Saturday, 18 February 2012

Lancelot du Lac - Review by Greg Klymkiw - Robert Bresson's brilliant revisionist take on the Knights of the Round Table. "Lancelot du Lac" is part of the continuing TIFF Cinematheque retrospective of the complete works of Robert Bresson as organized/curated by legendary film programmer/curator James Quandt

Lancelot du Lac (1974) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Luc Simon, Laura Duke Condominas, Humbert Balsan, Vladimir Antolek-Oresek, Patrick Bernard


By Greg Klymkiw

While I think my favourite Knights of the Roundtable movie is still John Boorman's Excalibur, Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac is pretty damned extraordinary. Unlike Boorman's lush, baroque approach to the tales popularized by Sir Thomas Malory's famed literary collection of Arthurian legends "Le Morte d'Arthur", Bresson applies a strange, stripped-down rendering that is equally compelling.

We're all familiar with these legends and Bresson pretty much sticks to our expectations on the story front. The Knights have returned to Camelot utterly shagged-out and decimated after a futile search for The Holy Grail. Sir Lancelot (Luc Simon) still loves Guinevere the Queen (Laura Duke Condominas) and she, in turn, has been pining for his manly attentions for far too long. Lancelot, however, bummed-out for boinking King Arthur's (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) wife, decides he must put an end to the deception as its an affront to King, Country and God.

The nasty cowardly Mordred (Patrick Bernard) starts spreading well-founded rumours about the queen's infidelities and though Lancelot tries to offer his hand in friendship to this foul illegitimate inbred son, Mordred has other plans - nefarious ones, of course. As Mordred tries plying dissent, the Knights start getting antsy because Arthur's closed down the Round Table and has decided to await word from God for their next mission.

To keep them happy and with Knight Gawain's (Humbert Balsan) help, a major jousting tournament is organized. Carnage ensues on the fields of this deadly sport until Lancelot decides to shift gears and become Guinevere's protector once more.

More carnage ensues.

Several elements contribute to the strange phenomenon that is Lancelot du Lac. First and foremost is the briefly aforementioned stripped-down approach to the drama. The film is gorgeously shot as Bresson favours longer takes, few closeups and almost no cutaways during dialogue sequences. Add to this the odd, almost somnambulistic quality of the performances and the movie has a deliciously weird flavour that feels like a cross between Bresson's normal unfettered style with an almost visible and intentional directorial hand in rendering the drama in this fashion.

The action sequences are especially brilliant. Here Bresson employs a far more cut-intensive approach. However, rather than the typically contemporary herky-jerky style of action cutting that seems to drag almost every modern action sequence to ridiculous extremes with a sloppy sense of geography, Bresson employs numerous lightning-quick cuts that emphasize the raw brutality of the violence. The filmmaking is exciting, to be sure, but the acts of violence are not - they're vicious, nasty and almost matter-of-fact.

When Bresson cuts action, he does so in a pounding, visceral fashion, but not to add the sort of fake thrills and suspense modern audiences are sadly getting used to, but rather, to place emphasis on the truly horrific elements of man-to-man warfare. As brutal and brilliant as Boorman's violence was in Excalibur, it was presented as "Boys' Own" derring-do. There's nothing romantic about Bresson's carnage.

During the jousting sequences Bresson brilliantly gives us a clear sense of geography in terms of the division between spectators and participants, but on the field of honour itself, he skews our overall sense of geography and emphasizes individual physical rituals that suck us deeply into the carnage. There are a handful of close medium shots, for example, where the camera is locked down in terms of the frame. In the foreground we see the smooth, clearly powerful and especially deadly end of the lance, while the background moves ever-so furiously forward as knight and horse charge towards their opponent.

Bresson also makes his trademark stunning use of sound with a barrage of rhythmic drums beats, hoof pounding, bagpipe blurts, clangs of metal and the horrendous crunch of lance-against metal/shield/flesh.

The bloodletting, it should be noted, is copious and geyser-like. Whereas it's clearly horrendous in this film, some audiences might be compelled to laugh when they realize how clearly Bresson's violence here must have been a huge influence upon Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones when they directed their own skewed (albeit satirical) portrait of the Knights of the Round Table in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

With Lancelot du Lac, Bresson once again delivers a motion picture that breaks every rule under the sun, but does so with such precision and intent that it works on a level of cinematic-boundary-breaking while providing entertainment that works on emotional, visceral and intellectual levels.

"Lancelot du Lac" is part of the TIFF Cinemtheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt. Aptly titled "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson", this and every other Bresson film is unspooling at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and over a dozen cinemas across North America. The film is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox Monday February 20 06:30 PM and Tuesday March 6 09:00 PM. The February 20 screening includes a lecture by Brian Price.

To order tickets and read Quandt's fabulous program notes, visit the TIFF website HERE.