Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 2
#183 Les dames du Bois de Boulogne
1945 // France // Robert Bresson
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Ladies of the Lake, or in French Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, is by far my least favorite Bresson film. The biggest problem is, in my opinion, the absurdity of the plot instead of the un-Bressonian melodrama which somehow alludes the style of Hitchcock and the late Sirk. Adapted from Denis Diderot’s eighteenth-century picaresque novel, Jacques the Fatalist, and with the exquisite dialogue by Jean Cocteau, the film transposes an anachronistic revenge plot into the contemporary (40s?) French society which is no invaded by the existing war affairs by any means.
The villainous avenging scheme, conducted by Hélène (María Casares) after she “tricks” her lover Jean (Paul Bernard) into confessing he is fallen out of love with her, involves an elaborated set-up of a love affair between Jean and an unwitting cabaret dancer Agnès (Elina Labourdette). Agnès, subtly hinted as a ex-prostitute, is reserved and evasive to the advancement of love from Jean. At one point she writes a letter of confession of her disreputable past, but the love-blinded Jean determined to neglect and unread it. With the aid of Agnès’s mother (Lucienne Bogaert), whose financial status is being supported by Hélène, Agnès and Jean eventually marry. At first glance, Hélène’s revenge seems to be successful. After the wedding, she informs Jean that the wife he just married is actually a slut. Personally I find the set-up of Agnès’s background very contrived, a dancer readily recognizable in public with men asking for autographs is a far-fetch to be a cogent slut. And her being married to a respectable man could be used as a revenge by Hélène is very medieval in conceiving and utterly unconvincing in its execution.
Yet, when applying the abiding theme of spirituality one finds in Bresson’s oeuvre, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne could be read as a larger scheme by the higher power where Hélène is but the unwitting instrument of that larger design. Instead of creating catastrophe, she unknowingly brings about a greater good. What she couldn’t comprehend is the possibility that Jean could experience genuine love and passion which are absent when he’s with her. But being consumed by the sins of envy and pride now, she could no longer experience genuine love as Jean does, that’s perhaps the ultimate punishment on her.
Les dames du Bois de Boulogne is Bresson’s second feature and the last one he worked with professional actors prominently. With all the conventional filmic tropes, like the use of dissolves and fades and the dialogue-driven rhythm of cuts, the film is very structuralized in contrary to the more austere and rigid manner Bresson gradually adapted. Philippe Agostini’s expressive cinematography with light and shadow, and the ‘acting’ by the performers would be too emphatic retrospectively in view of Bresson’s later works. Notwithstanding the spiritual sublime the story achieves by the ending, like Angels of Sin (1943), the film is mostly a melodramatic flair before Bresson extensively exercises his philosophy of cinematography. As a whole, it’s merely a stepping stone for the birth of a legend.