The Name of the Rose

(Jean-Jacques Annaud, Italy/France/Germany, 1986)


It’s a brave and foolish adaptation of The Name of the Rose that calls itself “a palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel”.


Brave, because it lets on that it knows what a palimpsest might be in cinematic terms: a layering of texts, histories, references, forms (à la, at the rarefied heights, Jean-Marie Straub & Daničle Huillet).


Foolish, because what this adaptation actually performs is an extremely conventional reduction of the novel: to a homogenised world and a streamlined plot.


In fact, virtually nothing of what makes Eco’s best novel memorable and significant – its triumph in being at once a modernist palimpsest and yet also a completely absorbing tale – translates over to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film.


One sighs at the realisation that all it counts on for success (like so many best-seller screen adaptations) is that echo in the spectator’s head of their reading of the book – a kind of Reader’s Digest, faintly audiovisual recall of the original.


Palimpsest, as a description of the film’s production process, probably best relates to the patchwork of scenarists (four, including Roman Polanski’s frequent collaborator, Gérard Brach) who managed, between them, to botch the adaptation.


Can one be any kinder to a film that desperately (and rather redundantly) tries to include the first-person narration of Adso (as spoken by Dwight Weist) from the novel, and then – within the first few minutes! – breaks the (loose) rule of subjective narration to show what is happening beyond Adso’s consciousness, as well as that of William (Sean Connery)?


Annaud, for his part, does a dreary turn as metteur en scène: the whole thing is a succession of directorial clichés, from creaky doors and booming echo, to whistling wind and shock-cuts to vats of blood.


If one constructive line of thought can be salvaged from this mess, it would be a timely reflection on the entire, contemporary, blockbuster genre of the Medieval or Romantic epic. What tends to be wrong with these movies? They slavishly reproduce an elaborate, filmic rhetoric that is, in equal parts, both reverential and cute.


The dramatic register moves, in a rigid alternation, between ho-ho-ho mirth and ominous foreboding. They aim to be distant, slow, faux-wise films; there cannot be, at any price, anything immediate, nutty or hard-edged about them. (In this respect, Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke [1985] is a much livelier and more faithful adaptation of aspects of Eco’s novel than Annaud’s authorised effort.)


This general rhetoric of the solemn-but-cute history film cripples the actors in The Name of the Rose, who are beholden to deliver stock portrayals of fat, old monks being either jolly, scared, scary or sage – depending on their rigid place in the narrative schema. For example, young Christian Slater as Adso has just two actorly expressions: dumbstruck and anguished. Connery as William is, beside him, simply wise, and lacks all the complexity Eco gave to this central character. Only Michael Londsdale (bless his soul) as The Abbot gets right outside this plastered-on performance mode.


But it is hardly the actors’ fault whether they shine or merely blink on screen. Rather, it is the fault of a project that believes it is being reverent when it builds (at unthinkable cost in non-Hollywood terms) the monastery to Eco’s exact, novelistic specifications – but then leaves out all the relations that figure between its various parts. Or, again, that pictures a labyrinth, but without any metaphorical significance or reflexive reference back into the fiction itself.


In the contemporary, international blockbuster market, The Name of the Rose is an exemplary Sure Thing. ‘Tis a pity it turns out to be just nothing.

© Adrian Martin March 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search