“Lancelot du Lac” - Robert Bresson (1974)

King Arthur was a legendary Celtic heroic king of the 6th century, but we know him primarily through the Medieval French romantic poets (whose works were then retold in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in the late 15th century). The French works probably represented an amalgamation of various separate romantic traditions, and the separate legend of Sir Lancelot, who was the principal knight of Arthur’s “Knights of the Roundtable” was amalgamated into the Arthurian legend in the 12th century by the French romantic poet Chrétien de Troyes.  Thus despite the Englishness of the Camelot story, the French were major contributors to the legend that we have today.  Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974) is a further French perspective on this epic tale.

At first thought, one might think that the romantic legend of Sir Lancelot would not be appropriate for Bresson’s unique, Existentialist cinematic style, which tends to distance the protagonist (and correspondingly the viewer) from his or her immediate environment and thereby lead to an internalized perspective.  After all, this story is supposed to be a romance and not the material for a psychologically realistic accounting of what actually might have happened in those days.  Nevertheless, from the opening shots, the viewer is drawn into Bresson’s own distinctive vision of this story, and he works this material to his advantage.

Bresson’s characteristic mise-en-scène, which has been referred to as “transcendental” [1], is, of course, a distinguishing feature of the film, too.  As usual, he uses nonprofessional actors, who read their lines in a flat, unemotional manner.  He did this because he wanted the viewer to mentally construct his or her own diegetic narrative from basic elements, and so Bresson’s cinematic presentation is merely supposed to provide the raw materials for that “bottom-up” construction.   I commented further on this approach in my review of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966):
“Bresson argued that when we experience immediate events in our everyday lives, there is no causality. A causal understanding of experience is only produced later, upon reflection. Bresson wanted the audience to have this direct causal-construction experience with his film narratives, and for this reason he didn’t want his actors (which he preferred to call 'models') to inject their own interpretive causal renderings in their roles. He didn’t want them to 'perform', because this would inevitably lead them to introduce their personal causal interpretations that would disadvantage the constructive experience for the viewer.”
Similarly Bresson tends to avoid establishing shots from an “objective” perspective and instead presents fragmentary, impressionistic static shots of body parts or other objects that reflect mechanical operations.  They are the kinds of odd images that might be stored in one’s memory, like mental snapshots associated with a remembered scene.  This is particularly true in Lancelot du Lac, where the camera frame is often limited to just shots of moving legs in a scene, whether of horses or of people.  Because of these restricted framings, the viewer is acutely aware of action outside the camera frame, and is thus attentive to offscreen sounds.  Bresson accentuates this effect by often amplifying the volume of routine sounds, so that the character of a scene is sometimes more a reflection of the sounds heard than of the visuals depicted.  So in Lancelot du Lac, the sounds of scraping body armor on the part of the knights becomes something of an aural motif for the heavy physicality of the lives of those men, which drastically contrasts with the romantic ideals that they avow.  The dominating sounds of the armor also serves as a kind of further existential isolation of the knights – making them almost prisoners inside their own armored cages.

The film narrative of Lancelot du Lac covers the somber decline-and-fall portion of the Arthurian legend.  Prior to the action of the film, the Knights of the Round Table had gone off in search of the Holy Grail, a sacred vessel associated with the Roman Catholic Holy Communion that was believed to convey magic powers and which was believed to be somewhere in Brittany, France.  This quest for the Grail was a failure, however, and in the process the knights had become quarrelsome and then largely decimated in the process.  The opening shots of the film schematically depict this disastrous degeneration by showing various knights, weighed down by their heavy body armor so that their movements are almost in slow motion, impaling each other with swords and daggers.  The brutality of the slaughter is eerily contrasted by the slow movements of the fighters and lack of human vocal sounds, with only the scraping sounds of the heavy armor audible [2].

The overall story of Lancelot du Lac, can be seen as passing through three progressive stages with respect to the two principal characters, Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.  This narrative also features two principal world viewpoints that are mostly in conflict: love and honor.  For all the other people in Camelot, Lancelot and Guinevere represent the ultimate embodiments of honor.  But they also happen to be deeply in love with each other – a situation that represents dishonor in the eyes of God and of the nobility.  As the story progresses, Lancelot and Guinevere shift their stances in connection with how they understand and relate to both love and honor.
1.  The Return of the Knights
The decimated Knights of the Roundtable, the preeminent member of whom is Lancelot, return from their disastrous quest for the Grail.  Lancelot immediately goes to meet Guinevere in the usual site for their trysts – a hayloft in a forest hut. Lancelot feels that the knights’ failure was God’s punishment for his illicit love affair, and he asks Guinevere to release him from his vow of eternal love for her.  Guinevere refuses.  In fact she chastises Lancelot for his pride in believing that his own actions are responsible for everything: 
“God is not a trophy to bear home. You were implacable. You killed, pillaged, and burned.  Then you turned blindly on each other like maniacs.  Now you blame our love for this disaster.”
Lancelot returns to the company of the other knights and still seeking the honorable path, as well as responding to King Arthur’s command to cultivate friendship among the knights, he tries to befriend his treacherous and jealous rival, Mordred.  But he is rebuffed on this front, too.

The returned knights of Camelot are now idle, and therefore restless, but they are soon enlivened by the prospects of a jousting tournament challenge from the knights of nearby Escalot. 

At the close of this part of the film, Lancelot can be seen to be turning his back on love and is now fully committed to following the path of honor.  Guinevere, on the other hand, is totally at the mercy of her mad love.  She dismisses the “honor” that Lancelot talks about as a fool’s game.  For her love is the highest good. 

2.  The Jousting Tournament

Prior to the tournament Lancelot meets Guinevere again in the hut, and this time begins to fall to temptation.  She says to him, “take this heart”, but he says, “it is your body I want”.  They arrange for a tryst when Lancelot’s spying rivals will be involved in the tournament.
Thus Lancelot announces to the other knights that he will be foregoing the tournament. However, his loyal ally, Sir Gawain, warns him that the other knights are suspicious and gossiping about his rumored adulterous relationship with Guinevere and that he should not be away from the tournament.  So while Guinevere waits with her maids for the tryst, Lancelot decides to forego the tryst and defend his honor.  He participates in the tournament anonymously, by keeping his armored visor down employing unknown battle colors, and in the event,  convincingly defeats all the other knights.  But he is seriously wounded in one jousting encounter, and at the end of the tournament he sneaks away into the forest.

The visual presentation of the tournament, which takes up about ten percent of the film’s running time, is memorably strange: it consists of medium shots focusing on hands and lower body parts, not faces.  These medium and close-shot images alternatively show galloping horses bodies, hands holding lances, and the hands of a ceremonial bagpipe player whose playing initiates a jousting round.  As with other portions of the film, these tight camera shots accentuate the absence of human agency and emphasize brute animalistic and mechanical operations.

Meanwhile Guinevere has been waiting in vain for Lancelot in the hut hayloft.  Gawain goes to inform her of Mordred’s spying, but she dismisses the warning and affirms her faith in her love for Lancelot.  She defiantly tells Gawain to inform Arthur that she loves only Lancelot and belongs to him now and that she will remain waiting for Lancelot in the hut.

By the close of this second section of the film, Lancelot’s love for Guinevere has taken possession of him again, but he is attempting to retain his honor, too.  Guinevere continues only to follow her heart.

3.  The Downfall
Though still wounded, Lancelot rushes back in the evening to rescue Guinevere, whose hut is surrounded by Lancelot’s opponents.  In the process of getting to the hut, Lancelot slays three knights who are there to protect the “honor” of the queen.  When he meets Guinevere, though, he finds her disconsolate over all the bloodshed and resigned to the impossibility of their love in this world.  But Lancelot is now fully committed to love and says, “I crave the impossible”; he refuses to let her go.  Hoping to avoid further blood, King Arthur offers to take back Guinevere peacefully and let Lancelot depart the kingdom.  With great reluctance Lancelot finally accedes to Guinevere’s wishes and returns her to Arthur. 

So this section of the film has seen both Lancelot and Guinevere abandon their hearts’ desires and succumb to the demands of  socially-defined morality and honor.

News now arrives that Mordred has stayed behind at the castle and organized a rebellion against Arthur.  Lancelot unquestioningly asserts his loyalty to the king and rushes back to Camelot in defense of Arthur.  But on the way back to the castle, Arthur, Lancelot, and all their knights are ambushed by archers hiding in the forest trees.  One by one they are all killed.
This abrupt ending to the film leaves both the quests for love and honor in ruins, literally.  The chivalric devotion to honor is exposed here as little more than superstition, which is still dominant in this culture, as exemplified by the knights sometimes gazing at the moon looking for favorable omens.  And they vow to uphold honor, even when they don’t seem to understand it.  For example, Lancelot’s loyal ally, Gawain, vainly attempts to kill Lancelot not for what he believes in, but because he feels forced by honor traditions to avenge his brother’s death.  In fact the idea of having honor seems to be associated with gaining some sort of special power that gives one a competitive advantage – just like the possession of the Holy Grail was believed to give special powers to is possessor.  So the honor system seems to be little more than a superstitious set of beliefs that command rigid adherence.  It is not surprising that their illogicality makes them susceptible for manipulation – thus Mordred invokes honor in order to undermine Lancelot and attack Arthur.

Similarly love is presented in the film as more of a blind passion than as a union of souls.  Nevertheless, it must be admitted that Bresson is here more accommodating to the notion of romantic love than he is in some of his earlier films, where love is often seen as a delirium that is entirely internal to the lover and has no existence outside the scope of the individual.

In parallel to the contrast between love and honor stands the character contrast between Lancelot and Guinevere.  Lancelot stands for honor and principle.  To stand for honor implies that honor can be achieved by an act of will, and Lancelot is the supreme exemplar of this notion, since he feels that he can accomplish anything, particularly honor and merit, if he so decides.  As a consequence Lancelot is the ultimate individualist, isolated and in struggle with the world around him.  Guinevere, on the other hand, is more organically embedded into her world.  She is thus a fatalist who recognizes her inability to stand up against the forces of her own passion or those of her external surroundings.

What ultimately weights on and lingers with the viewer is the heavy physicality of those external surroundings.   In fact one might speculate that perhaps Bresson’s cinematic presentation captures more of the psychological reality of existence in those times than do more conventional presentations of the Arthurian legend, such as John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981).  Bresson’s presentation in Lancelot du Lac emphasizes the limited and constrained horizons of all the individuals.  They are surrounded by dark forests, castle walls, and the small confines of rooms and huts.  And they are further constrained by the physical burden of managing/manipulating their horses, their armor, their weapons, etc.  These are isolated individuals, equipped with heavy weapons in order to fight their individual battles.  When at the end they are confronted with an organized, semi-mechanized battle force of archers, they are no match for that kind of collective organization. So the individuals in the story are defeated by their isolation and their naive belief in their personal efficacy.  Individual heroism is no match for cooperation.  

In this environment of darkness and  restricted horizons, the people  capable of feeling empathy (and love) – Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and Gawain – are those we  admire, even though they are doomed to be crushed by blind forces of animality.  They do generally adhere to the injunctions of the honor codes of their day that overly celebrate individual merit, but they are also responsive to the more subtle dimensions of human love and feeling. 

As with Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette, Bresson is again pessimistic about the prospects of making genuine, empathic human engagement.  But in Lancelot du Lac he portrays people who did manage, at least for awhile, to make that interpersonal connection.
  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972).  For further discussion of Bresson’s style, see also my reviews of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967).
  2. Although 6th century Celts may have had chainmail armor, they probably didn’t have the plated armor shown here, which is more characteristic of the medieval period of the later French romantic poets.

1 comment:

katia said...

“Lancelot of the Lake” by Robert Bresson (1974)
is a demythologized version of Arthurian legend, a kind of “King Arthur” for adults. Bresson focuses on the love affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and on Lancelot’s destiny after his return to the “Round Table” without the Holy Grail. The both main characters of the film are shown as the amazingly “modern” in their sensibility; their problems are the same as our problems today. Lancelot’s mistakes are that of Western civilization in the beginning of 21st century, while Guinevere is a role model for us in her critical stance against the culture of rivalry, competition, wars, heroism and exceptional achievements.

In Bresson’s film as a radical deconstruction of traditional values, human beings are shown as if hypnotically submerged into the sticky atmosphere of habitual ways of feeling and acting. People follow the call of cultural archetypes somnambulically, to the apocalyptic end, with a full honor of their high moral grounds - with belief, dedication and self-sacrifice. With a stylistic clairvoyance Bresson exposes the spiritual experiences of warrior-knights as a vain and self-aggrandizing quest for invulnerability and ontological plenitude, and their orientation on valor and heroism as a childish naiveté with masochistic flavor. Bresson debunks morality even of the noblest among the knights as a loyalty to the group with a shared fetish (their common goal) and identity, their concept of beauty as a profane aestheticism of banners, knights’ colorful tights and horses’ saddles, their idea of glory as a worshipful sacrifice of their own and other people’s bodies, and their understanding of mastery as an expertise in battle.

While the shining spirituality is mocked by Bresson as the shining of armors and weapons, only among the exceptional female characters we can see a perspective on psychological maturity and existential spirituality, but by the price of women’s cultural infertility and isolation. It is the horses’ eyes and the shy sound of their neigh – “obsessive” motif of the film – become sign of ontological home, unrecognized by people obsessed with and abandoned by their dream of possessing power over otherness, life and death (the dream our culture today shamefully and tragically shares with Lancelot, Arthur, Gawain and other knights, except with so much more destructive capability).
By Victor Enyutin