Look down on me, you will see a fool, look up at me, you will see your lord. Look straight at me and see yourself. – Charles Manson
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul – Longfellow
As we die we may return to the Earth through falling. We cease to look upward as our visions and dreams come to a close. The heavily armored soldiers falling to the ground look rather foolish, not very heroic in the opening scenes. Their falling bodies make harsh clanging noises and stir up the dust beneath them. There are many conflicting sounds on Bresson’s layered track but the most prevalent, even over the animal sounds is the sound of dust and dirt under our feet, or our horse’s feet. At times these sounds harmonize with images of feet moving over and through the earth. Bresson uses the sounds not as signposts designed to tell us that this animal is a metaphor for this human but as constant reminders of earthly, practical concerns in w world in which we struggle to understand our inner dreams, visions or goals. The clanging armor, rustling feet, whinnying horses and other sounds mix and match and remind us that while our heads may be up in the clouds our bodies have to live on Earth. They also remind us that we are not ever alone, physically. Other creatures, lives and perspectives surround us.
When we look straight on at each other we can get into conflict because we are seeing ourselves, or the traits we hate most about ourselves reflected back. Lancelot (of the reflecting lake) looks at Mordred and sees his own capacity for betrayal and treachery that is what makes him hate Mordred so. Gawain looks at Lancelot when he fails to take down Mordred and sees his own capacity for cowardice and fear. Early on, when Lancelot returns from Escalot, we are surprised when, after Gawain understandably asks if it is Lancelot underneath his helmet, Lancelot removes his helmet and asks Gawain if he is himself. Gawain wears nothing covering his face but it’s almost as though Lancelot, because he is riding up on high (on his horse) cannot see or recognize him.
When the characters look upward, they lose themselves in visions. Guinevere is a representation of Lancelot’s vision of himself as more than a killer, but that vision scares him. Lancelot is good at killing and he doesn’t have to think about it. His fascination with this woman who is above his station is a sign that he is unsatisfied with only being one thing even though he still enjoys that thing. Guinevere is associated with both the moon (through the shot during which Gawain and other associates of Lancelot speculate on whether that celestial being, while surrounded by clouds, represents freedom or imprisonment) and with the final skyward shot of s flying bird, through the similarly composed shot of her skyward window. The men under Arthur all feel that Guinevere belongs to them in some way. When Gawain and some of Arthur’s men observe that the clouds are possibly strangling the Moon we hear their logical explanation of the analogy and also what they aren’t even aware they are saying: Arthur’s betrayal will damage the queen irrevocably.
The dissolution of Arthur’s roundtable is foreordained by its adherence to and dependence on rigid codes of masculinity and honor. Its ultimate breakdown is, like the omen about Lancelot stated at the beginning of the film, the same for all such endeavors built on shaky premises. Arthur and nearly everyone around him plays their assigned part, the three characters who dare to act outside of social expectations are Lancelot, Guinevere and Mordred, all of whom are linked by the affair between the former two. Mordred’s “cowardice” is actually a form of imaginative bravery that makes others hate him. He, more than his detractors, challenges norms. Gawain, for al his outward bravery does not begin to approach the daring of Mordred 9or Lancelot and Guinevere) until his is lying down, waiting for his death. Before that he is mostly concerned with what people might say or think.
Part of what confuses and divides Lancelot is the fact that he associates Guinevere with God through his sin of betrayal. Before his first visit to her in the film, the bell for Mass is wrung (Lancelot questions whether it is to early for the ceremony) and it is as though the chime pulls him to Guinevere. Guinevere is something of a heavenly thing to Lancelot. During their first meeting, in the film, he kneels before her and then she moves upward again, going upstairs. The two remains separated shot-wise while Guinevere sits and Lancelot stands over her. Only when he kneels do they connect as Guinevere takes his hand. As he rises when she discovers his removal of her ring, they separate. He listens to her feet as she descends and the door as she leaves. Lancelot has betrayed Arthur with Guinevere, then betrayed Guinevere with God and then betrayed God with Guinevere. He has not betrayed himself because he no longer has a concrete self to betray.
In their second visit, As Guinevere tries to convince Lancelot to live up to the vow he made to her as opposed to the one he made to God, Lancelot walks back and forth between two windows, two physical and imaginative openings to vision and/or destruction, which frequently are the same thing. Through one window he sees a small woodland creature making a loud noise. When Lancelot tells Guinevere that he humbles himself, does he mean to her or to god? They are separated as he walks near and above her, as they are when she is high above him in her tower. When he sits next to her they are together, closer to the Earth. At the end of the scene Lancelot kneels once more before Guinevere. The animal outside shrieks to make it’s presence felt.
Arthur and his people allow their obsession with symbols and symbolism to blind them to movements of the heart. The failure to get the grail inspires Arthur to make a meaningless gesture of closing the room where the Roundtable sat. He then proceeds to close himself off from dangerous animosities within the group that follows him. After Arthur’s hollow pronouncement Bresson shows Gawain closing the door but the viewer understands that a physical door shutting does not close imaginative doors. The ghosts of those who have fallen for Arthur’s foolish obsession remain in the minds of the characters and the audience. Later, when Lancelot seeks to mend thing with Mordred he remind his enemy (who he thinks is jealous of his rank, that the roundtable is round to avoid precedence in rank. Mordred doesn’t directly respond to this but the viewer notes that a round table will never be enough to prevent humans from favoring one over another and resulting in a particular knight being known as the queen’s knight. Before this, Gawain asks Arthur for a purpose, aside for the training he instructed them to perform earlier, and Arthur commands him to pray. When Gawain repeats the command it sounds hollow, not because Bresson doesn’t believe in prayer but because Arthur hasn’t given his people anything to pray for and because Gawain has failed to understand, as Guinevere implies in the scene just before this one, that he must have his own purpose and not simply wait to be given one. It should be mentioned here that, contrary to a commonly held belief, Bresson’s characters do not speak in one voice. There inflections are subtle but it is less about tones than contracting ways of seeing as performed through speech. Gawain speaks in simple phrases about honor and expectation, Mordred talks in sarcastic riddles, unless he is trying to convince someone he cares about (Arthur) of something, Guinevere talks in somberly romantic ways. Lancelot fluctuates between different styles because he is Bresson’s mightiest performer in this piece, even though the performance kills him.
When the story begins we are told that Perceval (the pure of heart) has disappeared looking for the grail. Lancelot will later disappear for a time but his heart isn’t pure, it’s divided and what divided it will bring him back from the “dead” to fight for a divided cause; he comes back to win Guinevere but ends up giving her up and losing his life fighting for Arthur. Lancelot’s loyalty seems less devotion to Arthur, or even malice against Mordred as it is simply a loyalty to the easy understandings of battle. Only on the battlefield does this divided soul retain the illusion of a unity of purpose. Lancelot is “he whose footsteps precede him,” a divided soul who cannot catch up with his own confused intentions. He pays the price of anyone who looks away from society’s social restrictions by looking skyward, as does his horse. The simple folk who predict his downfall and later try to shield him from it are associated with the earth (notice the way the first shot of one of them has him kneeling tightly on the ground and the even more telling shot later on when the child bows toward the camera (and Lancelot) in an extremely tight ground-level shot.), Guinevere is associated with the sky (until Lancelot and Arthur conspire to bring her down to Earth at the end). Guinevere seems to become infected with Lancelot’s confusion towards the end during a scene in which she is washed by her attendants while staring into the mirror. The mirror, like the lake suggests a divided self that is desperate to reintegrate. Gawain and the other men remain mostly in the middle (until their deaths) dealing with practical matters of social and military responsibility. Lancelot is the one who traverses all realms but his soul and eventually body is destroyed by “ a death worse than death” with the effort it takes to attempt to navigate the differing terrain. This effort, despite it’s frequently tragic consequences, is the positive aspect of Bresson’s project here. It is Arthur and other characters who put all their hopes in dreams in the result of a quest, Bresson puts his in the questing itself. The animals in the film mostly see what is in front of them, human frailty, and ignore it while continuing to perform their practical duties. They share nothing with these men and woman who obsess over roundtables ad visions. Dying creates a morbidly humorous bond in the end when both Lancelot and his horse look up in the sky at an impossibly out-of-reach bird in the throws of death, and pause for one final reflection on what might have been.