Doug Cummings and Trond Trondsen / robert-bresson.com
Lancelot of the Lake [ Lancelot du Lac, 1974 ]
Region 1 DVD: New Yorker Video, 2004
It's perhaps a bit ironic that New Yorker Video is releasing
DVDs of Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac (1974) and
A Man Escaped (1956) simultaneously—Lancelot
was originally the film Bresson hoped to make after Diary
of a Country Priest (1951). Inevitably, however, he
couldn't raise the proper funding; at one point he
uncharacteristically considered casting professional actors
Burt Lancaster and Natalie Wood in the film, though what
kind of movie that would have resulted in is anybody's
guess. Suffice it to say that the version Bresson did
eventually make is firmly rooted within his stylistic world
of nonprofessional "models," de-dramatized performances, and
Lancelot was Bresson's third film in color and many
critics feel it is one of his strongest visual works. This
is no doubt partly due to the contributions of
cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, who had worked with
Luchino Visconti and would continue to lense Bresson's final
two films. Its careful chromatic scale of dark reds and
browns and glowing torchlight on canvas tents lends the film
warm tones that serves as counterpoint to its otherwise
severe interpretation of the final days of King Arthur,
whose Knights of the Round Table have returned from their
Grail quest empty-handed and dispirited. As Kristin
Thompson comments in her narrative analysis, The Sheen of
Armour, the Winnies of Horses: Sparse Parametric Style in
Lancelot du Lac:
Bresson has simply eliminated most of the
original events [in La Mort le Roi Artu] . . .
while expanding a few elements greatly. Thus most of the
first half of the film comes from one summary sentence in
La Mort: "Now, though Lancelot had behaved chastely
by the counsel of the holy man to whom he had confessed when
he was in the quest for the Holy Grail, and though he had
apparently renounced Queen Guenevere, as the tale has
related before, as soon as he had come to court, not one
month passed before he was smitten and inflamed as much as
he had ever been at any time, so that he fell back into sin
with the queen just as he had done earlier." . . . The
elimination or compression of events in an adaptation is
common enough, of course. But Bresson eliminates or
compresses some things only partially, leaving bits of
puzzling information which seem to hint that we have missed
something along the way."
Elliptical narrative is also a typical Bressonian approach,
but it does seems particularly pronounced in
Lancelot, perhaps because Bresson assumed the legend
of King Arthur was widely known. Bresson also elides much
of the heroism, action, violence, and grandiose milieu of
the traditional tale, fashioning an epic story as a
restricted, modest film, with weary characters fighting to
maintain their chivalric ideals despite the pressing desires
of their hearts at the end of an age.
Bresson was always highly-attuned to the rhythm of his films
and many commentators have stressed Lancelot's visual
and aural patterns in particular, suggesting it was
Bresson's way of adapting the poetic source material.
Lindley Hanlon's detailed analysis of rhythm in
Fragments: Bresson's Film Style (1986) goes so far as
to consider passages of the film's dialogue through their
parataxis (juxtaposition of phrases), dovetailing (shared
words), and meter (spoken rhythm). As Hanlon explains, an
element such as dovetailng, when used consistently,
intensifies the film's themes:
Throughout the film, conflicts between
charaters hinge on these syntactic interchanges where a word
such as faire or vous becomes the pivot of the
discourse as it is played on, changed, rhymed, or denied.
One could profitably make a list of the many verbs that tie
together this discourse, almost always stated in a forceful,
matter-of-fact declarative sentence, as a verb in the
present tense, or as an infinitive. The narrative moves
from verb to verb as these characters in search of a goal
seek to resolve their conflicting inclinations. The
dialogue is as much of a ritual battleground as the
tournament. The words are lanced at each other in rapid
Hanlon analyzes the meter within much of the film's
dialogue, identifying stressed syllables. And if one might
question the validity of such an approach, it should be
noted that Bresson explicitly wrote on the subject in
Notes on the Cinematographer: "Model. Thrown into
the physical action, his voice, starting from even
syllables, takes on automatically the inflections and
modulations proper to his true nature." And later: "Nothing
is durable but what is caught up in rhythms. Bend content
to form and sense to rhythms." This emphasis on rhythm
propels Lancelot's visual and sound design to such an
extent that the experience of watching the film can be
Bresson also conceives of the overarching narrative in
formal terms. While many of his specific ellipses serve to
de-emphasize spectacle (several combat scenes occur
offscreen, a jousting tournament is visually represented by
the powerful legs of the combatants' horses), Bresson begins
and ends the film with startling violence. Suited knights
stab and decapitate one another in a dark forest, producing
torrents of blood; simultaneously, there is a sense of
stylization to their movements in the throes of death,
actions with unnatural pauses and stiff poses that lend the
suited knights a mechanical, inhuman aura.
For much of the film, the knights wear their armor without
helmets, clanging and rattling from scene to scene;
occasionally, the knights wear their helmets and raise or
lower their visors to deliver snatches of dialogue, like
miniature dramatic curtains. Suited up for attack, however,
they resemble robotic shells of glistening steel. In this
way, they become living paradoxes of life and death, human
and metal, illustrating Bresson's dual obsession with
spiritual and material worlds.
"Has God forsaken us?" a despondent Arthur asks in the early
scenes of the film, noting the empty chairs of the Round
Table. A sense of imminent doom pervades the film and
serves as a creeping metaphysical antagonist. "We can
forestall fate," Lancelot suggests, "deflect the menace."
For damage control, Arthur orders his remaining knights to
"perfect yourselves, remain united, forget your quarrels,
cultivate friendship," but tensions inevitably remain and
allegiances shift in light of Mordred's increasing
Besides Lancelot (Luc Simon), the knight whom Bresson
highlights the most is Gauvain (Humbert Balsan). While
Lancelot oscillates between his loyalty to Arthur and his
love of Guenièvre (Laura Duke Condominas), Gauvain
struggles to maintain his idealization of Lancelot and
heroic knighthood in general. "[Mordred] is everything that
you and I despise," he tells Lancelot. "When he splashed
you fording a river you said he offended your horse. How he
cringed before you. I dislike weaklings. They should be
hanged." Gauvain is perpetually the first person to defend
the honor of Lancelot and Guenièvre but his high
ideals generate as much conflict as they remedy.
Guenièvre's narcissism prevents her from completely
accepting these ideals as well. Her exchanges with Lancelot
continually elevate their love over the good of the
community. When Lancelot asks for her humble consent to
free him of his vows to her in order to atone for their love
and restore the Round Table, Guenièvre replies, "No,
I'll save no one at that price . . . To think yourself
responsible for everything is not humility."
Bresson conveys a sense of encroaching metaphysical judgment
through his evocation of nature. After searching the forest
for Lancelot and, like the Grail search, finding nothing,
the knights return to Arthur and proclaim, "The forest is a
devil," just before a thunder crash registers an unexpected
rainstorm. As the knights scramble to secure their tents in
the deluge, Bresson cuts to dark trees swaying in the
shadowy downpour while a door handle rattles ominously.
"Some force is manipulating us," the knights intone,
initiating a theme that will reappear in Bresson's
subsequent film, The Devil Probably (1977). If
Lancelot's fantasy depiction of a changing world
inhabited by deflated survivors with a penchant for
self-destruction is an allegory for the modern age, The
Devil Probably explicitly sets that vision in contemporary
"Poor Lancelot," Guenièvre muses, "trying to stand
his ground in a shrinking world." But like Bresson's
concentrated adaptation, which runs less than 90 minutes,
Lancelot's world may be compressed but it retains nobility.
The film is often characterized as a "despairing" film in
Bresson's late oeuvre, but in fact, it's more of an elegiac
lamentation (as opposed to a nostalgic or mythologized
portrait), beautifully rendered in loving, rhythmic care.
–D.C. (May 2004)
This New Yorker DVD release of Lancelot du Lac is naturally a vast improvement over
their previous VHS edition, which had ingrained subtitles and an aspect ratio of close to 4:3.
On the DVD, we were pleased to discover an anamorphic transfer with removable, white subtitles.
The film's (rather amazing!) theatrical trailer is the only additional material
The source print used for the main feature exhibits some scratches and dust, but is
in quite good shape. The audio track is perfectly acceptable. The colors are however somewhat
less vivid than what we recall from
seeing the film on the big screen—they are somewhat bland and washed-out, part of
which may be due to the fact that the material is tape-sourced.
There is also hardly any definition in the blacks, or dark scenes.
As also was the case
with New Yorker's A Man Escaped DVD,
the transfer is based upon a PAL master, resulting in 4% speedup (the film clocks in
at a mere 80 minutes) and significant ghosting (see this screenshot).
This is quite unfortunate, especially for the serious student of Bresson. See our A Man Escaped DVD review
for further musings on the topic of sloppy PAL to NTSC conversions. The bitrate is 6 Mbps [plot], and the film comes on a single-layer disc.
Here are six screenshot from the film; click for full-size images.
As mentioned above, the New Yorker VHS of Lancelot du Lac was a near-fullscreen
presentation (close to 4:3, just very slightly letterboxed). The original aspect ratio (OAR) of the film is 1.66:1,
as confirmed by the frame enlargement on the left. This is Figure 7.54 from the
6th edition of Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art. This image
provides us with a reliable reference against which to determine the correctness (or not)
of the aspect ratio of the New Yorker DVD.
We located the corresponding frame on the DVD, close to the beginning
of the "Tournament" chapter.
The panel below shows a side-by-side comparison of the
Bordwell frame enlargement (right) and
the corresponding DVD screen capture (left).
The area seen in the DVD image is indicated with a rectangle
in the Bordwell frame on the right. It thus turns out that the New Yorker DVD is
rather severely cropped. Cropping to remove the "soft" edges of the film
frame (as is often done by Criterion) is one thing, to remove a chunk from
the frame large enough to ruin image composition is quite another matter.
Incidentally, the New Yorker VHS tape had significantly less vertical cropping, as indicated
by the yellow box here.
(Those with an underscan
button on their monitor could even see beyond this yellow box.)
The theatrical trailer included on the disc is not horizontally cropped to
the same degree (though it suffers from some vertical cropping). To show
how the horizontal cropping seriously alters Bresson's intended image composition,
consider the two frames below. On the left is the frame as seen
in the main feature of the DVD, and on the right is the corresponding
image as extracted from the included non-anamorphic theatrical trailer. Notice the
significant change in the framing of the window in the top right portion of the
In conclusion, the fact that this DVD is tape sourced (resulting in ghosting)
and severely cropped (rendering it useless to the serious student of the art of Bresson) certainly
makes it a less attractive purchase. [ Actually, yes, we do feel like screaming right now...!
Restraint! ]. Suffice to say, our more discerning readers may wish to wait for a better release.
Let us hope that the upcoming U.K. release does not suffer from the
same degree of cropping. –T.T. (May 20, 2004)