Les dames du Bois de Bologne (1945), his second feature, is unlike any other film by Robert Bresson. Frankly, it is his most conventional film, besides the (short) slapstick comedy, Public Affairs (1934). There is little if no poetry, subtext, or transcendental qualities; the film tells of a revenge story, and follows the story completely. Surprisingly enough, for a Bresson film, it has a tangible plot, hides nothing, and ends with closure — at least in Bresson’s sense of the term.
If you didn’t tell me I was watching a Bresson film, I wouldn’t have known it. Though shot in black and white, it doesn’t quite boast Bresson’s signature lighting techniques; I suppose he was still coming into his own, but it seems almost like a step back from his work in Les anges du péché (1943). While there are moments where Bresson’s photo-graphical input may be seen, usually in the transition of scenes, it could easily be mistaken for any other 40s drama film. If I didn’t know any better, I would believe you if you told me it was a 40s Hollywood film-noir.
A major aspect of the film that renders it semblant of a 40s Hollywood film noir is the music; the film is filled with that 40s style big band jazz. This music is even played in a cabaret where one of the characters dances, a setting frequently used in typical 40s Hollywood films — the cabaret is somewhat of a staple of the 40s entertainment culture.
The story is told little by little, with the protagonist, Hélène (Maria Casares), slowly revealing her plan. This, along with her snide facial expressions — brilliantly performed by Casares — keeps one engaged, wondering what exactly she’s up to. Or maybe people recognized what she was doing the entire time; I didn’t. Why? Because what she’s doing seems trivial, and I was expecting a revenge so much juicier than simply she got her ex-lover to marry a former cabaret dancer/prostitute. I think perhaps the impact has been lost over time, since we are now in a world where this doesn’t seem like a big deal. She’s changed — actually she was kinda forced into it in the first place; he loves her; who cares?
Because of this, although it’s sad to say, this is the only non-universal Bresson film; unlike each of his other films, it doesn’t stand the test of time. While certain themes are just as relevant today, such as that of revenge, the film doesn’t have the haunting philosophical moray — disambiguation — that helps Bresson’s other features attain an ever-lasting film presence. While some of his features, such as Four Nights Of A Dreamer (1972) or Mouchette (1967), are just as — if not more — impressive and meaningful today than when they were made, Les dames du Bois de Bologne is a story from the 40s for the 40s, and its relevance today is in peering into the past, rather than seeing the past in the present. That said, on its own, it’s still an excellent film.