Lancelot du Lac (1974)

LANCELOT OF THE LAKE (Lancelot du Lac)

(director/writer: Robert Bresson; screenwriter: based on the epic poem by Chretien De Troyes; cinematographer: Pasqualino de Santis; editor: Germaine Lamy; music: Philippe Sarde; cast: Luc Simon (Lancelot), Laura Duke Condominas (Queen Guinevere), Humbert Balsan (Gawain), Vladimir Antolek-Oresek (King Arthur), Patrick Bernhard (Mordred), Arthur De Montalembert (Lionel); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alfredo Bini/Jean Yanne; New Yorker Films; 1974-France/in French with English subtitles)

“Casts a magical spell over an old legend and reinvents it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake is a masterpiece. It echoes with a stunning personal vision that casts a magical spell over an old legend and reinvents it. The movie is an austere and haunting telling of the Knights of the Round Table legend, but this time the ideals of chivalry and spiritual purity are exposed by a more modern view of such allegiances. The Arthurian legend is torn apart and the knights’ human sides are left baring the scars of pride, deceit, envy, and a poisonous gloom, as the weary knights wander around the forest grounds wondering what went wrong with their quest. Bresson’s Camelot begins when the legend ends in most of the traditional ways of the tale, as the few knights not decimated in the Crusades return demoralized through the spooky dark forests to King Arthur’s Camelot. The ideal sanctuary is in near-ruin after the knights are unsuccessful in their quest for the Holy Grail. Their leader on the quest, Perceval, is lost. Lancelot returns chagrined into thinking that the failure lies at his feet, as he blames his adultery with Queen Guinevere as the reason God didn’t allow him to bring back the Grail. As a result Lancelot tells Guinevere, while secretly meeting in their rendezvous spot, that he will remain chaste and end their affair.

The remaining knights in Camelot are ill-tempered and lost as to what their purpose now is, as they walk around the forest grounds dressed to the hilt in armor and clanking with every movement like cogs in a machine needing a lube job. Arthur fails to satisfy their gnawing hunger to do something important while they are in armor, as he says he must wait for word of God to find out what to do next. In the meantime, he urges the men to keep in battle shape and become perfect. The queen tells her king that he’s full of pride — which doomed the quest from the start — but she’ll stand by him in these dark days as he needs her strength and support. Mordred didn’t go out on the quest, for which Lancelot despises him as a weakling and backbiter. But Lancelot wishes to keep the peace for Arthur’s sake and offers his hand in friendship to Mordred, who refuses to shake it. Mordred tattles that Lancelot is making it with the queen causing the knights to choose sides, but Lancelot refuses to comment even though Gawain backs him and swears to his Uncle Arthur that it isn’t so.

At the tournament joust an unnamed knight, obviously Lancelot, keeps his vizor closed to hide his identity, as he defeats a number of charging knights as if his courageous actions could displace all doubts about his character. Bresson chooses to film the joust by showing the charging horses’ feet and the wooden spears and the raising of a flag with each new combatant, rather than the spectacle of the joust. This spare method of filming allows the tension to build, as a wounded Lancelot retreats to the forest to be healed by an old peasant woman. She tells Lancelot when he puts on his armor again to go battle the Arthurian knights who turned against him, “You are stupid and will never understand anything.”

The peasant lady’s wise words underscore the final horrific battle scene at the conclusion, where there’s a pile of dead knight bodies in their armor and that death image looks like the scrap-heap in some junkyard. The death images strip away the old benevolent lessons of the legend and reflect on the knights’ warrior mentality and cruelty as being their downfall. Bresson’s version opposes the one of regaling the gallantry by Sir Thomas Malory in his “Morte Darthur” and Tennyson in his celebratory poem. The knights in Bresson’s are in need of human affection and have taken to bickering amongst themselves, thereby exposing their foibles. The complete ruin of Camelot is played out through the tragic figure of Lancelot and his broken heart, as he’s viewed as a sincere warrior whose greatest fault is that he’s only human and can’t be a God.

The cast of mostly nonprofessional actors allowed everything to appear natural and for the pictures to tell the story instead of words. The emotionless dialogue gave Bresson the dead-pan effect he was looking for as a contrast to the shocking emotional images. Bresson’s work is a beautifully realized ode to the end of a dying age, a time period that is yearned for by many of the so-called purists who feel modern mankind has lost their values. But as Bresson shows, it’s an unreal nostalgia for the “good old days” of chivalry.