Les Dames Du Bois de Boulonge: The Criterion Collection
Often when two talented artists intersect to work on a project together, auteurism insists that one voice be dominant in the body of the work (for example, the debate over the main voice behind the Steven Spielberg-Stanley Kubrick collaboration A.I.). And surely when Les Dames Du Bois de Boulonge was released in Paris in 1945, most of France saw it less as the second feature-length film from Robert Bresson, and more as scripter Jean Cocteau's creation (Cocteau worked on the adaptation of Denis Diderot's novel Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître with Bresson). After all, he was a more famous artist and filmmaker than Bresson at that time. But on its initial release the film found made little impact. However, sometimes later works shed new light on earlier "failures." Cocteau's reputation has not diminished, Bresson's role as one of the founders of Transcendental Cinema (a term coined by Bresson acolyte Paul Schrader), and the reputation built on such pictures as Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest, has placed Dames more in the camp of Bresson. Perhaps it's because Bresson's career was in its infancy; it was hard to spot his voice. Today, Dames seems more Bresson than Cocteau. It's a fascinating as a story in itself, and as a fascinating transition point for one of France's most important directors. After having dinner with a suitor who insists her current beau has lost interest in her, Helene (Orpheus' Princess Maria Casares) decides to trick boyfriend Jean (Paul Bernard) to see if the rumors are true. When she suggests they spend time apart, and he uses it as an excuse to break up, she begins plotting her revenge. And she finds the perfect tool for her animosity when she sees nightclub dancer and part-time hooker Agnes (Elina Labourdette), whose mother is an old country neighbor of hers. Helene sets up Agnes and her mother (Lucienne Bogaert) in an apartment in town, and then has the pair meet her at The Bois de Boulogne. Once there, Helene immediately gets Jean to fall for Agnes; the young man is smitten with curiosity. But before long, Jean shows up at Agnes' apartment, and the lady begins to suspect that Helene is using her for some means especially after a dinner party where Jean "accidentally" appears. But as Jean and Agnes grow closer, they may have a surprise in store for Helene.
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Though Jean Cocteau helped shaped the dialogue, Les Dames Du Bois de Boulonge is a Robert Bresson film, and it seems to be Bresson at a turning point. One can source his influences more readily here as the thumbprints of Max Ophuls can be sensed in some of the lighting and design of shots but the feel of the film and its steady build all comes from Bresson. As it is, it's one of his lighter works (as David Thomson observes in his liner notes), a story obviously derived from Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses; it's removed from the heavy moral dramas that Bresson later found himself drawn to. Yet as the film comes to its conclusion as Agnes and Jean face decisions regarding redemption and death one can see the filmmaker that Bresson would become in those last five minutes; the protagonists here face the same sort of questions all of the Bressonian protagonists butt heads against. But even as a lighter work, there is much to recommend: Casares makes for a splendid bitch of a character, and the story is gripping enough as a revenge ode. And for those who find Bresson to be one of cinema's greats, it's interesting to watch a new voice in a rudimentary form.
Criterion's DVD release of Les Dames Du Bois de Boulonge presents the first Robert Bresson film of to be released on disc in a restored presentation, with a full-frame black-and-white transfer (1.33:1) and DD 1.0 audio. The print features some lustrous imagery, although it is not without damage. Speckles appear at reel-changes, and the soundtrack has some ambient noise early on. But the picture is in good shape for the majority of the running time. Extras include a still gallery that highlights a cut scene featuring Labourdette, as well as advertising material. The disc is accompanied by two great essays on the film: the first by François Truffaut, who covers the movie's history in an excerpt from his memoirs (Cocteau said the film won its approval in the appeals court), and another from David Thomson (best known for his Biographical Dictionary of Film), who does a good job of placing the film in the Bressonian canon. Keep-case.