Sunday, January 11, 2009
You might say that I have a love/hate relationship with the French auteur Robert Bresson. Another way to put it: I think I like his films in spite of him. Bresson, initially a painter, broke into the film industry with his 1950 feature-length narrative A Diary of a Country Priest. Over the years, he developed an ascetic approach to film that stripped all emotionality from both the performances and the images. I've noted an obvious, linear progression of his peculiar artistic style through four of his films: Pickpocket (1959), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1966), and most recently, Lancelot du Lac (1974).
Lancelot, the topic of this review, concerns the aftermath of King Arthur's failed quest for the Holy Grail. Many of the knights of the round table died during the quest, all too often at each other's hands. The young queen Guinevere believes that they failed because their intentions were ignoble. They sought the grail for personal glory, she says; they desired to control God. Lancelot, however, believes their doom stemmed from the ongoing affair between himself and the queen. The jealousies, hatreds, and power struggles between the knights that occupy the remainder of the film in one way or another revolve around this forbidden love.
I was instantly drawn to the opening sequence of the film; indeed, it's quickly become perhaps my favorite in all of cinema. Lancelot du Lac begins with a sword fight between two knights; the camera, careful to exclude the knight's heads from the composition, follows their swords as they clash. Then, in a dispirited and almost casual motion, we see the sword of one of the knights decapitate his opponent. Blood streams from the loser's neck water-hose style. Several similar scenes follow, punctuated by fully-armored, faceless knights galloping through the woods on their horses. It was immediately obvious to me how indebted Monty Python and the Holy Grail was to this film.
Bresson's treatment of violence stands in complete antithesis to any of our modern expectations of a heightened violent realism (which we can trace back to Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan). The actors in Lancelot deliver their lines as if they were reading them for the first time from a script: without emotion, without timing. Bresson highlights this unconventional method with his own unique photographic sensibilities. His compositions either fully encapsulate the actor in the most simplistic and straightforward closeup, or he removes their faces from the frame entirely, finding a unique way to communicate the action of the scene: we might watch the hooves of their horses clopping along the path, or focus in on a hand gripping a lance. Don't expect any breathtaking sweeps of scenery or haunting long-takes that burn their way into our subconscious.
It's hard to say why I've liked almost all the Bresson films I've seen (Pickpocket being the exception). For me, great film thoroughly envelops me in a world that I'm compelled to follow, either through dialog, performances, cinematography, narrative - or better yet, through all four. But in each of these areas, Bresson seems to intentionally subvert my perfectly reasonable expectations. By all accounts, I should hate his films. By all accounts, I should have turned them off in the first 10 minutes. Yet they're unique, and Bresson's commitment of vision has kept me searching, searching. Maybe I'm just a sucker.