Bresson-athon #11: Lancelot of the Lake (1974) ★★★1/2

Lancelot of the Lake (1974)

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Luc Simon, Humbert Balsan

Runtime: 85 minutes

My Rating: ★★★1/2

In Short: Brutal, dark and unflinching; a cynical take on a popular legend 

First of all, before I start this review, I’d like to apologise for the lateness of it, and how slack I have been with posting these reviews. If any of you have been actually following my reviews of Robert Bresson films, you’ll notice that I’ve gone from posting them weekly to posting them monthly. To illustrate this point, this is the eleventh film in the marathon, a marathon which started in January. The film I’m reviewing today, Lancelot of the Lake, I saw way back on the 24th of January, thinking I’d be reviewing it in a couple of months at the most. The wait has been much longer, so you’ll excuse if my memory of the movie is a little foggy. Also, the film that Bresson directed after it, called The Devil, Probably is the only Bresson film I haven’t seen and cannot find. So you’ll have to excuse me for not reviewing it. Next week I’ll be skipping to the film after it, Bresson’s final film L’Argent, which will close the marathon. Now that all that’s out of the way, let’s continue with the review.

Films set in Camelot during the time of King Arthur often glamourise it, making it an exciting place of knights who joust for glory and fight for their country. Sure, some of them die, but the big and famous knights always pull through to fight another day, in the name of their King. Now, this is fairytale stuff. You know it, I know it, and Robert Bresson certainly knew it. Employing non-actors and cautioning them to not try and act for even a second, he crafted one of the most bitter and cynical looks at a time in history that was anything but glamorous. It was bloody, it was hopeless, and it was a mess. ‘Jousting,’ the famous form of fighting for sport, was little more than barbarism, maiming and killing. To put your trust in a friend was foolish as everyone was forced to fight for their own lives, and very few got out unscathed.

Lancelot of the Lake begins with the few surviving knights from a long and bloody quest being ruthlessly murdered. Thus any hope the audience had that the film might be their story is dashed. The story then shifts to follow Lancelot and his good friend Gawain, as they learn the news that Camelot’s famous “round table” is to be abandoned, simply because many of the people who have seats reserved there have been killed. Lost and disillusioned, Lancelot believes the failure of Camelot is a punishment for his affair with King Arthur’s wife, Lady Guinevere. However, Lancelot’s attempts to break it off prove futile, as she is determined in her love for him. Another problem is the knight Mordred, who is Lancelot’s biggest enemy, and whom despite Lancelot’s vow of pacifism, inspires with him the urge to commit violence.

This leads us to the film’s best sequence, also one of its most bleak and real. This is a jousting competition, in which a disguised Lancelot defeats all of the enemies thrown at him, suffering greatly in the process. The sequence may sound thrilling and action-filled, but Bresson manages to correctly show jousting for what it really is, which is certainly nothing thrilling. Monotonous fanfare constantly rings in the ears of the competitors as they lunge at each other, poking and stabbing, in fits of controlled insanity. The sequence is not as bloody as other parts of the movie, but in my eyes it is one of the most horrific scenes Bresson ever directed, as cold and shockingly real as one could hope for it to be. Bresson presents jousting as a child’s game, played by adults with weapons capable of easily wounding someone severely or more often killing them.The outcome is not pleasant for either party.

If you think this sounds like a pessimistic and heartless scene, then believe me it is only one of many. As the poster at the top of this page so acutely sums up, the ancient times of Camelot are little more than a shameful, shameful era consisting of unwarranted and unnecessary brutality. It’s hard to disagree with Bresson, because he never overdoes his violence in this film – it is used sparingly and effectively, to prove a point and never to just be excessive. And in a world where all the best films about the era are still far from perfect, it’s refreshing to see a film that treats war in this time with such honesty. Why other directors choose to glorify it is a mystery to me. The only reason I have given this film three and a half stars out of five instead of something higher is because it is very difficult to watch and almost impossible to connect with, though it can be forgiven for this due to that being part of the film’s whole argument. Lancelot of the Lake is far from Bresson’s best film, or even one of them, but it shows the director still has an ability to showcase his trademark style and realism in different genres, as well as different periods of history.

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Posted on May 16, 2012, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. The last time I saw this (a couple of years ago) I found I disliked it less than I did on my first viewing (what a positive relationship I have with Bresson), but I still have a fundamental problem with it, i.e. that very realism you praise. I don’t really see that mythic tales such as the Arthurian legends are well served by “realistic” treatments, because they’re not “realistic” historical stories, they are mythical. I was bothered by that Tristan & Isolde film a few years ago for similar reasons; trying to depict these stories without recognising the element of fantasy in them just seems contrary and pointless to me.

    • I like what you’re saying. I agree the idea behind the historical stories of Camelot are mythical at best, but I like to look at the film as a critique on the “fairytale treatment” that this mythical time seems to get so often. The bitter realism of this film can be applied to any and all wars or times of brutal history, rather than just Camelot. Put simply, Lancelot of the Lake is little more than an effective and inspired anti-war movie, in my opinion.

      • It’s also a film against the falsity of mythologizing any aspect of reality. But James’ point is interesting… did Bresson overdo it in his obsession with “truth”?

        • Perhaps Bresson did overdo it. I think he did that a lot towards the end of his career… his films became less accessible because his style was so driven and determined to present events so dryly and unemotionally. Sometimes it works in the favour of the film but perhaps he didn’t quite hit the mark with Lancelot of the Lake.

  2. Christian Hallbeck

    To me, the reason why “L’Argent” is a masterpiece and the preceding four films aren’t, is that it doesn’t portray human emotions, but actions: a series of events that lead to an outburst of emotion at the end; that is convincing, because it’s a true, non-suppressed emotion. (That’s also the reason why the battle scenes in “Lancelot du Lac” are so good.)Bresson’s style of non-expression in the former four films was a failure in my opinion. I still find “The Devil Probably” unwatchable.

    • Yes, Bresson’s style of focusing his camera on action rather than emotion is definitely part of what separates him from other directors and also a key part of his greatness. However, from Une Femme Douce onwards, his films seemed to dig deeper into this sort of “emotionless documentation of action” that many viewers found unwatchable, and I think lets many of these films down (L’Argent is the only post-Mouchette movie of his I’ve liked).

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