Lancelot du Lac
A Fraction of Freedom
At the beginning of Lancelot du Lac, the director, Robert Bresson is both elliptical and explicit and, oddly, all the more elliptical in his explicitness. In the opening minutes of the film, Bresson shows us the knights of the round table who we will discover have been searching for the Holy Grail. Bresson illustrates someone having his head lopped off with the blood streaming out of it, another so firmly hit on his helmeted head with a sword that blood spurts out of the cut in the metal. We also see two skeletons hanging from a tree, in full armour, and see, too, a couple of burnt bodies on the ground, the flames near them still burning. All this takes place in the first two and a half minutes before a black screen, with red writing scrolling down, informs us of the knights' quest for the grail, assumed to be somewhere in Brittany. They have yet to find it. As the text scrolls, we hear the sound of drums and bagpipes, a militaristic acoustic accompaniment that gives us a strong sense of their adventures. We are less than four minutes into the film and have a clear idea of its focus and purpose. Is this what Jonathan Rosenbaum means when he says Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac embodies the perfection of a language that has been in the process of development and refinement for over thirty years." (Movies as Politics)
Perhaps. But first, we need to think a little more about Bresson's use of the elliptical and the explicit. When classic Hollywood utilises the elliptical it is often for the implicit, to indicate that the film has retreated from showing us an act of sex or violence as it leaves the deed to the viewer's imagination. Whether it is the train going into a tunnel as a sign of the central characters' lovemaking in North by Northwest, or a horse shaken by a gun going off in Ride Lonesome, traditional Hollywood films frequently found ways to imply the nature of a situation rather than show it. But Bresson's ellipses function very differently, and in showing us the explicit violence that classic Hollywood implies, Bresson doesn't do it with a standardised elliptical structure of elision but creates his own method, taking responsibility for the image regime not within a model of production but through a particular type of creation. When Rosenbaum says that "the source of amazement lies in the film's clarity and simplicity, a precise and irreducible arrangement of sounds and images that is so wholly functional that nothing is permitted to detract from the overall narrative complex, and everything present is used," he sees an aesthetic worked out over decades in The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Mouchette and others. Bresson himself reckoned "there have been times when my willpower failed me, which was bad, but now it's soaring." (Positif) He made this claim in an interview on his last film, L'argent, as though the accumulation of a body of work made the will more firm: the more Bresson films there were, the more assertively he could apply that will. Lancelot du Lac, made in 1974, shows that assertion but then let us not pretend it wasn't in place since at least his third feature, The Diary of a Country Priest.
To understand something of Bresson's aesthetic, to understand an aspect of his philosophy, is to comprehend this notion of the will, but rather than initially attending to the philosophical complexity of such a position, one that incorporates the notion of predestination, chance and also that we are all are part of the same essential soul, we can think of the will as an aesthetic one: about the rigour of choice as artistic decision-making. We can think again of the film's opening minutes, at how Bresson conveys rather than shows the action. In narrative terms, marauding knights try and discover the whereabouts of the Holy Grail but that usually requires a far higher degree of mimesis than Bresson relies upon. In mimesis we have showing while in diegesis we have telling: the terms go back to Plato and Aristotle and find their way in a contemporary film truism as show don't tell. But such a truism suggests no interest in economy and chiefly an interest in the dramatic. How Bresson may wonder does one show economically and how much telling is required to convey the essence of a given situation. Voice-over is the most basic diegetic tool and Bresson has used it often, in The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, but there was irony in its use: he adopted it pleonastically, allowing things both to be stated in the voice-over and shown on the screen. It suggested a necessary distance between word and deed, between thought and action, but this was different from economy. If Rosenbaum is right that Bresson has perfected his film language, or at least perfected it in a certain direction that we are calling conveying rather than showing, voiceover is eschewed even if sound remains paramount. When they pass through Brittany at the beginning of the film, there is a shot of a knight on a horse in a church looking for the grail. Yet all we see is a partial image of the knight and the horse, and the knight's sword knocking over the contents on a table. The sound of the act indicates violence that goes far beyond a single shot but the one shot is allowed to convey to us numerous deeds and numerous horrors. How many churches will they have ransacked in their search?
The three most common approaches for a filmmaker to show such raids would be cross-cutting, a montage sequence or showing one example in some detail that would indicate that this has been a common occurrence. Bresson reduces it to just this one shot. He achieves this partly by relying not on a rousing or a terrifying score but by the sounds of the horses' hooves, the clanking armour and the objects brushed aside. Bresson says in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuel, "the ear is profound, whereas the eye is frivolous, too easily satisfied. The ear is active, imaginative, whereas the eye is passive. When you hear a noise at night, instantly you imagine its cause. The sound of a train whistle conjures up the whole station. The eye can perceive only what is presented to it." Yet this doesn't mean he wants to get rid of the image. "I want both image and sound." (Encountering Directors) After all, directors have removed the image, including Derek Jarman with Blue, and Joao Cesar Monteiro with Branca de neve, where sound has carried most of the information.
Bresson, though, has more than a point when it comes to sound's importance. A sound after all can make us alert to its content and imaginative in our thinking. How often have we thought what is that sound and listened more carefully to try to work out what it might be, and how often have we found ourselves hearing a voice with its back to us, or on the phone, or on the radio, and attached a face to it that is a product of our imagination? Obviously the reverse can be true also, and in Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer, we are six minutes into the film before we hear the central character speak. Apart from singing "bom, bom, bom", he has been silent, and we might be surprised by the resonant, rich voice this apparently aimless young man possesses. Yet perhaps what is interesting about the voice that we lend a face to, or a noise that we try and capture more carefully, is that what is visual without a sound rarely elicits an enquiry, while a sound without an image often does. It is common enough for us to hear a voice and wonder who it belongs to if we can't see the person; it is much less common for us to wonder what voice someone has when they have yet to speak. However, when they do, we often find it is not the voice we thought they would have, suggesting that, however unconsciously, an assumption was made.
Bresson may talk a lot about the significance of sound but that needn't be to the detriment of the image as he insists on the importance of their combination, though that combination shouldn't be taken for granted. When he says "I present the effect before the cause" he is talking about narrative information, how in his work he thinks "this is a good idea because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you desire to find out the reason." (Encountering Directors) However, too, by showing us a person without hearing them, or hearing them without seeing them, the attentive, the imaginative and the subconscious assumption can all be accessed. If Bresson is such an important and rigorous filmmaker it rests on an understanding of the audio-visual as a mode of revelation rather than expectation. This may also mean revelation as a spiritual experience but for the moment we need only think of it as the pursuit of the audio-visually surprising and the work that goes into their manifestation.
Returning to Lancelot du Lac, one can think of the scene where Lancelot and his lover, the king's wife, Guinevere, discuss their affair after his return from the mission the film has opened on. The scene starts with a shot at the window, a small bird seen on a bush outside before a counter shot shows us Lancelot looking out. As he walks around the room, the voice we mainly hear is Guinevere's even as the film remains on Lancelot as he moves restlessly back and forth. She wants to persuade him that their affair must continue; Lancelot insists it must end. We have no idea what expression Guinevere has on her face as she beseeches him to continue their love but when we finally see her in the frame she is contained and still. Her body language suggests there has been no gesture of persuasion and thus Bresson had no need to show it. Lancelot who has said little has been moving with the force of indecision, a resolution in his mind that cannot quite be matched by the movements of his body. The irony is that Guinevere is more resolute in her desire than Lancelot is in his resistance. Bresson shows us that indecision and then shows us that, while we might have assumed Guinevere would have been more insistent in her body language, instead she has remained fixed and firm. However, when Lancelot sits next to her, the film shows her adamant in her speech as she becomes firm in her move towards a gesture. She takes Lancelot's hand and places it in hers before he removes it, gets up and insists he must be alone. All the while as Guinevere tries to persuade him they should continue as lovers, there is nothing 'loving' in her demeanour. The curiosity we may have felt wondering what expression she may be conveying as she speaks to him before we see her face, is matched then by a curiosity that makes us wonder what feeling she isn't so much hiding as expressing on her terms. She may accuse Lancelot of pride but isn't there pride too in her attempt to persuade him with firm words rather than beseeching actions?
It leaves us with another mystery to resolve within this first, which we might call audio-visual. The second we can call psychological, even though Bresson always had a problem with the term, if for no better reason than what he seeks is perhaps a third the metaphysical. Speaking of psychology he says, "the psychologist discovers only what he can explain. I explain nothing." (Film Comment) But another way of looking at this is to say that the psychology many films emphasise gives no room to the inexplicable and the unaccountable. Superficially, Bresson offers in Lancelot du Lac a love triangle but removes from it the heated emotions that psychology could claim as its own. Ambition, passion, lust and jealousy are all available to Bresson in this take on Arthurian legend but, if he bypasses them, it is surely because they get in the way of the higher purpose he seeks. It is not so much that we have to call this higher purpose God, it isn't that we have to see Lancelot du Lac and other Bresson films within the context of the holy. But the form must nevertheless move beyond the everyday. One cannot explain Lancelot du Lac in psychological terms as we can a typical, albeit nuanced love triangle film like Claude Chabrol's La Femme infidele. There is an enormous difference between perverse psychology and a hunger for an abstract necessity. In the former, love can play games, generating feelings out of scenarios that reignite passion, evident in Chabrol's film when the wife sees a whole new side to her husband when he kills her lover, and where she can desire him once again the moment that he will be taken to prison. In the love triangles Bresson often generates (Pickpocket, A Gentle Creature, Four Nights of a Dreamer, Lancelot du Lac), it seems almost absurd to call them love triangles at all. They exist on a plane of determination that leaves behind the triangulation of desire as a nexus of feeling and suggests that such emotions are very weak next to a monomania the films seek to reveal. In Pickpocket, the central character's friend desires Jeanne and Jeanne desires the central character. In Four Nights of a Dreamer, the central character desires Marthe while she awaits the return of her lover from America. But one senses there is nothing in the drama that could alter the nature of the circumstances. In Pickpocket, the central character couldn't have loved Jeanne any sooner than he does, and no matter how much Marthe might start caring for the central character in Four Nights of a Dreamer she cannot but love the other man. When at the end of the film she passes him on the street while with the central character, she returns to him immediately without anger or irritation, He is a destiny she cannot refuse rather than a desire she cannot resist.
In the scene in Lancelot du Lac when Guinevere tells Lancelot that "I don't ask to love you", and adds "is it my fault that I cannot live without you, that I need you?", there is nothing to suggest passion or deceit, and the filmic vocabulary remains at one remove from the feelings expressed only if we assume such feelings ought to be psychologised and contain within them behaviour indicating self-determination. Bresson says "I think there is predestination in our lives" (Film Comment) and his work allows us to understand this through the form the film offers. Just as at the end of Four Nights of a Dreamer, Marthe returns inevitably to her lover, so Guineviere announces that she inevitably loves Lancelot. In each instance, Bresson proposes it as a given no human behaviour can alter, so why show that behaviour? Better to find a form indicating the characters are going through the motions since the very notion of motion is merely the individuating of a single soul; that the individual is simply a detail in the design. This paradoxically doesn't deny choice but it puts it into perspective. One thinks the choice is ours but it is beyond us, perhaps in the form of grace. Both Susan Sontag and Paul Schrader in different ways propose this possibility, with Sontag, influenced by Simone Weil, saying that Bresson is interested in "the physics, as it were, rather than in the psychology of souls." (Against Interpretation) Schrader reckons that "in Bressons's films the viewer's feelings have no effect on the outcome" and quotes Andre Bazin saying that Bresson "is not concerned with the psychology but the physiology of existence." (Transcendental Style in Film) There may be a paradox here: that Bresson is interested in the soul and is also interested in the body but watching a Bresson film resolves this apparent contradiction. In the scene two-thirds of the way through the film where Arthur's men come looking for the injured Lancelot, Lancelot has sought shelter once again with the family we saw him staying with at the beginning. A knight says to the ageing woman that they are looking for one of their men and says to her: "nothing to say?" She replies "nothing" and the other knights ride off. She turns away and the knight pulls down his visor and goes with the others. Here we have the bare bones of a scene that we can easily imagine fleshed out dramatically. But Bresson has almost no interest in the knight's search but instead in the woman's dignity and duty. She returns to the house and there Lancelot is lying in bed recovering. Anybody more concerned with the dereliction of duty in the knights' search for Lancelot than in the old lady's determination to protect him is keen to watch a film other than Bresson's. The knight must ask the lady if Lancelot is there and she must have nothing to say in response. It is as if the film has bypassed the psychological and announced both the physiological reality of the woman's presence and the state of her soul that insists she must help Lancelot. There is no sense she is doing it for any pragmatic reason; just that her body attends to some higher demand. When Bresson shows her returning to the house there is no rush or fear evident in the scene; only trust. When she takes Lancelot's hand, it is the closest the sequence gets to comprehending the potential danger as he says "don't grip me so tight."
Speaking to Schrader, Bresson says: "You are quite right. There is no art in only showing things as they are, in a filmed succession of things. An idiot could see what is in front of his eyes and that's all. If you try to make people feel and think instead of hearing and seeing, then it is artistic." (Film Comment) Bresson does make us hear and see but he often makes us see and hear quite specifically, as though many actions in cinema are given false motivational purpose all the better to hide from us the reality of our lives: one that lacks the freedom we assign it. "Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and thought." He also says, however, "Models mechanized externally, internally free. On their faces nothing wilful. The constant, the eternal beneath the accidental." (Notes on the Cinematographer) What Bresson conveys in the scenes with the old woman and where Guinevere acknowledges her love for Lancelot is the 1/10th of freedom a person possesses against the 9/10ths that they don't have. Whatever Bresson specifically means when offering this aphoristic statement in a book full of them as he discusses his filmmaking approach, what we find useful in it is the fraction involved in individual purposefulness. Many a film works with an assumption close to 9/10ths of freedom versus the parsimonious wilfulness Bresson offers.
"What is this rigour? Where does this aesthetic toughness come from?" Donald S. Skoller asks in a fine piece, '"Praxis as a Cinematic Principle in the Films of Robert Bresson'. Skoller distinguishes between praxis and plot, seeing in praxis an essential imperative rather than a general sense of action. In plot elements there is a recognizable progression of events. With praxis...there is some revelation of process, the process of spirit or will making its way or asserting itself within a set of circumstances. But another way of looking at this is to see that by extinguishing much that passes for motivation and purpose, a Bresson film can always keep in mind the freedom a character does have rather than the apparent freedom they feel they possess. Next to a Bresson film, many a character in cinema seems constantly to be doing things that convey an autonomy Bresson denies.
To help us here we can digress for a moment from Bresson's work and talk about more conventional films that can seem to be influenced by him: American Gigolo, The Prophet and The American. American Gigolo, ends with a direct homage to Pickpocket and, not only did Schrader interview the director, he also made Bresson one of the three filmmakers he focused on in Transcendental Style in Film. The thrust of American Gigolo is of a vain man who thinks he can live nonchalantly and freely as a playboy to the rich in California, and needn't suffer any consequences. However, when he is accused of murder his alibi involves the wife of a wealthy politician whom he loves and whom he doesn't want to expose. Does he admit where he was or risk being found guilty? She resolves the problem by telling the police the truth and says, rather like Guinevere, that "I had no choice. I love you." But that isn't the way Schrader presents it more broadly within the film aesthetic. We have seen throughout characters who live with the sort of freedom Bresson refuses from the very beginning of his films. It isn't so much that they wear expensive clothes, go to classy restaurants or tan by the sea (all very un-Bressonian), it is more they don't suggest in their body language the limitations Bresson insists upon. The far higher fractional freedom the characters possess gives to the ending of Schrader's film a far weaker conclusion. It isn't fair to say that it is arbitrary but neither does it seem inevitable. When the wife says she had no choice, it is closer to romantic Hollywood's notion of love: in Platonic terms, it is Eros rather than Agape.
In The Prophet, an incarcerated teenager is forced by the crimelord in prison to carry out a hit that the central character is very reluctant to embark upon. If he doesn't do it the crimelord will kill him and the film very vividly shows us the crisis of conscience the central character goes through, the nervous tension he feels aware that he himself could be killed, and the visceral hell of killing a man with no more than a razor blade that he has been carrying inside his mouth as he enters the other man's cell. Ostensibly like a Bresson character he is without much freedom: an incarcerated man who will be killed if he doesn't kill someone else. The teenager nevertheless still possesses the high fractional freedom that characters in cinema usually have. He may be placed in an impossible situation as he knows his survival rests on another man's demise, but at every stage of the plan and the killing Audiard registers a physiological freedom Bresson refuses. The character's body is constantly alive to the choice as Audiard puts us in the complex nervous system of his leading character. After the deed we see him shaking, well aware that he has done a terrible thing and aware, too, it is the only way he could save his skin even if for a long time he will be traumatised within it.
Finally, in The American, the central character is a hitman who falls in love and realises too that he is the subject of a hit. The film increasingly shows a man entwined in a fate that he cannot escape but that he himself instigated. He who lives by the gun does indeed die by the gun as his dreams of a new life are predicated on his ability to escape from the one he has been practising for many years. He doesn't quite make it.
All three films deal loosely with a Bressonian problematic expressed well by Sontag when she says: "all of Bresson's films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty." 'Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson'. But it wouldn't be telling us anything about the way these three films have been made. The theme behind the films is similar to Bresson's but the other directors are far less rigorous in pursuing it. If someone says: "I had no choice, I love you" then to reflect the lack of agency in such a claim, what sort of form needs to be adopted? One that indicates, surely, that no amount of body language can change the nature of the statement.
In Lancelot du Lac, every gesture must contain this absence of freedom. Thus the action sequences are elliptically presented events indicating the inevitable rather than the unpredictable. This is a formal procedure more than a narrative element. Most action films are not in the same sense predictable even if the outcome is entirely likely. The editing strategies adopted create tension even if we don't really assume our hero is in any danger. A person comes rushing towards our main character and at the last second he avoids what would have been a deadly blow; he is chased off a cliff but the water he falls into saves him, and so on. In the joust sequence halfway through the film and in the closing 'battle', Bresson presents the material as ineluctable. Lancelot will of course win the joust and lose the closing skirmish. In the former sequence, the unseen Lancelot takes on a series of knights and defeats them in a sequence based on repetition rather than variation. One after another falls to his lance, with Bresson focusing on the faces of those watching (King Arthur, Gawain and others), on the horses, on the flags and on the piper and the series of blows Lancelot administers as he defeats his opponents.
If action sequences are usually based on making the shot variable enough and the situations disparate enough to keep an audience interested, Bresson seeks to entrance rather than excite, risking boredom as he hopes to reveal that small aspect of self that is one's own rather than the vast expanse of self that belongs to the automatic. By utilising repetition, Bresson shows, even in so masterly a knight as Lancelot, the behaviour isn't especially his; he is just much better in combat than anyone else. The director doesn't wish to show that brilliance in all its variation but concentrates upon it in all its insistence. Lancelot is not 'free' to win the joust as a hero is usually free to defeat others in an action film, and Bresson registers this difference in the form that he adopts. When he says "be precise in the form, not always in the substance (if you can)", we can agree that most action films are not thinking of the form, while Bresson is thinking of it because of a particular substance he seeks.
We will say more about this in a moment, but first a few words about the closing scene and once again the repetition. Here, Bresson shows us a series of echoed moments: first when the knights prepare for battle and the director illustrates four times saddles placed on the horses; four times the sword placed into its scabbard and six times a knight getting onto their horse; then six times the knights pulling down their visor and six times receiving their lance. Schrader asks Bresson about this and they both get the numbers wrong. "You usually did things five times" Schrader says. "If it was the jousting combat, you would see the lance five times. Or the horses' feet: in past films you would see a shot of the feet three times, in Lancelot, five times." Bresson replies: "It was unconscious. I needed it five times. I don't know why. Perhaps it was a hidden reason. I did not show it five times instead of three on purpose." (Film Comment) The number of course isn't important; what matters is the nature of the repetition itself: the way it puts emphasis on the rhythm of the scene over the content inherent in it. Another filmmaker might well use Bresson's approach to hint at the anxiety the knights would face going off to battle but this isn't Bresson's concern. It is the inevitability that interests him more. The battle itself is mainly elided, and again based on repetition. Bresson gives us shots of horses galloping through the forests without knights on their backs, knights on horseback, knights dying, and archers in the tree firing arrows. The typical approach to such a scene would have been to have the knights travel through the forest, cutaways to the archers waiting, and the battle that commences, followed by the horses escaping while the knights lie there dying. In such an approach the balance between the rhythm of the shots and their content would have been matched, and many a very fine director of action sequences (from Arthur Penn to Sam Peckinpah, from Akira Kurosawa to Sergio Leone) have worked with such a balance.
Bresson, however, has no interest in the tension in the battle nor especially the outcome of it. What matters is to register the fractional freedom Lancelot enjoys and the integrity of a position that contains within it a contradiction: his loyalty to King Arthur and his love for Guinevere. These may be mutually incompatible but Lancelot resolves them by fighting for the king as he has earlier fought for Guinevere when he springs her from prison after Arthur finds out about their affair. He will die for the king and go to his grave loving Guinevere. One might regard this as an unhappy ending by many standards but it needn't be from Bresson's. It is as if such a notion has no meaning; that what matters is how one exists within the minimum freedom one possesses. He cannot help but love Guinevere and he must be loyal to the king. This impossible paradox is resolved by a situation that does allow him both to love and to be loyal. It may be the king's apparently most trusted knight Mordred who disapproves of the affair and eventually tells the king but it is indeed Mordred who plots against Arthur and thus forces Lancelot to prove his duty to the king by taking him on in battle. Lancelot's dying word is Guinevere as he falls onto the heap of other knights.
The rhythm Bresson seeks, over the action that he shows, rests on a substance that he wants to extract. Bresson isn't bloody-mindedly countering cinematic expectation, removing suspense, action and motivation, and we shouldn't forget that he can be very violent when he wishes to be. It is more that such scenes would be extraneous to the ascetic acknowledgement that it isn't our actions in the world that matter but the dignity we can extract from the world against the possible indignities that surround us. When Bresson says "I want to express things with a minimum of means, showing nothing that is not absolutely essential" (Scraps from the Loft), what is essential to Lancelot is that he must acknowledge his love for the queen and his love for the king. These are two very different loves and ostensibly indicate a disloyalty to the latter in his love for the former. The film resolves this tension which is far greater than any suspense the film could have engineered. Such engineering would have been false to the problematic, unnecessary additions to a style ("all that is not technique'') which pushes further than most into a diegesis that needs minimal mimesis. If predestination suggests that there is no freedom in our lives, then grace is usually how such a freedom becomes manifest. One cannot act towards grace as one can towards other actions. It is a position of passivity rather than activity.
The constant, the eternal beneath the accidental, is the soul to which Bresson believes we all belong. Yet how does he manage to suggest its existence unless he suppresses everything that usually hides it, that gives an impression of freedom in our actions? Bresson wants to hide those actions all the better to reveal the fractional freedom that we possess which resides in the will. But this is not a will which assumes sovereignty over its existence. It is a will which accepts that our actions must seek to find where our freedom resides and not assume that it is constantly within our jurisdiction. Lancelot loves Guinevere and is loyal to the king. He will go to his grave fulfilling both those obligations; he will find his path just as other Bresson characters find theirs. By what strange route have I found you the central character says in the most famous line in Pickpocket, the most famous line perhaps of any Bresson film. It is the strange route, the path that cannot be delineated by deliberate human action alone, that interests the director and herein surely lies the rigour Rosenbaum talks about.
© Tony McKibbin