A GENTLE WOMAN (Une Femme Douce)

(director/writer: Robert Bresson; screenwriter: from the book by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet; editor: Raymond Lamy; music: Jean Wiener; cast: Dominique Sanda (wife), Guy Frangin (husband), Jeanne Lobre (Anna, the maid); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Mag Bodard; Paramount; 1969-France-in French with English subtitles)

“In Robert Bresson’s first film in color, he updates an enigmatic Dostoyevsky short story of a woman’s loveless marriage to a pawnbroker.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In Robert Bresson’s first film in color, he updates an enigmatic Dostoyevsky short story of a woman’s loveless marriage to a pawnbroker. It’s the film debut of future international star Dominique Sanda. The film opens with a woman’s suicide (falling from a balcony onto the street) and ends with the lid of her coffin being screwed into place, seemingly closing out the mystery of her demise. The woman (Dominique Sanda) has killed herself for no apparent reason and her pawnbroker husband (Guy Frangin) will be seen in flashback, in a detached manner while voicing his loss in a calm matter of fact tone, as he tries to find out the reason, which turns out to be a futile search (at least for him!). Any number of reasons for her suicide can be given as an explanation (Bresson does not offer his interpretation, it’s up to the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions), but in truth we are none the wiser after hearing the whole story of their relationship from his point of view as he relates the events to his maid (Jeanne Lobre). We only realize that their marriage was not a happy one and an insufferable air of despair hung over them, and that he is a materialist who fell in love with her beauty but could never understand her spiritual gentle side and in the end was the wrong match for her.

The clues to them being an ill-suited couple are clearly shown when the two first meet. She comes to his pawn shop to sell a crucifix and he pulls off the plastic figure of Jesus Christ to return to her as something that he considers as useless but for sentimental value, while he takes the gold cross after weighing it. Awe struck by her beauty, he tries to pay her more than what it was worth. Even though penniless, she returns the plastic figure and the bonus money by saying that she cannot be bought. But he cunningly pursues her by pretending to become what he thinks she desires in a man and flaunts his book knowledge (quoting from Goethe), sensitivity to the theater (they see Hamlet) and classical music (buying her phonographs), and appreciation of nature by meeting her for dates at the botanical gardens. Though she does not talk much and there’s much silence between them, she agrees to marry. Their first quarrel is over a reprimand he gives her for paying too much for a cheap brooch a poor elderly lady brought into the shop. Later when she becomes ill, he generously spends money to treat her and personally looks after her. Thinking she questions his generosity, he now shows off that he can also overpay for cheap merchandise brought into the shop. When he suspects her of adultery, he follows her to no avail. On one occasion he finds her with a young man in a parked car, but overhears her turning down his advances. He’s happy for the moment, but also thinks she might have spotted him through the rear-view window.

In this psychological drama, darker than Bresson’s previous films, there’s no salvation through suffering or real understanding of why suicide instead of a divorce. The tale unfolds with the somberness reserved for those trying to understand the human condition without understanding what they mean by love and without plumbing the depths of the mind. The couple’s plight is related to that of all humanity in this modern world, where it’s easy to lose sight of the soul (spiritual) when pursuing only the body (material). External knowledge can easily be gained in today’s world by anyone who wants to through the widespread publication of books and in big cities through museums, theaters and botanical gardens, but what Bresson seems to be getting at is the unbearable inner isolation that causes a disconnect among humans–where love is not something that can be bought or possessed, as it only can be gained by searching for an inner knowledge–which means going in the opposite direction of the world, something only a few seem to be able to do without destroying themselves.

REVIEWED ON 12/28/2005 GRADE: A+  https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”