Robert Bresson’s second feature film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, was for me at once both greater and lesser than his more celebrated (and less conventional) films. Made in 1945, it was the last of his films to feature a cast of all-professional actors, and though the emotions exhibited were noticeably muted compared to the overwrought Hollywood fare of the times, the overall effect is like that of a slow simmer, an undercurrent of tension, instead of the automaton approach he elicited from the “models” in his later works.
‘Les Dames,’ taken from Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste, weaves a cautionary tale about a woman’s scorn. Rich, decadent, and beautiful Hélène learns that her cynical boyfriend Jean no longer loves her. Early on in the film, she opens up to him, pretending to have lost her feelings for him and pleading for deliverance from her guilt, thereby coaxing his own admission. Agreeing to remain friends, Hélène winds an elaborate trap, enticing him to first fall in love with and then to try to marry a women who, unbeknownst to him, has a notorious past.
Bresson’s adaptation (co-written with Jean Cocteau) feels perfectly at home in his spiritual universe, a universe filled with pain and suffering – and redemption. When it was released, many critics received it poorly, unable to believe in a story set in the present yet predicated on century-old mores. Within a matter of years, however, the film obtained cult-status, and is still shown to this day in art-house theaters around the world.
Working with professional actors, I felt like I was witnessing the missing half of Bresson’s vision, the passionate yin to his austere yang. But slowly I realized that I was also standing on the edge of an unbridged abyss. On this side stood a world with potential for visible connections, for emotional outbursts of love, hate. But Bresson left this world, crossing the abyss and occasionally radioing back bizarre new picture-scapes, lands where dispassionate decapitations, rape, donkey beatings, and other spiritual non-sequiter were the norm. Neither world makes sense without the other – yet neither can these worlds be bridged.
Last Word: Fascinating, engaging, though at times decidedly un-Bresson, ‘Les Dames’ merits appreciation for all that the auteur was able to accomplish within the studio system.