"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 1, 2012

"Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" (1945) by Bresson (Film review)

A woman's revenge can be terrible, as the old Japanese well knew, especially when it springs from sexual jealousy. In the classical Noh theater, the jealous woman or the woman scorned, is represented by the visually stunning Hannya mask, with sharp horns, bulging eyes, and sharp fangs, The idea of the "horns of jealousy" is also found in the tsunokakushi, the huge white headdress worn by Japanese brides which literally is said to "hide the horns." Of course, the men in such a society must have given enough reason for that jealousy to become a powerful force.

Jealousy and the power of revenge are the themes of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Upper class society lady Hélène (Maria Casarès) has lost the love of Jean (Paul Bernard). She pretends it doesn't matter, lying that she has also stopped loving him. Then she carefully plots her vengeance. Her tools are a young cabaret dancer, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), and her grasping mother (Lucienne Bogaert). Mother and daughter are the "women of the Bois de Boulogne" of the title, a park that at night was the territory of prostitutes. Also Agnès' occupation gives her real profession away: in 1945, even in France, one could not openly talk about prostitutes, so they were called "cabaret dancers."

Hélène knows the mother and pretends she wants to help both ladies move to a more respectable life (this is difficult: when Agnès tries to work as sales girl in a department store, the male clients remember her!). She then introduces Jean to them - as planned, he falls for the beautiful Agnès. The mother and daughter live in almost total isolation, so Jean each time needs Hélène as go-between. At the same time, out of a feeling of obligation towards her benefactress, Agnès cannot refuse. She is under total supervision of Hélène, a virtual prisoner. By pulling Jean in and pushing him away, Hélène carefully maneuvers him in the direction of a marriage proposal to Agnès.

The wedding is a big society affair, all the more so as Hélène has invited Agnès' former clients as well. At the end of the party she triumphantly reveals to Jean that he has married a "whore" - not something which will be appreciated in the aristocratic circles among which he moves. This is a dramatic scene: Jean sits in his car and tries to drive off, but Hélène blocks the way, and while he ineffectively lunges back and forth, she keeps transfixing him with a terrible, baleful stare. She has effectively entrapped him. Unfortunately, this great scene is followed by a surprise ending of the strength of true love that smacks too much of Hollywood.

The film was based on a novelette ("Jacques Le Fataliste") by Diderot; the sharp dialogues were written by Jean Cocteau. The luminous black and white photography is by Philippe Agostini. But Maria Casarès steals the show: with her brooding, down-turned face - a bit like Garbo - she is a terrible black widow, bent on total revenge. Not for nothing has Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne since become a cult film.

Available from Criterion.