Craft & Cutting: On Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974)

A stylized shot from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac", portraying the king, queen, and standing soldiers.

Sometimes, what’s needed is a change of pace. Or, on top of that, scenery: not too long ago I visited good friends several states over and found that the new environment (along with the crisp Atlantic wind on the shore an hour or so before sunset; as well as the balm of almost exceedingly gracious hospitality) did wonders in clearing my mind of its emotional fog, gathered in the midst of some not insignificant personal changes. In a similar way, having so far reneged on a promised review for the previous month, I decided to quit banging my head against the many obstructions barring me from completing the piece and simply try another film to respond to. Thankfully, the decision ended up reaping double the reward, as I was fortunate enough to find two films (one deliberately, the other by chance) to reflect upon. Even better, I found each of them to be marked by their own richly variegated sense of beauty, with one perhaps bringing to the viewer a more uncomplicated impression of such, especially when observed beside the other (although it is not necessarily the better work for it); which, for me, at least, proved compensation enough for all the lack of recent days…

On Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974)

The violence that opens the film will, of course, be mirrored in the end. It is portrayed in graphic detail, with the distance one might expect from Robert Bresson. It is austere, yes, and almost hilariously so: can a beheading, complete with a great spurt of too-red blood, be shown more matter-of-factly? The sequence is mechanical in its depiction: armored knights in a forest slay each other, and ride their steeds through the same forest. Corpses are strung up on trees, or burned, and churches ransacked. Bresson’s camera drives these faceless warriors again and again through the backdrop of their carnage. The repetitions seem to set up the inevitability dogging the film’s primary characters, who should be familiar to anyone acquainted with Arthurian lore. And the trees, which vertically stake the frame together—their tightness creating a cloistering effect for the figures within—will echo throughout the film in the reappearance of other lines, among which those aforementioned figures continually stare, as if entranced by the narrative they cannot help but dutifully enact.

A shot from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac", portraying the skeletons (in armor) of hanged men.

Lancelot and Guinevere and Arthur, you likely know. Gawain and Mordred, as well. Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake) is the doomed union of the first two, re-imagined by Bresson, and to say that the film is a clinic in cinematic control is an understatement. The famed restraint of Bresson is used to marvelous effect even in the portrayal of chivalric romance; and perhaps in doing so finds a natural home there. It may or may not be a fully Modernized version of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle—it even begins with a dire prophecy uttered by an old woman about death coming to a man (revealed to be Lancelot) who follows the sound of his own steps—but it cannot totally resist disenchantment, either. Merlin, for instance, is gone, and more psychological rationales are given for why characters behave in the ways that they do, as opposed to the dictates of Fate or magic, or God, despite Him being invoked often. The curse of Lancelot and Guinevere’s forbidden tryst, and the inability of the Knights to acquire the Grail, might simply be the result of relational fissures between bloody-minded men (who find themselves hovering beneath the lighted window of a beautiful queen, distant and alone and therefore a target) rather than divine wrath. That Robert Bresson includes this alternative adds a certain depth to this otherwise simple narrative.

But where God is absent, there is always Bresson: one of the chief strengths of Lancelot du Lac is just how well the director’s cinematic philosophy harmonizes with what’s onscreen. Emotions, in this romance, actually blossom the more they are blockaded: watch the scenes between Lancelot and Guinevere, and how the tug-and-release of their words and the simple choreography (steps towards and away from each other; the importuning of hands) Bresson strings them along gives the viewer more than enough to work with.

A shot from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac", depicting the queen getting her hand taken.

Their stiffness cannot help but be overpowered by the greater meaning surrounding them and even the simplest stare becomes loaded with yearning, reluctance, affection, bitterness, etc. And when human voices don’t suffice, the choice to fill the screen with the quivering eye of a horse captures what might really be the terrible panic struggling inside all those breastplates and cuissards.

A shot from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac", depicting a close-up of a horse's eye.Bresson, throughout, not only isolates the essential, but repeats it. As mentioned before, the trees keep reappearing in the form of other lines: bars, tent flaps, walls, posts, flags. Blades. The characters move across, and are separated by, these angularities, so that even two characters sharing the same space onscreen might feel even more distant from each other than we are from them.

Two knights in conversation from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac".

Is this not a deliberate choice on the part of Bresson to constantly remind his viewer of framing, and the inherent artifice of the medium? (For it is always artifice at work, untrained actors or not. Don’t those silent, black-clothed servants moving in and out of screen, carrying water or assisting knights onto horses, resemble stagehands setting up the scenery of a play?) He also focuses on feet, and the movement—stripped of identity, it is purely their passage from one point to the next that’s paramount—they compel across the screen, whether for men or horses.

Horses' legs amidst those of people in Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac".Actions, too, keep repeating themselves (this being one of the primary techniques utilized for the great joust sequence about halfway in) all the way till the very end, when Arthur and Lancelot and the other knights are slaughtered in mortal combat against Mordred, who also perishes. Not even the greatest of them can escape what has been set up from the beginning, and Robert Bresson’s pitiless cutting, his mechanical repetitions (a pitilessness and mechanicalness often called, by his venerators, “holiness” for the purity of its communicative efficiency) seems to tell us that we know this story, we’ve seen it all before—and he knows that we know. All this, married to a script shorn of all dialogical excess, and you end up with Bresson at heights only a few filmmakers are capable of achieving.

A shot of an occluded character in a tent from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac".

Perhaps it is these purposeful visual refrains that inspire aesthetic appreciation in me (if beauty is, when it comes to Bresson, too over-used a modifier). For all the bloodshed and monotone deliveries, excellence of craft overwhelms. Even something as mundane as the obnoxiously loud clanking of armor whenever the knights mill about their camp serves to remind the viewer of both the faithful realism and blatant artifice of Bresson’s project.

While others might cringe from the usage of “beautiful” to describe this piece from late Bresson, it’d be much more difficult to do so with the next film in question…

To be continued…

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More from Ezekiel Yu: Some Stuff to Say: Reviewing Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973), Vanishing Act: Review of Christopher Nolan’s “Following” (1998)Child Be Strange: On Alan Clarke’s “Penda’s Fen” (1974)

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