The National Gallery of Art’s retrospective on the work of Robert Bresson continues next weekend with a screening of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Women of Bois du Boulogne) (1945) in their theater on March 10th. People who don’t like foreign films often complain that they are pretentious. Here is a movie that those people might appreciate. It is a rare film by Bresson with a storyline that unapologetically delves into melodrama more than any other work by the director.
The storyline is relatively simple enough. A high society French lady named Hélène (María Casares) and her boyfriend Jean (Paul Bernard) break up. Initially, she lies and says she didn’t love him, but he calls her bluff and admits that he fell out of love with her a long time ago. After their amicable split-up, Jean believes Hélène to be his friend. She, however, feels disparaged and used. She decides to take her revenge on him while acting as his friend.
Soon after the split, Hélène is watching a cabaret girl dance for a crowd and gets struck with a divine inspiration for her revenge scheme. Hélène decides she will play matchmaker for Jean and the cabaret girl, Agnès (Elina Labourdette). Agnès and her mother have fallen on hard times, forcing her to go into prostitution. They also have many debts they are trying to escape, so they’ve been living under false names. Hélène rushes to their rescue like an angel, offering them a new place to live and a new lease on life. Unfortunately, this agreement has some stipulations. It is suggested that they never leave the house. After a while, Agnès becomes bored of the isolation and suspicious of Hélène’s motivations.
Hélène, meanwhile, is busy making Jean fall in love with Agnès. Eventually, the two marry. At the wedding, all of Agnès’ skeletons fly out of the closet, and Hélène gets her moment to stand over the carnage and smile. This is the film in its entirety, and there is little relating this to the rest of Bresson’s work. There is a misfire here somewhere. I believe the film is trying to make Hélène out to be the villain, but that is never achieved. Casares makes a character here that is impeccably watchable. You wait for her to come on screen. Bresson was known as a director who wanted to drain any expression from his actor’s faces, but Casares says more with her eyes than most of the other characters do with their mouths. Perhaps that is why this film was Bresson’s last to be made with professional actors.
Only Bresson’s second feature in his career, it is a far step down from his debut, Les anges du péché (1943). Commonly referred to as the most Catholic of directors, Bresson is perhaps best when he’s working from his own written material. Most of his other films involve a mix of Catholic guilt and redemption. It must be said that there are heavier ideas to be found here than in most Hollywood offerings of the time, but it’s still just a common drama of a woman scorned.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne will screen at The National Gallery of Art in their east building concourse on Saturday, March 10th at 4:30. The film is also available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. You can also watch the film with a subscription to Hulu. For more films from the Robert Bresson retrospective at The National Gallery, download this season’s film program from their website here.