I’ve recently been reading the ancient Greek pastoral romance, Daphnis and Chloe, which got me to thinking about the other work of pastoral romance I’ve encountered: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, which was the final film by the French director Eric Rohmer. The film is an adaptation of the novel L’Astrée written by Honoré d’Urfé and published between 1607 and 1627. L’Astrée was, in fact, influenced by the publication of the first French translation of Daphnis and Chloe in 1559. D’Urfé’s novel runs to six volumes and over five thousand pages, with an endlessly recomplicated story, and from this Rohmer has distilled a single story that contains many essential elements of the romance.
The story is set in 5th Century Gaul — the old Roman province that became France — but it’s ancient Gaul as imagined by d’Urfé, with the characters wearing costumes as they might have been designed in the 17th Century and some of them living in a castle that’s probably from around the same era or even later. The plot is extremely simple and straightforward: Astrea and Celadon are two shepherds in love, but Celadon’s parents don’t approve, because of something that happened between them and Astrea’s parents in the past. As the film starts, we learn that Astrea has asked Celadon to pretend to be in love with another woman to placate his parents, but the course of such subterfuges ne’er did run smooth, and Celadon’s pretense causes Astrea to doubt his love for her. She tells him she never wants to see him again, whereupon Celadon jumps in the river to drown himself in sorrow. Astrea becomes distraught at causing his death, but meanwhile Celadon is recovered from the river by fair nymphs and nursed back to health. The rest of the film is about the difficult process of the two lovers overcoming the breach in trust and reuniting. Inevitably, cross-dressing is involved.
Rohmer has pared everything down to the simplest elements. Partly this seems to the pastoral style, which stresses innocence and directness. We are close to nature, and we perceive everything directly, without excessive (or at least obvious) artifice. People say what they feel, and the only complications are in the feelings themselves. Society itself is just a small group of people living off the land. There is barely a hint of law or taboo or any kind of developed social contract. Pastorals create an idealized world in which the only thing that matters is the affairs of the heart.
It isn’t a very dramatic story, although looked at from a standard narrative outlook, all of the action is the complications that typically develop in the middle act. There’s is very little build-up to the complications, and very little denouement. It may be a dramatic failure on that level, actually. There may be too much moping and pining and self-recriminations and not enough pirates and invading armies as in Daphnis and Chloe. Then again, maybe the sole focus on languishing romantic anguish is exactly the point. Pretty much everyone can relate to romantic anguish.
What’s perhaps odder about how this story works are the philosophical digressions, which are substituted for pirates and invading armies. I’ve only seen one other film by Rohmer, so maybe this is not unusual for him. I have no idea how much of this comes from d’Urfé. We get one extended argument on the nature of love, which is for the most part an explanation of the doctrine that the lover and the beloved exchange souls and thus become one together. The doctrine is derided by the cynical playboy troubadour, but he really offers no counter doctrine other than his own interest in bodies over souls. The troubadour is an interesting character who perhaps doesn’t add up to much, because his flouting of the romantic idealism of the other characters never becomes part of the plot. It’s just talk. Perhaps he is intentionally show to be a blowhard to give the romantic idealism and air of having won out over his cynicism.
We also get an extended theological treatise from the druid, who explains that the Gauls are not pantheistic, unlike the Romans, but rather that their gods are all aspects of one God. The theology is presented in a fairly dry, logical way, explaining that if there were two gods, then either they would be equal in power, which would make them identical, or they would be unequal in power, which would make the more powerful god the true god. This feels like an intrusion of Christian theology into a putatively pagan setting, and unlike the doctrine about true love, I’m not sure how it fits into the story. Is it, like the costumes, a sign that the Story reflects the biases and experience of the story-teller (i.e. d’Urfé)? Or, now that I think of it, is this theological argument that all gods are One the same as the argument that all lovers are One? It’s certainly true that these two philosophical treatises feel like similar digressions from the story, so it wouldn’t be surprising to find out they are presenting related ideas.
Maybe I’m too quick to label these twin discourses on the identity of Love and the identity of God as digressions. Certainly the question of identity is central to the problem the story explores, as it is to many romances. In Daphnis and Chloe, the two lovers cannot consummate their love until their true identities (they were both foundling babies) are revealed. In Astrea and Celadon it might be said that Celadon loses his identity when Astrea thinks he loves someone other than herself. He becomes quite literally a lost soul, and the rest of the movie is about the struggle to find it again. In the process he takes on false identities at least twice. Both of them are women, too, perhaps implying that Celadon still identifies with Astrea.
Most interesting is the second false identity, which begins when the druid, who has been asked by a nymph to heal Celadon, tells him that he looks just like the druid’s niece, who is now living far away, so the druid wishes to spend time with Celadon to be reminded of his beloved niece. Eventually when Astrea and the other shepherds come to the castle for a religious festival (the Mistletoe Festival, which I’m guessing has subtextual relevance), the druid suggest to Celadon that since he looks like his niece, he should pretend to be her so that Astrea won’t recognize him. (She has said she doesn’t want to see Celadon, which he reasons to mean that it’s okay if he sees her as long as she doesn’t see him.) Astrea immediately becomes enamored of this supposed niece, and her friends wonder why. Aha! She looks just like Celadon, that’s why! But they can’t see through the disguise. Only Astrea, who still possesses Celadon’s soul, can finally do that. Only she can restore his identity, because she is his identity. (It’s interesting, however, that the French title of the film is Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon, which implies that their love is plural, not one.)
Well, I don’t know if I’m reading the underlying doctrine correctly, but I will say that while the the moping and weeping in the bulk of the film leave me unmoved, if not occasionally irritated, the recognition scene feels very powerful, which indicates to me that something has been working beneath the placid surface of the story. All the pieces have been gradually moved into place, and suddenly they close in with a resounding sense of rightness and closure. But quite honestly, until that final moment, the greatest pleasure of the film is the beauty of what we’re looking at, which I take to be another property of the pastoral. In a text like Daphnis and Chloe we get lyric descriptions of natural beauty, and here we get one perfectly composed shot after another of the gorgeous French countryside. The overwhelmingly dominant color is green, and it is the verdant green of life and growth. This is the world as a garden, the world as Eden. Thus the feeling of innocence, even as we are reminded again and again — through naked breasts, or the troubadour’s sexual boasting — of the artificiality of the conceit that the world could be so innocent. This is a world of ideas about love and god, and thus it’s an idealized world.
That’s one of the pleasures of Story: that it can take us to such an idealized world and let us live there for a time. This was Rohmer’s final film, and it has a valedictory quality. A last view of a lost world of the mythical past, where lost souls might perhaps still be found.