Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is an absorbing, even touching, melodrama that’s perhaps wrongly characterized as a love story as well. The fairly simple narrative begins when Hélène is accompanied on a car ride home by Jacques, who warns that her lover Jean has fallen out of love. Next, in what I interpreted as a test for Jean, Hélène explains to Jean that it’s she who has changed and perhaps they’d be better off without marrying one another. Jean is then more than happy to be free and we’re soon introduced to the character of Agnès, seen dancing at a cabaret. We then learn Hélène and Agnès, who lives with her mother, were once neighbors (and apparent allusions to something more to some viewers). This is the set-up for the rest of the film, the remainder of which is best left unspoiled.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne was borne from a novelette written by Denis Diderot in 1773 and published in 1796. Like Jean-Pierre Melville, Bresson’s second feature film was partially written by Jean Cocteau, who receives screen credit for the dialogue here and had written the novel and screenplay for Melville’s Les Enfants terribles. Interestingly, the two diverse directors then took bold steps in creating their respective styles with their brilliant third films – Diary of a Country Priest for Bresson and Bob le Flambeur for Melville. Meanwhile, Cocteau followed up his work on Bresson’s film with his masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête).
While Cocteau’s filmed fairy tale is certainly an overt love story, I’d argue that the Bresson film is only superficially romantic. Hélène’s feelings for Jean are ultimately selfish and vengeful. She’s in love with him, but her actions illustrate a possessive quality more often found in modern-day thrillers than traditional romances. The film does a nice job of concealing Hélène’s exact motives (though I’m sure plenty of cinephile Sherlock Holmeses will have the entire storyline deduced from the first frame) and allows the viewer to piece together precisely what her plan is with Jean and Agnès. That Hélène can still elicit sympathy from the audience for much of the picture is a testament to the acting of Maria Casarès. There’s a great scene between Hélène and Jean about midway through the film where, even with the less than ideal picture quality, you can see tears silently rolling down her face as he’s oblivious to the love she still has for him.
I think it would also be a misnomer to describe Jean’s pursuit of Agnès as a truly romantic endeavor. He speaks of her in Cinderella-like terms to Hélène and seems charmed by the image of her as an unvarnished social misfit. As she becomes more difficult to obtain, Jean has an increased affection for her. It’s a classic example of someone unaccustomed to being refused consequently becoming more and more determined to attain his prey after being repeatedly rejected. Eventually the pursuer is more interested in the chase and the challenge than actually having what he was trying to catch. Jean’s ultimate decision at the film’s end is certainly noble, but it seems contrary to his character’s previous actions throughout the film. That audiences would most likely be repulsed and dissatisfied by the alternative presumably played a large part in how the film ends. Depressing, cynical endings are for real life, not the movies.
Regardless, it’s at least a near-great film. As I mentioned earlier, Maria Casarès as Hélène gives a stunning and memorable performance. Her cunning is really best appreciated at the end when you fully realize exactly what she’s pulled off and it’s the chilling Casarès that brings the character full circle. The actress who plays Agnès, Élina Labourdette, is also very effective and quite attractive. She’s the most redeeming part of the film’s triangle and manages to somehow retain a contradictory innocence about her. I’ve read things that place Agnès as a precursor to the female characters in Bresson’s later films and even claim that she’s the true focus of this film. Yet, I felt there was too much mystery and uncertainty in Agnès to realistically consider her as the most important or main character. We know she’s ashamed of her work in the cabaret, and all that implies, but there’s not enough information about her character to otherwise make much of an emotional connection.
Unfortunately, this worthwhile film suffers from one of Criterion’s more disappointing releases on DVD. The somewhat intimidating title itself is probably not going to entice consumers new to Bresson and the cover is, in my eyes, nearly indefensible. People can say what they will, but there’s no denying that DVD cover art plays a large role in attracting would-be consumers unfamiliar with the film inside. In addition, the only supplement on the disc is a stills gallery. The DVD transfer is so-so and certainly not at the level of what we’ve come to expect from Criterion, but it’s difficult to complain when a film over sixty years old looks this good. Plus I would assume that the company did all they could with the materials they have to work with and the disc’s producer even took the time to respond to concerns directly. Nevertheless, for the prestigious company’s first release of a filmmaker as highly revered as Bresson to be so underwhelming is a surprise.
It seems that Bresson’s films, of which Criterion has now released five on DVD, often take some getting used to for many viewers. I think this is understandable and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is evidence that the director himself even had to adjust to the more naturalistic style early in his career. Watching this film sort of reminds me of looking at some of Picasso’s blue period paintings. That may be an odd comparison, but, essentially, I think it’s apt. Both situations first involve a more conventional, though accomplished, work or series of works by an artist at the early stages of his career before he went on to carve out his own niche and style. Additionally, both men’s initial, more accessible work has its own merits and can be enjoyed separate from their more formidable later offerings. Bresson would soon turn his attention away from more secular works, but Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne remains one of his essential films, providing hints of better things to come.