Monday, 27 February 2012

UNE FEMME DOUCE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Bresson's first film in colour is a detached portrait of a loveless marriage based upon the short story by Dostoyevsky. As always, this unique clinical approach renders elements of humanity that are so often elusive in cinema. This film is included in the continuing TIFF Cinematheque retrospective of the complete works of Robert Bresson, organized & curated by legendary film programmer-curator extraordinaire James Quandt.

Une Femme Douce (1969) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Dominique Sanda, Guy Frangin, Jeanne Lobre


By Greg Klymkiw

From the top floor of an apartment building balcony, a white scarf floats gently in the breeze while its owner, a stunningly beautiful young woman (Dominique Sanda) lies crumpled on the pavement after an intentional fatal dive. We know her fate, but Robert Bresson, through the cold narration of her husband (Guy Frangin) takes us on the harrowing journey that led to her decision.

Une Femme Douce is not only the portrait of a loveless marriage, but given the perspective Bresson has chosen to impart the tale, it's as much a film about how cruel and blind a man can be when he places the gaining of material wealth before the happiness of both himself and the woman he purports to love.

Bresson never waivers from the husband's biased rendering of the marriage. Though we are shown everything through the greed-clouded memory of this one man, we see what he doesn't. Bresson, however, does not use his directorial hand to guide us. He shows us what is plainly before the man. We, are the ones who make up our own minds as we piece the puzzle together.

This unique approach to storytelling is what has made the film one of the greatest of all time, and yet another magnificent example of work that influenced filmmakers the world over.

Adapted from the Fyodor Dostoyevsky story "Krotkaiya" ("A Meek Woman"), Bresson updates the tale to contemporary France, but remains faithful to the literary source. The major change is that the man in the Dostoyevsky piece was a disgraced former member of the military who becomes a lowly pawnbroker. Bresson wisely and brilliantly places the character in a position that would speak more clearly to audiences of today by making him a disgraced former banker. This also plays brilliantly into the petty stinginess of the character.

At first, the man seems genuinely taken with the willowy young lady who enters his shop with one knick-knack after another and he continually gives her far more money than her items are worth. Their exchanges are marked by the woman's silence, but eventually, she drops her guard and the two begin to talk.

He eventually professes his love to her and begs for her hand in marriage. To his delight, she accepts. Their wedding night proves to be a success - at least according to the man and he welcomes his new bride into his shop and begins to teach her about both the business and the joys of capitalism.

Things seem pleasant enough, but slowly the woman begins to show compassion for those who desperately come to the pawn shop - parting with their sentimental baubles in exchange for a tiny bit of cash in order to live. She begins to pay people more than what the items are worth. In a sense, she is doing what he husband did for her. The difference in that her designs are genuinely altruistic. His were an insidious attempt to "buy" her love.

The husband, sees none of this, It's right before his eyes.

Through Bresson's camera, it's before our eyes also.

His wife's charitable nature angers him and he becomes even more obsessed with the idea that she must be drilled more intensely with the regimen of greed. She rejects this, as she also begins to reject his increasing cheapness in all matters. This infuriates him to the point of distraction and her eventual and continual disappearing acts when she gets angry, metamorphosise from pure anger into extreme jealousy as he assumes she has taken a lover.

When she falls gravely ill, however, he showers her with the finest medical attention money can buy, dotes upon her endlessly and professes his love anew - promising that he will devote himself to her wholeheartedly and furthermore, that he will arrange a lovely, extended vacation for the two of them.

This, should be enough to suggest that things will turn around.

This, however, is a film by Robert Bresson - adapted, no less, from Dostoyevsky.

Two key symbols reign over the film. One is the image of cages in a zoo - shot from inside the cage and looking upon both the man and woman as they peer at the animals. On one hand, it might be suggested that she is in a prison - or more accurately, a zoo cage. She's a live creature with its wings clipped by this petty bourgeois pawnbroker.

This is true enough, but the fact remains that Bresson's camera eye peers at both of them through the cage. In fact, the camera is below eye level as they look up at the monkeys in the cage. The camera itself is, on one hand detached and clinical, but because it is not a direct point of view shot from the animals' eye-line, it's especially clear that the husband and wife are the prisoners. Both of them are incarcerated, but it's the worst kind. They're trapped together in a cell that neither of them should be sharing.

The second, and perhaps most powerful symbol is a plastic moulding of Jesus on the cross which she takes to the pawnbroker early in the film. He's far more interested in the gold cross which the plastic Jesus is affixed to. He removes Christ, handles the gold greedily, places the lucre on a scale and offers her a whack of cash and the Jesus figurine. This cheap plastic Jesus takes on considerable resonance in both this scene and much later on. On the surface, it is a seemingly worthless bauble, but is, in fact representative - at least to the woman - of something much greater.

Once again, Bresson's mise-en-scene is imbued with a precision few directors can even come close to rendering and his pace, though measured, and his shots, though seemingly straightforward and his takes, far longer than what's normally expected, especially in contemporary cinema, all contribute to generating a film that is pure Bresson.

As such, it is a film of extraordinary power and even within Bresson's almost clinical approach, it is practically exploding with humanity of the most indelible kind.

The final image of her coffin being screwed shut cuts breathtakingly to black and we are left in the darkness to contemplate all that is human, all that is wretched, all that is humanity itself.

Bresson plunges us headlong into the terrible beauty of life and what it means to be human.

We are, without a doubt, all the better for it.

"Une Femme Douce" is screening as 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 March 8 at 6PM and Saturday March 10 at 4PM . Tickets are available HERE. "Une Femme Douce" is also available on DVD.