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The Criterion Collection presents
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

"Is there nothing more to life than carrying the burden of one's past mistakes?"
- Agnès (Elina Labourdetti)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 10, 2003

Stars: Maria Casarès, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdetti, Lucienne Bogaert
Director: Robert Bresson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:25m:47s
Release Date: March 11, 2003
UPC: 037429173626
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-B+B C+

DVD Review

In his marvelous book, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader (yes, the author of Taxi Driver) elevates Bresson along with Ozu and Dreyer to his pantheon of cinematic poets; while the other two have been reasonably represented on DVD releases so far, Bresson's films have been completely absent. Criterion sets about the task of justifying that wrong with this disc, Bresson's second feature, in which his mature style is taking shape. It's a marvelous film, derided in its time, years later finding its audience and earning the respect it so justly merits.

It's a chamber piece, essentially, featuring just four characters. Hélène (the sloe-eyed Maria Casarès), feeling neglected by her lover Jean (Paul Bernard), suggests that perhaps it's time that they go their separate ways; her ploy doesn't work as intended, and she's thunderstruck when he takes her up on the offer. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, as we all well know, and Hélène's revenge is potent and chilling. She swoops in to save Agnès (Elina Labourdetti) and her mother (Lucienne Bogaert) from poverty, removing them from a life of decadence, and cloistering them in a small apartment. Agnès has been working in a nightclub as a "dancer," clearly here a 1940s euphemism for prostitute; Hélène vows to help her keep to the straight and narrow.

Hélène sees to it that Jean and Agnès cross paths, and of course he falls madly, deeply in love with Agnès—he's convinced that she's virginal, an innocent, and his rapaciousness, his need for her, leads to his reckless pursuit. He thinks he's got an ally in Hélène, but she's not that evolved, and is all too happy to push him down the primrose path of delusion, obsession and social mortification.

Bresson adapted the story from Jacques le fataliste, by eighteenth-century encyclopaedist Denis Diderot; the dialogue is by Jean Cocteau, so it's hard to know to whom to credit the film's many virtues and peculiar style. Some of the dialogue can be overwrought—Agnès makes repeated declarations like, "Destiny is tragic, but I prefer a fate we choose to one forced upon us"—but Bresson and Cocteau have succeeded in thoroughly modernizing Diderot's tale, and Bresson's camerawork is especially noteworthy. He's fond of tracking shots, and the camera moves sinuously around the room; similarly, it's a marvelously lit film, framing the expressive actors' faces artfully without calling too much attention to the technical filmmaking elements. The eighteenth-century pedigree will be obvious to those who have seen or read Les Liaisons dangereuses, or any of the several recent film adaptations of that book.

Jean's quest to see just and only what he wants in Agnès brings to mind James Stewart in Vertigo, as well, and even the denouement of this story bears a passing resemblance to Hitchcock. But Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is interesting not merely for the influence it exerted; it's a taut, pungent little tale, about the problems inherent in the notion of redemption, and about the darker angels of our nature. Especially noteworthy, besides Philippe Agostini's peerless cinematography, are the four central performances. Casarès smolders as Hélène and Bernard is both jaded and goofily earnest as her principal victim. (Even if he's done Hélène some dirt, it's hard not to be touched by his genuineness about the Agnès he believes in: "I love her. I'm losing my head. I'm capable of anything.") Their final confrontation, with him pinned in his car as she spews her venom, is one of the most harrowing and understated scenes you're likely ever to see.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion has taken great care in bringing this film to DVD, but it still bears the scars of wartime France. Many scratches remain and the light level can be uneven, but the cinematography is truly glorious; there's more than a little of Atget evident in the street scenes especially.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: As with the picture, the sound has been cleaned up a good deal, but there's still some hissing that's evident. It's nicely modulated and surprisingly clear, however, given that it's a mono track from nearly sixty years ago.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. stills gallery
  2. insert booklet with essays by François Truffaut and David Thomson
Extras Review: The stills gallery features photographs taken for publicity purposes and on location, including a few from some deleted scenes, which I'm assuming are lost to us now; original French poster art is included as well. The accompanying essays are brief but illuminating, especially the excerpt from Truffaut's The Films in My Life.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

An advertisement for the great things to come from Bresson as well as a lovely film in its own right, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne looks handsome and well restored on this disc. Perhaps it's a harbinger of more Bresson on DVD, he offered hopefully to conclude his review.


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