Criterion Prediction #131: Lancelot of the Lake, by Alexander Miller
Title: Lancelot du Lac
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Luc Simon, Humbert Balsan, Laura Duke Condominas, Patrick Bernhard
Synopsis: After their failed quest for the Holy Grail, the surviving Knights of the Round Table, led by Lancelot, return to Camelot haggard and despondent while rifts within the knighthood develop between Lancelot and Mordred.
Critique: The trifecta of medieval themed movies to come from the more opaque expressionists is one French cinema’s best curiosities. Jacques Rivette’s Joan of Arc duology Joan the Maid I & II builds a curiously palatable epic and there’s Eric Rohmer’s colorfully stage-bound Perceval; but it’s Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac that takes the claim as the most unexpectedly gratifying experience in revisionism that only a director like him could deliver. The seemingly contradictory terms of the Bressonian aesthetic applied to the mythic proportions of the material is the crux of the film’s staying power. As a director, Bresson’s vision was steadfast in its consistency, and he continued his obliquely refined style of directing with discipline, and it’s evident, here the contrasting instincts are the inspiration for a story that is seemingly far removed from the director’s wheelhouse. But if you think about it, the dissolution of the Arthurian legend and the fabled chivalrous heroism is an ideal avenue for the tertiary cinema of measured spiritual longing that was the backbone of Bresson’s filmography.
Lancelot du Lac opens most unexpectedly as knights clad in recognizable regalia gouge and behead one another while garish geysers of blood spurt from their wounds. (I’m convinced that this, and Ken Russell’s The Devil’s informed Monty Python’s now iconic comedic gore) This flurry of staged carnage feels removed, or unexpected, but the self-reflexive delivery is very much in concert with Bresson’s sporadic explosions of primary colors that were a staple in his later era. This opening also serves a fitting thesis for the seemingly paradoxically conceived medieval tale, revealing that Lancelot du Lac is anything but an experiment or ill-suited foray into genre fare as Bresson’s immediately in tune with his intensely withdrawn compositions comfortably animating the mythic figures of the story.
The consistent, bluntly punctuated sound is used with great effect in Lancelot du Lac. While Bresson is recalled as a subtle and quiet artist, his work is often populated with the deafening roar of quotidian noise throughout. Lancelot du lac ferrets out an almost musicality in the clanging of armor, jousting, the twang of archers firing arrows, or the mounting of horses as the ragtag knights ride off to a ceremoniously unheroic finale, it’s telling of the directors enigmatic vision if he’s playing on the conventions of the genre or merely contorting them to his introspective machinations.
The most immersive quality of the film is that, like so much of the director’s work, it is seductive through its withdrawn design. Among completists of the director’s work, his religious views have often been debated. Regardless of his affiliations, there is the disbursement of thematic longing in the narrative of Lancelot and the downfall of Arthur’s Kingdom, their failed quest for the Holy Grail, and the spiritual and fraternal abandonment that precipitated in the dissolving of the roundtable. The resonating despondency is radically conducive and the final product is one of Bresson’s most standout films for its slyly contorted stylistic rhythm and concentrated tone.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: While there are remastered versions of Bresson’s Le Diable Probablement and Four Nights of a Dreamer, it seems like the lesser seen Lancelot du Lac is a candidate for the Criterion treatment. The recent “wacky drawing” that hints at future Criterion releases shows an L-shaped knight by a lake, and in the spirit of giving credence to lesser-seen films from cinematic luminaries (though the formerly mentioned titles are qualifiers for the same reason), it’s the standout identity of Lancelot du Lac that puts it in front line for a spine number.