Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE
(Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne)
Director: Robert Bresson
Production: Films Raoul Ploquin; black and white, 35mm; running time: originally 96 minutes, but edited down to 84 minutes for initial release, current versions are usually 90 minutes. Released 21 September 1945. Filmed summer 1944 in France.
Producer: Robert Lavellée; screenplay: Robert Bresson; dialogue: Jean Cocteau, from a passage in "Jacques le fataliste et son maître" by Denis Diderot; photography: Philippe Agostini; editor: Jean Feyte; sound: René Louge, Robert Ivonnet, and Lucien Legrand; production designer: Max Douy; music: Jean-Jacques Grunenwald.
Cast: Paul Bernard (Jean); Maria Casares (Hélène); Elina Labourdette (Agnès J); Lucienne Bogaert (Madame D); Jean Marchat (Jacques); Yvette Etievant (Chamber maid); with Bernard Lajarrige, Nicole Regnault, Marcel Rouzé, Emma Lyonnel, Lucy Lancy, Marguerite de Morlaye, and the dog Katsou.
Awards: Louis Delluc Award, France, 1945.
Bresson, Robert, and Jean Cocteau, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 November 1977.
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Cameron, Ian, The Films of Robert Bresson, London, 1970.
Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Style on Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Los Angeles, 1972.
Bresson, Robert, Notes sur le cinématographe, Paris, 1975; as Notes on the Cinema, New York, 1977.
de Pontes Leca, C., Robert Bresson o cinematografo e o sinal, Lisbon, 1978.
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Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne, Robert Bresson's second film, premiered just at the moment of the Liberation of France. Considered a difficult and extraordinary work, it was the first recipient of the Louis Delluc Award for the year's most important French film. What was it that made this film so difficult, and how could Bresson's severe style have attracted the attention it did?
First of all, the stifling studio look, by which Bresson was able to control every shadow, was perfectly suited to the hermetic era of the Occupation in which the film was made and to the strict moral drama of the film's literary source. The story was culled from Diderot's 18th-century classic Jacques le fataliste. Seemingly updated to include automobiles, electric lights, etc., Bazin once claimed that Bresson's adaptation is in fact back-dated, that it is the aesthetic equivalent of Racine. Bresson has indeed essentialized a picaresque, ironic drama into a tragic struggle of absolutes. More accurately, he has pitted the absolute and tragic world view of Hélène, the injured, icy heroine played elegantly by Maria Casares, against the more modern and temperate world views held by the lover who has left her, and by the two women she vengefully introduces him to in the Bois du Boulogne.
Here is the crux of the film's difficulty, for 20th-century spectators are required to identify with the hardened Hélène as she spins the web of her trap, using modern, attractive characters as bait. Yet the film succeeds because Bresson has supported her with his style, if not his moral sympathy. We experience her anguish and determination within the decisive clarity of each shot and within the fatal mechanism made up by the precise concatenation of shots. No accident or spontaneous gesture is permitted to enter either Hélène's world or Bresson's mise-en-scène.
Jean Cocteau's dialogue, compressed like some dense radioactive element, continually points up the absolute stakes at play; furthermore, the lines he has written play antiphonally with the images to produce a reflective space in which every perception has already been oralized. A good example of this process is found when Jean enters Agnès's room. He takes in this closed space and then transforms it in words: "This is her lamp, her flowers, her frame, her cushion. This is where she sits to read, this, her piano." And yet throughout this recitation we see only his face. The dialogue sums up and closes off sentiments, cooling passions, abstracting emotions. We observe Hélène lying wrathful on her bed for some time before she leans forward to speak her incredibly cold, "Je me vengerai."
Although this style insists on the overpowering strength of Hélène's response to life (in which a single errant word warrants death and damnation), the plot supports the more ordinary characters whom she has manipulated to the end. For after her plans have run their course, after she has announced to Jean at the church that he has married a loose woman, her power is spent. The grace of love, of the love born between these two humble and minor mortals, points to a life or a purpose beyond Hélène. Bresson's Jansenism mixes severity (style) and the disclosure of grace (plot).
Only the dead-time of the Occupation could have permitted such a refined and distant love story. Its timeless values, though, reflect on that period, particularly its concern with weakness, forgiveness, and the future in a world controlled by absolute political powers. More important is the full expression of a style that demands to be taken morally. Even if Bresson has since rejected this effort as too theatrical (with its music, acting, and studio lighting), the fact is that Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne showed the world the value of his search, a search that is at once stylistic and metaphysical, and one his later work has justified. It is a tribute to the French film community that they recognized the presence and importance of something truly different.