"Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne", Dir: Robert Bresson, 1945
The films of Robert Bresson came highly recommend by a friend, Darren Lewey, who considers him one of the three most influential directors in European cinema, next to Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, so this led to a search for his films on various streaming services.
Apple TV includes only 2 films of Bresson's films, "A Man Escaped" and "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" (Eng' : "The Ladies of the Park") and if you are new to his work, as I am, Bresson fans might consider this a wrong way around approach in view of the later films that established his reputation.
Terms like "Minimalism" and the fact that Bresson frequently used non-professional actors suggest that having immersed himself fully in the conventions of film-making, by his later films he had broken free of commercial constraints and ways of storytelling, the end result being a fresh and original approach that perhaps bought more truth to his stories.
"Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" in film-making terms is therefore surprisingly conventional, despite being an adaptation by Bresson himself of a literary work Denis Diderot and with dialogue by Jean Cocteau, so his involvement went beyond simply being a director-for-hire and suggests that the theme was something that he had an emotional investment in.
"Hélène" - played by María Casares is a wealthy socialite in an open relationship with her lover "Jean" (Paul Bernard) and when she declares that the spark has gone out of their relationship he confesses that he has felt the same way and has been seeing other women.
They agree to go their separate ways but to remain friends for life - however, this is really part of a subterfuge on Hélène's part since she has effectively extracted a confession from Jean, the sense of betrayal provoking her to get revenge on him in some way.
The revenge takes the form of a meeting engineered by Hélène between Jean and Agnès, a young nightclub dancer with a heart condition and where Hélène convinces Jean that she comes from a reputable family and would make an ideal wife.
In truth, Agnès leads a pitiable life as a dancer and prostitute and lives with her mother - an old friend and possible former employer of Hélène - on the edge of poverty, with the implication that Hélène had managed to escape a similar fate. She agrees to support Agnès and her mother and help them to escape the life that has bought them both disrepute, though Agnès quickly suspects that Hélène has another agenda.
Jean however is unaware of the trap being laid for him by Hélène and his attraction to Agnès and persistent attentions eventually leads to marriage. The final blow comes when Agnès has to face the male guests to the wedding ceremony, many of whom are her wealthy former clients and Jean is horrified when Hélène reveals the truth to him.
The film concludes with Jean, now aware of the truth, putting aside his disgust and pledging his loyalty to the dying Agnès who asks for his forgiveness, so cheating the scheming Hélène of victory.
The plot would suggest that we should have no sympathy for Hélène but in fact this is a film that focusses very much on the limited choices that women had at one time, perhaps still, and while Bresson and his cinematographer make great use of María Casares' saturnine features, for the most part shot with her face tilted downwards, eyes downcast, to imply that she is thinking and scheming, her simmering fury is understandable, the possible consequences made worse by the contrast with the young and joyous Agnès, who has managed to retain a fragment of innocence despite her wretched existence.
In cinematic terms the film is quite conventional though there are possibly a few sequences that anticipate Bresson's later work, such as a scene where Jean is trying to perform a 3-point maneuver in his car while trying to escape the wedding reception and hemmed in by parked cars and the arrival of Hélène's car, that is blocking his exit.
Using a camera located in the passenger seat of Jean's car we see him repeatedly driving the car back and forth as Hélène goes in and out of shot, cropped by the driver-side window as she delivers the terrible truth to him, resulting in a scene with layered meaning via a clever and original cinematic device.
Perhaps not the best entry into Robert Bresson's work but fascinating all the same and worth watching as much for the story as for the evocative lighting design and monochrome photography.