Even by director Robert Bresson’s exacting, idiosyncratic standards, his 1974 Lancelot du Lac is a peculiar film. The picture begins with a shot unlike anything he had put on celluloid before. Two knights, clad in armor from head to toe, are battling with swords; no sooner has the viewer registered this action than one of the knights slashes the other’s head off—neatly, with no apparent effort. The beheaded knight instantly crumples and hits the ground, blood spurting furiously from his neck.
The image is profoundly grotesque, largely because the effect is so conventionally unconvincing. It seems there’s some sort of dummy, or automaton, inside that suit of armor as it crumples. One block of white, meant perhaps to represent the severed spine, is visible in the center of the neck as the blood hisses out—there’s no flesh or sine to be seen. In its way, this, one of several shots of wounded, blood-spurting knights, is a highly stylized depiction of slaughter. Then again, Bresson was never a realist, anyway.
After a shot of a sword doing violence to the instruments of the Eucharist, Bresson cuts to a representation of the Holy Grail, and as an uncharacteristically rousing pipes-and-drum musical theme by Phillipe Sarde plays, a text provides back story. The compact clumps of awful violence we’ve just seen comprise, it turns out, Bresson’s depiction of the failed Grail quest. (One is reminded of a story Bernardo Bertolucci told of Bresson’s ill-fated collaboration with mega-producer Dino di Laurentis for the Genesis episode of the latter’s abortive Bible project. Having assembled an entire menagerie, presumably for a Noah’s Ark sequence, di Laurentis gloated to the director that he, Dino di Laurentis, was finally bringing some production value to Bressonian cinema. Bresson, in turn, surveyed the animals and said, “All you will see are their footprints in the sand.” In Bertolucci’s version, di Laurentis fired Bresson the next day.) From this point on, we join Arthur’s knights, now a tenth of their original force, as they return to their king—and his queen, Guinevere—and seek some sort of purpose in the wake of their failure.
The haggard-looking Lancelot (Luc Simon), in his first meeting with lover Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas), solemnly confides to her that, having seen but not possessed the Grail, he swore to God to forsake her. While accepting his tale, she refuses to accept his vow, but won’t actually do anything about it. Nobody does much of anything for quite a while. Lancelot paces quite a bit. His fellow knights gaze at the moon and seem close to placing bets on whether a cloud is about to overpower its light. Frightened horses whinny. Sometimes Bresson offers close-ups of their eyes, sometimes of their hooves. “God is not a trophy you can bring home,” Guinevere says. But where is God? What does He want? And is earthly love worth forswearing in his name? As these questions weigh heavily on the knights (who clank around in their armor most of the time), Lancelot du Lac casts a maddening spell. Of all the casts Bresson ever assembled for a film, this one is the most exquisitely inexpressive. Duke Condominas (the daughter of the great writer Harry Mathews—there’s a definite familial resemblance there—and the artist Nikki de Saint Phalle), with her fine features and milky skin is a supernaturally beautiful blank.
So too is the delicate, saintly Gawain, played by Humbert Balsan (who subsequently became a prominent art film producer, and whose suicide in 2005 devastated his colleagues and temporarily derailed the making of Bela Tarr’s The Man From London).
To break the knights out of their entropy, a tournament is engaged. In the meantime, a rival knight discovers Guinevere’s scarf, left in the hayloft where she and Lancelot rendezvous. Recriminations and backbiting ensue. None of this, of course, is conveyed in a way that suggests Bresson is hurtling towards a furious climax. While the scarf and other objects are portrayed with a near-numinosity, what they represent as plot points are blind alleys, and what the film builds to is a fragmented, unforgettable battle scene that, combined with the narrative elisions and "unestablished" spaces that preceded it, perhaps represents the apotheosis of what Kristin Thompson calls Bresson’s “sparse parametric” style. And a coda that’s a thoroughly pessimistic as anything in film, or any other art for that matter.
The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD presents a pretty handsome transfer of the film, with mostly excellent approximations of cinematographer Pasqualino di Santis’ muted but definite colors. Some video noise is evident in certain backgrounds, but nothing too egregious. No extras here, just a cinematic experience of surpassing wonder and strangeness.