Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lancelot du Lac (Bresson, 1974)

Remarkably lacking in passion, charisma, or anything resembling a dramatic or philosophical purpose, Robert Bresson’s take on the tales of the Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot du Lac, is an astonishingly unappealing film from a director that is certainly capable of greatness. With Pickpocket and A Man Escaped, Bresson was able to use a minimalist aesthetic in order to bring his themes into sharp focus and create a high sense of tension. Unfortunately, Bresson’s trademark style is a rather awkward mismatch with this particular tale that simply starves from an utter lack of romanticism.

As best I can tell, Bresson’s goal here was to pare away many years of baggage associated with the Arthurian legends and find the story’s essence beneath the mystique. A worthwhile purpose in theory, I suppose. However, Bresson’s way of accomplishing this task is to cast some of the most lifeless actors imaginable and asking them to step into the roles of knights and royalty. It seems apparent that Bresson has coaxed his actors to disregard anything resembling an emotional impulse. No one raises his voice. No one seduces her lover with soothing tones. No one sheds a tear or even breaks a smile. There is a fine line between controlled, economical acting and flat-out bad acting. Bresson’s ensemble unfortunately lands on the wrong side of this balance, contributing to an experience that fails to engage the viewer because it has very little to do with humanity.

Lancelot du Lac’s troubles most likely stem directly from the screenplay which does little more than reiterate narrative events from the Arthurian legends without adding any kind of insight, analysis or style. This kind of approach worked with Pickpocket because it provided Bresson an opportunity to dissect an invisible world of crime. It worked with A Man Escaped because the source tale was so unique and compelling that adornment was indeed entirely superfluous. However, with Lancelot du Lac, the result is disastrous. With Arthur, Lancelot and the rest reduced to overwhelming ordinariness, why should we care about their petty love affairs, their jealous rivalries or their quixotic quest for an unattainable relic? Is it possible to take these characters seriously as ‘real people’? It seems to me that part of the joy of other renditions of these tales is in the storytelling aspect. It allows a gifted artist or orator an opportunity to transport us to a different world or thrill us with great adventures and excite us with tales of passion. Bresson strings together a series of events, but has no story, no philosophy, no guiding purpose.

My guess it that Bresson’s purpose was to make a film that left little imprint from its director and instead immersed the viewer in a pure, naturalistic experience. However, Bresson’s dreary version of realism is just as much of a stylistic choice as the anarchic absurdity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In other films, the Bresson imprint has resulted in a thoroughly satisfying cinematic experience. With Lancelot du Lac, it results in a bizarre artistic misfire in which none of the participants seem the least bit interested.



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