It’s liable to take a while too, but here to be going on with is Episode 4, in which I take my very first look at what must be one of the most eccentric yet accurate versions of an Arthurian story ever committed to celluloid.
The story is adapted by Rohmer from a romance by the 12th Century French poet Chrétien de Troyes. Although he was obviously drawing on older stories, Chretien was the first to put down in writing many of the elements of the Arthurian legend which are familiar to us today - including the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, and the Holy Grail, which makes its first appearance in Perceval le Gallois.
In the film, as in Chrétien’s poem, Perceval (Fabrice Luchini) is a youth brought up in total ignorance of the world by his widowed mother. When he meets a band of knights in the forest near his home, he thinks at first he they must be angels, but when he realises the truth he sets out for King Arthur’s court to become a Knight himself. Various adventures ensue, some of which I suspect drew big laughs in Chretien’s day - Percival is pretty gormless, behaves badly, and makes all sorts of gaffes. Later he visits the mysterious castle of the Fisher King, where he witnesses a strange procession bearing a bleeding lance and the Holy Grail. Perceval is too polite to ask what that’s all about: the castle vanishes, and he is scolded for his silence by a girl with startling hair. Soon afterwards, the story shifts focus to Gauvin (or Gawain - played by Andre Dusollier), and we follow his story for a while, before abruptly returning to Perceval.
The result hardly feels like a film at all. Rohmer’s camera is unobtrusive, sometimes slowly panning to follow a character across the set or reveal a new speaker, but mostly content to remain stationary, so it’s more like watching a strange but beautiful play, where the scene changes happen by magic, and the actors are forever arranging themselves into compositions which seem to have come straight from a painting. Adding to the theatricality is a chorus of actor-musicians who provide the soundtrack and play a variety of different roles in the story. (The film often resembles a concert of Early Music. Towards the end it pretty much turns into a passion play with a sung text.)
In the end Perceval le Gallois is just its own thing, and you’re either going to find it highly arch and irritating, or love it. I'd always assumed it was just a strange Nouvelle Vague experiment, and only watched it because I’ve been stumbling across references to it for forty years and was curious. But I was surprised how quickly it drew me in, and how much I enjoyed being immersed in its world. If I’d known I was embarking on a series of Arthurian movie blogs I might have started with this one, because it’s so loyal to its source material that it’s like visiting the spring from which all the others flow. If you have 140 minutes to spare, I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. It feels like a film from a completely different civilization, and I suppose, in a way, it is.