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LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Maria Casares, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette, Lucienne Bogaert, Jean Marchat
Director:  Robert Bresson
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Stills Gallery
Length:  85 Minutes
Release Date:  March 11, 2003

 “You don’t seem to understand where a woman’s scorn can lead.”

Film **

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, in addition to being quite a mouthful to say, is a rather bizarre French melodrama about love and revenge whereby a woman gets even with the man who spurns her by tricking him into marrying…ready for this?…a dancer.

I think that pretty well sums it up, but I’ll go into more detail:  Helene (Casares) is an aristocrat who loves Jean (Bernard), another aristocrat, but he has since grown weary of the relationship.  Maintaining a posture of friendship but secretly angry and hurt, she uses her position over a couple of lower class women in order to exact revenge.  They are Agnes (Labourdette) and her mother (Bogaert), both living a life of poverty and more recently, social disgrace because Agnes, who once had her eye on the theatre, has been reduced to (gasp!) a cabaret dancer in order to try and make ends meet.

With no money or reputation, they take Helene up on her offer to move them to a new apartment away from the city where they can start their lives anew…the catch is, in order to escape Agnes’ reputation as a (gasp!) cabaret dancer, they can make no appointments nor have guests over for a few years…I suppose until the proverbial stench clears.

But Helene arranges a “chance” meeting for the women with Jean, who falls instantly in love with Agnes, while Agnes, according to her mother’s wishes and their arrangement with Helene, refuses to see or meet with him.  And the lovelorn but oblique Jean foolishly seeks romantic counsel from Helene, who’s secretly putting the pieces of her vengeance together.

Finally, true love conquers all, and Agnes marries Jean in a big, beautiful ceremony, only to have Helene drop the bomb on Jean, telling him he’s married a (gasp!) cabaret dancer.  The angry Jean spurns his new bride, only to have her collapse and nearly die from her shame, only for the film to weakly hint at a possible new beginning for the two of them.

Isn’t it romantic?  I didn’t think so, either…in fact, I found the whole premise and execution of the story to be bluntly absurd.  It must be a cultural thing, because I couldn’t buy into it at all.  At the least, I was asking questions like, wasn’t Helene going to an awful lot of trouble in setting up this elaborate scheme that could have all fallen apart had Jean not given Agnes a second look?

I guess it must be one of those class system things.  Personally, if I had the good luck to marry someone as sweet and lovely as Agnes, I wouldn’t hesitate.  Even if she was a (gasp!) cabaret dancer.

What’s interesting about the characters is trying to determine their decency.  Helene is far too good at false fronts, keeping them up until the bitter end.  Jean has no dishonesty, but his density makes that more of a liability than an asset (come on, guys, never ask the woman you dumped for advice about the woman you’re currently trying to woo!).  And poor Agnes is forced to wear her fake identity by both…Helene, who is secretly scheming to use her, and Jean, who actually refuses to read the revealing letter she writes him that would have saved a lot of heartache.

I don’t consider the film a total loss.  At 85 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the performances are good for what the actors had to work with.  Francois Truffaut considers Robert Bresson one of the best French directors ever…I haven’t seen any of his other works, but Les Dames didn’t exactly pique my curiosity.  Other directors, most notably Douglas Sirk, have turned out wonderfully crafted pictures using tripe melodrama as a starting point.  This film just didn’t seem to have much  style to it, focusing instead on telling its story when the story couldn’t possibly be the strong point.

I’m still not completely sure what the story was driving at.  Was it a romance?  A tragedy?  A cautionary tale?  Maybe the latter.  Guys, whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask your girlfriend what she does for a living, or you might end up marrying a (gasp!) cabaret dancer. 

No, on second thought, that would sound kind of crappy as an Aesop moral.

Video **

The full frame presentation is fairly standard faire for a film from the 40s.  There are some noticeable aging affects on the print, with a few spots, specks and scratches from time to time, but no worse than you might expect.  The black and white photography is well rendered…perhaps a tad soft for artistic purposes, as certain sequences seem more dreamlike than real.  Not a wasted effort, but perhaps a bit off from Criterion’s normal superior work.

Audio *1/2

A bit substandard in this department, even for an older mono track.  The first reel is marred by a constant scratch…scratch…scratch sound that gives contemplative scenes an unnatural sense of rhythm, but fortunately, it passes 15 minutes or so into the film.  Though dialogue isn’t an issue (unless you speak French), there is some noticeable background hiss all the way through the film.  A little noise reduction might have gone a long way here.

Features *

There is a stills gallery of posters and behind the scenes photo included.

Summary:

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne simply isn’t one of the Criterion Collection’s better moments, either for choice of film, presentation quality or extras packaging.  This is one for the culturally curious only.