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DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE, LES(director/writer: Robert Bresson; screenwriters: Jean Cocteau/based on the novel by Denis Diderot called Jacques le Fataliste; cinematographer: Philippe Agostini; editor: Jean Feyte; music: Jean-Jacques Grünenwald; cast: Paul Bernard (Jean), María Casares (Hélène), Lucienne Bogaert (Mme. D), Jean Marchat (Jacques), Elina Labourdette (Agnès); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: producer Raoul Ploquinpr; Criterion Collection; 1945-French, in French with English dialogue)
“… a brilliant romantic melodrama…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The reclusive genius, Robert Bresson (“Diary of a Country Priest“/ “Pickpocket“), was born in 1907 and died in 1999. The elegant melodrama Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is the great French director’s second feature. His first feature was in 1934, a comedy called Les Affiares Publiques of which no print survives. Bresson discounts all his earlier screenwriting work in the 1930s and counts his first feature in 1943 Les Anges du Péché as the true beginning of his career. During WW11 Bresson spent more than a year in a German prison, an experience he was to use for his 1956 film A Man Escaped.

I saw this rarely shown film on a recently released DVD. It offers a high quality digital transfer and has restored image and sound and provided clear new subtitles, and is presented in its original theatrical form. When it first was released the public and film critics rejected it and the producer Raoul Ploquin was ruined, as it took him seven years to recover. But after the film’s commercial failure it made its way into retrospective showings in arthouses and almost all the critics retracted their negative reviews. Most now consider it atypical of Bresson’s oeuvre, but nevertheless a brilliant work and a turning point in his career. The richness of this Bresson film compared favorably to the austere qualities in his later works, as it served the director’s purposes of exploring how he can accomplish his spiritual ends without compromising the film. The spiritual ending in this film seems loosely tacked on to ‘an affairs of the heart story,’ while in his later films the spiritual theme becomes the very essence of what he’s looking for. Bresson was acclaimed by critics as a true auteur and master of his craft, as his tightly constructed films excluded all but the bare essences needed for the story. As Ephraim Katz says in The Film Encyclopedia “Nothing is allowed to interfere with his basic theme either by addition or subtraction.” So from an historical point of view, it is interesting to see what Bresson was wrestling with in this literary film which was an antithesis of his later personal signature ones that was to lead him on to a relentless search for the truth of his character’s inner life.

Bresson cannot be classified with either the old guard or the New Wave, but is respected for his own unique achievements. The noted French film critic and filmmaker, Truffaut said of him: “His cinema is closer to painting than to photography.” Others see in him a philosopher with a camera, an uncompromising Jansenist rigorously preoccupied with ideas of predestination and spiritual grace.

“Les Dames” is noted for its terse and pointed dialogue, which are jewels to be treasured. Bresson collaborated on the script with Jean Cocteau, and the moody romantic music was scored by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald. The film was faithfully adapted from Diderot’s 18th-century novel Jacques le Fataliste based on a self-contained anecdote, but through Cocteau’s lyrical efforts Diderot’s dialogue was immeasurably improved. The film’s sensuality, modernity, high studio production values and use of professional actors can now be seen as an anomaly for a Bresson film making it — “an un-Bresson film.” This was also the last time Bresson would use professional actors.

Bresson’s interest as a stylist is clearly seen in “Les Dames,” the film’s pearly black and white photography is stunning, his tightly detailed scenes appear to be directed purposely in an abstract way to gain a further delineation of reality, the romantic mood is enhanced by scenes in the rain and when inside there’s a roaring fire going full blast in the fireplace, and the camera is always busy and offering a variety of tracking shots. It was also fun to watch the Paris of the 1940s depicted as a fashionable place where the men wore tuxedos and top hats and the women wore chic gowns.

The steely-looking wealthy socialite Hélène (María Casares) is being pursued by an old friend whom she does not love, Jacques (Jean Marchat). He tells her “There is no such thing as love, only its proofs.” Hélène is obsessedwith her lover Jean (Paul Bernard), as anyone can determine that by the way she looks at him– that is except Jean. After receiving a gold cigarette case to mark their second year of the affair, Jean tells her “I love gold, it is like you: hot, cold, clear, somber, incorruptible.” But Hélène hopes to get him to declare a renewed love for her, so she suggests without meaning it the following “things are getting stale and perhaps we should start seeing others.” To her chagrin he agrees, saying “their relationship has gotten boring.”

Hélène is obsessed by a single idea for vengeance, and she takes on an intensely satanic look and her words are now laced with venom. She’s a woman scorned and gathers up all the wrath that goes with such fury. Hélène intends to make the only man she has ever loved, who so casually broke up with her, pay for that snub. She cleverly introduces him to a pretty girl, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), from the lower class who reached fame as a nightclub dancer but whose career nose-dived when she became a prostitute. Agnès hopes to get away from her past and live for awhile in seclusion, as she’s offered financial help from Hélène and mental support from her mother (Lucienne Bogaert) who remains by her side. Agnès is an innocent victim of Hélène’s venal plan, a plan that spins a web so that the unsuspecting Jean will fall hopelessly in love with Agnès after meeting her in a park by a waterfalls and he will marry her in a society wedding. Hélène will have the last laugh that she ruined Jean’s status-conscious life by fixing him up with a tramp. But in Bresson’s way of seeing things, there’s a sublime ending introduced that serves as a warning that true love has more to do with finding goodness than it does in chasing after one’s lusts or after beauty.

There are scenes that are chillingly baroque, such as the one where Jean is stuck in an elevator after escaping from the clutches of Hélène and he tells her he is fleeing because “I don’t like the piano…,” as Hélène descends from a spiral staircase in pursuit. There’s also the wonderful scene of Hélène peering through a glass door at Agnès, as if she were a strange specimen to be experimented on. As in all Bresson shots, there’s the power in the simplicity. His camera encloses the action so it can be concentrated. In other words, the viewer is forced into seeing how the characters are morally trapped in their own vices. Their confinement, or if you will their imprisonment, dominates the way we see the film and how the victims can’t escape from their past or from their need to express themselves. Agnès only feels alive when she’s dancing. Hélène’s natural satanic urges are only curbed by love. Jean can only feel satisfied by having something he doesn’t possess. And, even though, all the characters are base, as long as they live there’s still the hope that they can find what they are lacking to make them whole.

“Les Dames” is a brilliant romantic melodrama that satisfies in ways that are not clear–perhaps, like a great musical work or poem. María Casares is a marvelous actress and her restrained performance and icy facial gestures, reflect the bluish mood of this love story. The film is a superb example of style over content, where the style is actually more interesting than the content. It has been tendered by the hands of a master filmmaker, and in this film Bresson’s more interested in passion than salvation.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”