LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (Robert Bresson, 1945)

Denis Diderot, whose belief that knowledge is power was the impetus for his Encyclopédie during the Enlightenment, also wrote novels, including Jacques le fataliste (1773; 1796), an episode of which Robert Bresson, updating the plot to the present, adapted as Les dames du Bois de Boulogne. Under a political cloud, Jean Cocteau, who contributed brilliant dialogue, was scapegoated by the press when the film proved financially unsuccessful. Bresson’s first masterpiece—and his last film to use professional actors—is nonetheless a stunning melodrama.
     Either as a preemptive strike or to test his love, Hélène (María Casares, strikingly good) tells Jean she no longer loves him. The move backfires. Praising her for honesty, and noting how horrible it would be if either’s love would outlast the other’s, Jean pledges abiding friendship and suggests they may reunite as lovers somewhere down the road. When Jean leaves, Hélène pledges to exact revenge. Her elaborate scheme, involving the manipulation of others, culminates in respectable Jean’s falling in love with and marrying a “tart” whom he mistakes for an innocent.
     During the lovers’ parting, we glimpse through Hélène’s apartment door the living room, where a floor lamp burns brightly; by contrast, black-dressed Hélène is consigned to shadow. The implication is that the artificial light is what remains of Hélène’s spirit. This launches a motif. For instance, her mother tells Agnès, with whom Jean falls in love, “Dancing changes you. You light up like a lamp.”
     The film closes on an ambiguity. Once Agnès’s sordid past has been exposed, Jean rushes to his bedridden bride, who has collapsed, and begs her to fight for life. Agnès: “I will stay.” The final image of her may be one of rest. It is just as likely she did not stay.

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