Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Lancelot du lac (Bresson, 1974)

Robert Bresson confounds me. I've loved and/or admired every film of his that I've seen, and yet there's probably no director whose output I'm less willing to discuss. Bresson makes me feel small as a cinephile, for any semi-decent commentary on his films requires an engagement with the formal aspects of his craft (for Bresson's techniques are surely amongst cinema's most distinct?), and I'm simply not well-versed enough in film-school language to comment on that. But y'know what? Fuck it. I love Lancelot du lac and I'm going to quickly attempt to explain why, so stick with me on this and then enlighten me with more intellectual thoughts, please.

Unsurprisingly, the most striking element of Lancelot du lac is its visual style. Bresson's subdued, metallic palette dominates every frame to the point where the presence of colour is rendered almost a novelty. His unique coloration thus serves as an apt metaphor for the lives of his disillusioned knights, whose failed quest for the Holy Grail has degraded them into a group of factioning marauders so consumed by their individual desires that they've lost a sense of their own humanity. It's a sign of the director's neverending genius when one realises that the film's most glaring use of a bright schema comes with the unrealistic reds spilt during bloodshed (which begins in the very opening sequence) - its artificiality reflecting the characters' own, and tellingly highlighting the fallibility of their armour. Lancelot du lac from the outset then, reveals itself as a demythologizing of Arthurian legend that deprives its characters of their heroism and subsequently frees them from a filmic convention that dictates romanticism is the only way to depict their tale.

The culmination of this unique approach is a jousting tournament that functions as the film's most action-filled sequence, with a Bressonian spin on events of course. He chooses to film most of these jousts from the neck down, focusing primarily on movement and reaction (from the bystanders and the injured.) The editing of the sequence draws attention to the fragmented nature of his shot-making, which denies its audience the privilege of knowing character identities. The issue of identity is further compounded by the aforementioned armour - a costume that's seemingly used by its owners as a status symbol, judging by the rarity of any moments without the disguise. Do these characters even know themselves, or has the legend of the Round Table infiltrated their own mindsets to the point where they define themselves by it and it alone? In the titular character's case, the armour is symbolic of the barrier that stands between him and Guinevere. Only with its removal is he able to allow himself to love, but the expectations of his peers prevents such hope.

Personality is an alien concept in the world that Bresson has created for us. His much-remarked use of actors as 'models' has accordingly never been so appropriate. And yet, despite the film's overt formalism, Lancelot is far from being devoid of emotion. Although the actors lack in this department, their deficits are the audience's gain for the tragedy of the film is all the more vital as a result of its characters' helplessness in the face of the drama. As is customary with Bresson, there is an intense spiritual vein that permeates the film, with the search for the Holy Grail symbolizing a search for God - but as Guinevere notes, "God isn't a trophy to take home." The emptiness performed by the models is more than a gimmick on Bresson's part, it's a filmic articulation of the characters' desolation, arising from their incapacity to realize this statement. Their religosity has been compromised by attempts to subvert their Christianity into a weapon of destruction. Thus, there's a sobering sense of irony when they pose the question: "Why has God forsaken us?", failing to realize their own complicity in this dilemma. Bresson deconstructs these larger-than-life characters down to their fundamental cores, substituting their valiance for ethereal ignorance, before reconstructing them as pawns in a critical study of humankind. When the film concludes with an image of the damning resolution to these conflicts - [Spoiler:] a cluttered heap of broken bodies on the forest floor - it's as if Bresson is daring us to contemplate how this all occurred. The answer, we can infer, may have something to do with our inability to understand the myths that we revere.

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