Delving back into Bresson’s second feature, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne lacks the elements that stylistically defined Bresson’s career. While it is not completely fair to retroactively hold Bresson’s early work to a form he didn’t develop until Diary of a Country Priest, it is interesting to tease out how Les dames du Bois de Boulogne is a compelling film by contrasting how it differs from Bresson’s later works.
A distinct difference in the plot is that the film focuses on the aggressor as opposed to the victim. Socialite Hélène (María Casares) becomes envious and plans revenge on her best friend Jean (Paul Bernard) when he begins to focus more on other women. She sets a devious trap for him when she decides to take Agnès (Elina Labourdette), a notorious dancer known for being loose, under her close care.
The theme of suffering is present, but it takes a different form than Bresson’s later works. Instead of being a larger, more generalized portrait of suffering, here the suffering in the film is positioned as fabricated by the social norms and societal constraints that these individuals impose upon themselves in order to be accepted in high society.
Also, the suffering has a clear source: Hélène. She is the cause for all the torment, for the awkward situation she places Agnès in by taking care of her, but also wordlessly imposing a sense of obligation. Likewise, she constantly puts Jean in an awkward circumstance as he attempts to call on Agnès, creating circumstances and rules that keep him in a state of romantic agony.
It’s also interesting to think about the film in the contest of an urban society, a society where humans directly inflicting suffering on each other. In contrast to Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette, which take places in rural areas, the core of all suffering in this urban society is interpersonal relationships. This suggests the civilized world uses suffering and pain as a means of controlling behavior.
Granted, similar relationships didn’t work out in Bresson’s rural features, but they weren’t quite as punctuated and exacerbated as the relationships in this film, suggesting that this high-society elevates the pain and punishment as the societal system is far more pervasive and influential, strongly suggesting that life itself may become impossible due to the shame and rejection that is likely to result.
It’s also interesting that this film is explicitly expressive in a way that Bresson’s later films lack. There are distinct lighting moods to suggest tones and psychological states. Also, the acting style is much more familiar and animated, actions like vigorous dancing and physically conveyed conversations are commonplace and create for a distinctly different feel.
All of this is to say that Les dames du Bois de Boulogne’s differences allow it a distinct and effective place in Bresson’s body of work. Its revenge fueled perspective make the bold, dramatic style work as an inverse of Bresson’s numb, entrancing style of his later features. It’s not quite as engaging or as fascinating as those later films, but it still remains an interesting feature.