On the ghostly unending of Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois

It’s typical to understand the ending of Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois as didactically Christian (for example). By ending with a Passion Play, Rohmer closes up the wandering confusion that had come before, finds a terminus to the imperfect advice offered successively by Mother, mentor, and hermit, and resolves our gormless hero (a “Welsh hick” as one Wikipedia entry terms him) into a good Christian by going so far as to have his Perceval also play Christ. This scene is all the more an authoritative glossing of what came before because only here does Rohmer allow himself to add to Chrétien a new text and, as well, because this scene, uniquely, is in Latin, the paradigmatic language of clerical authority. As the standard line goes, Rohmer has does what we should have expected this good Catholic to have done.

The ending does not work, though, not quite. Here are Finke and Shichtman:

[The Passion Play] is not an apt conclusion to the film because there is nothing in the preceding two hours of film that hints of such an ending. It comes literally, like the Loathly Lady, out of nowhere, To be sure, it does have some basis in Chrétien’s text, but there Perceval’s visit to the hermit seems far from conclusive, nothing more than yet another episode in a relentlessly episodic–and ultimately unfinished–text. Rohmer clearly wants to create a spiritual film that reflects his Catholic morality and his scholarly sense of the Middle Ages, but he is, in the end, thwarted by his adherence to the letter of Chrétien’s resolutely courtly text. The Passion play is not the logical conclusion of the film but a “tearing rupture” (Rider et al., 157) in its fabric that imposes a false sense of closure on the narrative, whose primary interests lie elsewhere. (263)

As much as I recommend Cinematic Illuminations–and I do, highly–I suggest that this reading, part of a larger project of reading the Grail itself as an irreducible anamorphic blot, needs to attend more to where the film actually stops. It’s not the Passion Play. When the Passion Play ends, Rohmer cuts, quickly, and here, truly jarringly, to Perceval riding again in the forest, continuing his wandering, no longer in a quest for his mother, now dead, but on a quest for…what?
Such an ending recalls, of course, the ending of any number of Westerns (one version here); it also invites continuation, a properly medieval approach to a Perceval narrative. But this ghost ending (ghostly because it is an ending after an ending, barely acknowledged by the criticism) also frustrates the “false closure [of] the narrative.” With this unending wandering in mind, we no longer need draw out Rohmer’s symptoms, or accuse him of piety, as we good secular people often do. Rohmer beat us to it. He builds the critique of “false closure” into his film, or, understood differently, extends the film past its ending into an unending, haunting the Passion Play and his own glossing of the narrative with what frustrates any foreclosure or eschaton of significance.

Recall that in Chrétien, Perceval shares Easter with the Hermit. In Rohmer, however, we get only the Passion in a play that ends with the Lance entering Perceval/Christ’s side. There is no resurrection and therefore no redemption. In what sense can it be Good Friday if Easter Sunday never arrives? The Fisher King remains wounded, the land diseased, Perceval’s mother dead, Blanchefleur abandoned. Notice, as well, that this forest scene offers the film’s sole “external” shot of night. Perceval rides off into darkness, back into the forest, aiming for nothing.

Incidentally, if you’ve not seen the film (I saw it for the first time last night) the clip above should give you a good sense of it. Boorman this ain’t, and thank goodness.
(acknowledgements to my wife, ALK, whose observation about the wandering’s “frustration of symbolic unity” grounds this post)
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  1. Pingback: Rohmer’s conte d’été | MedievalKarl

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