Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson; dialogue by Jean Cocteau (based on the novel Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître by Denis Diderot)
Stars: Paul Bernard (Jean), Lucienne Bogaert (Mme. D), María Casares (Hélène), Elina Labourdette (Agnès), Jean Marchat (Jacques)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1945
Country: France
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Robert Bresson is most often thought of as an uncompromising minimalist, a director whose unique (to some maddening) aesthetic insisted on unprofessional actors, flat dialogue, simple camerawork, and almost no nondiegetic music. His best films, including Diary of a Country Priest (1950), Pickpocket (1959), and, to a lesser extent, Lancelot du Lac (1974), are all masterpieces of stripped down imagery, their power deriving from their minimalism.

However, Bresson’s early career was much different, particularly in the years before the liberation of France after World War II. Although he originally wanted to be a painter (which helps explain his aesthetic insistence on the film image itself), he found his eventual calling in the cinema. His debut feature was 1943’s Les Anges du Peche (Angels of the Streets), a melodrama that was a hit both commercially and critically. He followed that up with another melodrama, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, which was its inverse—a flop commercially and critically.

Yet, time has been good to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and historians and critics have since recognized the power of Bresson’s film about the torturous nature of obsession and the redeeming power of true love (much of the credit has been given to Jean Cocteau, who wrote the beautifully effective dialogue). Although its heart is often in melodramatic overdrive, Les Dames has moments of subtle power that suggest the direction Bresson’s filmmaking aesthetic would eventually take; in fact, it was the last film he made in the traditional style before striking out completely on his own.

The film tells the story of a love triangle. High-society diva Hélène (María Casares, whose feline features make her perfect for the role) is obsessively in love with Jean (Paul Bernard), but his heart has wandered and they decided to call it quits. He believes their break-up is mutual, but Hélène secretly harbors her amour, seething in her rejection and plotting a way to get back at him for turning his back on her. The opportunity arises when she takes under her wing a struggling mother (Lucienne Bogaert) and her beautiful daughter, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), a cabaret dancer and prostitute.

Knowing that Jean will fall in love with Agnès, Hélène orchestrates their meeting and then sits back and tugs the strings of their relationship, working both sides without letting the other know it. Jean falls head over heels, but Agnès is reluctant, largely because of her shameful past. Yet, she eventually relents, and Hélène is triumphant in her quest to humiliate her former lover when, on their wedding day, it is revealed to Jean that he has married a whore. The film’s most chilling line comes when Jean, trying to escape his nightmare wedding but unable to, finds himself face to face with Hélène who tells him, “You don’t seem to realize where a woman’s scorn can lead.” At this point, Jean is in his car and is trapped in the church parking lot by Hélène’s car, and he keeps trying to back up and drive out, but each time comes to a stop right next to where Hélène is standing, her impassive smirk of vengeance unchanging. The sense of entrapment here is palpable, and it stands as the film’s strongest, most purely emotional moment.

On the surface, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne plays as standard melodrama, and it was shot by cinematographer Philippe Agostini (Riffifi) with style and grace and features a sometimes overwhelming, but always effective musical score by Jean-Jacques Grünenwaldm, who also scored Bresson’s first film. The signifiers of quality French cinema are all there, but knowing what was to come of Bresson’s unique career, it is not hard to sense his unconventionality bubbling just beneath. As a melodrama, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne works beautifully and movingly, tugging at the heart strings and reminding us of the power of human emotion to both destroy and redeem. Yet, the film is most interesting as a turning point, the moment after which one of France’s greatest directors turned his back on convention and forged his own path in cinema history.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Subtitles English
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateMarch 11, 2003

1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)
The high-definition transfer on this disc was created from a dupe negative, and the result is quite good, although clearly showing the film’s age and what appears to be a lack of care in archiving it. The image is a bit dark throughout, and grain structure is clearly apparent, which is a result of the original stock used. There was quite a bit of damage to the original negative in the form of scratches and imperfections, many of which were digitally removed with the MTI Digital Restoration System. Those expecting a perfectly pristine image may be a bit disappointed, but given Criterion’s strong track record, it can only be assumed that this is the best the film will look given the available materials.

French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
The soundtrack, which was mastered at 24-bit and digitally restored, sounds good throughout. The film’s opening passages have a slightly audible rhythmic hiss, but it disappears after a while.

Stills Gallery
Included in this stills gallery are four color reproductions of original French movie posters and 16 black-and-white behind-the-scenes photographs, including two from a deleted scene.

Essays by François Truffaut and David Thomson
The liner notes include an excerpt from François Truffaut’s book The Films in My Life and a new essay by film scholar David Thomson.

© 2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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