Rohmer's least successful film at the French box office to that point, and the first of his features not to have a UK cinema release.
If you wonder why I'm reviewing a ten-year-old DVD, that is because Fox Lorber's edition of Perceval remains the only English-friendly DVD release of the film that I have been able to find. If your French is good enough, it is also available as part of a six-film boxset “Eric Rohmer: Ancien et Moderne”, which can be found very cheaply nowadays. In the UK, Perceval had its commercial premiere as one of half a dozen Rohmers released on VHS by Hendring in 1992, and is the only one of those films not to have gone to a DVD release, at least so far.
Fox Lorber's DVD is NTSC format and encoded for all regions. It was one of several Rohmers they released in the early years of the DVD format, but even then there were quibbles about quality: transfers that were at best indifferent, with minimal extras. Ten years later, the flaws of this transfer are impossible to ignore. Presented correctly in 4:3 (Rohmer favoured Academy Ratio into the 1980s), the interlaced transfer is murky and somewhat dull, with noticeable banding in that blue cyclorama amongst other artefacts. There are only eight chapter stops, far too few for a film of this length.
The mono soundtrack has no great issues, though having the subtitles fixed rather than optional is certainly regrettable.
The film plays on disc startup, but if you go to the main menu you will find some minimal extras: filmographies (up to 1999) for Fabrice Luchini, André Dussollier (who plays Sir Gawain) and Rohmer, with an awards listing for the last-named. Also on the disc are cast and crew and DVD credits, and a weblink to enable you to subscribe to Winstar's DVD Newsletter.