“Guinevere.” The last line spoken in Robert Bresson’s extraordinary Lancelot of the Lake, perhaps his most underappreciated and woefully unseen masterpiece, isn’t exclaimed, shouted, or uttered. Only the slightest emoting is noticeable as Lancelot falls to the ground, dead as the stones and rusty armor that surrounds him. Nonetheless, the observant viewer needs no convincing that Lancelot and Guinevere’s love is as pure as Bresson’s direction. It’s merely presented in a style not normally associated with onscreen romances. Lancelot of the Lake may be Bresson’s least religious picture, but there’s something almost holy about their love for one another. Having seen Bresson’s filmography in full (including this film twice), I’m convinced that Lancelot of the Lake is on par with his very best and most transcendent work, including his heartbreaking companion pieces Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette.
With Lancelot of the Lake, Bresson takes the legendary tale of King Arthur and his knights, then proceeds to strip it bare. Gone is the chivalry, the romance, the sweeping damsels off their feet. Gone are the rich celebrations, luscious tapestries, and elaborate feasts. The flash is replaced with death, coldness, and relentless closeups of armor and lower bodies. Lancelot of the Lake begins with several brutal beheadings and killings deep in the woods. No faces are shown, merely helmets and gushing blood. Music is replaced by grunts and exclamations of pain. Skeletons hang on the trees, warning both knights and viewers of impending death and decay, as well as serving notice that many warriors have already met their doom in this very forest. Finally, after about three minutes of mostly silent battle, the remaining knights gallop off on horseback, leaving a pile of dead bodies in their wake as music starts up and the opening credits begin to appear. The mood’s been set, though; this will not be a gallant motion picture, nor an uplifting one (though Bresson’s name alone pretty much assures that anyway).
One could easily argue, “well, what’s the point?” Indeed, the appeal of the legend of Camelot is its magical feel, its ability to transport the reader/viewer to another, almost mystical plane of life. I myself have always been infatuated with the medieval otherworldliness—I’ve composed poetry about it, read many books set during the time period (from Tolkien’s “Gawain and the Green Knight” to Michael Crichton’s “Timeline,” soon to be released cinematically as an abomination by Richard Donner), and frequently dreamed of dashing to the window of an imprisoned dame at the top of the highest tower, sword glistening…well, you get the idea. And yet…Lancelot of the Lake unlocked a whole new stratosphere in my view of the myth. Beneath the glitter, there’s a rotten underbelly that threatens to be ripped into shreds each day. These knights may celebrate and set off on their quests with noble exteriors, but it’s the rare warrior that truly has an untarnished heart. Indeed, Bresson foxily tells us this by using the quest for the Holy Grail as nothing more than a backdrop. Lancelot and his men fail in their search, and it quickly fades in importance, as Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere and the developing internal mutiny and feuds take over. Similarly, the Round Table itself is rendered insignificant, appearing only briefly and referred to merely in passing. By minimizing the importance of these ‘legendary’ aspects of the tale, Bresson shifts the focus to what’s truly important; the motives, nobility, and loyalty of the many characters of the times.
The subtle touches here are plentiful. A few examples:
a. Bresson’s constant shots of horses’ eyes symbolize the fear of all, men and animal, as well as being a beautiful parallel to the many shots of Balthazar’s eyes… the donkey who was forced to live his entire life in terror and misery.
b. Loyalty has always been a trademark of the time, and while Bresson never explicitly discusses the theme, it’s presented in limited doses—likely the manner in which is really existed. Only two knights remain true to Lancelot throughout the picture, despite swirling rumors of his betrayal to the King. Bresson eliminates all soapy examples of emotional fidelity but never loses sight of its actual existence, paying it a solemn tribute – precisely the type that it deserves.
c. Late in the film, Lancelot is wounded in a joust (which he wins under cloak of disguise), and takes rest at an old woman’s cottage in the forest. Before fully healing, he insists upon leaving to return to Camelot, amidst her protests. Eerily reminiscent of his initial meeting with Guinevere, he places his hand on the old woman’s knee, oblivious to her complaints. More on this in the next paragraph.
Lancelot and Guinevere’s relationship is never overdramatized, yet it’s never less than poignant, containing countless small gestures of their forbidden passion. During their first encounter (the first portrayed in the film, that is), Guinevere wears no makeup, dressed in plain clothes. She reminds him of his promise to never stop loving her, to which he responds that it’s a promise he cannot keep, for his conscience is killing him. He delicately kisses her dress before exiting. It’s a transcendent moment, establishing the businesslike exterior of their relationship that can’t fully conceal the deep feelings underneath. Yet by the finale, it’s Lancelot who refuses to give up Guinevere while she feebly protests. For in the end, Lancelot is like everyone else in Bresson’s chaotic and cold world—a man who succumbs to desire and temptation. Even the greatest of heroes aren’t spared.