Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 11
Lancelot of the Lake
1974 // France // Robert Bresson
Bresson’s attempt to achieve a perfection in the art of cinematography, in contrast to the condemning “cinema”, is idiosyncratic and honorable. It is Bresson’s Holy Gail and, unlike Lancelot and the knights of the Round Table, he succeeds eventually by attaining transcendence via image, sound, offscreen space, ellipsis and the abiding themes of suffering and torment under the subtext of faith. Thereby it’s natural for Bresson to direct his camera on the the Arthurian legend and tell a story of, not men forsaken by God, but God forsaken by men.
The quest of the Holy Grail, the respective religious awakening and spiritual test befallen upon the knights are not the primary concern in Lancelot of the Lake, instead Bresson concentrates on the weakness and the moral imperfection of those who failed in the quest, in particular Lancelot (Luc Simon) and his rival Mordred (Patrick Bernhard). The pre-credit scenes are the most brutal scene in all Bresson films, head being decapitated, bodies being slain, skeletons are hang in the forest, blood is spilled like a fountain. It sets up the tone of the entire film, bleak and brutal, unglamorous but honest. Almost all fantastical elements of that Middle Age tale are abolished, perhaps excluding the prophecy of the old-woman soothsayer at the film’s opening, “He whose footfalls precede him will die within a year.” After which Lancelot emerges out of nowhere.
The moral and narrative conflict comes from the vow of love Lancelot makes to Guinevere the Queen (Laura Duke Condominas), and the vow he makes to God during the quest which requires disavowal of the former. Lancelot’s adultery is taken by Mordred as a weapon against him such that Mordred becomes the primary antagonist from the very beginning. Modred’s accusation, true as it is, is incited by his jealousy on Lancelot and perhaps a sexual desire to the Queen. As Gawain (Humbert Balsan), the nephew of King Arthur (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) and the loyal knight besides Lancelot, remarks at one point that that all of the knights, including himself and Mordred, have been seen looking up at the queen’s window, signifying a desire of erotic fulfillment. It is the same desire that keeps Lancelot from finding the Grail and fully approaching the God.
There are numerous times, albeit at last futile, of Lancelot to repudiate the forbidden love and approach Christ, but as other protagonists in Bresson’s later films, redemption is hardly present. The often-praised tournament sequence of Lancelot defeating multiple opponents one by one in jousting, besides highly economical in its composition (framing only the lower half of the horse upon charging) and effective in the use of sounds (galloping of horses, clanging of the metallic armor, bashing of Lancelot’s lance and the opponent’s shield, falling of bodies from the charging horse, the muttering of Lancelot’s name by Gawain and the King), demonstrated a man in action out of his guilt and honor (lying to his fellow knights who wholeheartedly defend him without a single doubt) with the absence of God.
As nearly all of Bresson’s works, death is awaiting at the end. Amidst all, Lancelot of the Lake is perhaps the bleakest and briefest. Fights are ellipsed with only the end result shown, much like the pre-credit sequence. Mouchette has to roll over a slope for the third time before she successfully “kills” herself, however Lancelot is killed by a blow in an instant. Balthazar is surrounded by a herd of sheep during its last breath, but Lancelot drops down only with the accompany of a pile of dead armored bodies. No chivalric triumph, no vulgar sentimentality, no accessible salvation, the film, with all the blood it spills, is almost too dry to bear.