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Lancelot du lac (1974)

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Ever notice the "LANCELOT section" of the "DULOC parking lot" in Shrek? smile.gif

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 months later...

Cool, I'm glad you enjoyed this, Ken! I wonder if your exposure to Bresson is started to help you become more acclimated to his idiosyncratic style?

I guess I owe that to Doug's excellent reverse psychology in telling me not to watch it . . .

Oh, how Bressonian of me. smile.gif

The acting styles (lack of expression), actually fits this material pretty well. Bresson captures (imo) the lethargy and confusion of the disintegration of the round table without the sentimentalized howling that one gets from the descendants of Tennyson.

I'm not familiar with Tennyson's version, but in another Bresson film, Une Femme Douce, a character complains about the overacting in a performance of Hamlet and then rushes home and compares it to the text, triumphantly pointing out a passage the performance had omitted: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines." smile.gif

Peter Saccio said in one of his lectures that the 20th century preferred Lear to Hamlet because its emphasis on ghastly, unavoidable suffering seemed to mirror that century's experience. I think Lancelot does the same with the Arthurian legends. Rather than the neo-traditional emphasis on an all consuming love triangle, Bresson gives us a relationship where the sin has long lost its luster and those who felt sure that its momentary pleasures would sustain them find themselves nostalgiac for the ideals they have thrown over.

Very interesting. Bresson had actually wanted to film Lancelot for 15 years, too; it was a project he nursed along and found very personal. I love the way the suits of armor in the film come across as dehumanizing and clumsy, too (another point of comparison to Monty Python and the Holy Grail !); their constant scraping and clanging throughout the film, the rhythm of the visors being lifted and closed for lines of dialogue, the way they eventually pile up together like a heap discarded metal. Bresson uses the armor to further deglamorizes the myth, rather than, say, as John Boorman did, to celebrate its shiny triumphantism.

Your description of Lancelot and Guinevere's relationship ("the struggle between desire and purer desire") in the film is very insightful. From their first scene together, the film depicts their relationship as a debilitating noose and yet both characters remain tragically sympathetic without their situation being romanticized. It's a fine balancng act that Bresson's "plain" style obscures. But I'm not sure what you mean in regards to Lancelot's age difference...?

Also, I had a question for Doug. Were some of the scenes deliberate nods to Balthazar or were they just part of Bresson's style?  The first loft scene between Guinevere and Lancelot, on the bench, reminded me of Batlhazar, down to the two hands on the bench in close up as one slips away. Also the last shot seemed a deliberate echo of Balthazar, albeit with a highly different feeling/meaning.  Some stuff, I assume, is just stylisic. He likes to shoot from the shoulder down and have the figure move into the frame--but some stuff seemed more than just style: the whinnying of the horse as an oral motif reminded me of the braying donkey as well.
Those are great observations, Ken; and I think they are mostly marks of his style and preoccupations. Bresson emphasizes hands in almost all of his films and labored intensively over his sound mixes. His use of the horses' winnies was carefully placed in the film and must in some way have connected to whatever convictions he had about the relationship between human and animal life, which of course necessarily echo Balthazar. Perhaps he's suggesting the loss of the chivalric code reduces the characters to their more animalistic, physical natures?

If I got one main message out of the film it was in the last quote above. Rather than a nostalgic look at the moment Camelot was lost, we are placed in the moment where those inside realize something is being lost but feel (are?) helpless to stop it. Despite that realization, the acknowledgement of God--even if he is distant--keeps the disintegration from being apocolyptic and I guess that is what I liked about it. I always feel with Tennyson like he  (and the Victorians) are saying, hey, this feels like the end of the world because God abandoned us. I feel like with Bresson I get a bit more of, hey, this feels like the end of the world because we abandoned Him.
I totally agree; very well put. That quote ("some force is manipulating us") also points to Bresson's next film, The Devil, Probably, which transposes many of the themes of Lancelot to contemporary Paris. The French critic Barth
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Fantastic thoughts, Ken.

I admire Lancelot quite a bit, but if I have any reservations about it, they're precisely over the aspect suggested by the quote that you most like. There's been some discussion on the Pickpocket thread about the question of freedom, fate, chance, and Providence, and Lancelot feels to me like fate has taken over and there is little room for freedom, or even Providence or chance.

"Some force is manipulating us. Arthur cannot govern it." I like everything here except the word "manipulating." I don't like the idea of fate, God or Providence being seen as "manipulating" our lives. That word has resonances that evoke puppets on strings, or dupes tricked without their consent or even against their will into a position not of their own choosing.

Some commentators have compared the clanking armored knights battling to the end in the final scene to robots blindly pursuing their preprogrammed course. I would be happy to have a reason to quarrel with this interpretation.

Incidentally, while I agree with you about the awkward Pythonesque quality of the opening duel, I'm not sure Bresson could have filmed that scene any differently, and that perhaps points to the way he jostles in this film against the outer limits of what is possible in his style.

At the same time, I'm also reminded of another French 1970s Arthurian film that much more fully embraces what could be called a non-comic Monty Python approach, to much greater success (in this respect): Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it; it's quite charming.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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The actress in Lancelot du Lac seems younger to me, and she plays younger, too. So, I guess I tended to view their relationship as one in which Lancelot has to bear a different sort of responsibility.
Ah, I see; that is an interesting dynamic. Of course, it was more common to have lovers of different ages, and it's still more common in Europe than it is here, I believe. (Bresson's wife, in fact--who assisted on Lancelot--was much younger than Bresson, who was then in his 70s.)

But...technically speaking, the actress who plays Guinevere is probably too young to have married Arthur, had the affair, and lived through all the exploits of the quest for the Grail. It's definitely artistic license.

I thought about this as well when wondering what might be the point of the sponge bath scene. One possible explanation (okay, this may be out there to some) is that the bathing makes me associate the queen with Bathsheba rather than the traditional Eve/temptress archetype.
I like that, and it's a good reference point, but I also think the scene is used as a striking counterpoint to the film's emphasis on armor and metal as well. As Keith Reader writes:

"The queen instructs [Lancelot]: 'Take this forbidden body'--a phrase with sacriligeous overtones of the Last Supper, and thus of the Grail whose vain quest has brought the Arthurian world to the brink of despair. It is that forbidden body--sensual, sexual, in a word, corporeal--that she passionately asserts in the love scene when, spied upon by Mordred, she exhorts Lancelot: 'Hold me, I am not a ghost.' This reinstatement of a body proscribed finds its necessary consequence and counterpart in the bodies butchered at the end, 'ghosts' if ever there were."

I think things feel more predetermined here because the story begins after many significant decisions that were the causes of suffering have already been made.
An excellent point...

I'm struck by the difficulty in deciding, finally, whose story this is (and in deciding if that, too, is typical of Bresson). Certainly Lancelot is the title character, and yet when I think back on the film, I find myself remembering Gawain's conversation with the queen, Gawain's death bed monologue, Mordred and Gawain talking to Arthur, the jousting tournament in which we watch Arthur watch the tourny.
Edited by Doug C
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  • 6 years later...

This is a great thread populated by people who no longer participate at A&F, with key posts missing. And yet it's still helpful for someone like me, who saw this film earlier today, made up my mind (probably for the wrong reasons) about an hour into it that the film wasn't working, then was so thrown by the final 30 minutes that I ended up questioning everything I'd thought to that point. What a strange movie. It left me wanting to know more about Bresson's intent in making it.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Tyler, I have a copy of the film on Region 1 DVD (it's an import, I think). If you send me a PM with your address, I'll be glad to lend it to you.

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  • 1 month later...

Getting ready to see this on big screen at Bresson retrospective in Santa Monica. Todd and I did a podcast where we talk about this film and, in particular, Kristin Thompson's article in the Quandt anthology about elliptical structure.


  • 0:00 – Show intro. Who is Robert Bresson?
  • 4:43 – Bresson’s style: acting, visual style, and sound
  • 8:28 – Editing and elliptical narration
  • 15:44 – Defamiliarization and a tale that’s been often told
  • 20:22 – Confusion and doubt as a motif
  • 25:55 – Historical romances as comments on the present age
  • 30:51 – Questioning assumptions and filling in gaps
  • 37:00 – Exit comments

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Great! I've been eager to discuss this film. I was convinced while watching it that it doesn't work, right up to the point where I flipped and decided it might be great.

I wanted that Quandt anthology but didn't want to spend $40 on it at the National Gallery of Art gift shop. I was hoping the library would have a copy, but nope.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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