A million miles away from 'Camelot' or 'Excalibur', this film ruthlessly strips the Arthurian legend down to its barest essentials. Arthur's knights, far from being heroic, are conniving ... See full summary »
A million miles away from 'Camelot' or 'Excalibur', this film ruthlessly strips the Arthurian legend down to its barest essentials. Arthur's knights, far from being heroic, are conniving and greedy men who, just before the film starts, have failed miserably to find the Holy Grail. Aimlessly resentful at first, the developing relationship between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere focuses their rage, leading to inevitable tragedy... Written by
Michael Brooke <email@example.com>
It is my contention that Robert Bresson's films are not so much films as they are philosophical essays stroked out on celluloid. They are often contemplations on the soul, usually of its destruction. His films are highly stylised in that they are without any style at all. Many of the actors he used acted in the film in which he cast them. He left out what would usually be considered key moments in a plot, making them difficult, but always fascinating. He never failed in what he tried to achieve, though that doesn't mean they were all always really that enjoyable, especially If you approach them as you would any other movie anyway. They are an acquired taste, and frankly require a certain degree of intelligence. I don't say that to sound pretentious, but to merely point out the observation that to have to think about something requires a certain amount of intelligence.
In 1974 Bresson applied his philosophic sensibilities to a legendary tale. He took the famous Arthurian story of Lancelot's affair with Arthur's Queen, Guinevere. Of course, everyone knows the story, so I will not bother describing the plot so much as examine how it's executed. Bresson stripped all the lustre and romanticism from the story. Instead, he chose to emphasize the grime and cold-bloodedness. In the opening shot, he has Knights battle each other, hammering their swords against their armour until they strike flesh. Blood pours out like water from a faucet. It is a poignant gesture that Bresson begins (and ends) his film with inexplicable and horrific violence.
Bresson turns ups the sounds of metal scraping on metal as the knights move around. He makes them look almost silly in their shuffling motions. Their pride is a foolish one. Instead of noblemen, Bresson shows them as petty and manipulative. They conspire to kill Lancelot, not by challenging him to a duel, but by waiting for him to exit the Queen's room where, armed or not, they declare he'll be too caught off guard to put up a fight before he is run through. Even Lancelot is ashamed, for he has returned from his quest to find the Holy Grail a failure. His trespasses with the Queen, even if it is true love, are doomed to tragedy because of foolhardy nobility.
Though parts of the film take place in a castle, Bresson wastes no time with an establishing or grandiose shots. Even in battle, most scenes are reactionary. He makes it a point to show the knights lifting and closing their face masks as they speak with one another or prepare for war. The repetition somehow acts almost as satire. I think Bresson recognized the asinine behind the legendry.
Lancelot du Lac was one of Bresson's most abstract films. It was in many ways an exercise in deconstruction that would have done Derrida proud. It obviously must has been quite influential. When I first saw Terrence Malick's The New World, I instantly thought that it must have been influenced in some way by Lancelot du Lac. That film stripped the story of Pocahontas and John Smith to its bare essentials - albeit not to the extent that Bresson goes, but still. There is one scene in The New World which reminded me very much of Lancelot du Lac, the one in which Smith wades through a swampy forest in his clunky armour only to be bested by the nearly nude naturals. He looks foolish trying to navigate and murky forest in such clunky attire. Now whether or not the film was an inspiration or if Malick has even seen it, I cannot confirm (though I suspect he has - his knowledge of cinema is extensive) Bresson often shows his knights gallivanting in the forest, wearing armour as a formal attire in situations that do not require it, other than to shout, "look at me, I am a Knight of King Arthur's Court!." Sure they offer some added protection, but they are still no match for death - as Bresson points out by showing us at the beginning and at the end (purposefully placed no doubt) how blood finds ways to spray from the openings and holes in plates of armour. Their armour is simply a token of their supremacy over the common man.
Lancelot du Lac is Bresson's way of showing us the grandiose self-importance the Knights of King Arthur's Court presented upon themselves, and continues to be placed upon them by fairytale romanticism. When Lancelot asks for help to overcome his temptations from God, it is not for holiness or piety, but his own mortal self-preservation. Their quest for the Grail and their military victories have granted them fame and reputation. They squander what gifts they have been given to defeat one another. On one side, for the sake of Arthur against Lancelot; on the other for the sake of the Queen and Lancelot against everyone else. In the end when Lancelot concedes and returns the Queen to Arthur in exchange for her pardon, a group of Knights turn against the King at his moment of weakness. Now then Lancelot and his men return to fight for Arthur against the usurpers. It is a cycle of battle, or to be more to the point, competition. Throughout the film the Knights are preoccupied with competition in some form - jousting, declaring duels, chess, the love of the queen. They feast on an appetite of destruction.
All is done in the name of Christianity in Arthur's court, but Bresson leaves much of that to subtlety. One shot of Lancelot is framed in the foreground by a crucifix, out of focus on purpose. Guinevere responds that the Knights were looking for God as a trophy - yet God is not a trophy. The Knights have simply taken Christianity as their flag in a battle for self-supremacy, not any theological quest.
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