Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Maria Casares, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette
My Rating: ★★★1/2, or 7/10
In Short: An improvement, but still distractingly flawed and un-Bressonian
Robert Bresson, most well-known for working with non-actors, and forcing them to repeat the same lines over and over again until they’re no longer saying them with any emotion whatsoever, spent his first two feature films working against the type he would later prefer. Les dames du bois de boulogne, his follow-up to 1943’s Les anges du péché, was the second of two films in which he used professional actors, and the last time he would bother with them. Why should he need to? The style of film he prefers is a unique style, that gives his films an almost ghostly feel, and impressively works to their advantage.
With Les dames, he improved on the sub-par Les anges, but still Bresson fans will feel the director being restrained and prevented from exercising full authority over the film. It just doesn’t feel like one of his works. The characters are Bressonian, but the way they act aren’t. This film, the closest Bresson would ever get to noir, is overall unimpressive and lacking.
The film is about Helene, who believes her husband Jean is being unfaithful, and to deceive him she falsely admits that she too has a lover. When he breathes a sigh of relief at this revelation, she quickly realizes her suspicions to be true. To avenge her seething soul and broken heart, she sets him up with Agnes, who used to be a whore but is now attempting to put that behind her and start fresh. Helene’s plan is to get the two to fall and love and marry, and then reveal to Jean the truth about Agnes’ past. The film is clever in that it manages to start off with Helene as the victim and Jean as the antagonist, and quickly reverses these roles, turning Helene into a heartless witch, and Jean and Agnes into her helpless victims.
I feel similarly about this film as I do to Les anges du péché. And that is that it is a decent film, but Bresson should not be directing it. It is completely out of step and tune with his style; it is badly written and a little confusing, and the ending is absolutely pathetic, recycled Hollywood garbage. The film redeems itself with Bresson’s excellent direction and the distinct noir influence that colours the familiar plot. The story is based on a novel by Denis Diderot, and as intriguing as the story is, and as well as it starts off, things turn sour rather quickly.
For all its flaws, I did like Les dames du bois de boulogne, and its condemnation of the middle-class (a subtle factor in the way characters are treated and Helene’s transition into villain) is unique for its time, but there are simply better films than this that have similar plotlines and better actors. I dunno. Perhaps I am just looking for things to shout about. A lot of people do like this movie, and consider it among Bresson’s other work as a more than decent film. I do not. I give it 7/10 because it is interesting and watchable, but difficult to take seriously. It is more like a student film, an early work that only practices techniqus that still needed work. It doesn’t even have the theme of martyrdom and tragedy that was featured in Les anges du péché and would become apparent in almost all of Bresson’s subsequent movies. It is like a career anomaly. Robert Bresson is a great director, but his first two films are not great movies. However, next I will be reviewing Diary of a Country Priest, his first great film and the start of a long chain of masterpieces. Stick around.