Referring to Guy Ritchie’s rather trivial take on the Matter of Britain, here are the three most interesting filmed versions of the tale.
Shorn of obvious spectacle, and indeed stripped of affect or emotion, leaving a wiry, skeletal husk of human action divested of emotional concern on the part of the participants, Lancelot du Lac is much more than an honest” version of a much-told tale. Rather, Robert Bresson’s film is a rejoinder to decades of cinematic portals to the past and to the hubristic cinematic compulsion to re-equate us with a world – to think film can be our guide to a past world – that predates us not only physically but mentally by centuries. In Lancelot du Lac, the Matter of Britain is a gaseous state, hot air to be specific, a nationalist myth preaching dictums of achievement, predestination, and divine right filtered through masculine action. Bresson has no compunction about dipping all those dreams in a joyless and uncompromising acid that shears away decades of cinematic myth-making and requests that we think of his own film more as a pantomime from the present rather than a literal glimpse of the past
Thus does this singularly uneventful take on the love affair between Lancelot (Luc Simon) and Guinevere (Laure Duke Dondominas) alight the screen with a creeping anti-magnificence. The people ossified like historical waxworks displays, they intone half-muttered lines through mouths and bodies drained of motion as Bresson sucks the Technicolor proto-psychedelia and vibrancy out of the mythology entirely. A crude and cruel opening fight – an obvious inspiration for a much more famous moment in the following year’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail – denies the participants not only the dramatic urge of a lengthy build-up but the carnal wheezes, flubs, and huffs that might suggest their barbaric failure is at least human in origin. More puppet than person, each figure is a ghostly walking phantom devoid even of the emotion to be considered a wraith.
It is immediately obvious that we are in a realm that bears only the distant rumor of a classical wide-screen weepie or a melodramatic epic about humanity’s will to conquer. This is the Arthurian legend totally exhausted and emotionally spent, but Bresson is too much a filmmaker to settle for mere realistic grime – Ridley Scott has been reheating the same historical story for almost two decades and accomplishing only that. At stake in Lancelot is a much deeper sense of a world passing by without any appropriate emotional reaction, a funereal mood that suggests “funeral” is too dramatic and consequential a word to encapsulate the constant and unerring laminate of exhaustion that has seeped into the roots of society.
Take the film’s piece-de-resistance, although such a term seems profoundly inappropriate for such an affectless film: a jousting tournament abstracted to a death-march of random feet, visors, and hands that actively defy any geographic totality. Bresson deliberately fails to position the combatants in relation to one another, thus denying them the phallic forward-motion rush of ramming their opponent in a feat of masculine achievement. The repetitions in the ostensible “big set-piece” jousting match dismantle the forward-progress kinesis so essential to most Western narratives rooted in Aristotelean time and involved in the project of mounting their protagonists as causal agents who affect the world and drive it forward. These characters are incommensurable with “agents in time”, and I’m not even sure about “conscious beings”. But the artistic manipulation here – for all his minimalism, nothing about Bresson’s films is naturalistic or un-manipulated – is essential: knowing that the Arthurian legends are mythic constructs, returning them to reality would be a denial of their essential cores. Instead, Bresson is engaged in the same project as every other version of the tale, manipulating it to an end. It just so happens that Bresson’s particular end is essentially the diametric antithesis of any other filmed version of the tale. The film isn’t approaching its antecedents with the hope to erase their fraudulence or falseness so much as to use the essential fraudulence of the tale, that fact that it is endlessly manipulatable, against it.
This will to manipulate is, also, probably, why Bresson’s film is not exactly the nihilistic, cold-blooded reptile it initially seems and is likely to be read as. With the moral imperative of questing of no use anymore, Bresson does find solace nonetheless. He simply looks for it in the sensations and perceptions lost by the wayside of films that myopically hew in their gazes only on one forward phallic thrust of narrative. Well, the editing on the jousting match doesn’t know which way is forward, backward, or sideways, so we must search elsewhere. Since the characters are so devoid of internal affect, Bresson refocuses our attention to the externals, the surfaces, not to acting on the world or linearizing it or dominating it but to opening up to it, becoming sensitive and receptive to the images around us, which are beautiful in spite of serving no nominal narrative purpose.
In other words, just because the story doesn’t advance, that doesn’t mean we fail to advance emotionally – or that we don’t dig into subterranean emotions – which is what matters in the end. We simply need to know where to look when our conventional frames for emotion fail us. Even Bresson’s earliest films were dedicated to this principle, asking us not to find no emotion when confronted with affectless line-readings but to relocate our understanding of expression to emphasize not the face or mouth but the hands as tools of the mind and the soul. Given cosmic emptiness, Bresson uses the hands – the tools of life, for him – to make emptinade.