Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (dir. Robert Bresson, 1945) – So much to say about this, too little space/time. This is early Bresson, his second feature film. In many ways, it resembles the poetic realism of Jean Renoir more than the Bresson we’ve come to know through his mid-career masterpieces. Rather than all those closeups of hands and an absence of dialogue that somehow combine to reach toward the great mysteries, we have a straightforward, almost Shakespearean narrative shot with professional actors and more of the deep-focus camera work that defined Bresson’s early French counterpart. (Note: we’re doing some shameless auteur criticism here, but so be it. Bresson simply is an auteur, whether you’re a fan of the general auteur approach or not. He’s been constructed this way and so his films, to be understood from a culturally-specific perspective, need to take this fact into account at some point.)
It seemed like nearly every image was shot from just inside a doorframe or window frame. Under the lens of close reading, this is a difficult motif to interpret within the context of the film’s narrative. Why all the frames within the frame? Are we to recognize the diegesis as theatrical, a deception that Hélène stages to avenge her honor and desirability after Jean falls into her trap? This almost implies that Hélène controls the narrative trajectory. She does, in a sense, but it seems too much to align her gaze and narrative agency with that of the camera itself. She is the least personified character in the film, and the most akin to an archetype, a Lady Macbeth or feminine Richard III. The (over)acting in her face constantly dehumanizes her, and her myopic goals drain her of any sympathy.
On the other hand, even Jean’s pathetic swooning, itself archetypical of the oversexed European male, is redeemed at the end when he proclaims his love for Agnès, despite discovering “who” she really is. Agnès herself is a complex figure, one who attempts to erase her past, but whose recognizability renders a fresh start impossible. Hélène’s supposed interest in helping Agnès is designed to do just the opposite, temporarily hiding her shameful history in order to reveal it dramatically and publicly later. Agnès’s mother, too, complicates a one-dimensional reading. She contradicts her own desires repeatedly, allowing Jean access to Agnès’s intimate space and then expelling him from it. In this bedroom scene, her mother nearly seems to expose risqué images of Agnès to Jean. After hesitating, she tries to hide them, only for Agnès’s cabaret outfit to fall into Jean’s view.
In a word, Bresson presents a complex world mostly bereft of “easy” characters. And although the film’s form only hints at the Bresson to develop later, we see here a highly deliberate style, a style whose repetition itself testifies to its purpose and intentionality. But here is a film far more theatrical, far more story-driven and focused on faces than on other bodily members than subsequent Bresson films.
A last point: coincidence, or happenstance, plays a key role in this film. When Agnès pushes a rude customer into a lounge table, breakables crash onto the floor. The camera pans down toward the shattered glass. We don’t get any reaction shots from Agnès or the tuxedoed man. Instead, the camera holds on the glass shards until a woman leans down to pick them up. As she does so, she notices Hélène staring through the doorframe, at which point the camera takes us back to Hélène. In so doing, the camera allows the effects of an action to become a new cause for more action. The camera is distracted in this instance, allowing its (and therefore our) attention to divert from the first cause and move toward a secondary one. It’s hard not to think of Kieslowski at moments like this. See anything from Blind Chance to The Decalogue to the Trois Couleurs trilogy to The Double Life of Veronique.