Lancelot du Lac Review
Robert Bresson’s 1974 feature Lancelot du Lac is an unfairly maligned entry in the otherwise impressive but brief filmography of one of the great, if not the greatest of French film directors. Personally, there are other Bresson films I would consider lesser (Mouchette and Diary Of A Country Priest to name but two), though qualitative judgements are certainly subjective and relative when talking about a director like Bresson. On the other hand, it’s not too difficult to see how the director’s delve into Arthurian legend combined with his particular individual style of filmmaking could leave many viewers somewhat bemused.
I blame Monty Python for this to a large extent, since viewing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail makes it extremely difficult for anyone to take all the Medieval Knights and their noble but bloodthirsty adventures seriously, particularly one as seemingly daft as the search for the elusive Holy Grail, the legendary goblet used at Last Supper, a holy relic in which Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have collected the blood of Christ while on the cross. Indeed the opening scenes of the film showing armoured Knights in combat, slicing of limbs and heads to fountains of spurting arterial blood do unfortunately seem to match the parody of the Python film, which coincidentally was made around the same time as Lancelot du Lac. You can almost hear the riposte of hear John Cleese’s Black Knight - “’Tis but a scratch!”...
In reality it’s far from a joke with Bresson, the opening scene having all the directness, impact and precision that we come to expect from the director. It shows with characteristic concision the state of affairs and crisis that face the Knights of the Round Table, returning to Camelot having failed in their two year quest to find the Holy Grail and gain the supernatural powers that it is reputed to bestow. Worse, their time has been spent murdering and pillaging, turning even on each other and losing their leader, Perceval. Lancelot (Luc Simon), the greatest of all the Knights, blames himself for the failure of the quest believing that it is a sign of God’s displeasure at his love affair with Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas), the wife of the King. Lancelot returns, hoping to renounce his love for Guinevere and reunite the kingdom under Arthur (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek), but serious divisions have arisen under Mordred (Patrick Bernhard), who was against the search for the Grail from the outset, and Lancelot also to finds it much more difficult than he expected to keep his vow to repudiate Guinevere.
Still, one asks, of what interest is all this medieval adventuring to Robert Bresson, and perhaps more pertinently, what interest does it hold for a modern day viewer? Well, evidently, there are themes in Lancelot du Lac that are common to almost all of Bresson’s films, which is often about the reconciliation with one’s human nature with a deeper spiritual purpose. For the Knights, the search for the Grail gives them a sense of divine purpose, but gradually human nature corrupts and perverts that aim. Lancelot himself finds a more earthly kind of grail – one however no less untouchable and divisive to the objects of the men - in the form of Guinevere. It’s not hard to notice how much Lancelot du Lac is a very “manly” film, and in many ways the Knight’s seriousness of purpose with their Round Table is wrapped in Christian or Masonic-like rituals and ceremonies. Evidently, female sexuality, as represented by Guinevere, presents a threat to such organisations and it must be repressed.
The air of ritualism and ceremony extends to Bresson’s famous technique. There is nothing remotely naturalistic about the stiffness and formality with which his models position themselves and recite their lines, but it feels entirely appropriate here. The characters are certainly more models than real people, representing idealism, pragmatism and even agnosticism. This inevitably creates divisions and schisms among the faithful who have to choose between earthly and heavenly rewards. The whole hypnotic rhythm created by the framing and editing, as well as in the juxtaposition of scenes and characters, creates an incredible choreographic interplay that brings each of those elements and the crisis they create vividly to the forefront. It may not appear in the least bit naturalistic, yet it touches on deeply human characteristics and behaviour, as well as reaching that spiritual dimension that suffuses this director’s work.
Lancelot du Lac is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Not quite in as good a condition as the other two Bresson Gaumont titles recently issued by Artificial Eye (The Devil, Probably and A Man Escaped), the video quality is nevertheless still very good here. The film is presented anamorphically in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and is progressively encoded. There is however a little more grain visible here, some minor flickering of compression artefacts associated with the film being presented on a single-layer disc, and overall the tone and contrast look a little dark with a hint of greenness to the colouration. Nevertheless, this is still a fine transfer, the image being clear, relatively stable and without any noticeable marks or damage.
The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, is functional, which is the most that can be expected of it. It’s crisp and clear, conveying the full range of dialogue and sounds with accuracy and without noise or distortion.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional.
The only other extra feature on this disc is the one-page text screen of Bresson’s brief Filmography.
Perhaps more so than other Robert Bresson films, Lancelot du Lac is something of an acquired taste. In addition to the usual uncommon stiffness in the Bressonian technique and its lack of naturalism, the Arthurian subject matter might also seem a little arcane. Nonetheless, subject and form are perfectly matched here, Bresson in the process managing to say a lot more about human behaviour, war and religion that may be apparent from a surface impression. Artificial Eye’s barebones DVD release for a film worthy of some analysis is unfortunately rather basic, but riches can be found here for anyone willing to put some effort into it, even if it is just for the wonder of the director’s unique and incredibly effective filming technique.