Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lancelot du lac (Lancelot of the Lake, Robert Bresson,1974)

(The last of my previously unpublished Bresson articles)

Bresson goes to war

Robert Bresson's Lancelot du lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974) comes as something of a shock if you've been watching Bresson's films in chronological order. Not so much the fact that it's in color (it's his third color film), but because the opening sequence shows violence; not just violence, but graphic violence, the lopping off of heads, the spurting of blood in bright arterial red.

But the film is recognizably Bressonian--the camera is trained on a pair of sword-wielding arms as they swing and parry; cut to a sword fallen on the grass, the winning blade hovering over it in voluptuous anticipation before swinging up and knocking (like a perched tenpin) the opponent's helmet off his shoulders. We get few glimpses of the figures involved, much less their helmeted heads, and none at all of their faces--this is violence inflicted as if by robots, the only indication of humanity being the squirting crimson juice. Quick succession of killings--a man stabbed in the groin (we see the blood crawling up the blade (a questionable sight, as the blade is angled downwards, and the blood, one assumes, would seep in that direction)); another is knocked on a corner of his helmet by a blade, and as he falls towards the camera we see the breached dent, the welling blood, the arterial spray. Then images of corpses--armored skeletons hanging from trees, blackened metal hulks lying in a smoldering field, an altar full of candles and a tabernacle; a knight on a horse rides by sweeping the altar clean with his sword, an unseen crowd roars in protest. All are tied together by the image of a group of mounted knights charging through the forest, a symbol of war--of national policy pursued by other means--charging relentlessly across the landscape. It's Bresson's vision of man's favorite sport (and I don't mean sex), and as is typical with this atypical filmmaker he uses unexpected images, stitched together in swift yet precisely timed (like a march in quick-step) succession to give the impression of determined slaughter.

Then drums (another startling touch, I think--Bresson usually uses classical music in his soundtrack), and a rolling prologue give us the situation--Arthur's knights have gone in search of the Holy Grail, and they have come back not only empty-handed, but diminished in numbers (one can't help but think that the film instead of remaining in the safely remote mythological past has actually grown more relevant--think of the United States' adventuring and resulting frustrations in the Middle East).

The rest of the film is Bresson deftly sidestepping the highlights of the Arthurian legends and focusing on specific details--Lancelot explaining his newfound oath of chastity to Guenevere (who is far from happy at the news); Mordred skulking in the sidelines as he blurts out the dissenting view; Gawain persisting in his belief that his hero (the knight of the lake of course) embodies innocence and virtue, despite the views of fellow knights and his own brothers.

The film's showpiece is a tournament, and while undoubtedly a rousing piece of cinema it is so only in Bresson's unique manner. When Lancelot enters the jousting field his appearance couldn't be simpler: he bears a white shield and a helmet topped by a simple gold sphere (the other knights' headgear are adorned by more elaborate spikes and loops and wings), and does not reveal his true identity. The camera isn't fooled, however; it favors him, holding onto him a moment longer (enough to follow his horse round the railing, along which both jousters charge on either side) than it does his opponent. When they charge, Bresson teases us by withholding the moment of actual contact--he gives us only the muted gasp of awed appreciation as bodies crash and thud offscreen (Gawain, ever the worshiper, realizes who the white-shielded knight is and whispers his name). The sound reminds us of the earlier cries uttered by another unseen crowd when an altar was desecrated; Bresson seems to be equating the two events, implying that this collective sound, uttered in either approval or disapproval, is provoked by the same violent impulses (implying as well that both competitors and desecrator act to deliberately inspire said sounds).

For one of Lancelot's jousts, Bresson proposes an impossibility: the camera peers over Lancelot's shoulder at the approaching knight, we see the knight's lance eclipsed by Lancelot's body, hear the thunk! of wood on metal; all aural and visual clues point to the opponent's lance hitting first, but Bresson cuts to a shot of the knight tumbling off his horse--a sleight-of-hand that only serves to emphasize Lancelot's uncanny, almost magical martial skill (this time it's Gawain's seated companion who whispers: "Lancelot!" Even to the most obtuse the white-shielded knight's identity has become all too apparent). The footage becomes more explicit--we see shots of Lancelot's lance breaking on the opponent's shield, followed by shots of the knights hitting the ground (more impossibility; more magic). At one point we see an unseated knight crash through the center railing--a startling image that serves to put an exclamation mark on the man's downfall. Bresson manages to enthrall us with an eclectic series of shots and sounds, carefully woven together.

A side thought: Bresson's focus on sounds, signs (flags, shield insignias), indicators of all kinds (the crowd's gaze) tends to shift one's attention offscreen, that is, outside of the camera frame. One asks the question: is this Bresson's way of prodding us to look beyond what's apparent, search for some hidden meaning, probe for invisible connections? Is this, in effect, his way of using material details to lead us to some immaterial concept?

Lancelot's scenes with Guenevere are the heart of the film, I think; here we see the contrasting struggle between noble duty and carnal passion, between soaring spirit and clinging flesh. The 'models' (the director's preferred word when referring to his actors) utter their lines in that trademark impassive manner--here more than in any of Bresson's other films explained away by the characters' sense of decorum (royalty's constant obligation to always appear calm and composed before their subjects) and (in the case of the two lovers) need for secrecy. It's also tempting to imagine that they weren't always like this, that before the knights had left to search for the Grail everyone had feasted and laughed and had a wonderful time, but years of suffering and the decimation of their ranks (Arthur closed off the room containing the Round Table because so few are left) has reduced them to this unsmiling, inexpressive state (they have, thanks to the vicissitudes of life, been bent into Bressonian shapes--shapes not unsimilar to our own oppressed, war-weary selves). Any indication of profound feelings come from the words themselves and from the grave, measured delivery (given the words, a more heated exchange would have been melodramatic). When Lancelot asks Guenevere to release him from his vow (presumably of faithful love), she replies: "No, I'll save no one at that price…To think yourself responsible for everything is not humility."

You might say Guenevere's self-centeredness is of the Ayn Rand variety--false modesty is the worse kind of pride, and she is suspicious of Lancelot's. She may seem expressionless but her seeming passivity, the doll face that expresses womanly sentiments, belies a potent erotic charge: when she tells Lancelot "you may do what you want of me," you could see Lancelot swallowing in frustration. There's an almost necrophilic voluptuousness in her offering herself like that--the very lifelessness suggests total surrender.

Bresson's camera notes the dramatic contrast between Guenevere's soft plush clothing and Lancelot's severe metal armor, a metaphor for the contrast between her supple stubbornness and his brittle pride. The metaphor is pushed further when Bresson presents Guenevere's naked body being bathed: with its slim limbs and full, rounded buttocks looked upon with a level (if, one senses, tender) camera lens. One might say one has glimpsed at what Lancelot swore undying fealty to, nor is it unworthy of the tribute. Guenevere may seem selfish but the consistently privileged position of her figure in Bresson's mis-en-scene (she's an equal of the film's eponymous hero), the passion suggested by her eyes and voice and words, the gloriously obvious physical splendor of her (lovingly lit and framed) body argues eloquently for the gravity of her cause--a cause that will lead to the downfall of Lancelot and his fellow knights.

Bresson skims lightly over the drama that follows, referring to offscreen battles and informing us of who is wounded and why; Gawain expires along the way, touchingly loyal to his idealized knight (or, if you like, willfully blind to his killer's identity)--all to allow sufficient time for the final apocalypse. Bresson prepares for this with a montage sequence that builds momentum the way the earlier tournament did, out of carefully chosen and presented elements: bright blankets thrown over horses' backs; knights hoisted up high for mounting; visors pulled over the knights' faces.

Guenevere argues for the primacy of her "us"--for the primacy of the love between her and Lancelot, above all else--and this may have provoked the war, but the knights' preparations show in turn the ultimate consequences of supporting Lancelot's cause (his "us") instead: erased identities, mechanized humans, general slaughter. Guenevere's love as implied by her naked form--the wide hips perfect for the passage of children she will never have the chance to bear-- inspires and encourages life; Lancelot's ostensibly higher duty leads to scenes of violence that recall the film's beginning, the difference being the recurring image of a lone horse, bereft of any rider, running aimlessly through the forests and final minutes of the film. Through this image Bresson suggests that the killings have stopped being war (the determined execution of national policy) and have become instead chaos, entropy, useless death.


Anonymous said...

Really great. Perhaps the best of all these very good pieces about Bresson. Amongst the best I've read of yours, amongst the best ever written about Bresson's films.
Miguel MarĂ­as

Noel Vera said...

Thank you! High praise, coming from you, sir.

John Fleming said...

Interesting and perceptive. Thanks. Came across your piece on the web having just watched the film for the first time on this last day of 2009. Remarked to myself that "Lancelot du Lac" was made in 1974, just a year after Herzog's "Aquire". Both films garb historical mania and magic in suits of armour. John Fleming (

Noel Vera said...

Interesting. I think they are similar in their diametrical opposition: where Lancelot and Arthur are destroyed by their struggle to deal with the world, Aguirre is destroyed by his withdrawal from the world.

Ariel said...

Thanks for this, I've seen this film recently and found myself utterly lost in the filmography as I am well verse in the tales of the Knights but am all but lost to the works of Bresson. This has helped me alot in my understanding of direction of the film.

Thanks again!

Noel Vera said...

Thank you sir!

Brian Dauth said...

I just watched the restored Blu-ray, and looking for thoughts on-line, I said "I must see what my old friend Noel has to say." As always, you are insightful.

It is my favorite Bresson, and I am almost sure, it is the first Bresson film I saw. It taught me how much can be done with sound in a film. I also love the 1970s look of his Medieval knights, and the scene of Lancelot turning Guinevere to Arthur grows more prescient every time I watch the film.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. Floors me how I come up with some of this stuff, reading them eight years later. Did I have that much spare time on my hands?