Une femme douce (1969)
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Dominique Sanda, Guy Frangin
Runtime: 88 minutes
My Rating: ★★★1/2
In Short: Frigid and emotionless; steeped in Bresson’s trademark misery
They are possibly one of the most miserable married couples in the history of film. Certainly there have been couples more desperate, more terrified, more exhausted and more spiteful, but no marriage in the movies seemed as utterly frigid and emotionless as that of Elle and Luc in Robert Bresson’s Une femme douce, the follow-up to Mouchette, which lacks the raw power and beauty of its predecessor, but is more modern and feels less dated.
One critic in describing the film said that “Dominique Sanda gives a powerhouse performance.” He obviously hadn’t seen much Bresson at the time. Robert Bresson was well-known for telling his actors not to “act,” but to read their lines without emotion, grounding his characters in what Bresson saw as the bitter cynicism of reality. Sanda gives an impressive performance, I’ll agree, but it is not particularly moving. She is the sort of woman we pity more than anything else. And this is where the film loses what could have made it great. Unlike the heroines of The Trial of Joan of Arc, Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette, there is no sympathy for Elle, who as a woman is almost unlikable.
Bresson does not blame the husband, but the marriage itself. As a concept, he regards it with bitterness and distaste. In the film’s opening minutes, we learn of Elle’s suicide and Luc tells of the events that lead to it, but we sense in his voice and the words that he speak that he is a stupid person. Throughout the film, he’s too idiotic – or perhaps just apathetic – to realize that his wife is undergoing serious mental turmoil. She is depressed. If Nadine Nortier in Mouchette had grown up to become a woman, she would probably be something like Elle.
Elle is stuck in a loveless marriage, and her suicide is her final escape into freedom. Or Bresson tries to make it look so, but I don’t quite buy it. It was wise of Bresson not to use the suicide as the climax of the film, and while he is explicitly clear about what led to it, the act itself seems somewhat unimpressive. Suicide should not be the only way a woman in a marriage can achieve freedom, and I dislike the way Bresson emphasises her self-inflicted death as an entrance into martyrdom. It just doesn’t feel right.
That said, Elle’s story is compelling enough, and Sanda is excellent in portraying the inner emotional turmoil that is tearing her apart. The film’s strong middle section relies on subtlety and carefulness in displaying her self-destruction, and not a single scene is overplayed. Though of course, Sanda’s fantastic performance is not enough to give her character any sympathy, and by the end I was almost glad she was gone. Bresson is wise in showing us the suicide at the start of the film, and this is more of a movie about what leads to it than the act itself. There are many moving scenes showing us Elle’s self-contained strife and mental abuse and Luc’s ignorance and powerlessness, but one question kept rising in my head throughout the movie’s second half: “Have they not heard of divorce?”
Previous Films in the Bresson-athon:
Les anges du peche (1943)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)