(Die Marquise von O . . .)

Directed by Eric Rohmer. France. 1976.

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This is unique among Eric Rohmer’s films for two reasons: it is the only one not in French, and it is the only one offering the rare opportunity to see what the notoriously reclusive director actually looks like (or looked like in 1976).  Some 10 minutes into the film three soldiers are seen awaiting orders; the thin one in the middle is Rohmer.

Based on a novella by the esteemed German writer Heinrich von Kleist, Die Marquise von O . . . is one of Rohmer’s ventures into what is popularly known as “costume drama”, the others being Perceval, The Lady and the Duke, and Triple Agent.  It is also a rare literary adaptation for a director best known for his portrayals of the amorous holiday adventures of beautiful but talkative young Parisians.

The story, set during the Napoleonic wars around 1800, tells of the young widowed marquise Julietta (Edith Clever) who, after being saved by a dashing Count (Bruno Ganz) from being ravished by an unruly mob of soldiers, finds herself inexplicably pregnant anyway.  Banished by her parents, she puts an advert in the paper promising to marry the father if he will only make himself known to her (this is the opening scene).  The fairly predictable outcome does not remotely detract from the immense pleasures afforded by the film.

This is one of the most beautifully shot films I have seen, thanks to the legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros.  Clearly striving to achieve the look of German romantic painting, such as the works of Friedrich, Rohmer and Almendros have imbued it with a stunning and sumptuous selection of browns, wonderfully and delicately lit and with ample use made of doorways and mirrors.  The acting style is deliberately theatrical, wholly different from the improvisational style of, say, The Green Ray, and one can easily imagine a Victorian melodrama being performed in this manner, with its exaggerated facial expressions and swooning women.  Yet this seems wholly appropriate to the material and to Rohmer’s treatment of it.

Rohmer’s films are unfairly described by some as “reactionary”, quoting for example the apparent sympathy for the monarchist side in The Lady and the Duke and the perceived espousal of traditional sexual morality by most of his leading characters.  “Conservative” (with a small “c”) would be a better word.  His Catholicism inspired much of his film criticism of the 1950s, and his films often include, almost surreptitiously, shots of churches, quite apart from scenes inside churches which are instrumental to the story (in Die Marquise von O . . . , a wedding scene).  Like Yasujiro Ozu, a comparison anyone would envy, Rohmer is sometimes accused of making the same film over and over again, namely a portrayal of the ethical dilemmas of young people falling in and out of love and of the ways they delude themselves. Die Marquise von O . . . is one variation on this theme, transferred to 200 years ago.  The motives of the Count in offering Julietta his hand in marriage, and the longing looks which the two main “suspects” give her while she sleeps, are typical Rohmer teases of the viewer.  The theme of class is also a crucial element of the film, the footman Leopardo being one of Rohmer’s rare representations of a member of the “lower orders”. 

Die Marquise von O . . . is an absolute delight, a potentially scurrilous subject being treated in a totally chaste and gently humorous manner.  And the stunning look of the film is a marvel.  One of Rohmer’s best.

Alan Pavelin
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