The classical planar Heisenberg model is studied at low temperatures by means of renormalization theory and a series of exact transformations. A numerical study of the Migdal recursion relation suggests that models with short-range isotropic interactions rapidly become equivalent to a simplified model system proposed by Villain. A series of exact transformations then allows us to treat the Villain model analytically at low temperatures. To lowest order in a parameter which becomes exponentially small with decreasing temperature, we reproduce results obtained previously by Kosterlitz. We also examine the effect of symmetry-breaking crystalline fields on the isotropic planar model. A numerical study of the Migdal recursion scheme suggests that these fields (which must occur in real quasi-two-dimensional crystals) are strongly relevant variables, leading to critical behavior distinct from that found for the planar model. However, a more exact low-temperature treatment of the Villain model shows that hexagonal crystalline fields eventually become irrelevant at temperatures below the Tc of the isotropic model. Isotropic planar critical behavior should be experimentally accessible in this case. Nonuniversal behavior may result if cubic crystalline fields dominate the symmetry breaking. Interesting duality transformations, which aid in the analysis of symmetry-breaking fields are also discussed. © 1977 The American Physical Society.