Perceval le Gallois

Perceval le Gallois is a 1978 film based on one of the old Arthurian Knights tales from the middle ages. The text was originally a book by Chretien de Troyes, Perceval the Story of the Grail, which recounted the wacky adventures of a young Welshman who sees Knights for the first time and mistakes them for angels. He is so inspired by the event that he decides to go on a quest for the Kingdom of King Arthur so he can become one himself. The man is radically dull and screws up his code of chivalry on his first go by forcefully kissing the first maiden he meets and stealing her signet ring. To become a Knight he needs these experiences first apparently, but has not counted on pissing off the Knight who is actually assigned to her already.

As the young would-be Knight bumbles his way through the Kingdom and manages to use his skills as a woodsman to successfully defeat countless trained Knights in combat, he gains a reputation as the strongest around and once he arrives at King Arthur’s palace, he fulfills a prophecy by making a downtrodden young maiden offer up her smile for the first time in six or seven years. The prophecy claims that Perceval is the greatest of all Knights. He goes out and kills the other toughest Knight in the Kingdom, the Red Knight, and dons his armor. The rest of the story involves Perceval going from principality to principality defeating other Knights, winning the hearts of young maidens, and eventually coming to know the error of his warring ways, finding God once more, and giving up the lance for good.

Eric Rohmer, one of the Cahiers du Cinema collective of critics whose films ushered in the French New Wave in the fifties, directed this film. He took a novel approach to the staging and presentation of what is usually played as a grand epic spanning multiple sets and locations with a  high special effects budget. Instead, in this production, the set is spare: a large backlot with painted backdrops and minimalist, often somewhat surreal props that often evoke more than mirror their objects in real life, and are captured to sometimes beautiful effect by cinematographer Nestor Almendros. The music and sound effects are delivered by a cast of stage-hands dressed as maidens and jesters, as the main actors narrate and perform events, deliver dramatic dialogue stripped directly from Chretien’s original text, and often condense scenes through theatrical abbreviation. The effect is often silly, sometimes inspired, but always interesting and entertaining. A good example of the melding together of cinema, literature, and theatre in one medium.

The only really straining metaphors of the film are in two added sequences. The first, a sequence from Gawain the Green Knight wherein Gawain is found to be a traitor against the King and must fight his way back into prominence and respect. This seems like digression from Perceval’s plot that adds little to a story where Rohmer could have just added more quests for Perceval instead. The story slumps and looses focus because of these sequences and would otherwise be more focused.

The second sequence is a recreation of the trial and execution of Christ played out in a small circular room, again with an emphasis on minimalism. The scene is not in the original book, though Christianity holds a strong ethical place in its denouement. Having Perceval’s actor play Christ, however, muddles the film even more. Why is Perceval a Christ-like figure? What is this sequence all about? Do films have to be philosophically and narratively coherent or are we okay with them as sprawling recounts of multiple unconnected stories? Are they weaker for it when they are? The answers feel like no reason, nothing, the former, and yes. But who knows for sure? All I know is the addendum of this piece of Chretien storytelling adds little to the story except maybe in the minds of cretins. I may just be biased, but these added elements make an otherwise fun story, full of humor and action, into a pedantic work, and possibly worse, an academic didactic one.

 

Cody Ward

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