Lancelot du Lac (1974) is the last feature film of Robert Bresson that I am to see (although I have yet to re-watch and review Au Hasard Balthazar ). Set in the medieval age, the story tells of the Arthurian legend of the Knights of The Round Table, focusing entirely on the aftermath of the quest for the Holy Grail. Upon their return from failure, grief, and the utter decimation of troops, the remaining knights, alongside the Queen’s knight, Lancelot (Luc Simon), are not heroes, and, therefore they’re not depicted as such. Unlike essentially every film or story based on this legend, the characters are seen as fallible humans with rather unhealthy dispositions; they are greedy, violent, vengeful, and adulterous.
While the story of King Arthur is legend, Bresson strips it down to its bare essentials, transforming the fantasy into grim reality. While one can see that the settings, events, and general lifestyle is as described in myth, the people are not seen as fictional, supernatural characters, but as humans, simply living in a foreign day and age. Still, they remain replete with all the trying human emotions and experiences one ought to expect of any time and place; in other words, Bresson realizes the legend into a universally approachable humanist integrity.
Aesthetically, the film is rustic and bare. A bleak colour palette of browns, greys, and greens, marriaged with sparse camera movements, meticulous sound detailing, and extraordinarily plain — think the opposite of A Knight’s Tale (Helgeland, 2001) — costumes fill the scene. The forest setting and drab colours instill the film with a truly historic quality; it feels like one is actually back in time. Accompanying this, the sounds of armour clanking, horses clomping, and trumpets blowing give you the feeling of a truly medieval time — think the soundscape of Age of Empires put to film. And, as reality would suggest, older fashioned fabrics, stitching, and colour degradation — there are no washing machines — are donned and dressed by the characters of this far-off time.
A cinematic element that is typically Bressonian is to close-up on partial images while the rest of the image is off-camera. In many cases, this aesthetic feature is put to a narrative use, with the film literally skipping over parts that are then presumed to have occurred because of what is next shown. In Lancelot du Lac, these two techniques are perhaps used most concurrently. In ways, it makes the film markedly more efficient; in others, it makes the story rather empty and perhaps even difficult to follow — especially if you’re new to Bresson.
For example, Bresson often focuses on the backs of legs, showing the vulnerability of the knights — the only portion of their body not armed — as they walk away. During scenes with Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, he chooses to show close ups of their hands, illustrating their attachment and undying love for one another; their clasped fingers speak more powerfully of their love than their facial expressions ever could.
Regarding the narrative, fights, such as the one Lancelot ensues before saving the queen, are not depicted on screen, though sounds of it may be heard. In other words, we do not see how he saves the Queen, just that he does, and that he gets injured in doing so. Several other bits and pieces are left out, but one thing Bresson never does is neglect to depict the essential.
As with virtually all of Bresson’s filmography, Lancelot du Lac ends in tragedy. A harsh battle has left nearly everyone for dead, with treason and greed causing them to kill their own. As Gauvain (Humbert Baisan) admits before his death, he is willing to give every last drop of his blood to save the Queen, but he worries his pathetic life is not enough. In the end, it takes the life of each of the knights to accomplish this. Bresson illustrates a powerful interpretation of the Holy Grail: with the knights willing to kill each other in pursuit of some prized possession — the Queen — their greed, a sickly human fallibility, prevents any one of them from ever achieving their goal; the Queen — the true Holy Grail — is only safe in their absence.