Getting into Robert Bresson through ‘Lancelot du Lac’, aka making it easier to enter art cinema
In what ways does Lancelot du Lac help us understand the “Bressonian” ethos?
For three years now, I have been conducting the Young Critics Lab for the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, with Star, and one of the questions that comes from every batch is how to get into foreign cinema, especially the really arty kind. It’s not easy, because even a relatively plot-filled, action-packed epic like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai seems “slow” to a young audience today. They are unable to see what Roger Ebert did: “It moves quickly because the storytelling is so clear, there are so many sharply defined characters, and the action scenes have a thrilling sweep.” So imagine the problem with filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni or Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky.
I strongly believe that if you want to be critic, you need to have seen all the canonical works. You need to be familiar with the pantheon, even if you later decide this filmmaker or that one does not work for you. And one way to ease into the artier world — let’s say, Bresson — is to pick a work you are already familiar with in some shape or form. As a boy, I was crazy about myths. I’d read everything I could lay my hands on — our own epics, Greek and Roman myths, Norse myths, everything. And I was especially nuts about the Arthurian legends. While in school, I read an abridged version, and thereon, every other kind I could get. One of the last TV shows I binge-watched was Merlin, which imagined Arthur and Merlin as young men (and imagine, Arthur does not know Merlin is a magician).
So a long time ago, when I decided to get into Bresson, I looked through his work and settled on Lancelot du Lac. (I was in the US then, and the public libraries there are movie treasure troves.) How does this help? Because you know the basic “narrative”, the plot, the characters. You are already interested in it. Now, it’s much easier to follow the film for its style and what this particular filmmaker brings to this material. Watching variations of the same story handled by different filmmakers is a great way to not just get into one particular filmmaker, but also that particular cinematic style.
Let’s look at a few various versions of the Arthurian legends. Camelot (1967) is based on a Broadway musical. So it soars on the wings of its songs. When Lancelot and Guinevere — Arthur’s knight and queen — decide it’s time to end their affair, he launches into the number, ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’. He says he couldn’t leave her in summer, because her hair is streaked with sunlight, and her face has a lustre that puts gold to shame. What about autumn? He couldn’t leave her then, either, because he knows how she sparkles when fall nips the air, and to see that sight, he must be there. This “excess” is part of this style.
John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) is a decidedly less Romantic affair. “And what we see in the story,” Boorman said in American Film, “is the horror and dissension of man, and his warring, feuding, and brutality — his inability to really attain his higher aims and ideals.” For a far less serious take, you could try Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a classic of its genre. When Arthur says he became king because the Lady of the Lake rose from the water and handed him the sword named Excalibur, a political thinker named Dennis replies, “Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
So now, at the other end of the spectrum, we have Bresson. What does he bring to this tale? Or to put it another way, in what ways does Lancelot du Lac help us understand the “Bressonian” ethos? We see it in, say, the performance style of the actors, which is flat, drained of all emotion. When Lancelot tells Guinevere he can no longer be her lover, he might as well be addressing a wall. As for her, there is no sharp intake of breath, no pooling of tears in the eyes, none of the usual “acting” that would accompany such a declaration. Bresson said, “I like to start with a flat expression, as flat as possible, so that the expression comes when all the shots are put together. The more flat it is when I am shooting, the more expressive it is edited.”
In many scenes, you don’t even see the faces. Writer-director Paul Schrader, author of Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, refers to this style as an accumulation of “dead time”. Hitchcock said that drama was life with all the dull bits cut out. In that sense, Bresson’s cinema is anti-drama — all those “dull bits” are in the film. We don’t just sense the monotony of the lives of these knights, we experience it. The “boredom”, in essence, becomes an aesthetic device. And once you get a hang of what Bresson is about from a film that’s already a little familiar, you can take this knowledge and watch other films of his, like Diary of a Country Priest or Pickpocket.
One of the great “Bressonian” stretches in Lancelot du Lac comes during a jousting tournament. Over some six minutes, we get variations on a stock set of shots. (1) A flag going up to indicate each new rider. (2) The hands of a man playing a sharp-sounding wind instrument (he plays the same snatch of tune every single time, for every single rider). (3) The feet and sides and backs of horses. (4) The legs of the knights astride those horses (only in a couple of instances do we see their faces, and that too, only when they fall and are taken away on a stretcher). (5) Repeated shots of the audience, turning their heads from one side of the screen to another, as though following the progress of each horse.
To get a far more dramatic version (i.e. without the “dull bits”) of this scene, watch the tennis match in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Again, we have viewers turning their heads from one side of the screen to another, as though following the progress of each shot. But Hitchcock uses the “sameness” of this action to create tension, because one viewer is staring straight ahead and we notice his stillness all the more amidst the moving heads around him. This is not about whether Hitchcock or Bresson is the better artist. It’s only by constantly watching and comparing films that we get an idea of form and how much it impacts the substance, the meat of a scene. Of course, I would argue that form is substance, too, but that is an entirely different discussion.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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