“Only the conflicts that take place inside the characters give a film its real movement.”
– Robert Bresson (1)
“Destiny is tragic but I prefer a fate we choose to one forced upon us.”
-Agnès (Elina Labourdette) in Robert Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
For Bresson, as Marvin Zeman puts it, life consists of a gradual unveiling of what we have been predestined to (2). The drama in Bresson’s films is about the predicament of character – whether these figures will “choose” what is predestined or not. For this minimalistic filmmaker, a character’s internal battle, in negotiating with the inevitable, was what provided the main impetus of his films. His preoccupation with predestination can probably be substantially attributed to his paradoxical identity of a Catholic non-believer: in Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962), Joan of Arc (Florence Delay) surrenders herself to her fate; in Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Balthazar, the donkey passively accepts ill treatment; and in Pickpocket (1959), Michel (Martin LaSalle) finds redemption from his criminal career and realises his love for Jeanne (Marika Green) only after being incarcerated. Bresson eschews a psychological logic to the motives and actions of his characters; instead they are lead by a destiny that stands mapped out for them. In Pickpocket, Michael says to Jeanne from his prison cell, “what a strange road I had to take to find you”.
Bresson’s second feature (in a career of thirteen), Les dames du Bois de Boulogne is loosely based on a segment of the novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796) by the French philosopher Denis Diderot, a writer who ruminated over ideas of free will and determinism. The film directly lunges into the thick of the action without first parlaying the “cause”. Hélène (an exquisitely subtle and gloriously riveting María Casares), a wealthy Parisian, is being warned by a friend that her partner Jean (Paul Bernard) probably does not love her any more. Hélène decides to uncover the truth behind this and tricks Jean into believing that her love for him has worn out. Deceived into believing Hélène’s words, Jean expresses relief and confesses his sense of fatigue at nurturing a dying feeling. This revelation makes Hélène bitter and she plans her revenge. She manipulates Jean into marrying Agnès, a former prostitute (Bois de Boulogne was a red light district in Paris and the film’s title references both Agnès and her mother).
Les dames du Bois de Boulogne is a cautionary tale woven into a revenge narrative in the form of an existential melodrama. The film can be read as a misogynist tale that stages a warning for men in heterosexual relations about the venomous fangs of a jilted woman. At the climax of the film Hélène tells Jean that he’s married a cabaret dancer, a tramp. “You don’t seem to realise where a woman’s scorn can lead”, says Hélène with a triumphant gleam in her eyes. The revenge story perfectly adheres to the conventions of the form (save the last scene in which Jean goes back to the weak hearted Agnès who is on the verge of death), including such aspects as: the contrast of Hélène (the victim)’s suffering against Jean (the victimiser)’s apathy; the revelation of Jean’s exploitation of Hélène’s weakness for him used as a means of meeting another woman; Hélène’s decision that she will counter this injustice through the hurt and humiliation meted out to her victimiser; and an ending that reasserts that Hélène, the victim, refuses to be victimised any longer. However, this revenge narrative does not continue for the entire length of the film. It cracks from the point when Jean decides to rush back to his wife and begs her to fight death and “stay” with him, revealing melodrama in all its colour: Jean is faced with questions of morality; Agnès, the “good prostitute” is ready to forego her life in order to save her husband’s honour; Jean, in a show of “character” (contrasted against vicious and conniving Hélène) embraces his duty as a husband and “accepts” his “tainted” wife. After a turbulent eruption of emotions, Agnès, in her white bridal dress, symbolizing chastity, gives a beatific smile and in a saintly demeanour says, “I’ll stay”. The characters having gone through their moral dilemmas, emerge victorious and redeemed of their sins – Agnès comes out with the truth about her identity and seeks Jean’s forgiveness; Jean evokes the bond of holy matrimony between them. Jean then assumes the role of the husband as commander and protector of his wife. “You are my wife… Stay with me. That’s an order. You can’t disobey,” he tells her when she’s drifting towards death. As in many melodramas, the status quo is restored at the end of Les dames du Bois de Boulogne – the “wayward” woman (Agnès) is brought under the disciplined code allotted to a wife, and good triumphs over evil as Hélène’s plan to crush Jean is defeated and Jean learns the true worth love and responsibility.
Despite its happy ending, the film seems to be shrouded in melancholy, in the tragedy of destiny that Agnès refers to in the film (quoted at the start of this essay). In Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, as in most of Bresson’s films, there is an existential angst that guides the inner movement of the characters. They can only choose what is their fate. Even though Hélène appears to move Paul and Agnès like pawns on a chessboard, her control over events is a mere illusion to her and to the audience. Jean is not punished because he chooses to embrace his fate rather than fight it.
The emotional trajectory of the story offers itself to be read as a melodrama. However, the austerity and what critics have called Bresson’s pursuit of spiritual asceticism never lets there be any visible excess. Each object, face or hand in his frames is chosen with a surgeon’s precision so that a minimalist image is able to be a reservoir of complex meaning. The chilling calm with which the characters move through situations of emotional upheaval makes it possible for the audience to uncover a reality that they cannot see, moving beyond exterior meaning. This is the last of Bresson’s films in which he used professional actors. The calm of Les dames du Bois de Boulogne turns into a deadpan monotone in his later films, the dialogue – no longer lyrical like that penned by Jean Cocteau for this film – becomes minimal, failing to take the slightest of poetic detours. Les dames du Bois de Boulogne is a distinct film in Bresson’s oeuvre as it displays the setting in – before the transcendental, ascetic exploration of the human predicament completely took over – of the director’s trademark style.
Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945 France 86 mins)
Prod Co: Les Films Raoul Ploquin Prod: Raoul Ploquin Dir: Robert Bresson Scr: Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau (dialogue), based on a section of the Denis Diderot’s novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître Phot: Philippe Agostini Ed: Jean Fyte Art Dir: Max Douy, Robert Lavallée Mus: Jean-Jacques Grünenwald
Cast: María Casares, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette, Lucienne Bogaert, Jean Marchat, Yvette Etiévant