I must admit that, until Cinevistarascope reader Vodalus requested that I review Lancelot du Lac, I'd been putting off delving deeper into the films of Robert Bresson. The first Bresson film I'd seen, Diary of a Country Priest, left me admiring it on a purely intellectual level but strangely indifferent to its dry style and dour, monotonous story - as Michael Haneke would say, it just wasn't a film I needed. It's never fun to be dismissive, particularly when you're up against fifty-plus years of praise, so I decided that Bresson and I should take a break. But while the style of Lancelot du Lac, Bresson's minimalist version of the Arthurian legend, is nearly identical, the contrast between subject and method is fascinating. Bresson's deliberately austere approach to the film does to the Knights of the Round Table what his American contemporaries Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman did to the western, stripping away any cinematic mythologizing in favor of a stunning emotional directness.
Focusing on Lancelot's (Luc Simon) affair with Guinevere (Laura Duke Condomnias) and the effect it has on the kingdom, Bresson's film is completely absent any of the sharp visual iconography of Excalibur or the machismo of King Arthur. We're first introduced to the knights, as with Polanski's Macbeth, in the wake of a battle - there is no heroism or glory underscoring the scene, just blood and silence. Bresson avoids imposing a familiar dramatic arc on his narrative, finding a reality in the characters as they're liberated from the weight of their mythologies. We only see Arthur (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) as the distant, unknowable authority figure that Lancelot would see him as. What drives the film, and seemingly interests Bresson most, is the connection between Lancelot and Guinevere. As both characters idelize their relationship in dialogue, Bresson's probing camera finds instead a barely restrained need; this is the first Arthurian movie I've seen that uses the affair not for melodrama but as an archetypal model of desire. While Bresson famously directed his actors to downplay any emotion, this restraint gives the affair a stronger charge than a roll in the hay would have. Like Lancelot in his story, Bresson is perhaps expressing his own desire in the lingering shots of his lead actress' body, just as quickly cutting away and denying himself. This tension gives Lancelot du Lac a powerful erotic charge, albeit of a particularly masochistic sort.
The emphasis on physicality extends to every aspect of the film's design. The clanking of the knights' armor is always audible on the soundtrack, a constant reminder of the cumbersome nature of their own symbols. And Bresson repeatedly lingers on places, like the backs of the knights' legs, where they are vulnerable - we are never able to escape their mortality through the promise of immortality given by storytelling, and this draws us more strongly to their humanity. Honor is an arbitrary concept the knights live by in order to give a sense of meaning to their existence; for Bresson, this is pure theatricality, particularly in an extended sequence revolving around a joust. Repeating the same shot sequence multiple times - ominous fanfare, the knights' legs astride a horse, semi-interested spectators as something happens offscree, hints of an aftermath - while denying us the payoff of "action," Bresson makes our need for a violent resolution obvious through its absent. We're being indicted for our own passivity, and I might resent that if it weren't for the sequence's elegance.
Bresson's approach is nothing if not rigorous - the film's 80-minute running time limits the narrative's scope to this brief moment in the Arthurian myth before it is interrupted by death. The final moments mirror the film's opening, the two scenes serving as grim bookends to the film. I was reminded of the final title card of Barry Lyndon; as in that film, death serves as a great equalizer. Like all great minimalist artists, Bresson uses the spaces between moments that would normally be filled with his dreaded "theatricality" to argue for their relative meaninglessness. It's bracing stuff, but even if doesn't reflect one's own understanding of life, Lancelot du Lac challenges the viewer to see things as they are. I can't wait to see what else Bresson has to say.