Directed by: Robert Bresson
Countries & Regions: France
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 83 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 30 August 2004
Cat No: BFIVD624
Screen ratio 1:1.33
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Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
Robert Bresson’s second film, made during the last days of the Occupation, centres around the character of Hélène, who seeks revenge by... Read More
Even by 1954, François Truffaut could write that Robert Bresson was "one of the three of four greatest French filmmakers" and quickly cited the master's second feature, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, as proof. Initially rejected by postwar audiences for its modern transposition of an 18th century morality tale by Diderot, the film has remained a work in need of rediscovery, a jewel beyond the treasure of the filmmaker's notorious oeuvre (that includes such films as Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket).
Production of Les Dames began during the last months of the Occupation but was completed after the Liberation (despite many delays due to power shortages). But despite this difficult schedule, the film renders its revenge narrative with exquisite refinement: Philippe Agostini's seductive black-and-white cinematography, the subdued and smoldering performance of Maria Casarès (a popular theatrical star at the time), and the delicate and literary dialogue (credited to Jean Cocteau, who later claimed his contributions were minimal) are some of the high points of a film that bristles with burning passions and emotional complexity.
When the wealthy Hélène (Casarès) discovers that her lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), has lost interest in their relationship, she resolves to exact revenge by introducing him to an attractive ex-cabaret dancer, Agnès (Élina Labourdette), but keeping her disreputable history a secret until it can wreak the most havoc. Predating his mature aesthetic, Bresson wrings power from Casarès' performance through rigorous containment, emphasizing her cold, non-emotive, viper face, chiseled chin and dark, unblinking eyes. Although Bresson would later abandon his use of professional actors, Casarès offers a memorable performance of a society woman bent on feeding her scorn and tempting fate. (Years later, Casarès described Bresson as "a sweet tyrant" who forced his actors to abandon their personal wills in order to offer "a body, hands, and a voice that he had chosen.")
And the film reveals other touches that would become Bressonian motifs: an emphasis on sounds--onscreen and off--in order to convey narrative detail, and a general concern for themes of entrapment and release, condemnation and grace. Agnès leaves the dance club world in search of personal freedom but finds both Hélène's manipulations and Jean's naive charms paradoxically provide confirmation of a doomed, recurring fate as well as a hopeful new beginning. "I prefer a fate we choose rather than one forced upon us," Agnès clarifies midway through the film, and throughout, Bresson's perennial admiration for society's misfits and their rebellious spirit is on full display.
In later years, Les Dames developed a more extensive critical appreciation--Jacques Démy even cast Élina Labourdette in his 1961 film Lola as an unofficial tribute. And though Bresson abandoned the visual elegance of Les Dames in his later, more minimalist films, its smoldering tones and focused intensity were to remain distinctive hallmarks of his cinema.