Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is fixed in history as not just the second feature film by Robert Bresson, but as one of those movies that heralded an austere, modernistic way of seeing and feeling. But not even Bresson, in 1944, knew that he was bound to become the author of Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Au hazard Balthazar, Mouchette, and so on. No one knew which way the wind would blow. And close attention to Les Dames reveals much that is unexpected or uncharacteristic—at the 1977 Bresson tribute at London’s National Film Theatre, it was seen as “an un-Bressonian film.” So it’s worth concentrating on the reality of 1944 if one wants to get the most out of this extraordinary film—and to see where Bresson was going.
Robert Bresson then was in the prime of life. Putting it that way is not just to get past the image of the ancient, white-haired ascetic (the dead master even); it’s a way of noting that the women in Les Dames are photographed with something like the affection, or the sensuality even, that one knows from Max Ophuls, from Renoir or Howard Hawks. There is even a shot of Agnès (Élina Labourdette) trying on earrings, looking at herself in the mirror, watched by her mother (Lucienne Bogaert), that has a heady, casual eroticism in the faces, the jewels, the bits of décor, the glamour of reflection, and the soft focus of the burnished glass. It could be a moment from Max Ophuls—or Jacques Demy (Labourdette, ravishing as the mothered Agnès in Les Dames, would be just as glorious and insecure as the mother in Lola, and surely Demy felt that in his casting.)
Another way of stressing how up-to-date Bresson was in 1944 is to observe that the cinematography (by Philippe Agostini) feels so fresh, so pearly—like the caramel crisp on top of a crème brulée. In other words—and this is to depart from the legend of Bresson as far as possible—this is a film full of sensationalism and emotion. It can only have been the obstacles of an ongoing war that stopped Hollywood from scooping up that Bresson guy to do the next Joan Crawford picture.
Unthinkable? Look at this movie, feel the passion for melodrama in its glimpse of the real Bois de Boulogne. Absorb the rain and treasure the moods of a real Paris in that moment between Boudu Saved from Drowning and Bob le Flambeur. Consider the story, lifted intact from Diderot’s novel, Jacques le fataliste, made into a scenario by Bresson, but given elegance in the aphoristic dialogue by Jean Cocteau. Hélène (Maria Casarès) loves Jean (Paul Bernard). Indeed, she is obsessed with him, as Maria Casarès’ stare tells everyone except Jean. He has grown bored with her (“Bored with me?!”—you can see Crawford’s eyes flare). So Hélène plots vengeance. She finds Agnès, a cabaret dancer (just as in Hollywood of that age, that occupation, and Labourdette’s bare-legged somersaults in a froth of tulle and silk, are metaphors for prostitution).
She sets Agnès and her mother up so Jean will meet her. He falls for her. There is a marriage—a society affair—for Paul and Hélène are clearly classy figures. Only then does Hélène tell Paul, you’ve married a slut. He should have measured a woman’s scorn. He is devastated—but as you see and feel the film don’t be surprised if there’s a sublime vindication of love, more typical of Paramount than real life.
On the other hand, just notice how stark this film can be when it comes to its climax, the moment at which Hélène reveals her subterfuge and her malice and Paul is overwhelmed by it. The entire scene is kept fiercely confined. Paul’s car cannot quite escape from the grisly marriage—for Hélène cuts off his escape. There is then a superb, distilled set-up, seen from one side of Paul’s car, looking out through the far window at the balefully triumphant Hélène. Again, Paul tries to escape, he maneuvers his car but he keeps coming back to the same bleak confrontation. This happens several times, with a dreadful sense of claustrophobia, of nightmare even. An Ophuls, a Michael Curtiz, would have flung the camera, the cars, the stars, and the music around—think of Lana Turner cracking up in her car in The Bad and the Beautiful. But already, in 1944, the sensualist in Bresson has seen the power in distillation, enclosure, and a simplification that might become habit. The sound of the car’s engine, the frantic moves, and the implacable composition are all working towards a greater concentration still. In other words, the idea of being morally trapped or confined—of imprisonment—is coming to the surface. And that growing enclosure, as well as the framework of cars, will be dominant themes in the Bresson we now know from what was still his future.
And here, I think, we come to the stunning novelty of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne in 1944. For this is a movie in which one can feel the urge of melodrama to turn into abstraction. So, every time Bresson uses mood music (a very romantic score by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald), tracking shots, and pans to open up that off-screen space he will be so famous for omitting, and every time he resorts to the conventions of terrific acting, you can feel him identifying line, form, and self-denial within the scene. There’s a moment when Paul visits Agnès’ apartment. In her absence, he looks at the rooms and the places as shrines of her emotional life. This is fulsomely done—in Paul’s dialogue, camera moves, music, and décor. And you can feel the film flinching, as if to say—too much, just Paul, his glance, the place, leave out the words and the music. It’s as if we were watching Picasso still working in the Blue period, but beginning to be possessed by Cubism.
There are those who have said they prefer the richness of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne to later Bresson. That’s going far too far: this is a melodrama in the end, a kind of Les Liaisons dangereuses update before that ploy was fashionable. The spirituality of the ending here is a little applied, a little notional. For that to work, Bresson had to find the distilled style of the later, greater works. But Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is a fascinating turning point, one on which you can hear a great artist’s mind creaking—with alteration, but with discovery, too. It’s a moment in which the necessity of doing less begins to be imperative.
David Thomson is the author of Showman, the definitive biography of David O. Selznick, and of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (the fourth edition), published in October 2002.