Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

 

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Robert Bresson’s 1945 masterpiece is brilliantly restored and now available on Curzon Home Cinema.

 

Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Les

Cruel intentions: Elina Labourdette and Paul Bernard

  

Seventy-five years after its cinematic debut, Curzon Home Cinema are releasing a brilliantly restored version of Robert Bresson’s second feature, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, based on a story by Denis Diderot. The film historian David Thomson wrote that Bresson’s films, “unmistakably impress upon the viewer the universality that overwhelms privacy,” and that Bresson, “possesses a charity so great that liking is made to seem unnecessary. He is an example of pure cinema.” So, it’s 1945, Paris is in black-and-white and there are subtitles. It does sound rather daunting. However, to say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. Bresson’s “landmark in cinema history” is a startlingly modern and sophisticated film for its time, but with a grammar that is perhaps a required taste. At first, the characters seem to be in a trance, and they often leave questions unanswered.

 

The protagonist is Hélène, a society woman played by Maria Casarès with a set smile that barely ever changes its aspect. But there is something hypnotic about the woman who, with extreme sangfroid, says the most outrageous things. She is taken to the theatre – a very long, tiring production – by Jacques (Jean Marchat), a man who obviously adores her. But she is entrusted to another, Jean (Paul Bernard), and she tells Jacques that, “our happiness disturbs our friends. I’m sorry, but I’m happy.” But then she confesses to Jean himself, “my heart is drifting away from you.” We are then introduced to a cabaret dancer, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), who owes a debt to Hélène and would appear to be profoundly misandrist. Hélène offers to pay off the debts that Agnès and her mother have accrued, and they lock themselves away in the apartment Hélène has acquired for them, like hermits. Meanwhile, Agnès is determined to avoid any man at any cost. And then Hélène introduces her to Jean...

 

Nothing here is spelled out and even seventy-five years on, the film still has the ability to shock. And it never shows its hand. It recalls the sexual politics and machinations in Les Liaisons dangereuses, with Casarès in the part of Isabelle de Merteuil (played by Glenn Close in Stephen Frears’ film version). But because it is all so understated, the viewer is required to bring their own emotions to the story. It’s also a very handsome production – photographed by Philippe Agostini – while the dialogue is supplied by none other than Jean Cocteau. And some of the lines really stick, such as when the mother of Agnès says, “I ask of things only what they wish to give.” Sound advice, indeed.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Paul Bernard, María Casares, Élina Labourdette, Lucienne Bogaert, Jean Marchat, Yvette Etiévant.

 

Dir Robert Bresson, Pro Raoul Ploquin, Screenplay Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau, from the story Jacques le fataliste, by Denis Diderot, Ph Philippe Agostini, Pro Des Max Douy, Ed Jean Feyte, Music Jean-Jacques Grünenwald, Costumes Mme Grès and Schiaparelli.

 

Les Films Raoul Ploquin-Curzon Home Cinema.

81 mins. France. 1945. Blu-Ray re-release: 16 March 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. PG.