Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson)

Audiences have a very clear set of expectations from film adaptations of the Arthurian legend. Chivalry, adventure, romance, shining armor. Dashing knights and deliciously bountiful bosoms. Movies in this cannon elucidate a genre as well-defined as any, but what can we expect from "Lancelot du Lac" by Robert Bresson, the French auteur who's entire conception of the cinema stands completely apart from (and in opposition to) everything we've come to understand of the medium? It took him 25 years to get funding for the project, if that's any clue.

Clearly, you can throw out the shining armor, bountiful bosoms, and adventure. Bresson's domain had always been the hidden interior, and the superficial ostentatiousness of the genre could only serve to conceal this from us. Also, most films about the knights of the round table gloss over the more barbarous aspects of the mythology, but not Bresson's. From its opening montage, we witness gloriously dispassionate decapitations, stabbings, hangings, burnings, and even temple desecration. Rivers of blood improbably squirt from even the smallest of wounds, coating their dull, dirty armor, while faceless knights casually seek out more carnage. A perfunctory introduction tells us that in the quest for the holy grail, the knights have turned on each other, dying by each other's hands as often as not, and after this brief exposition, we find the knights returned to their castle, their ranks decimated, their king disheartened. The knights openly squabble, and even the horses bay in fear, presumably tormented by the horrors they've witnessed.

Bresson's real purpose is the "why"? Why did the quest fail? Why have they turned on each other? Has God forsaken them (as Arthur openly wonders), or were they corrupted by their own greed and lust? These two opposing theories are (inconclusively) played out in the love affair between Queen Guinevere and her knight, Lancelot. Lancelot contends that their sin brought ruin to the enterprise, though Guinevere counters that only his pride and arrogance could lead to such a conclusion. They sought not the grail, she says, but God. They wanted to own Him. How could it have turned out otherwise?

Of all of his mature films (i.e., from 'Diary of a Country Priest' onwards), 'Lancelot' may come the closest, at least superficially, to approaching a more conventional narrative form that we can relate to. The tragic plot is practically Shakespearean, through Bresson does his best to subvert it's dramatic peaks and valleys. Employing entirely non-professional actors (or "models" in Bresson's terminology), they speak and move with a kind of thoughtless, glazed automatism. Their clumsy, impractical armor constantly invades the film's soundtrack, and Bresson ties together scenes with only the most minimal segues. We're often left wondering how much time has passed, our attention forcibly magnified as we strain to fill in the narrative gaps. We take cues from even the smallest of sounds, and find beauty not in any particular image - each of which has a peculiar flatness unique to Bresson - but only in their relationships, their juxtapositions.

Though many see the mystery of grace as a constant thread in Bresson's films, it's hard to fathom God's hand in the mutual annihilation of King Arthur's knights. Bresson can be accused of many things, but he has always intentionally avoided didacticism or ideology. If we learn anything from this film, we can't name it. It's only felt, brought to us through some kind of inner dynamic, an interior touch paradoxically rendered by the elimination of any exterior signs of it. How can we find feeling in a character without emotion? How can we find beauty in a 50mm lens? This is the real mystery weaving it's way through all of his films. The violence in 'Lancelot': crude, yes, even laughable by today's standards. But the mystery is there. A river of blood, bathing them and us.

Last Word: 'Lancelot' is at once Bresson's most violent and most approachable film, yet will likely not sate the uninitiated. Prepare for multiple viewings and endless introspection.

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