Eric Rohmer Collection: Perceval Review
The Eric Rohmer Collection is a box set of ten films on nine Blu-ray discs, released in a limited edition of 2000 by Arrow Academy. These reviews are a disc at a time, the films being reviewed in chronological order, except for those on the final disc. To read the other reviews, please click on the “Eric Rohmer Collection” tag below.
Part of the following is revised and updated from my DVD review of Perceval for this site in 2010 after Rohmer's death.
Eric Rohmer's second literary adaptation of the 1970s delved ever further back into history for its source, in fact into the realms of myth. This is Rohmer's contribution to the Arthurian mythos, via the twelfth-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…
If The Marquise d'O… nonplussed some viewers, Perceval (Perceval le Gallois) did the same, even more so. It's the 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 Marquise of O… feels like a film that could have been made on actual locations, using many of the principles Rohmer and his regular cinematographer Nestor Almendros used in their contemporary-set films, if only cinema had existed at the start of the nineteenth century. However, for the twelfth century, filming in real locations was not possible, not least because castles might be grey ruins now but were polychrome then, so artifice was the only way that Rohmer felt he could approach this subject. In the 1970s, other French or French-based directors went back to the Middle Ages and/or to Arthurian tales – not least in both those capacities Robert Bresson in Lancelot du Lac (1974). See also French-based Pole Walerian Borowczyk's 1972 film Blanche, which also features medieval vocal and instrumental music. However, Perceval is very different to both of these.
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. Also, shadows didn't feature in paintings then – that was an innovation of the Renaissance. 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, effectively using it as a script. He preserves the original's octosyllabic rhyming couplets – not reflected in the English subtitles, though that would be beyond the call of duty. (French spellings of names and places are used, so we have Perceval for Percival, Gauvain for Gawain (André Dussollier), Ké for Kay and Tintaguel for Tintagel, for example.) Rohmer 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 the cast can be found future Rohmer leading ladies such as Arielle Dombasle, the late Pascale Ogier, Marie Rivière and Anne-Laure Meury and an older one, Marie-Christine Barrault, who had played a leading role for Rohmer in My Night at Maud's.
Because it is so out of character for both Rohmer and Almendros, Perceval is frequently fascinating, despite Luchini making a rather too fey protagonist. But it's also a hermetic, rather oppressive experience, and a lengthy one – indeed, Rohmer's longest feature film. Perceval was also Rohmer's least successful film at the French box office to that point, not helpful given its larger than usual budget for a Rohmer film, partly funded by television companies in France and abroad. It played the 1979 London Film Festival but became the first of only two of Rohmer's twenty-three big-screen features not to have a British cinema release. It became commercially available in 1992 on VHS as one of a batch of Rohmer titles released by Hendring, but this is its first UK release on disc. (It was given a PG certificate in 1992, but is now a 12, for sexual threat and some nudity, plus a Rohmerian gore effect courtesy of a lance.) Perceval is ultimately a failure, but it's an honourable and very interesting one. For his next cinema feature, Rohmer returned to the present day and first principles, beginning a new series.
When Rohmer died in 2010, I reviewed for this site all of Rohmer's cinema films that I hadn't reviewed before which were available on disc in an English-friendly edition. In the present case, the only one was Fox Lorber's US release from 2000, which was subpar even by the standards of the early years of the DVD format. Fortunately, while it's not a high bar to clear, the comparison between that disc and the present Blu-ray is like that between night and day.
The Blu-ray transfer is in Academy Ratio (1.37:1). That was unusual for a 35mm feature from the 1970s, but Academy was often favoured by Rohmer and in this case it is correct. Rohmer may habitually follow the (vertical) rule of thirds as to where he situates his characters' faces in the frame, but other elements in the shot means that compositions would suffer if this was cropped to 1.66:1, and certainly no wider than that. This restoration from original materials looks excellent, with the colours more vivid than I've seen them before – but then I've only seen this film previously on VHS and on the DVD referred to above. There's what looks like brief emulsion damage, causing a momentary red flash in part of the frame, at the 105-minute mark, but very little to quibble about.
The soundtrack is the original mono, clear and well balanced. There is more music than usual for a Rohmer film, though given the on-screen chorus and musicians, it counts as diegetic, and it comes through well. English subtitles are optional, if your French is not up to the rhyming couplets. As mentioned above, they translate the text as prose instead of verse, but that's the case with many book translations as well.
The extras on the disc are two editions of the French television series Ciné Regards devoted to this film (26:16 and 29:16). The disc menu dates them as 1978 and 1979 respectively, though they are copyrighted “Jan.79” (according to the IMDB, broadcast on 4 February) and 1978 in that order. The first is mainly an interview with Rohmer, as he sits with many of the film's cast, taking tea and cake. Rohmer has often been a shy interviewee – which explains why most of the introductions he made to his films feature only his voice over extracts – and his body language shows this, though he seems to relax as it goes along. Of the others, we do hear from Anne-Laure Meury and Christine Lietot (whose only screen acting role this was) and finally Fabrice Luchini, who confesses that he often thought himself ugly when young, so appreciated the chance to play a handsome knight. The second edition (as per the IMDB, broadcast 29 March 1978) is a more traditional piece showing the film in rehearsal and production. We see Rohmer and some of the cast (including Arielle Dombasle) practising their music playing and singing, and we hear about the challenges of filming with horses – the sets might have been artificial but the animals weren't. Also interviewed are Nestor Almendros (without his usual moustache) and Rohmer's regular sound recordist Jean-Pierre Ruh, who describes how much a challenge this particular film was.
The book in this limited edition box set features an essay by Andy Miller on Perceval. Miller points out that while this film was commercially and for the most part critically unsuccessful, it has always had its defenders. Geoff Andrew (who contributes an essay on The Green Ray in this same book) in the Time Out Film Guide said that the sets were worth the price of a ticket in themselves – though obviously most audiences don't go to the cinema just to watch the production design. Jonathan Rosenbaum was another critic who thought the film one of Rohmer's best. Miller describes the film in relation to the 9000-line original poem, which isn't thought to be complete, and how it follows the text to the letter, switching focus from Perceval to Gauvain for one section and ending the film with the Passion of Christ. The Arthurian legends of the Grail and of the Fisher King have their source in the poem. Rohmer rehearsed the cast for a year before shooting, so that they could be used to speaking in verse. Also in the book is a reprint of the relevant chapter of Nestor Almendros's book A Man with a Camera, in which he describes the making of the film as one of the most arduous experiences of his professional life, so far out of his usual practice was he. This wasn't helped by a budget cut reducing the shooting schedule by half and Rohmer having to do retakes, which was a new experience for him.