Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac (1974)

This review has especially to do with one glaring omission in Tony Pipolo's incisive and inclusive treatment of Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du lac in his book, Bresson: A Passion for Film (2010).

The book is excellent; it is perhaps the finest book ever written on a movie director. The attention to detail, even while focussing on the key issues, which have been recapitulated through years of discussion and agreement between such excellent admirers as Tarkovsky, Schrader, Sontag and others, is almost too good to be believed. Pipolo has not left loose ends about; above all, his rigour and excellent coverage impresses one most. Like Lancelot’s ‘delay’ in consummating his illicit affair with Guinevere, Pipolo has spent such a long time preparing this book that it shows—but the result, fortunately, is very beneficial to us readers.

At any event, my appreciation for the book is too much to be expressed in words. It is one of unqualified appreciation, as I feel there are (if at all) very few books which even approach this masterly work in terms of comprehensiveness, concision (yes, both), and focus. Like in Bresson’s works, the commonly occurring themes are identified and studied in detail, the patterns are brought out, and in the end it all goes down well in understanding Bresson the man; which is what the book sets out to achieve in the first place. The book does the job thoroughly well.

I would, however, take this opportunity to point out one glaring omission Pipolo made in his competent analysis of one of Bresson’s least favoured movies, Lancelot du lac, which also happens to be one of my favourite movies. As he winds his way through the existential maze Lancelot has made for himself and for the others, Pipolo seems to lose sight of one of the things he himself stresses in the analysis: the importance of materials and reality in Bresson’s films. Especially so in this movie, which resounds with ‘the overlapping sounds of clanging armour’ (a reference to Philippe Sarde’s masterly background score, the finest in any chivalry movie)—it seems Bresson has taken some pains to remind us that the materiality is what counts. There is no hint of any supernatural god—at least not in a way we would expect from a reading of the background material. The knights are real and their way of life is real. They kill as a matter of course; it is what they do best. The Round Table (it must be said that nowhere in the movie is there any suggestion of a formal association of knights; they present themselves as a ragtag assortment of rather polished villains with a few innocent ones caught in between—like for instance, Gawain) is a brotherhood of knights.

What is really shown in the film is that the knights have returned from an errand, a rather grandiose chase after the grail, and in the quest the purest among them, Galahad and Percival, have disappeared (or chosen not to return). Bresson makes no more demands from the viewer, that much is known to anyone who speaks English or French. He directly cuts into the guts of the story: the best of the knights, the invincible Lancelot, is carrying on a romance with the Queen, Guinevere. He has returned dissatisfied, and, in the absence of any other distractions, he is bent of renewing his earlier attentions. He is torn between his failure to attain the grail (knightly competence seemed inadequate to procure it); his duty to his fellow knights and to his kind, counterpoised with his all-consuming passion for Guinevere. He is not in a position to continue it physically even though he lusts after her; yet this is enough to undo his resolve to resort to a spiritual quest, which he by now realises, must be the true way to the grail.

Several questions open up at this point already, at least a few of which have not been considered by Pipolo. Lancelot may not really be interested in the grail—for he is a true “champion” knight, bloodthirsty, and by all reckoning, invincible in single combat. This alone might lead him to rather exclusive, selfish thoughts. Not much intelligence is needed (he is a very cunning person, for chivalry is a lot about cunning as well as technique) to see that his king is very much dependent on him.

Yet, he had quested for the grail and failed. In retaliation, did he perhaps finish off his compatriots himself? It is not revealed, but that may well have been the case. Whatever, it is quite possible that Lancelot is not very much interested in the grail.

Into middle age, Lancelot’s thoughts must have been slipping in the other direction (Arthur was well past this age and well into the 50s, hence his exhortation to Gawain, to “pray”). His former life, spent in bloodshed, was a failure. He could have naturally drifted on to the very comforting thought that he could do as he chose with Guinevere, who returned his affections. He was also a favourite of Arthur’s. In every way his position was enviable, yet he was most miserable. Deep within, he fought a losing battle with the different aspects of his personality—torn between loyalty, duty, and love. The end result is that he lies to everyone and keeps none of his promises. Yet, every one of his flawed promises (lies) is backed up by a delayed, yet conclusive action, fearsome in its destructiveness. He is the extreme exponent of the art of chivalry, a monster of his trade, and in modern terms, he had “overgrown the system.”

This, in essence, sums up my point. Chivalry, as a system, was the domain of the landowners, the rulers, the knights, the lords. The common public (the ones we used to identify Robin Hood with, in our early years of limited knowledge of complex English social class and structure) were kept away from these entertainments except as spectators. Yet, it was but a small matter for someone to come up with the idea of a bow and arrow, to perfect it, and then raze the entire rotten system to the ground. And that is the denouement of Lancelot du lac.

Armed with the moral righteousness of his position, Mordred raises an army from the common folk. All archers, it turns out—for he has no supporters among the knights, or perhaps, in his prudence, he saves all his remaining chivalrous friends from the stupidity of facing Lancelot. Instead, he deputes his lowly archers and challenges Arthur.

Little did Arthur know that Mordred, who had until then unsuccessfully tried to belong in a world in which he didn't fit in, had found allies to his liking. And chivalrous Arthur, bolstered by Lancelot’s submission and allegiance, marches off to field. He is greeted not by a row of knights but by a hail of arrows. In quick time, what remained of the brotherhood of knights is quickly finished off. In a breathtaking reinvention of the final battle, Bresson brings history and legend in tune with reality: as chivalry dies gasping, a new era, that of feudalism, announces its arrival, marshalled by the able hands of the puny, invisible distant archer, safe at his post, stringing his arrows to hurl at a massive but vulnerable foe from afar. The age of the projectile had arrived.

In the world of the arrow, it makes no difference if the arrowhead meets Lancelot, horse, armour, or tree-bark. It treats everything the same, with the same impassive coldness that would have done Lancelot proud. And with much the same efficacy, the arrow deals it out. An older technology is conclusively beaten by a newer technology: faster, cheaper, more agile, and deadly. What was once regarded as invincible is quickly defeated by a different force, a different medium, a different reality. The old must make way for the new, and in the event, there is no place for Lancelot’s doubts, or Guinevere’s conscious sacrifice, or Gawain’s innocence. Indeed, when history is made in letters of blood, there is no need to speak—or even think.



Was very late when I started this—close to 04:00 am. Simply had to write this, because this point—which is not so much as referenced in Pipoli's excellent analysis—would have made it more complete. It seemed to me a glaring omission. Bresson is also offering an explanation of why religion went out of people's hearts in the first place. Or, how power corrupts the minds and drives out religion. For, flimsy as it proves in the end, chivalry was preserved purely as a bloodsport by those in power. For, in the end, as the archers prove convincingly, if the object is to kill, then the bow and arrow can kill much more easily, and safely. And when they do, the rules of the game change dramatically. One-to-one becomes 'free-for-all.'