Recently I blogged about how John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur awakened my love for Arthurian stories. And while I continue to adore that film, I’ve also grown to love its polar opposite, an Arthurian film so minimal, as stark as Excalibur is voluptuous, that it’s hard to believe they basically tell the same tale: Robert Bresson’s 1974 film Lancelot du Lac. I grew to love it during the time I was researching and writing Dark Jenny, so you might find its influence in my latest Eddie LaCrosse novel.
Bresson, like Boorman, created a cinematic body of work notable for its extremes. He seldom used real actors, instead looking for faces that expressed the soul of his characters (he termed his performers “models”). Then he bled any sort of overt emotion from their performances, resulting in flat, declarative line readings. This may sound boring, but it’s actually the opposite: with so much space between the words’ meaning and their expression, the viewer is drawn in, supplying the emotions the film deliberately omits.
The film is in French, appropriate for a story of Lancelot, who was added to the Arthurian canon by French writers. It begins with a series of ridiculously over-the-top conflicts involving blood that spurts like it’s being shot from a hose (and yes, a possible inspiration for Monty Python’s “Black Knight”), followed by a stirring, martial main theme:
(The first three minutes of the film.)
This is kind of a bait-and-switch, though, because the film proper is almost inert by comparison. The Knights of the Round Table return to Camelot after failing to find the Holy Grail, and Lancelot attempts to break free of his love for Queen Guinevere. Guinevere insightfully tells him, “It was not the Grail. It was God you all wanted. God is no trophy to bear home.” But this is little consolation for the decimated, downhearted knights, and before long Lancelot and Guinevere are back in each other’s arms.
Everything in the film is low-key, and that’s a crucial part of its effectiveness. The knights wear their armor constantly, and the soundtrack is alive with its creaks and clangs. Horses whinny in terror, whether from new frights or memories of the Grail quest. The central action scene, a jousting tournament, is shot using shadows and oblique angles so that the individual knights fail to take on any individuality. Books could be written on what all this means symbolically (and certainly chapters in books have been, as well as many scholarly articles), but they add up to probably the bleakest Camelot ever put on film.
And yet the relationships at the core of the story remain true to what we’ve come to accept as the legend. Arthur is still king, Gawain is still torn between loyalties, Mordred skulks in the shadows plotting treason. Merlin is long dead, and there’s no Morgan le Fay, but this isn’t a movie about that kind of magic anyway.
Instead, to me it’s a film about hiding: behind armor, behind vows, behind despair. Lancelot competes in a joust wearing a disguise. The failure of the Grail quest leads Arthur to hide behind prayer. Guinevere hides her love for Lancelot. And Bresson hides the story’s tragic heart beneath the flat performances and skewed frame of his brilliant film.