LANCELOT DU LAC
1974Director / Screenplay: Robert Bresson
84 minutes16 mm
Lancelot du Lac embodies the perfection of a language that has been in the process of development and refinement for over thirty years. If it stuns and overwhelms one's sense of the possibilities of that language - in a way, perhaps, that no predecessor has done, at least since Au Hasard, Balthazar - this is not because it represents a significant departure or deviation from the path Robert Bresson has consistently followed. The source of amazement lies in the film's clarity and simplicity, a precise and irreducible arrangement of sounds and images that is so wholly functional that nothing is permitted to detract from the overall narrative complex, and everything present is used. It is a film where the rattle of armour and the neighing of horses are as essential as the faces and bodies of the characters, where indeed each of these elements serves to isolate and define the importance and impact of the others.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Sight & Sound, Summer 1974
The nominal subject of Robert Bresson's latest film is the intermittently self-thwarting love of Lancelot and Guinevere, but he is also intent on depicting the end of the feudal dream, of courtly love and the beginning of modern times. This is no fey medieval romance: Bresson has shot the film in a very concrete way. He insists both visually and aurally on the armour the knights wear (a symbol of the code by which they live) and in the battle scenes he shoots literally from - and to - the hip. The result is like a battle painting by Uccello - both dream-like and hyper-real.
- Richard Roud, New York Festival Programme 1974
Twenty years after its original release, Lancelot du Lac is bound to shock, frustrate and overwhelm in equal measure, partly because of its treatment of the Arthurian Myth and the trappings of Camelot kitsch that attach themselves to celluloid visions of the Middle Ages. By an uncomfortable coincidence, the recent press preview of Lancelot occurred the day after a television screening of John Boorman's Excalibur - truly a case of the sublime following the ridiculous - but the contrast is instructive in terms of just those expectations that Bresson has consistently sought to disown in his filmmaking...
So much of Bresson's work takes place after the event that narrative convention would consider central. His is always an interstitial reading, on the edges of the action, privileging the ripples on the surface of the water rather than the Lady in the Lake herself. In keeping with this tendency Lancelot begins at the end of the myth, with the return of the knights who have failed in their quest for the Grail, and concentrates on Lancelot as the anguished suitor of the Queen and on the bloody decimation of the codes of chivalry. This organising principle covers not only the plot structure but extends through the arrangement of the sequences down to the manner in which individual shots are attacked...
The jousting in [the tournament] sequence is conveyed through a brilliantly rhythmic montage of shots of the reaction of the spectators, of musicians piping between heats, of the raising of pennants, of the horses stamping and charging; the visible impact of lance on shield is withheld until one no longer expects to see it, by which time the impact has gathered in latent power. Sound is crucial to this sequence, as it is to the entire film, armour being sheared by the blow of a sword, the sound of the horses; these participate in an extraordinary orchestration of details, the visual and the aural truly interacting...
Lancelot du Lac is proof that Bresson cannot age badly, and it is representative of an uncompromisingly singular cinematic vision - discomforting, a little intimidating, but thoroughly remarkable and unlike any other in cinema.
- Chris Darke, Sight & Sound, 11/94
Throughout Lancelot the camera points towards the soil, as though Bresson were indicating the background to events symbolically rather than geographically, the earth being associated with death. What's happening to the ground is what might ordinarily happen - horses stamp on it, blood flows into it. The only ritualised moment comes when the little girl kisses it, just after Lancelot, on his way to certain death, has left his sanctuary in the forest.
- Breda Beban / Hrvoje Horvatic, 'Everything is Connected', Sight & Sound, 2/95
Lancelot Du Lac is a strange film, sometimes hailed as the greatest of Bresson's numerous masterpieces by critics of the most exacting standards. While I personally rate it lower than The Diary Of A Country Priest or the sublime Un Condamné À Mort S'Est Echappé, it is a compelling, hypnotic and extremely personal interpretation of material that is normally relegated to the most perfunctory of genre readings.
In Bresson's reading of the Arthurian story mythic trivia is replaced by an enigmatic and precise system of symbols: the cries and eyes of horses, windows, a singing bird. Almost all of the ‘action' of the film takes place on this symbolic level; ignoring the significance of Bresson's reiterated motifs leaves the film with a spare and simplistic plot and the viewer misses out on a potentially rewarding experience. The most striking stylistic element of the film is the deliberate separation of the actors’ heads and feet. The camera's concentration on these aspects of the actors is almost fetishistic, yet head and feet virtually never appear within the same shot. This rigid separation offers a clue to Bresson's primarily spiritual interpretation of the subject-matter: the disasters that befall the Round Table (the film opens and closes with graphic scenes of slaughter) are a consequence of their society's alienation of the spiritual from the physical world. The only appearance of the Cross in the film accompanies a rare full-body shot of Lancelot (the head / feet dichotomy seems about to resolve itself), but in this shot the Cross remains tantalisingly and significantly just out of focus. In this spiritual reading Lancelot's dalliance with Guenièvre therefore becomes a symptom of a broader social malaise rather than the 'disease' it is often presented as in conventional accounts ('Their love destroyed a kingdom!'). The failure of the Grailquest also takes on additional, specific significance.
On a more immediate level, Bresson's vision is notable for its emphasis on the reality of the Middle Ages. The world of the Round Table is not presented as a fairy-tale utopia. The knights' lives are squalid - there’s all that blood, their armour is terribly cumbersome - and often dull; the castles are gloomy, dreary places. Bresson's elliptical style notably omits magic from the legend. It is also interesting that Bresson slightly realigns the conventional portrayal of Lancelot and Guenievre by making their tragedy one of honour rather than overwhelming passion.