© 2013 by James Clark
The partnership of filmmaker, Robert Bresson, and artist-at-large, Jean Cocteau, on behalf of bringing to light (in 1944, during the darkness of the German Occupation of France) a scenario loosely based upon a novelistic reflection about intentional freedom and material determinism, by the eighteenth-century philosopher, Denis Diderot (an exponent of the Heraclitean notion of dynamics as the essence of matter), has often been noted as somehow significant. But it tends to be eclipsed by citing how different from one another these artists were (only, apparently, seeing fit to tolerate each other for the sake of subtly sticking it to the Nazis). The austerity of Bresson’s work subsequent to the offering in question, namely, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), seems to settle it, in most minds, that this would be a chic aberration (with Cocteau’s screenplay the culprit), a cracking good melodrama, but bereft of the profundity of our auteur’s serious output. My response to this film wants to point out that, on the contrary, this honey of a performance design carries as deep and painful a sting as any of the more famous, iconic Bressonian marvels.
The first point to be dealt with is the misconception that in some way Cocteau was a kind of flippant gadfly unworthy to be linked to such an unassuming, noble and devout artisan as Bresson. Though definitely not as prone to sackcloth and sacred music as Bresson, Cocteau’s productions were in line with the deadly métier he pursued as an enlisted soldier in World War I, namely, that of a stretcher-bearer. The zest of the full extent of his artistry would entail horrific catastrophe and danger every bit as sharp as that of Bresson.
From there, then, we can go on to engage the very important factor of deluxe architectural, industrial and fashion design in our film. We first meet the protagonist, Helene, leaving a glittering theatre regally glowing in the ebony darkness (cinematographer, Philippe Agostini, very much part of the poetry here), braced against the chilly Paris night with a fur stole of remarkable and restrained opulence. Entering her top-hatted escort’s darkly gleaming limousine—its narrow windshield honed down to mobile-fortress proportions—she reveals in its dim light the full magnificence of her dark mane virtuosically coiffed, and it is now a matter of her wit that seizes us, a sensibility endowed from without and within. As she comes to a cessation of momentum, it is the rich melancholy of her visage that takes over. The car pulls away and both of them, brilliant in their formal clothes, stare forward, with no joy for the privileged occasion. Perhaps, we wonder, it is the depths of their luxury which leaves them with nothing but disappointment about the wider and more kinetic aspects of their lives.
He broaches coming to terms with the heart of this picturesque gloom by graciously seeing himself as to blame. “I haven’t shown you a very good time…” (Her devastated facial expression comes into close-up view, to convey that more than faltering entertainment is in the air.) Beginning again, with, “You’re suffering…” he takes upon himself, as her “oldest friend,” the mission of making her act upon the indubitable crisis concerning the love of her life no longer loving her. (He had, we soon discover, rescued her from the shambles of Jean [the vastly unreliable sweetheart] failing to remember a dinner engagement after which they were to proceed to the theatre, where she had had placed on his seat the golden cigarette case to mark two years since “we decided to live for each other.”) Thereby, the instances of sensual bounty—even royalty, even divinity: her name, Helene, tracing to Olympian powers—show themselves to be on a collision course with a heedless world, a world bereft of acuity concerning love. In her receiving this affectionate call to action, Helene’s first response is denial, expressed with brittle peevishness—not a good sign apropos of resumption of regal passions. (“Jean and I adore each other… I’m sorry. But I’m happy… Our happiness disturbs our friends.”) During the tete-a-tete in the back seat of the limousine, Jacques, the friend and admirer several years her senior, holds forth with a keenly etched (Cocteau) aphorism, first of all referring to the no-show, but deriving its real impact from an admission that love—not merely in the hands of a slacker like Jean, but in his (Jacques’) own more diligent hands, and also in her consciousness, which has “sacrificed all”—is so ephemeral as to be, to all intents and purposes, a fallacy. “There is no such thing as love, only proofs of love.” Joining this stunning take-off for a film already beginning to take us ever so quietly by the throat, there is Helene’s good-night farewell, as Jacques, redolent of chivalry, kisses her hand. “The play was long, and I’m exhausted.” By this time, the play we all have our eyes on is her performance of “proofs of love,” and where dropping the other perfect shoe will take us.
Helene’s ascent by private elevator to her royally appointed flat shows her deep in unpleasant thought, her eyes lowered in still-controlled grief as she approaches her door. On entering, she finds Jean, lighting up the fireplace, exactly the droll optics to cue doing something about how non-regal their “living for each other” had become. Of course he apologizes (blandly), and of course she says, “Such a thing doesn’t matter between us…” which leads to following up such rote magnanimity with impassively presenting the gift to him and receiving a peck on the forehead for her generosity. One of his reflexive gestures is in the form of telling her, after he has the little gem in his hand, “I love gold… It’s like you…incorruptible.” A pretty phrase, yes—but perhaps a spotlight upon the halcyon days of their association, when she was inspired and (even) he was (somewhat) impressed. “Incorruptible” is a very big word indeed, in that Surrealist lexicon so haunted by the rigors of corruption befalling sensual motions. It floats out, over the proceedings at this critical (even climactic) moment, so hard to grasp as such, as a pretty trifle from a pretty trifler in a movie apparently bound for small rewards. But the hardness of Helene’s face as she prepares to remove him from her court, and the bite of her ironic terms of endearment, “You’re as wonderful as ever,” prepare us for lavish rewards. In letting Jean off the hook for treating her as an extra, she states, with quiet firmness, “We all have something to blame ourselves for…Even me…” Therewith she is in control of facing up to the errancy of her judgment in allowing so cheap a figure into her greatest passions.
Helene, not expecting to have to make any definite moves that night when so much was in play, improvises, from out of Jean’s alien incursion, a cessation of the charade of “proofs of love.” “My heart is drifting away from you,” she moots. Not surprisingly, he’s pleased with getting that sham out into the open where his comfort zone of garrulous sham would have free rein. “Helene, you’re wonderful!” he declares, on receiving this second and more gratifying gift of the evening. In broaching this advent of “just friends,” Helene assures him, “Only one [outraged] insult [from him] could wound me now. [That of being called] Hypocrite!” That is to say, her self-criticism for so desperately attaching herself to such a mediocrity has at this moment a hope of tracing toward true rejuvenation. In her listening, with thinly veiled contempt, to his babbling ironically about relief in getting back to the wading pool after months of being exposed to abysses of sensual integrity that evoke his cowardice—“The story of your love is exactly the story of my own. All you thought I thought as well…We should congratulate ourselves… We’ll be unique among our kind…”—her eyes also register a quiet, excruciating shock in face of her bids, for doing justice to the love informing active life, coming to naught. Jean, painting a pretty word picture of their consulting each other, as old friends, during an endless round of dalliances, installs the reflexively effete tribute that she would hardly need to confide in him, since, “You’ve got such high standards…” The tear rolling down her cheek in the low light of the doorway as they say good night and good bye, speaks (perhaps ominously) to her task ahead, of high-tone resolve, of regrouping amidst the material and conscious splendors that have graced her life up until the uprising of this full brunt of how cruelly unforthcoming things can get. As the door closes, the discomfort evoked by that single tear is increased by her moist eyes uplifted, as if to imply that resolve effectively beyond cheapness is too much for her. And so, after a sleepless night, meeting the dawn in her rich black attire of the previous night’s “long play,” her eyes have hardened to a dry glint, her (easily manageable) little white lap dog has become her sole companion, and she declaims, still awash in that seemingly endless play, “I’ll have my revenge!”
On our first seeing her, Helene impresses us with her regal qualities. Seemingly weighted down with all the cares of the world, she is a figure subsumed within primordial matters, the uncanniness of her person and trappings impacting with cinematographic directness. The impressive power of her being absorbed by love far beyond the pedestrian sphere includes (as with Helen of Troy) the capacity to wreak havoc across the vast domain of less galvanized (truly alien) individuals. (While still lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling [vaguely prefiguring a corpse in a coffin], the phone rings and she sharply commands her maid, “I’m not home for anybody!”) Unable to keep the home fires burning for the riches of love, our queen becomes a witch, intent on savaging inferior entities (particularly Jean); and thereby, as she plunges into an ornate devastation of love, her murderous campaign takes on the added features of a form of suicide.
Immediately, then, the trappings so inspiring at the film’s outset transform, by a sort of black magic, to the setting and springing of a dismal trap. But as we follow this doleful manipulation, we must not lose sight of the priority here of the suicide, as against the murder. Cruel meddling is quite common; regal suicide is not. Both motifs continue to pay homage to the monstrously formidable demands of love. Even as Helene remains numbly bound to the momentousness of her long night in the situation room, there is an auditory intrusion followed by a fade-in, from one of those “anybodies,” in the form of rather wooden tap dancing—the dancer being known to her and now as good as a wooden prop to slam into place for the punishment of Jean, the traitor. This being a former visionary with residues of grace still in force, if only by force of habit, “slam” would not totally cover the netting of frail butterfly, Agnes, whom a cut away from the bedroom reveals to be in a cabaret of sorts, wearing a top hat, a flimsy skirt and an unconvincing grin. In one of those rare casting windfalls, Bresson and Cocteau have dug up an actress, Elina Labourdette, who is the spitting image of dancer/actress, Eleanor Powell, she of the tornado-level energy and footwork in tap shoes that represented a physiological if not an artistic marvel. The discernible dubiousness of that precursor comes to a head in Agnes’ management of movement, doing childish and rather clumsy cartwheels and ending her performance with a far less than sublime version of splits. Helene regards this disarray in a hooded cloak and a ringside seat at a boite where the dancers are to be had for touching as well as viewing. (It eventually comes to our attention that years ago Agnes and her mother lived at a country estate close to where Helene lived; but somehow their wealth disappeared—this whole film could be said to be about the disappearance of wealth—perhaps due to the Depression. Whatever the details may be, the disparity of resources sustains the distinction of Helene’s far greater scope—now having contracted dangerously close to that of the two women she would use as pawns to bring to ruin an unworthy king.)
After Agnes’ rather frightening performance, things get worse. The boite reveals its full proportions as a trailer for a brothel. Agnes rails childishly against floral tributes to her from hungry foxes; her mother tells her, “You look awful… You’re very ill-tempered this evening…;” a rich customer blows cigarette smoke into her face as they fox trot, Agnes becomes hysterical… And studiously calm Helene (who had followed them to that theatre of war) chooses this bottoming out to seemingly rescue them from a humiliating existence. The kicker in this freighting up with a view to tainted goods consists of Agnes’ being (like Helene) a not altogether hopeless exponent of splits, of bring agitated by the directional syntheses of desire. On beholding Agnes’ meltdown with the smoky trick—butting out her cigarette on his cheek, brawling with him, locking herself into a bedroom and screaming at her mother in particular but the world in fact (“I’m no little girl, I’m a whore!”)—Helene hears her mother maintain, “She wanted to live for dancing, not dance for a living.” Almost imperceptibly incorporating them into her retinue with the corporate solicitation (her face, though, not as plastic looking as it was at the shabby tap-dance travesty), “You must leave this mess behind and find a less dangerous life,” Helene nevertheless finds there a moment to torment herself with her own days of living for dancing. The hugely relieved old lady exclaims, “You’re an angel!” At which cue, Helene confirms (sardonically, yes; but with another current on hand), “We’re all angels…”
Agnes’ School of Hard Knocks has sharpened whatever skeptical instincts she might have cultivated out in the burgeoning country, maintaining within our resentful protagonist’s supposed dispensation of angelic justice a current of renegade freedom both meaningful and a reproof. On arriving at their new home, Agnes pronounces the place to be “sinister… I call this a prison… Am I allowed to look outside?” Her mother reminds her less than thrilled daughter, on their settling into spacious and sedate quarters, that their former life was a “nightmare.” The girl, whose dancing career is now completely off the rails, rejoinders, with irony akin to Helene’s, “And this is a dream?” Soon transparently seeing herself as bait for Jean—she and her mother summoned to the Bois du Boulogne, where the “cascade” [waterfall] offers some purity of motion, however over-designed, and where Helene introduces Jean to them and he is immediately transported by her fresh, country ways, looking him straight in the eye—Agnes is on the spot to deliver (so far nebulous) effective, earthy gestures that hold as much danger as promise. The disclosive heart of this film consists of the extremely delicate double exposure of Helene and Agnes’ self-betrayal from out of tangible and touching purchases upon integrity. While Agnes sustains an early control of her situation of being enticed into a questionable delight, Helene, seemingly vastly advantageous in delivering pain, reveals a pervasive sense of despair about the course she has locked herself into. (She listens, self-impressed, to Jean’s avowals of being in love with Agnes, and poses the melodramatic tic, “You’re flirting with trouble.” [She had toyed with him to the tune of, “She is beyond all [a place she herself knows]… You can’t reach that girl…”] As he leaves she produces, behind his back, a smile both sour and bilious. After he leaves, a blank, vaguely self-loathing expression takes command of her presence. Meanwhile, Jean having been tossed the valuable scrap of Agnes’ “Port Royal” [that last term a clarion call] neighborhood [fast by Moufftard, farm produce, Market], and having raced over to find her, she brushes him off with, “We see no one. And I’ll thank you to remember that.” He has a steady stream of flowers sent to her place, and she fumes that they, just as those she received as preludes to impersonal intimacy, hopelessly impede her “need to live.” From amidst this encumbrance, she declares, with aphoristic follow-through, “I want what’s happening to be clear!”)
The course of Agnes’ abortive bid for cogent independence is easily glossed; but it’s the intensive nuancing of Cocteau’s script and Bresson’s mise en scene that exacts from us strenuous attention. The same demonstrative generosity and gentility that induced Helene to take a flyer on Jean gradually gets into Agnes’ blood, and she finds herself changing her mind (giving in to the self-serving impulse to lower her guard in face of Helene’s discernible calculativeness), about their benefactor, especially when she hears Helene (crafty in, at first, seeming reluctant) being happy to bless and facilitate the too-good-to-be-true romance. (She had emphasized that Jean had made clear to her how attracted he was to the “different” woman she was, “different” (from the brothel types) being Agnes’ mother’s rationale for welcoming Jean’s attentions.) On getting that clearance and disburdening herself from the rigors of espionage in face of hostile acquaintances, Agnes dons a carefree peasant-girl costume and performs (very well) a sprightly and soaring ballet scene amongst their furnishings. Her mother remarks, “You’re another person when you dance.” But—perhaps another indicator of the horrendous compromise Agnes’ presence must struggle with—she faints amidst this joy. Though she quickly recovers, we have been apprised thereby of her damaged heart, a cruel impediment to that gusto and fluidity she so touchingly cherishes.
Invited for dinner by Helene, Agnes is jarred by the patent and cynical mechanism of Jean’s “dropping by” and joining the ladies. Seeing the two wealthy confidants so clearly colluding, she dashes her wine glass to the floor and runs off. This affront to Helene’s manipulative regime results in startlingly discomposed smirking on the part of our chronically and alluringly melancholy protagonist, who rallies with the mordant and aggressive wit (on the theme of make a wish when a glass breaks) implicit in the remark to Jean, “It would be funny if we made the same wish” (about caging that little bird, with its varying expectations). Once again finding Helene and Jean’s creepy importuning as insulting as the previous cigarette smoke blown into her face, she finds a job at a department store, only to have her former Johns (Jeans) flocking about, and the store janitor quickly equating that sleaze with being a “dancer.” This sharp blast of conventional prudery (along with an ugly past that won’t go away) takes the wind out of her sails (“There’s no hope…I give up…”). Helene marches into what is clearly and crushingly her property and commands Agnes’ staying put, in the course of which removing from her ears the expensive earrings Jean had had delivered that day. (Helene’s rather dowdy and grotesque fur hat [crown], in strong contrast to the well-balanced attire of the first—still seriously anticipatory—night, weighs upon us here. [We had seen Agnes at the Bois in a serf-like, Robin Hood-era peaked cap]. Diderot being an intimate of the complex tyrant, Catherine the Great, seems to be playing out here in Cocteau’s extremely adept screenplay.) Also, the palpably ruthless patroness resorts to that ancient and so carelessly unbecoming prejudice, in warning her to stop acting like a “tramp.” (Later, when all is lost, Agnes will argue, “So many honest girls become dishonest women”—an inadvertent report upon the parallel disaster of Helene’s career.) Galvanized by this assault, Agnes writes a letter to a Jean whose intentions, though flaccid, were not entirely odious, disclosing the pariah-factor that her former life has inferred (which is precisely the poison our protagonist hopes to deliver to her enemy). Jean, as always, adept at “proofs of love,” refuses to read the letter, determined to make her his bride. And—as an indictment from (inertial but also nuance-appreciative) nature against her lacking the courage to speak directly to him of a scandal his innate cowardice would recoil from, thus clearing the air and delivering a possibly rejuvenative slap in the face to Helene—there is the peculiar scene of her rushing after his car, affixing the note to its back window, only to have it blow back into her face.
Agnes had dug down to patrician roots to announce to her overtly self-sparing mother, “I prefer a fate we choose, rather than one forced upon me.” But the courage-quotient of aristocratic bearing proves—as it does to Helene—too much to bear. Agnes had prefaced her letter of confession to Jean with the sadly accurate phrase, “I’m not the courageous type.” Now she had secured an audience with Helene, pleading the case that marriage was out of the question, that his friends would make an intolerable to-do about her shocking past. Helene conjures the aptness of warrior spirit (that neither in fact can rise to). “Marry him or tell him everything. Be a woman. Fight!” (That bit of sophistry envisions that Agnes can never bring herself to be directly shown as a “tramp;” but that she could be induced to muddle through a boudoir melodrama, perhaps showing to advantage her recovered status.) Helen goes on to bring aboard more canny aspects of the case. “You’ll tell him afterward… Anyway, you have no choice…” [Agnes having agreed to marry him].
The wedding ceremony rattles along like a machine, Agnes’ face registering hope and anguish while positioned in its path. Moments after the ritual spits them out, Helene goes for the jugular, coming up to Jean ostensibly to do no more than give him the routine congratulatory buss but adding to that the extraordinarily alarming information (with a view to gunning him down), “I’m afraid I was wrong about that girl. I’m afraid for you…” Jean reels about the reception venue; he comes upon Agnes, petrified in a secluded room; he demands she accompany him to the party, where eyebrows are beginning to be raised; she says she cannot face them; he angrily grabs her; she faints; he picks her up, places her on a bed and tells a servant, “Madame has fainted. Look after her;” and he leaves the room and the building.
On entering his car to head for a better party, he encounters Helene. He asks her, “What is this terrible mystery I’m involved in?” She declaims, quaffing down what she had anticipated to have the kick of some royal elixir, “You don’t seem to realize where a woman’s scorn can go! You’ve married a tramp! Now you must face the consequences!” Trust Jean to compound the mawkish cheapness of Helene’s making a fool of herself, in her own eyes. “You! You!” he squeals. “You’re horrible!” (He had, in thanking her for the golden bibelot, obliviously touched upon her unreliable state of sensibility: “I love gold…. It’s like you…warm, cold; dark, clear…”) He thrashes his chic vehicle about the crowded parking lot, unable to weave free; and as we watch him from within his big car, Helene, standing at the edge of this strange ballroom, like a strange (cold and arid) wallflower, appears and disappears several times, looking like a (self-) despised crone. Then she’s gone forever, as if having stepped off a roof.
The send-off to Agnes is characteristically more sweet, but no less shattering. Jean, ditching his getaway, feels himself drawn to attend to proofs of love, comes to the room where he ditched his bride and hears from her mother, “Her heart may fail at any minute” [a précis of which, apropos of Agnes, Helene and everyone, would be, “...may fail at every minute”]. Agnes lying in her finery on a fine bed—as if in a coffin—quietly tells him, “In time perhaps you’ll forgive me…Just leave me a little hope. I’ll be happy if you can bear my presence, allow me to occupy a little corner of your home. I was in love with you. That’s my only excuse. I’m not evil…I was weak…” Jean, moved by this rife piteousness, pulls out all the stops to prove that his heart is a loving one. “Agnes! Agnes! Hold on to life with all your strength! Fight!” She tells him in whispered tones, “I am fighting…I’m trying…I will stay…” And he kisses her hand, a scene shot from above to place it in the realm of self-conscious legend.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is often approached in view of its peculiar circumstances as undergoing scrutiny from Nazi censors. The take from that perspective would have Bresson and Cocteau tweaking with impunity those oppressors by way of Nazi tyrant Helene and true-blue tragic, Gallic heroine, Agnes. That could indeed be one of the aspects fishing for a lucrative market. The film, however, did not do well along that current. And one large reason for this would be its obvious disinclination to curry favor with populist interests. Knowing full well that the normal filmic financial exigencies were in abeyance, Cocteau and Bresson proceeded to craft one of the most subtle and sophisticated movie packages we’re ever apt to see. Far from an easy-access diversion, this film attends to the crippling power and glory of that dynamical (Heraclitean) regality leaving everyone in sight indescribably desperate. The uncompromising and (for the film world) incongruous energies of Diderot (a figure never specifically reappearing in the subsequent output of Bresson, but an inspiration nonetheless) lend to this project a truly grand dramatic substance.