Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Les [1945]

Robert Bresson's second movie, a melodrama of love, jealousy, revenge, and redemption, is haunted by an uneasy tension between Bresson's ambitions and his directorial compromises. A beautiful but jealous high-society woman (Maria Casarès) tries to spark her longtime lover (a rather wan Paul Bernard) into a declaration of commitment by staging a breakup, and to her horror he agrees to the separation. Seething with resentment, she plots an elaborate vengeance involving getting him to fall in love with a young dancer who "entertains" to support her poverty-stricken family ("I'm no better than a prostitute!" she declaims to her mother), leading to a public disgrace--a grand melodramatic gesture presented with quiet understatement. Using professional actors and a script polished by Jean Cocteau (adapted from the novel Jacques de Fataliste et son Maitre by Denis Diderot), the film is marked by the stylized dialogue and psychologically shaded performances of classical French cinema which Bresson's later films reject. The director's hand can be seen in the austere sets and compositions, the tempered performances, and the moving, spiritually rich conclusion. While it's not Bresson's best work by his own admission, he tames the drama with a rigor that fully flowers in his next film, Diary of a Country Priest. --Sean Axmaker

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Hélène:
It happened gradually with my realizing it. I couldn't laugh. I couldn't sleep. I wondered if it was your fault, but no. You're as wonderful as ever. You stay the same. I am the one who has changed. I asked myself over and over. Why am I no longer impatient? Why does my heart not leap up when he arrives? The sound of the elevator's approach no longer thrills me.

Jean:
Hélène!

Hélène:
It's a horrible discovery, but I wish to be frank. My heart is drifting away from you. I'm ready for your reproaches, bitterness and insults. I've called myself the worst name already. Only one insult could wound me now - hypocrite.

Jean:
Hélène, you are wonderful. You were the first to speak, but I was guilty first. The story of your love is exactly the story of my own. All you thought, I thought as well. I kept silent, suffering. What a lesson you've taught me!

Hélène:
Really?

Jean:
Really. Hélène, you're beautiful, you're stunning. It's as if I'm seeing you for the first time. We should congratulate ourselves. It would have been awful if one went on loving longer than the other.

Hélène:
Yes, awful. What now?

Jean:
Neither of us has betrayed the other. We can avoid a messy breakup. We'll continue to see each other. We'll elude the death throes of a languishing love. No deceit, no suprises, no disgust. We'll be unique among our kind. I give you back your freedom, and you give me mine. We each go our own way. We'll be each other's confidant though I doubt I'll find anyone to confide in you about. You've set such a high standard. Can anyone ever know the future? I may soon find you were the only woman capable of making me happy. Perhaps you'll feel the same. And one day we'll meet again, I'll be at your side until we die.

Hélène:
What if you don't find me when you return? Anything's possible. I might fall for another. He couldn't compare to you, but still...

Jean:
That would be nobody's fault. Goodnight, Hélène.

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