The spirit of medieval drama lives in Perceval, Eric Rohmer’s utterly unique, flagrantly theatrical adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century epic Arthurian poem, a film that will enchant medieval enthusiasts and bewilder others.
The narration in verse has been set to music adapted from authentic medieval melodies, and is sung in the original old French by a chorus of minstrels playing traditional instruments, as well as by the players themselves. The players’ bright costumes and the overtly stagey sets — a grove of abstract sculpture-like trees for a forest; simple façade castles built of painted wood — were inspired by medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
The result is something that might strike casual viewers as not wholly unlike a serious dramatic Monty Python production — a far from exact analogy that may nevertheless give readers a rough idea of how likely they are to appreciate the film.
Following Chrétien’s unfinished romance, Perceval is incomplete — in fact, it is three incomplete stories. The first is the naive, fable-like tale of Perceval, the bumpkin knight whose sheltered innocence is rewarded, despite lapses and ignorant errors, with a vision of the Grail (not yet clearly identified in Arthurian tradition with the cup of the Last Supper). Perceval’s story is abruptly interrupted by an adventure of Gawaine, and finally a moment of spiritual insight leads to a startling Passion-play finale.
Though a French Arthurian art film of the same era as Robert Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake, Perceval provides the greatest possible contrast to Bresson’s film. Where Lancelot is grim and meditative, Perceval is bouyant and dreamlike. Lancelot, like its hero, is haunted by human weakness and the hopeless impossibility of the Arthurian ideal, while Perceval is about one of the two knights (along with Galahad) whose otherworldly aspirations reached beyond chivalry and honor. Together, the two films represent the yin and yang of Arthuriana, and remain the most intriguing cinematic excursions into Arthurian Logres.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.