You would be forgiven for thinking that Jean-Luc Godard is dead, or that the French New Wave represents a distant historical moment. After all, in just the last couple of years, New York’s repertoire houses have hosted more than a few honorific retrospectives of Godard, as well as major look-back-ats for Jacques Rivette and most recently for Jean Eustache. And yet Rivette is active — his Duchess of Langeais is one of 2008’s most surprising features — and so too, at age 77, is Godard (if not to everyone’s pleasure). Will anyone even notice, then, that new films by their fellow past masters, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, are opening here the same week?
Rohmer’s latest, which he has said may be his last, is going to be a hard sell. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is aggressively out of touch with our new millennium — which is usually what happens when a filmmaker adapts a 17th century novel that is itself set in 5th century Gaul. Following a simple misunderstanding, Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencoeur) is convinced that Celadon (Andy Gillet) has been unfaithful to her, and she asks him to never again cross her path. The despondent Celadon promptly attempts suicide by hurling himself into the nearest river, but he is saved, unbeknownst to Astrea, by three wood nymphs. Thereafter —all of this takes place in the first fifteen minutes — hijinks, and yes, romance, ensue. Unfortunately, compared with Rohmer’s earlier work, in particular the series known as “Six Moral Tales,” The Romance of Astrea and Celadon has little to say about eros that’s still relevant. It’s a film so embarrassingly quaint it’s crying out for a parody called Not Another Medieval Movie.
By merciful contrast, A Girl Cut in Two is set in contemporary France, although the inspiration for it also comes from a bygone era. Chabrol’s film is based on the 1906 murder of architect Stanford White, who was killed during a musical performance at Madison Square Garden his lover’s jealous husband. White’s stand-in here is Lyon-based novelist Charles Denis (François Berléand), a rake who goes only semi-ironically by the name Saint-Denis, and who wonders aloud whether “French society is drifting towards Puritanism or decadence,” even as he himself lives to split the difference. Charles competes, along with the neurotic heir to a pharmaceutical fortune (Benoît Magimel), for the affections of Gabrielle Deneige, the lithe young weather girl at a local television station.
As in his previous film, A Comedy of Power, Chabrol explores how a capable woman navigates a world that for all its advances remains stubbornly dominated by the whims of bourgeois male privilege. Its title notwithstanding, Girl doesn’t cut as deeply in its class critique as A Comedy of Power, but it’s the more satisfying film, thanks to Ludivine Sagnier, who gives a standout performance as Gabrielle. Sagnier has already demonstrated, in films like François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, that she’s well aware of her own commanding sex appeal, and she plays Gabrielle as eager to be corrupted — a moral innocent, but not a nun or a naïf.
Sadly, the blockbuster audiences that continue to flock to clowned-suited freaks and men in tights are likely to miss out on the year’s most exciting costume, the peacock outfit in which Sagnier crawls across a bedroom floor. I guess the New Wave is dead. Long live the New Wave.
A Girl Cut in Two opens August 15; The Romance of Astrea and Celadon at Anthology Film Archives August 14-20.