Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

"Extraordinary"

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne Review


Critics and audiences in 1945 were united about Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne: they hated it. For director Robert Bresson, the antipathetic reception must have seemed like the culmination of substantial frustration and toil, WWII having already forced production to drag on for years. Producer Raoul Ploquin was bankrupted, and Bresson, who had only one other feature on his résumé, had cause to worry about his career.

The problem, according to an essay by François Truffaut included in the lovingly restored Criterion edition of the film, was the film's dialogue, written by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau was one of cinema's true poets (the best of his own films - Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast - are among the most magical ever made). But it seems likely that French audiences, having been living under the heel of the Nazi occupation, were not particularly receptive to such rarified, wildly sophisticated banter. "Why are you leaving?" one character asks another. "I hate the piano," her friend petulantly replies. Another woman greets a gentleman caller thusly: "I cannot receive you, come in." Receiving a gift, this same gentleman remarks that he loves gold; "It's warm, cold, light, dark, incorruptible." And very urbane.

The plot of the film (adapted from Diderot) may have seemed superfluous to its era, too: Hélène, a moneyed Parisienne who lives a life of leisure, loves Jean, who has grown tired of her. Sensing as much, Hélène bluffs, telling Jean that her interest in him has waned; when he calls her on it, expressing his genuine dissatisfaction with the affair, she plots to set him up with Agnès, a woman of her former acquaintance who has fallen from her position in society, now working as a dancer. (As in dozens of other French films made prior to the '60s, "dancer" here has more adult connotations.) Hélène's careful planning pays off when Jean weds Agnès (she and her mother, Madame D., are the titular "ladies of the Bois de Boulogne"; the Bois de Boulogne, in turn, is a Parisian woods where illicit love is among the recreations offered). Moments after vows are exchanged, Hélène reveals to Jean the truth of Agnès's recent past; melodrama at its finest ensues.

Cocteau has been quoted as saying that Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne "won its case in the appeals court," and such was the case: by the '60s Bresson was established as a leading French director and reevaluation of his Dames was well underway.

It's painful to think of what we might otherwise have missed. This remarkable tale of emotional betrayal (it incidentally recalls Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is rendered in a uniquely spare style that foretells Bresson's later, trademark technique. This mature style was very spare indeed, action and method distilled to their essential elements and little more. (His detractors find these works to be exasperatingly deliberate and strangely artless, complaints that are sometimes justified.) In Les Dames you can see the germ of this approach, but not its fruit. As for Cocteau's notorious dialogue, my feeling is that it fits the proceedings perfectly. Or maybe it's the other way around? In a marvelous scene near the end, Jean, realizing the depth of Hélène's betrayal, repeats, "You?" incredulously, his disbelief amusingly echoed in his inability to extract his car from its parking spot and Hélène's repeated appearance in the car window's frame as he backs in and out. Bresson would never be so blackly sardonic again, and the fact of his as yet undeveloped style, coupled with Cocteau's fearless lyricism, produces a one-of-a-kind film. It's irreproducible, a jewel.

In time Bresson would develop a tendency to use actors as just another element in his compositions, devices meant to deliver lines and then move off screen. It's probably just as well that this approach was still a few years away as it's hard to believe that his lead in Les Dames, the mesmerizing Maria Casarès, would have complied. Playing Hélène, Casarès here makes palpable the fabled power of a woman scorned. As an actress she's at ease with Cocteau's lines and as a character she's unblinking in her resolve. (Casarès later played Death for Cocteau in his Orpheus, and the characters have a similar authority and menacing charm.) Modern viewers will note a resemblance between Casarès and Chloë Sevigny that underscores Casarès's assurance as an actress; I offer the observation not to diminish Sevigny but to indicate that Casarès is a supremely commanding presence. Hers, as was so often the case, is the outstanding performance in Les Dames, but Élina Labourdette, as Agnès, conveys a surprising frankness; you understand how it is that Jean is drawn to her. (Labourdette later played a mother in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg whose daughter faces a similarly charged romantic plight, a nice rounding-out of her work here.)

Criterion offers Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne with a scarcity of extras, but the availability of the film is certainly enough. I have one mild complaint: In places it seems as though Cocteau's dialogue is translated rather more for clarity than poetry. I know nothing about the science of subtitling films. But I do know that, in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, as elsewhere, clarity is seldom what Cocteau kept first in mind.

Aka Ladies of the Bois de Bologne .



Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Facts and Figures

Run time: 86 mins

In Theaters: Friday 3rd April 1964

Distributed by: Criterion Collection

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 15

IMDB: 7.4 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer:

Starring: as Jean, María Casares as Hélène, Elina Labourdette as Agnès, as Mme. D, as Jacques, Yvette Etiévant as La bonne

Also starring: ,

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