Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 9
A Gentle Woman
1969 // France // Robert Bresson
Amidst Robert Bresson’s oeuvre, A Gentle Woman is the last film I watched, and I can’t deny that it could be part of the reason why I’m unimpressed by the film itself, since I had seen better of his. Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story “A Gentle Creature“, the film follows a couple from the very beginning of their encounter to the tragic end which is basically the opening. Comprised of four shots, the opening sequence, very Bressonian and economic, depicts the suicide of the ‘gentle woman’ without really showing, gaps are filled by the audience’s sequential imagination and the effect is perhaps more impactful than, say the suicide of Mouchette or the self-arranged murder in The Devil, Probably (1977).
Following the death of the ‘gentle woman’ Elle (Dominique Sanda), her husband Luc (Guy Frangin), now alongside her dead body on bed, recalls the past with the old maid Anna (Jeanne Lobre) as his listener. The elaborated flashback blurs the past and the present, often overlapped with the sound from the next scene (for example the pacing footsteps of the husband in the room at the present) before cutting to that specific moment. Thus the sense of continuity is retained while the status of mind of the first-person narrator is materialized. It shapes like a psychoanalytic session without really having an analyst present, or rather we the audience are the inquisitive judge of the husband’s self-assuring ‘confession’ who by recollection hopes to find out the reasons of his wife’s final action.
Indeed, unlike Fontaine’s direct re-account of his escape from prison in A Man Escaped (1956) or the conventional flashback of Charles’s death in The Devil, Probably, the narrative structure in A Gentle Woman takes a person’s perspective subjectively and invites our active judgment constantly. Therefore, we immediately recognise the fundamental difference between a materialistic, narcissistic pawnbroker (husband) and a young woman who mostly strives for independence (wife). As Jonas Mekas comments, “A Gentle Woman is a film about diagonals. Diagonal angles, diagonal glances. About eyes that never really meet. …About how life and death intercut with each other. …About a window which doesn’t lead into life. …About two diagonal lives.” The husband’s demanding and almost sadomasochistic idolisation of his wife, his banal and unpassionate view of marriage, his suffocating and controlling love in accordance to his delusive self-image, are completely indifferent to the wife’s needs. Although bounded by the lawful marriage, they are living in two ‘diagonal lives’ which, if intersected, only breed jealousy, shame and doubt.
At one point the husband becomes jealous when a man frequently visits the pawnshop and deals with his wife and thereby he suspects infidelity. He brings along a gun in his pocket. Eventually the gun is left on an end table unused, but that night the wife takes it and aims it at his face while he pretends to be asleep. The next day he purchases another bed and sleeps separately as a proof “that I had seen, that I knew.” When the wife subsequently falls into sickness, he feels pity along with a “certain satisfaction” as she is now reduced to a “beaten, humiliated” creature in his eyes. “I enjoyed our inequality,” he admits. In other words, he considers himself to be superior, an example of male chauvinism. The emotional distance is oblivious to the husband even on the day of her death after she paradoxically promises to be a faithful wife.
The last sequence before the wife’s suicide is free of the husband’s narrating voice-over. It has no dialogue or any witness except for Anna’s two brief intrusions (and the audience). It is the only sequence that takes the wife’s perspective (literally a first-person perspective in a shot of the mirror reflection when she’s looking directly to the mirror). In this sequence, there’s moment of hesitation, and probably a religious reflection with the sight of a Christ figure previously neglected when it was pawned with the mounted gold. Ultimately it’s the subtle shame, not only the result of her suspected infidelity and the gun episode, but the fact that she married him in the first place, that incites her final action. “You don’t want love. You want me to agree to marry you,” she once acknowledged the lack of love, or the unworthy of love in the man’s mind. But she betrays herself and at the end could only elude the shame by dismissing herself entirely.