Harry Tuttle

Notes from a lecture by film historian François de la Bretèque on Bresson's Lancelot du Lac

Site reader Harry Tuttle of Screenville provided these brief notes from a lecture held Saturday 9th of April 2005 at the cinema Reflet Medicis, Paris. Mrs. Bresson was in attendance.

François de la Bretèque: Author of the newly published L'imaginaire médiéval dans le cinéma occidental / Medieval imaginary in western cinema (Ed. Honoré Champion, 2005), in which he lists about 300 films, historical or fantasy, involving medieval figures and events.

The King Arthur with Tristan and Isolde are the two major myths inherited from this era, and often adaptated to the screen. The dramatic structure of the former is strangely similar to the impossible love triangle of the later where Lancelot is Tristan, Guinevere is Isolde and Artus is Lord Marke.

Bresson's original script is believed to be inspired from the late XIIIth century french tale "La Mort Le Roi Artus", which fits the best with the film's elements. Although Bresson never claimed to refer to a particular text, and freely adaptated the famous legend for a contemporean resonance with our society's concerns (notably the revelation of Guinevere's adultary and her later surrender to Arthur).

The adventures of Artus are meant to take place in the early Middle-Age (VIth century), remotely based on an existing character. As it was written by monks from the XIIth to the XIVth century, who belonged to the religious higher class of their time, it is usually the epoch when films set the action, using castles, costumes and weapons accordingly however anachronistic. Although Bresson uses XIIth century armors, most medieval historians mentionned his film as one of the best rendition of the actual period, in direct opposition to epic Hollywood spectacles with grandiloquent battle scenes and richer sets.

Neither the archeologic reality, a scientific perception based on historical findings, nor the mythologic truth, a fantasy based on artist's iconography or writer's imagination give us a realistic idea of how people actually lived back then. Bresson's cinematographe seeks for authenticity rather than resemblance.

Armors are rusted, used and deformed. The population is small and isolated in distant castles, the forest is dense and dangerous. The symbolism of "couleurs" (meaning in french both color scheme and heraldic coat of arms) is a structural element in Bresson minimalistic framing and editing, especially in the tournament sequence, combined with an audio identification.

  • Lancelot is associated with a black armor (color of guilt/mourning/adultary), and horse neighings. His "white armor" without coat or arms is called "mute", it was used for knights to cover their origin and remain anonymous.
  • Guinevere is also associated with a black cape, and her totemic animal is the black chaterring magpie.

Lancelot is an existentialist hero who believes in his acts. His philosophy and conscience clashes with Guinevere's. He's the only knight coming back from the quest who saw the Grail. Although Lancelot was the best knight in the world, the queen's favorite, and the king's best friend, the burden of his guilt for courting his suzerain's wife denied him access to it, because he was impur. That's why Percival was designated to retrieve the holy relic. Percival never returned home.

The Grail is only shown once in the film, after the opening sequence, in the background of unrolling title cards introducing the story. Bresson chose to focus his attention on the post-quest life of the Round Table, after the defeat. The knights have failed to bring back to Camelot the cup where Joseph d'Arimathie collected the blood of Jesus Christ on his cross. Merlin on his death bed had asked Arthur to find it, somewhere hidden in Britany, for the honor and prosperity of the kingdom. Many knights have died, as briefly and very graphicaly depicted in the gore and morbid opening scene. The king, his knights, and his people are desperate, depressed, inhibited by idleness and loss of faith. This is the end of utopies, which was also a key theme for contemporeans when the film was made in 1974. The absent Grail stands for the vacuity in their heart. And the film explores at great lengths the degradation of morale leading to rivalry, plotting and vengeance between the knights, in opposition to the sacred Code of Chivalry. The heart also rots and changes. Lancelot is changed for ever by this quest and pushes away a longing Guinevere. Lancelot and Guinevere, the sinful lovers responsible of the fall of Arthur's kingdom, are distant and unable to connect on the same wavelength. At the beguining he claims loyalty to Arthur and turns down her lustful love. In the end she turns down Lancelot's heroic love demonstration and returns to Arthur to stop the bloodbath. The romantic myth of doomed love. end block

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