on 16 July 2014
At first glance Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) doesn't seem to be a Robert Bresson film at all. Coming to it from his later iconoclastic and determinedly austere metaphysical essays on the human condition (A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, etc) one is struck by a film made out of seemingly completely different ingredients. Bresson's second feature, it is the last one based on a screenplay with dialogue written by a second party (Jean Cocteau adapting part of Denis Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître) and it marks the last time Bresson used professional actors. So we have that unheard of thing from this director - a beautifully jeweled thoroughly literary script acted to perfection. Furthermore, the story features melodrama fully worthy of a Max Orphüls, a Jean Renoir or even a Howard Hawks. Absent are all obvious references to religion, absent is elliptical narrative construction and obscure framing, and absent is the emphasis on mundane gray mise-en-scène. In its place Philippe Agostini's photography is bright and contrasty with interiors expertly lit. The camera is constantly on the prowl and there's even a well-choreographed tap dance routine and a voluptuous romantic musical score by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald composed in the manner of Max Steiner. Not for nothing is this film considered by many to be the Bresson film for people who don't like Bresson. The fascinating thing about Les Dames though is that as atypical as it may appear to be, the closer you look the more Bressonian it becomes.
Bresson and Cocteau's adaptation of Diderot is very faithful. The film opens with a young socialite Hélène (a superbly waspish Maria Casarès) returning from the theatre with her date for the evening Jacques (Jean Marchat). He has amorous designs on her, but she rebuffs his advances telling him of her love for Jean (Paul Bernard). Jacques tells her Jean's attentions are not as strong as she thinks and later to test her lover Hélène tells Jean that her love for him is wavering. She expects him (wants him) to declare his love passionately to her, but instead he confirms what Jacques told her - he wants to revert to a platonic relationship. Hélène hides her hurt feelings, but later after he has left she swears vengeance on him in the grand manner of operatic melodrama. The remaining narrative of the film is devoted to how Hélène traps Jean into social disgrace by engineering a love affair between him and the dancer turned prostitute Agnès (Elina Labourdette playing wondrously) whose mother Mme. D (Lucienne Bogaërt) Hélène had been acquainted with three years previously in the country in the good old days before their fall into ignominy. The film depicts in exquisite style and beautifully nuanced detail how Hélène's vengeance pans out for all parties concerned. Agnès is wary of Hélène's maneuvering, but she is gradually seduced by the romantic Jean who proves to be very persuasive...
This brief précis of the action still seems a million miles away from Bresson. Yet look closely and we see the choice of Diderot was no accident. Predestinarianism and the dichotomy between free will and fate (determinism) is usually held as originating from Bresson's Catholic Jansenism and is something that will become extremely important for understanding the later films, but Diderot was also interested in determinism (he called it fatalism) and in Jacques le fataliste et son maître, the title character's key philosophical viewpoint is that human behavior is based on a script written down from on high, call it `fate' or `God' as you choose. Thus, despite the absence of any obvious Catholic trappings in Les Dames, Bresson's worldview in this film is not so different from his later films after all. About halfway through the film Agnès is lying on her bed complaining to her mother about the attentions of men and of Hélène's possible manipulations. She says: "Destiny is tragic, but I prefer a fate we choose to one forced upon us". The mother and daughter are fated in the film to carry out the designs of another (in this case Hélène) and the men that surround them. This sense of fate guiding characters of course extends on to Jean (also controlled by Hélène) and to Hélène herself (controlled by her inability to master her own sense of self-restraint). All characters are doomed to carry out their predetermined fate just as surely as the characters of later Bresson films.
The plight of mother and daughter also highlights another Bressonian theme which will become very important in Au hasard Balthazar and especially Mouchette, namely the suffering of women existing in a patriarchal society. The hunting that opens and closes Mouchette exists throughout Les Dames. Agnès wanted to be a dancer at the opera, but her father disappearing (dying, running away? - it's not clear) plunged her with her mother into poverty and a life in Paris eeking out a living dancing in male clubs and turning tricks as a prostitute. They are `rescued' by Hélène, but Jean proves to be yet another male admirer whose attentions she could do without. The fact that she has been a prostitute marks her as ineligible for respectable marriage and simple prey for the attentions of any passing man. It is also obvious that Hélène herself is a victim of the same patriarchal society. Spurned by her lover, she has no choice but to exact revenge or else also be held up as a whore who sleeps around. As a man Jean is free to do as he chooses, but not Hélène - hence the savagery of the vengeance exacted throughout the film.
The depiction of an unfair patriarchal society ushers in another of Bresson's key themes which will never leave his films right through to L'Argent - the use of imprisonment in the screenplay and imagery pertaining to it. Agnès and her mother are imprisoned in their poor existence as prostitute and prostitute's maid when Hélène first sees them. She offers them `escape', but actually they simply move into a different prison cell. When the ladies see their new apartment (provided by Hélène) Agnès comments, "how dreary - it's just like a prison," as she looks out of a barred window. Their lives may now be more comfortable, but they are completely reliant on Hélène who simply becomes their new jail-keeper. Furthermore, the narrative of the film as a whole charts how Hélène goes about imprisoning her ex-lover in the social disgrace of marrying a whore. Visually this is superbly rendered by the huge number of camera shots which trap characters (especially, but not only, Jean) in tight enclosed spaces - small rooms, doorways, elevators and especially inside cars. The final image of Jean trying to move his car out of the car park as Hélène stands watching triumphantly, sliding into and out of frame as he frantically tries to escape says it all - she has achieved her goal of trapping (imprisoning) her ex-lover into social ignominy represented by the enclosed space of the car. Prisons will come to have many meanings for Bresson and appear in almost all his films - two (A Man Escaped and The Trial of Joan of Arc) take place wholly inside them.
Another visual motif apart from the ever-present prison bars (those omnipresent latticed windows) and use of confined spaces to exteriorize the characters' interior sense of entrapment is the consistent use of stairways throughout the film. Bresson was fairly consistent in his use of stairways in all his work which he used to convey the sense that characters exist on a path made by somebody else which has a past and a future as well as a present. This is an obvious visualization of the director's predestinarianism, the sense that characters exist simply to fulfill their fate. This is made most obvious when Bresson frames a stairway into which a character will walk. This strongly suggests that the path has been determined and that free will does not exist. Stairways go up and down as do the fortunes of the characters themselves, but ultimately there can be only one entrance and one exit. Stairways seem to exist in almost every other scene of Les Dames and in one scene in particular it is combined with the before-mentioned prison motif. Jean leaves Hélène's apartment by elevator. Hélène runs after him, having stopped the machine. She runs down the spiral stair case which circles Jean trapped in the shaft. The sense of a woman trapping a man into his doom is inescapable here. In fact the more we study the mise-en-scène of this film the more we realize how precise the framing is, how each image conveys a feeling or idea other than the simple mechanics of story-telling. The starkness and the elliptical extraction of everything except what `really matters' will become an obsession for Bresson, and in this film we see the process has already started.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is a film that can be recommended to people who don't usually take to Robert Bresson, but it will be appreciated even more by those who are familiar with his later work. There are unexpected shafts of inspiration and a fantastic grasp of the whole filmmaking process here which remain wholly impressive providing as it does the nucleus for even greater things to come. No doubt some will pity the fact that Bresson did not go on to make more melodramatic films with professional actors such is the sensational success of the performances here. He could have gone to Hollywood and been a success - I can readily imagine a remake starring Betty Davis or Joan Crawford in the role of Hélène. For me I am relieved he stayed in France and chose to go his own iconoclastic way. Les Dames may be a marvelous film, but he went on to make better even more challenging films which really push the boundaries of what the cinema can do.
This BFI DVD is recommendable on the whole. It features the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and mono sound. The soundtrack is not wholly pristine with a lot of hiss and whirr especially in the opening street scene. Also occasionally the image becomes unsteady, shaking from time to time. The b/w images remain sharp and well-defined and do justice to the magnificent photography of the film, but don't expect the same picture quality that we get from Hollywood films of this period. There are no extras which is a shame. A commentary at least would have helped a disc destined I'm sorry to say to minority appeal. BFI have included a short essay on the film by Keith Reader printed on the inlay card which I found useful.