A quality of Robert Bresson’s ascetic style is that it renders him capable of expressing a multiplicity of emotions at once; his films, though unique in their own regard, each capture an entrancing, yet endearing mood. In Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman), the tragic story is melancholically regaled; It’s not exactly sad, but bittersweet.
The film utilizes flashbacks and multiple perspectives to look at a relationship that culminates in a suicide. Though it’s primarily told through the eyes of the husband (Guy Frangin), the viewer is not just privy to his point of view, but also to the point of view of the woman (Dominique Sanda). Other perspectives, such as that of men in general, women in general, and society, are further examined.
Conceptually, the film primarily deals with the problem of communication between man and wife; in other words, it looks at the difficulties in truly connecting with one’s partner. Since we are individuals first and foremost, and one cannot know what the other is thinking or how they feel, communication can only go so far. Using language doesn’t really help us connect.
On the other hand, gentleness, something instinctual and known through feeling, becomes a powerful form of communication, and therefore becomes instrumental in forming profound human connections. It allows people to connect on an emotional, sub-personal, rather animalistic level, using instinct to connect one’s feelings with that of another.
However, the problem with matrimony, or relationships in general, is that it is not all love. Gentleness may not always be found, and people feel the need to connect on an intellectual level. But, again, since we are separate beings, communication can only go so far, and truly connecting with another person — on an intellectual as well as emotional level —is tormentingly difficult, if not impossible.
The film portrays an image of woman: she is gentle, graceful, soft, easy, and of-peace. These are the qualities that men adore and appreciate. It’s what men become attracted to. But woman is not always gentle, she is living and thinking as well. One might compare the gentleness and beauty of our female character with that of a flower, but this is a flower that has volition, and cannot be controlled; it can change if it wants to, and become something else.
Artistically, Bresson films images of a softly green bar of soap and a uniquely delicate bath to express female gentleness. These feminine images radiate docility, innocence, timidity, and sweetness, becoming an expression of a woman’s soft nature that is constantly being stifled.
Of our graceful woman, patterns, money, marriage, and things of the like do not make sense to her. She is simple and whimsical, while her materialistic husband plainly cannot understand her. They speak to each other, but neither is truly able to express themselves to each other. There is a barrier of communication, and they can only makes one another see so much.
The space between them is similar to the “gulf” Luc claims is between painting and sculpture. The woman says “non”. This capitulates their incompatibility in thinking. She sees the artistic integrity of the two things, and how they are connected, and therefore not so different. He simply sees the differences — just as he sees the differences between himself and her — instead of letting them connect based on a more profound humanist integrity.
Sanda’s acting is beautiful and entrancing, complementing the soft, eerie mood and slow aesthetics. This perfectly fits Bresson’s ascetic nature, to have Sanda’s actions slow and disquieting, while the film is cinematographically similar. Her gentle hand movements correspond with the precise camera gestures.
This is especially noticeable during the scene of the couple eating soup. Her gentleness is expressed, while the distance between the two characters is strongly pronounced. While Luc is full of action — hitting the bottom of the bowl, picking soup up in the spoon, blowing it to cool off, eating it — the woman slowly takes a small amount and gently touches it to her lips. The contrast is harrowing but beautiful, expressing their inability to connect.
In the end, the film tells of “man’s foolish image of a woman”. Luc realizes the trouble of how he was treating her, but this does not change anything. She has herself realized that she cannot give him what he desperately needs, and now simply wants to be free. He humiliated her — made her feel shame — and basked in their inequality. Unknowingly, he destroyed her gracefulness and killed her gentleness. Yearning for freedom, she takes her own life, hitting the ground as her shawl lingers in the air after her, gracefully — gently — floating down towards her.