Criterion Prediction #101: Une femme douce, by Alexander Miller
Title: A Gentle Woman / Une Femme Douce
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Dominique Sanda, Guy Frangin, Jeanne Lobre, Claude Ollier
Synopsis: A placid pawnbroker reflects on his unlikely relationship with his wife, shortly after she unexpectedly commits suicide.
Critique: Economic, spare, measured, deliberate, static; these aren’t the most flattering adjectives, but in the carefully-dictated vernacular of Robert Bresson’s cinema, they’re the most appropriate way to appraise his aesthetic. As a director, his pragmatic fatalism, icy characters, and threadbare static compositions evoke a subtly brilliant sense of spiritual longing. Considering the themes of deviated catholicism and social alienation, this isn’t a springboard for wanton self-loathing; Bresson might be the only “Catholic guilt” director who isn’t pining for his audience to identify with his despair.
His more provincial earlier movies indicate his stoic spiritual artfulness. Mouchette, and Diary of a Country Priest perhaps only by proxy, adhere to a more conventional structure. His modern, urban dramas have a more natural backdrop in expressing the stringent banalities of life, and notions of predestination don’t feel emphasized when various disparate fates of his characters fall into the folly of life’s banality.
A Gentle Woman is the director’s first color film, and even though the only way version I know of is a VHS/DVD-R rip, the images aren’t diminished, though you might have to look a bit harder than you used to, having years of DVD, Blu-ray and high definition streaming media to contend with.
The purposeful sense of artifice comes from the static compositions; often tight, long shots that have an ethereal appeal in their curiously clinical execution. Scenes of resigned action are composed where arms and legs occupy unlikely spaces of the frame. Either a metaphysical dissection or stylistic choice the cumulative style is substantial.
He cuts into the presentation of objects passed from person to person, a hallmark of the director’s fascination with the transience of time and the nature of transactions. Here, a dreary tale of love (culled from Dostoyevsky no less, the short story “A Gentle Creature”), is about the business of love and marriage, quite literally. The mechanical love story breaches the apex gates of cynicism. It’s a downer to be sure, but the film has such a unique, naturally intuitive rhythm, it lulls you into its grasp. Recently seeing L’argent prompted me to revisit A Gentle Woman, and Bresson in color is something to behold; both films share a muddy, earthy color palette of greens and browns. It’s naturally beautiful.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: L’argent, Bresson’s last film, is a brilliant inclusion to the collection, and now the director’s spanned the early spine numbers – and out of his six movies, only one (Diary of a Country Priest) is OOP. Most importantly, A Gentle Woman has suffered from a lack of exposure, having no official DVD. Despite a few repertory screenings, Bresson’s 1969 film is in dire need of a restoration and home video distribution. When we “lose” movies, it tends to be a product of controversy or politics, but the work of Robert Bresson is the opposite of a video nasty, and unlike The Passion of Joan of Arc or Wings (1927), A Gentle Woman hasn’t been a famous “lost” movie, so why are so many of us missing out? There’s no way to say for certain that a title will get the Criterion treatment until they announce it as a new release; the rationale for A Gentle Woman to get a Criterion release makes sense, but given its scarcity any restored version would be a blessing.