Being myself in the process of deeply exploring the myth from the written tradition of the 12th century to modern adaptations, I must admit this film is impressive because it saves us from both black and white magic and from too much suspension of our disbelief, or couldn’t it be belief?
First of all the film shows the “real” historical context of this fable. It pushes it back to an undetermined period after the fall of the Roman Empire. But the various Germanic tribes are already in Britain, the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons. The Celts were already there and the Picts are added to the picture with little real involvement. The Irish in Ireland are the only faction that is living in an island that had never been occupied by the Romans. They take advantage of the divided situation in Britain to prosper on these divisions by inciting systematic rivalry between the various entities, raiding the various regions and first of all Cornwall and capturing young men and women to become slaves in Ireland. The only missing element is King Arthur, but I guess that would be too much legend for us, the modern audience, so it was kept out of the picture though it is very much present in the old tradition of the 12th century.
Then the film becomes a savage, wild and brutal film of action that would not be saved by anything if it were only action because it is not reasonable and believable. The historical value of it all is difficult to accept and the call from King Mark, the King of Cornwall and unifying king of England, to accept what is coming, to accept change, meaning the new power balance in Britain and in these isles, a new power balance that brings Ireland back down to being an isolated island and people, that call cannot be heard because the film neglects one essential element: the Celts are in Ireland for sure, but also in Cornwall, in Wales and in Brittany. What the legend insists on, the strange contradictory relations between the various Celtic factions, is not at all used here. This is all the more regrettable because it is in that period that the split between the two branches of the Celtic language becomes absolutely irreversible: Irish and Scottish (Goidelic) on one side and the others, Welsh, Cornish and Breton mostly (Brythonic), on the other side. The film in other words is transposing this real split that leads to the isolation of the Irish till the 17th century, or maybe the 16th century (remember they were the first to be Christianized in the 5th century and a clear allusion to it is present in this film) to the unity of the various Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes with the local Celtic people of Cornwall (the Celtic heritage is mostly marginalized) and Wales (the Celtic heritage is strongly alive). I regret this flaw because this problematic is not absent in the old tradition.
The film is saved with the love story between Tristan and Isolde that is made dramatic by the action itself. Tristan loses his parents in an Irish raid and is raised by his uncle who is shown as being rather young. In fact he is a lot older than what he is shown to be in the film. He must be in his late thirties or early forties, which is quite old in a country where life expectancy is under 29. And here the film is really beautiful because there is absolutely no magic in that love affair. Forgotten the philter of love and death. Forgotten the first liaison on the ship bringing Isolde back to Ireland. Forgotten the dragon that will win Isolde to Tristan though he is on a mission to find the girl with the golden hair Mark has been brought one day by some bird. Forgotten the fake name of Tristan on his first sojourn in Ireland (Tantris) when dying of the poisoned blade and wound from Morholt. All that is replaced with Isolde promised to her own uncle Morholt (inbreeding plus great age difference since Morholt is the same age as her father or so). Isolde is an obedient daughter and she accepts her father’s decision. And to crown it all it is Isolde who hides her name and pretends she is called Bragnae, the name of her older servant (who has not laid with a man for fifteen years when she lies down with him to warm him up and save him when Isolde tries to heal his wound.
Love is of course natural between Isolde and Tristan then, full sexual love of course and that love will last. Good riddance the magic because we know love is a magic of its own. And that’s how Tristan was back from the dead. That love is the main subject and motivation of Mark, Tristan and even more characters, not only the love of a man and a woman that can be sexual but also the brotherly love between Tristan and Melot, fatherly love between Mark and Tristan. This love dimension is extremely important in the tradition because that is one thing that is changing in these old centuries: “amour courtois” or “courtly love” or even “fine amor” is being born along with “minnesängers,” the singers of love, the minstrels, the “trouvères” and the “troubadours,” the future “Meistersinger” of Richard Wagner, or if you prefer the famous Minnesänger Tannhäuser. This evolution is fairly important because it corresponds to the Catholic religious reform of the 9th century that will bring feudalism, the Peace of God, the agricultural revolution and the proto-industrial revolution. And that is missing in the film: this new world being born, alas with forceps and a caesarian, even if we see a city or at least a castle being rebuilt in stone, with now explanation why it became possible.
But the film is absolutely beautiful about this love affair, even if it is too systematically seen as sexual, having to be sexual. As Tristan concludes before dying: “I don’t know if life is greater than death but love is more than either.” And Isolde can read the obituary to her lover (without dying): “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, And true plain hearts do in the faces rest; Where can we find two better hemispheres Without sharp north, without declining west? Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally; If our two loves be one, or thou and I Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.”
Surprising how anachronistic Isolde was when she read in the dark ages, some time before the year 1000 a poem by John Donne who will only live in the 17th century:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?
'Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown;
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that non can slacken, none can die.
What was I saying about the lack of a real historical dimension? But the emotional dimension is quite strong, even if it is too much reduced to hormonal passions like sex, hatred and jealousy.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU