June 11, 2020
Lancelot of the Lake – France, 1974
All things end – the question, I suppose, is how they end. Do they simply fade away with age and the unavoidable winds of change, or do they go the way of the inhabitants of Pitcairn, whose dreams of a secluded Utopian society are said to have fallen victim to jealousy, tribalism, and ultimately murder? Robert Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake explores the fate of the mythical egalitarian setting known as Camelot and its admirable brotherhood of knights, and as its opening scene perfectly illustrates, the men whose round table symbolized equal significance have much in common with Fletcher Christian and his co-mutineers.
After opening with gory images of knights soiling the ground with the blood of fellow knights, a scene that actually occurs much later in the film’s timeline, Bresson uses a scroll to establish a rather tragic back story. It seems that before his death, Merlin initiated a quest for the Holy Grail. However, fearing the wrath of a vengeful god, he advised that Sir Percival lead the expedition instead of Sir Lancelot (Luc Simon). It is a recommendation that was not followed. Soon Percival vanished, never to be seen again, and Lancelot assumed command. Two years later, Lancelot returns, his ranks decimated with nothing to show for his efforts. He comes to believe that his failure is divine punishment for his adulterous relationship with Lady Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas).
In a particularly poignant scene, we see King Arthur (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) open the doors leading to the legendary table usually filled with Knights. In a somber tone, he then recites the names of all the chivalrous men whom Death has deigned never to walk among them again, and as he does, his voice noticeably quivers. We immediately learn of a rift among the knights. One named Mordred refused to go on the search for the Grail, and it soon becomes clear that he is acquiring a following of individuals who like himself no longer consider Arthur to be worthy of the crown. In early Arthurian tales, which actually do not include the character of Lancelot, Mordred initiates a futile coup while Arthur is leading his troops into battle. He even forces Guinevere to marry him. Lancelot of the Lake takes a different route. It finds Mordred determined to cast Lancelot as Arthur’s enemy, and what better way to do that than by convincing Arthur of Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit love.
What struck me most about the film was the overall sense of melancholy that permeates Camelot. Arthur, matching the depictions of the character which became common in the more romantic Arthurian stories of the 12th and 13th centuries, is presented as passive and hesitant, perhaps as a result of both his awareness of his mortality and the absence of a war to bring out the commander in him. More telling is the way the film depicts Lancelot and Guinevere. Instead of the passionate beings that other films present them as (see First Knight for a good example of this), this Lancelot speaks of love without any hint of passion in his voice, while Guinevere’s speech is practically monotone, hinting as either complacency or a sense of ownership. She won’t let Lancelot end the relationship, yet her “I love yous” ring hollow, resembling not those of a woman suddenly at risk of losing her soul mate, but of one who sees ending the relationship as both an insult to her honor and a blow to her reputation, which is odd considering the risk that continue the relationship carries for each of them. In fact, the only time joy enters Camelot is when a rival kingdom challenges Arthur and his knights to a jousting tournament. Finally, something that makes them reminisce about their glory days.
The heart of the film is Lancelot-devotee Sir Gwain (Humbrt Balsan). Gwain is consistently one step ahead of everyone else in his assessment of the danger that Mordred presents and of the peril of Guinevere’s position. However, his status is made clear in an early scene in which he implores Arthur to let him be of use, only to be told that the best thing he can do is pray.
Overall, I was intrigued by the film, but its morbid tone, as well as the cast’s subdued performances, does it a bit of a disservice. Every one in the film is emotionally damaged, and they cannot seem to muster anything resembling energy. The scenes in which Mordred reveals his plot should be suspenseful, akin to the way Michael Mac Liammoir explains Iago’s schemes in Orson Welles’s 1951 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. No such luck, though. The same can be said for those who still consider Lancelot to be their moral leader. They should be energetically voicing their support for him; instead, their defenses, while somewhat stern, are entirely too brief and not followed up on.
I wish I could recommend Lancelot of the Lake more strongly, for its premise is exceptionally promising. In fact, I was rather intrigued by all the covert maneuverings, as well as the conversations between Lancelot and Gwain. I also felt empathy for Lady Guinevere when she abruptly says how much she despises her husband. Clearly something tragic happened between them in the years Lancelot was away. And I like the way the film initially introduces Mordred as a reasonable character - he was, after all, the only one who saw the fallacy of pursuing such a preposterous item as the Holy Grail – and then gradually makes you aware of the kind of man he really is. However, Bresson never quite finds the right pace. The amount of time devoted to the jousting tournament and the manner in which it is shot – not showing the head of the competitors or the instant the lance hits the shield – are examples of moments that should be more engaging than they actually are. Sadly, we feel what the characters feel, and if they can’t be bothered to be invested in what their doing, just how can the audience be? Still, the story is absorbing, and it provides a credible explanation for the demise of Camelot. Jared Diamond would be pleased. (on DVD in Region 2; out of print in the U.S.)
*Lancelot of the Lake is in French with English subtitles.