Robert Bresson’s Arthurian Lancelot du Lac, from Chrétien de Troyes, was meant to follow immediately Diary of a Country Priest (1950); by the time Bresson realized his dream project nearly a quarter-century later, his work had passed from black and white into color—color, here, rich, mysterious, hauntingly beautiful.
Still, this isn’t a period film in which viewers “lose themselves.” One always hears a Bresson film as much as sees it, giving it immediacy. This time, it isn’t jangling jail cells or shuffling clogs or street traffic that we hear. It is alienating clanking armor, clashing swords, pounding hoofbeats. The film opens at night in the forest, and two armored men are wielding swords at one another—doubtless with skill, but also with difficulty. This is heavy combat. One prevails by slicing off his opponent’s head. Bresson creates, amplifies the sound of gushing blood, which we also see soaking the ground. Hero? Villain? Which is which? The two men look identical, and life is over so quickly. War’s trappings have changed; war has remained constant. King Arthur’s reign is coming to a sad, bitter close.
Some of us learned about adultery, before we had a word for it, from Arthurian tales and films. Adultery absolutely fits in a world geared for war. Corrupt, it is, ironically, a reach for some antidote to corruption. Knights wear armor indoors in Bresson’s film to convey not just their vulnerability but also the burden of bloodshed into which they are locked. They hide their corruption, deceiving themselves, others, no one. Poor Gauvain so wants to continue revering Lancelot and Guenièvre and disastrously keeps defending them.
Time passes all by. But these characters are also right here, along with their legacy: the disastrous confusion of idealism and corruption.
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