French film director Robert Bresson is famous for his use of non-professional actors. Prior to watching Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, I had only seen one Bresson film, Pickpocket (1959), whose protagonist was most certainly not a professional actor. He shambled through the proceedings like a man on a heavy dose of tranquilizers, his movements slow, his eyes haunted. It was an interesting film, and one I may watch again some day, but it didn’t move me.
It wasn’t always this way. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Bresson’s second film, features a cast of professional actors, and is based on a short novel by Denis Diderot with dialogue written by Jean Cocteau. The result is a polished and romantic film that completely engrossed me.
María Casares plays a haughty member of high society named Hélène who has long had a loosely defined relationship with a handsome gentleman named Jean (Paul Bernard). They may have other dalliances, but they are committed to each other, more or less. As the film begins, Hélène is on a date at the opera with a gentleman friend named Jacques (Jean Marchat), who warns her that Jean’s passion for her is cooling. When Jean later shows up at Hélène’s apartment, apologizing for having forgotten her birthday, Hélène tells him she would prefer they end their romance and become simply friends. She says this merely as a ploy, and she is devastated when he tells her he feels the same way, and leaves her apartment unperturbed by the momentous decision to end their affair. Left alone, she vows revenge.
The power of the film comes from Bresson’s ability to depict the emotions that rage behind placid exteriors. He is aided by Casares, whose performance is truly astounding. Without ever raising her voice or engaging in histrionics, she plays the “scorned woman” to the hilt. She is fascinating to watch, and sometimes even frightening. Part of the fascination comes from the fact that Jean and the young woman Hélène befriends, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), are unaware of how they are being manipulated by the cold Hélène. They are preoccupied with each other. More importantly, they are preoccupied with themselves, especially Agnès, who has a sordid past and doesn’t feel worthy of being loved by Jean. She hides her true self from him, but the longer she hides, the more devastating Hélène’s revenge will be.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is a film about the redemptive power of love and the corrosive allure of vengeance. Many modern viewers may find the social mores on display in the film outdated, but if they look past the surface, they may find that the world hasn’t changed as much as they think it has. The lives of the Parisian leisure class may look and feel very different from the lives of most people who view the film today, but the story Bresson tells is timeless.