The nagging question as one leaves "The Marquise of O . . .," now at the K-B Janus 1 and Cerberus 3, is why a filmmaker with Eric Robmer's reserve and narrow emotional range would imagine himself qualified to transpose a literary work as cunningly outrageous and revealing as the original Heinrich von Kleist story, written in 1808, about a moment of sexual desire too powerful to resist which results in consequences too embarrassing to evade.
Perhaps the answer is obvious: another case of the attraction of opposition, though not a fruitful meeting in this instance. Rohmer, the poet of male sexual timidity and cowardice, may have been drawn to Kleist's preternaturally knowing story in the same way the protagonists of his earlier movies, "My Night at Maud's," "La Collectionneuse," "Claire's Knee" and "Chloe in the Afternoon." were drawn to tempting women. Like his heroes, Rohmer seems unwilling or unable to consummate the infatuation.
Although Rohmer's adaptation, shot in German with a cast of actors drawn from the German stage, is pedantically faithful to the letter of the orginial - almost word-for-word as well as scene-for-scene - it substitutes a style that seems woefully wrong. Rohmer's approach is too static and repressed to release the comic ironies Kleist perceived in the very premise of an honorable man's lapse leading to an honorable woman's distress and built into his brilliantly objective story-telling style. Moreover, Kleist's tale seems to be a humorous affirmation of the power, even the paradoxical virtue, of instinctual action.
The characteristic Rohmer protagonist is an overcivilized, bourgeois lust-in-the-hearter. He likes to sneak looks, but he's afraid to touch. Lest we forget, the boldest masculine overture in Rohmer's movies is the moment when Jean-Claude Brialy rests his hand briefly on Laurence de Monaghan's knee. The hero of Kleist's story is an impetuous, dashing man of action, a Russian officer referred to as Count F., and there would be no story or human comedy at all if he weren't the sort of man who acts on irresistible impulse, even if he regrets his rashness later on and makes every effort to set things right.
The Marquise of O . . . is a virtuous, widowed noblewoman residing with her two children and parents in a North Italian fortress town, commanded by her father, during the Napoleonic Wars. When the fortress is overrun by invading Russian troops, the Marquise is rescued from imminent gang rape by the bravest, noblest invader of them all, Count F. She views him as an angel and faints in his arms. When she recovers, she has been restored to the bosom of her family, but it is too late to thank her rescuer in person, since military duty has already sent him elsewhere.
A few months later the Marquise finds herself unaccountably pregnant. To intensify her distress, Count F., mistakenly reported to have been killed in battle, turns up to press an urgent appeal of marriage. Her situation leads to a break with her parents, and she retires in seclusion to a country estate. Ultimately, she resolves to place and advertisement in the local paper requesting her raviher to come forward. He does, and while his identity should have been obvious, it's the last man in the world the high-minded heroine would have imagined taking advantage of her.
The movie may seem like a mildly droll and diverting period piece if one hasn't read the story, but its very gentility is a clue to the way Rohmer miscontrues the original. One of Kleist's translators, Martin Greenberg, has described the kick of his stories succinctly: "What makes him exciting is his modernity." Rohmer performs the wrongheaded feat of transforming a classic story with modern perceptions into a motion picture that feels like a museum piece.
In addition to his temperamental unsuitability, Rohmer undermines the story with key casting mistakes: a minor one in the case of the capable but indifferent Edith Clever as the Marquise and a major, catastrophic one in the case of the glum Bruno Ganz as Count F. Nestor Almendros' glorious backlighting makes Ganz appear to be a heroic vision in his initial appearance, but it's the first and last time he sparkles. Thereafter the character reverts to Rohmerian form, and it's impossible to believe that this man has an impetuous bone in his body.
Curiously, the one sequence of events Rohmer rearranges now places a slight burden of credibility on the action by inserting a time lapse and change of scene between the moments the hero rescues and impregnates the heroine. There's a certain element of humor in the early battle scenes themselves, because one scarcely expects such a clamor, brief as it is, in a Rohmer movie. It's rather like those rare but delightful moments when Henry James characters get a little physical.
Although Rohmer has done a literal adaptation of "The Marquise of O . . .," one can't help recalling two American film comedies that were closer to the spirit of Kleist: Preston Sturges' 'The Miracle of Morgan's Creek,'" in which the heroine can't remember how she got pregnant, and Paul Mazurksky's "Blume in Love," in which the hero, desperately in love with his estranged wife, provokes their eventual reconciliation by an act of rape. This kind of comic deviousness is rather too bold for a Rohmer protagonist, who seems more voyeurishtic than libidinous.