Sunday, 19 February 2012

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne - Review By Greg Klymkiw - With magnificently overwrought melodramatic dialogue by Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson's dark, sexy tale of vengeance is not unlike some alternately vicious and romantic Gallic pairing of Fritz Lang and James M. Cain with healthy dollops of MGM womens' weepies. "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" is part of the continuing TIFF Cinematheque retrospective of the complete works of Robert Bresson as organized and curated by the legendary film programmer and curator extraordinaire James Quandt.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Maria Casarès, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette, Lucienne Bogaert


By Greg Klymkiw

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and Robert Bresson easily delivers one of the sexiest, nastiest femmes fatales ever committed to film in his truly astounding Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. Maria Casarès, who played the memorable Nathalie in Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise and was a favourite of Cocteau, takes on the role here of Hélène, a stunningly gorgeous woman of considerable affluence whose boredom and trifling leads to playing a dangerous game of deception and revenge.

Casarès is so astounding in this role, it sometimes shocks me that she wasn't whisked away to Hollywood by the likes of David O. Selznick to bring the sort of exotic foreign flare to Tinseltown studio pictures that the likes of Hedy Lamar, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich delivered. With cheekbones to die for, dark piercing eyes, a stunning aquiline proboscis and lips that were made to alternately plant big wet smooches and to drip with blood, Casarès commands the screen here with the sort of screen presence designed to tantalize and terrorize.

She might well be the original spider woman of cinema - and her kiss is most deadly.

When Hélène seeks to liven things up with her foppish lover Jean (Paul Bernard), she offers up a "Dear John" speech designed to engorge his gonads and get him hot and bothered enough to put some spice back into their affair. Jean, not one to take a hint, boneheadedly admits to feeling similarly. He proposes they maintain their deep love as FRIENDS, but part as lovers.

Jean, take it from me, this was not a good move.

Hélène is cool about it all. Too cool. Her mind calculates a plan to get the ultimate revenge upon Jean - one that's so "take-no-prisoners" in its approach that it threatens to bring more than one innocent party down. She sets the wheels in motion for Jean to fall so madly in love with another woman, Agnès (Elina Labourdette) that he obsessively pursues her (with Hélène's manipulative assistance) until she falls in love with him too.

Marriage bells are imminent and Hélène even offers to completely coordinate the lavish public nuptials. Jean, it seems, has fallen for a former prostitute. Most of Parisian society is aware of this. Jean, blindly and madly in love, is not.

The story, rife as it is with so many foul twists and turns orchestrated by the nasty Black Widow Spider Woman, is a corker. While we follow with pure salacious joy, Bresson makes superb use of Jean Cocteau's ripe dialogue with a mise-en-scene that delivers a grotesque creepy-crawly pace that's punctuated several times with emotional coldcocks upon both the viewer and the characters in the piece whom Hélène victimizes.

After the wedding ceremony, Agnès takes ill when she discovers the guest list is replete with all the men she has serviced as a prostitute. Jean, still unaware of the deception perpetrated upon him is greeted with Hélène's foul scorn when she maliciously announces to him outside the church: "You've married a tramp. Now you must face the consequences. You're suddenly so sentimental. Since your marriage seems to mean so much to you, you mustn't run off. Return to Agnès' side. You won't be the only one to console her. All her lovers are inside. And there are plenty of them!"

Both the dialogue and Casarès's delivery are like a butcher knife to the gut. We've experienced her manipulations, but we've also been dragged through the pain Agnès has felt throughout the film - trying to hide her shame, trying to deny the love she feels for Jean and wishing she could undo everything to finally, for once, experience the sort of joy in life she once imagined having in childhood.

Bresson knocks us flat-out - not just with despair, but in those moments the film flirts with and eventually succumbs to the purity and power of love.

His movie is at once heartbreakingly dark and wildly romantic. Once again, it seems, for all of Bresson's (and his egghead champions) insistence upon avoiding typical tropes of commercial cinema, he yields a movie that offers everything an audience would want - including the kitchen sink.

That said, it's Robert Bresson's kitchen sink and as such, he delivers both the real goods and great cinema all at once. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is deeply moving and Bresson proves, once again, that he has few equals.

"Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" 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 Thursday February 23 06:30 PM and Monday March 5 06:30 PM. "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" is also available on a stunning Criterion Collection DVD. This is definitely worth owning, but only AFTER or in TANDEM with seeing the picture ON A BIG SCREEN - ON FILM.

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