Eric Rohmer’s films are the kind of thing that give intellectuals a bad name, and thoughtful film making an even worse one. Characters with no serious problems talk on and on, while audiences are encouraged to think that they are thinking. If The Marquise of O… is an exception, it is no doubt thanks to Henirich von Kleist’s novella, cinematographer Nestor Almendros and the early 19th century art that seems to be a model for the film’s visual style. The results are still too precious by half, but at least they provide some amusing ironies and an exquisite exterior.
The story is well known. The Marquise in question (Edith Clever) is nearly raped by a group of soldiers in a skirmish during the Napoleonic Wars, but is rescued in the nick of time by a gallant Russian Lieutenant-Colonel (Bruno Ganz). Fainting in his arms, she awakens to the news that the danger is passed and the soldiers gone. Months later, it is clear that she is pregnant, but totally baffled by her condition, she is unable (or unwilling) to accept the obvious explanation that her savior proved less heroic than she believed. The complications that result from the colonel refusing to state outright why he wants to marry the Marquise veer between understated comedy and bittersweet recognition of human frailty.
Rohmer has claimed that his film is totally “faithful” to Kleist’s novella, having changed only one line of dialogue in the adaptation. Yet surely fidelity is more than a matter of reproducing every line of the original. As just one example, Ganz is hard to accept as a dashing officer, and only marginally more convincing as the bewildering (if respectful) suitor. It is even harder to accept the pristine, cozy images as the visual equivalent of Kleist’s language.
This discrepancy between images and language gives the lie to a literal notion of faithful adaptation. Images have a power beyond their purely descriptive function. It is one thing to dress Clever in Empire gowns, or to fill her home with delicate Neoclassical furniture to create a Realistic period texture, for example. It is quite another thing to insist that the visual appeal resulting from this recreation is restricted to the images’ descriptive purpose. Does the image above, for example, need a redundant caption like “The Marquise of O… swoons” to capture attention, to inspire fantasy, to be ravishingly beautiful?
Of course, for the writer, the word is everything, and in taking such a pedantic view of adaptation, Rohmer reassures the willfully blind, while giving his genuflection before literature a gorgeous sheen. In creating that sensuous texture, however, Rohmer unwittingly demonstrates that images have lives of their own. As a result, it is highly questionable whether the film is as “faithful” as he insists. Even if it is, that fidelity is less of an achievement than the rich surfaces that put the words in their place.