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Full Bloom: Daisies in Robert Bresson's “Une femme douce”

Dead daises found in Bresson's film—and not in Dostoevsky's short story from which it is adapted—reveal the cracks and faults in a marriage.
Patrick Holzapfel
Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.
Ivana Miloš, A Gentle Creature (2021), monotype and gouache on paper, 33 x 24 cm
Every day there are hundreds of dead flowers, originally torn from the earth in order to display love, rotting at the side of the road. Some of them have just fallen victim to time: They dried out or their colors faded, leaving a sad and ultimately unbearable reminder of a beauty that is no more. Others, however, are thrown away in full bloom. Helpless bouquets cover streets and garbage cans like monuments to frustrated loves. Discarded in moments of anger or passionate refusal, they represent the end of love. It’s not only the flowers that people get rid of, but also what they stand for. Sometimes their beauty does not correspond with actual life and sometimes they become a suffocating presence reminiscent of bourgeois expectations such as the neatness of homely life.
I have often seen such bouquets at the side of the road and I’ve always wondered what their story was. Tellingly, I’ve encountered them most frequently while living close to a register office. The legal procedure of marriage does not always go hand in hand with the fragrance of flowers. Almost every week, a new bouquet would lie on the street next to the sewers while rats, in joyful anticipation, were waiting for the night to eat it all up. I find the image of abandoned flowers deeply touching. However, none touched me as profoundly as the thrown away bundle of marguerites in Robert Bresson’s Une femme douce.
Elle, embodied by Dominique Sanda, collects the daisies from the side of the road when she and her husband Luc take a trip to the countryside. Bresson shows his not-so-gentle woman in profile holding the bouquet as if she was a painting. Maybe that’s the way Luc, her not-so-gentle husband, would like to see her. The pernicious tendency of the husband to shape his younger wife after his ideals is more present in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s source material because Elle is more intelligent and less innocent than the 16-year-old girl in the 1876 short story A Gentle Creature. Nevertheless the filmmaker includes the man’s fake perception of innocence in this shot, which is reminiscent of the daisy chain used in Hamlet to represent Ophelia’s innocence. Elle is no Ophelia. In the next shot she observes another couple with another bouquet of marguerites. Suddenly a shadow emerges in her expression. She sits down next to Luc in the car and throws the flowers out of the window. He asks her if she doesn’t like flowers. She doesn’t really answer. The sequence ends with a shot of the abandoned white flowerheads in the grass. 
There are many inexplicable occurrences in life. In Bresson’s words, they are related to feeling. Jealousy, shame and a desire to live a different life are very present in Une femme douce. There is a sense of incompatibility between the temptations of modern life and the spirituality of traditional forms of being. The image of another couple taking the same trip, picking the same flowers, becomes unbearable. Marriage is not enough for Elle if it is just a set of preconceived tasks and pleasures. She strongly feels the redundancy of life and her oppressed role as woman in this unhealthy struggle for power and freedom between husband and wife. The tedium of typical life patterns suffocates Elle. How can love survive in all this?
Certainly not in a spring bouquet, even if daisies are known to be very tolerant to draughts and feet stepping on them. “Insensibility. Oh, nature! People are alone in this world. That’s what is so dreadful,“ writes Dostoevsky in the last paragraph of his novella. It’s so difficult to be truly gentle. We can find the tragedy in Une femme douce in the manner in which truth is either not communicated at all or communicated too late. The essential can’t be put in words. It’s difficult to understand a feeling while we are experiencing it. It’s only in retrospect that feelings become graspable and this is what Bresson shows with the constant reflections of the husband vis-à-vis the corpse of his deceased wife. There are many cruelties and humiliations throughout the film and many possible explanations as to her suicide, which memorably begins the film. However, it’s all there in the moment Elle throws away the daisies. She throws away life. She throws away a certain type of life. She throws away the only life that seems to grow on this meadow. Dostoevsky (in whose story no flower is mentioned) and Bresson both like to show the effect before the cause. All these bouquets at the side of the road are an effect. They are what they are. Just another thing that will vanish. It’s the cause that baffles us. The cause remains concealed, but whatever it reveals speaks of our existence. “The unknown is what I wish to capture,“ Bresson said.
Une femme douce is Bresson’s first color film. If you know only a little about this director, the fact that he chose white flowers for his first work in color speaks volumes. Many famous depictions in art history place daisies next to other flowers with different colors. Vase with Daisies and Poppies by Van Gogh, Young Girl with Daisies by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, or Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Paul Cézanne are examples for this. White on white is not an easy or even logical thing to do. Later, Elle also cuts some white roses. It’s no coincidence. Bresson said that he wanted to match the whole color palette of the film to the skin tone of Dominique Sanda. The flowers, the sky, the burial shroud, and the scarf that hauntingly floats through the air after she jumps from the balcony to kill herself harmonize with the protagonist. It’s her soul that is reflected upon in every shot.
When Leucanthemum vulgare were first cultivated, the idea was to make them even whiter so they can shine like little moons in the gardens at night. It is a fitting and horrible analogy: men wanting to create flowers to their taste and men wanting to design women to their taste. Thus, the color white in Une femme douce is also a kind of fantasy. It derives from a man experiencing the death of his wife. It’s the man who tells her story. It’s his interpretation that fails. It is he who stays behind suffering from the dying of light. It is he who has to recognize that it was his doing. 
I have to recollect. This image of lost flowers at the wayside. The coldness in which the daisies are thrown away. The indifference of everything that appears on the surface. Maybe those flowers display something else. Yes, it might just be. In some sense they are the cracks that appear in our daily life, they are a reminder of the feelings we try to hide. The tender feelings and the cruel feelings. Both. If we somehow manage to not ignore those flowers and to pay attention to what they say, we might just feel something even if nobody wants us to.  
“I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it,
Because to think is to not understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren’t well)
But to look at it and to be in agreement.”
―Fernando Pessoa


ColumnsRobert BressonFull BloomIllustrations
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