Éric Rohmer’s Conte d’Hiver / A Winter’s Tale consciously re-works William Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’. As others have remarked it echoes too Dreyer’s Ordet, and, Rohmer, being so well-read, I am sure had Euripides’ ‘Alcestis’ in mind as well.
All four works form milestones through the passage of time, giving this story something approaching a folktale quality, or folk myth: Classical Greece (Euripides), Jacobean England (Shakespeare), a backward-looking 20th-century Denmark (Dreyer), contemporary Paris (Rohmer).
Which of the four is the most moving? This is an empty competition, not to be pursued, but it is striking how all four play the moment of Resurrection for all its dramatic power. When the dead women (Alcestis, Hermione, Inger) move from lifelessness to life, they unleash the power of the Recognition moment (anagnorisis in the Greek word). In these three cases the male gaze is transformed from stupefaction to desire by the woman’s re-appearance (Alcestis unveiled to Admetus, ditto Hermione to Leontes, Inger awaking in her coffin). Rohmer is more modern: when Charles and Félicie look at each other in the bus, they awaken mutual desire, and their love feels instantly resurrected.
Rohmer is different in another way. The other three stories show a deus/dea ex machina figure orchestrating the ending: Heracles (Euripides), Pauline (Shakespeare), Johannes (Dreyer). No such figure appears in Rohmer’s Conte d’Hiver, but instead one of Rohmer’s teasing philosophical ideas. Is it chance that Félicie and Charles meet on the bus, or is it an answer to Félicie sitting quietly in Nevers Cathedral, not praying (on her own admission) but thinking hard of the possibility of finding Charles again? Something supernatural is surely at work, something more than chance, but Rohmer eschews using a character orchestrating the meeting on the bus, out of delicacy: he is making this magic story plausible enough to feel contemporary, which a deus/dea ex machina would disrupt. However it brilliantly achieves the quality of the miraculous, ‘beyond custom and experience’, in a secular setting.
The film revels in its New Wave aesthetic: real interiors, many exterior sequences, sequences on buses and trains. This contemporary patina is in strong contrast to Dreyer’s Ordet, with its calculated interiors (Dreyer would fully dress a set, and then reduce the furniture and fittings by more than a half). The Recognition moment in Rohmer takes place in public view: Charles looks and recognises, Félicie looks and recognises – the camera observes almost casually.
In Ordet, on the other hand, the camera is a firm and far from casual presence, and makes the viewer a participant both in the high drama of Johannes’ command to the dead to arise, and in Inger’s moment of awakening.
There is a fifth version of this story, told slightly differently: in the Gospel versions of Jesus’ resurrection, all four evangelists are conscious of the dramatic power of the idea. Later, Piero della Francesca captured its terrifying quality in his ‘Resurrection’ in the Museo Civico in Sansepolcro, Italy:
Titian underlines the delicacy of the moment in his ‘Noli Me Tangere’, in the National Gallery in London, when Mary Magdalene encounters the resurrected Jesus in the garden:
In his ‘Alcestis’, Euripides understands this delicacy too: Alcestis come back to life is not to speak for three days because she has already been dedicated to Death for that period. Shakespeare similarly keeps his last scene short, unburdened by practical explanation of what is happening, so that the curtain falls on Leontes’ and our astonishment.
Rohmer ends in untrammelled delight: Félicie and Charles reunited, Élise provided with a father, Charles invited to a New Year’s Eve dinner party, and the children playing by themselves. Félicie and Charles are not just the union of Leontes and Hermione resurrected, but Florazel and Perdita as well, innocence made flesh. What happens to them in maturity is for another story, or since Félicie believes in reincarnation, for another life. To mention this idea is inappropriate and risks violating Rohmer’s cinematic touch as a Master of Delicacy.
There is yet another version of this story in Carlos Reygadas’ very fine film, Silent Light (2009) – see image below right, a reworking of Ordet (left) set in a Mennonite community in Mexico.
I write about both films in ‘The New Filmgoers Guide to God’, and link Ordet to Babette’s Feast and Breaking the Waves, further versions of the Resurrection story. See http://bit.ly/TroubadorPress.