Lancelot du Lac, a late work by Robert Bresson, is the ugliest, most boring film ever made about the age of chivalry.
So why should you watch it?
I suppose that the main reason is because it’s by Robert Bresson. If Joe Kowalski from Bayonne New Jersey made Lancelot du Lac, we’d just assume it was a bad film, and turn it off after 20 minutes. But because it’s Bresson, you have to ask yourself the obvious question. What exactly is he trying to do? He knows how to make good movies. Why did he make a bad one?
Chivalry is ugly. It’s based on a hierarchical economy, serfdom, violence against women, religious totalitarianism. But you’d never know that by looking at most Hollywood movies. From the grand romanticism of Michael Mann’s El Cid, to the infantile white nationalism of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, big budget, Hollywood films often assume that the age of chivalry was, if not exactly a kinder gentler era, then at least an age with more wonder and enchantment. That ugly, reactionary, films like Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind have, as their underlying message, the assumption that the slave power of the antebellum South was the rightful heir of the idealized Middle Ages as imagined by Walter Scott, often goes unexamined.
Perhaps the most famous deconstruction of the “days of old when knights were bold” is Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain, who loathed Walter Scott, half blamed him for the United States Civil War. Connecticut Yankee ends, like so many other novels, with a climactic battle, but here it looks like the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of Cold Harbor, murder, not war.
Monty Python’s film “Monty Python And The Holy Grail” attacks the idea of chivalry from another angle, laughs. Peasants who burn witches are dense idiots. Smarter peasants mock the idea that the Lady of the Lake could have made Arthur King. Flying bunnies sail through the air, and murder the best knights of Camelot. The French mock the English for looking for the Holy Grail. Sir Lancelot murders half the guests at a wedding party to rescue a “lady,” who turns out to be a gay man.
Monty Python And The Holy Grail is fun. It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again. Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, which was filmed a year earlier and which seems to have had some influence on the comic British masterpiece, is not. Unlike the Pythons, Bresson doesn’t sugarcoat his attack on chivalry with comedy. Instead, he imagines King Arthur’s court at Camelot as the endgame of western civilization, as the final collapse of the imperialist world order into entropy and blood.
It’s aversion therapy for film goers addicted to chivalry and romance.
Lancelot himself is a non-descript looking 40ish man who looks more like a college professor than a great warrior. Guinevere has the pale, dreamy beauty of so many of Bresson’s actresses, but she’s controlling, then indecisive, then controlling. King Arthur is a bore. Sir Gawain is a good looking young hunk, but he dies in the most ignominious way imaginable, accidentally at the hands of his best friend. Mordred looks like a counter man at a pizza place. Most importantly, all of Lancelot du Lac’s actors are wooden, without affect, blank. George Romero once said that “every film Bresson ever made is a zombie film.” That fits Lancelot du Lac perfectly. This is a zombie film.
But it’s more. Zombie films are often entertaining. Bad actors alone don’t make Lancelot du Lac the aversion therapy it most assuredly is. For that, Bresson uses alienation and repetition.
Lancelot du Lac, like so many other films about the legend of King Arthur is full of anachronisms. Like the silly (and “silly” does not mean it’s a bad movie) John Borman film Excalibur, Lancelot du Lac’s ancient, 5th Century Celtic warriors wear ceremonial armor from the 16th and 17th centuries, polished, gleaming suits of metal. Yet here the difference ends. There’s no Wagnerian score in Lancelot du Lac, no grand apocalyptic battle, no magic, and certainly no young Helen Mirren. There’s a bunch of boring, non-descript men walking around like high school kids, coming up with plot after plot, none of which ever seem to get carried out. Even when it seems most inappropriate, they wear their armor. You wonder if they shower in it. There’s no drama or pageantry, just a chivalric metaphor for the alienation of people from their bodies, and one another.
Then there’s the repetition. And take my word for it. Lancelot du Lac is dull. One scene in particular stands out. Lancelot goes to a jousting tournament in disguise. We’re never told why. It’s certainly nothing like the way Errol Flynn wears a cloak in the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, then reveals himself at the last moment before fighting his way out of the castle. Lancelot just goes to the tournament in disguise. He defeats one opponent. It’s more than dull. We don’t even see it. Bresson, like an incompetent photographer, films his actors from the neck down. We hear it. We see some legs. We see the bottom of a horse. Then it happens again, and again, and again. Finally, after unhorsing 20 opponents, Lancelot rides off into the woods, and collapses. Blood pours out of his shorts, some kind of groin injury.
Does he die? No. He gets better. Bresson isn’t finished with us yet. We need more aversion therapy and more repetition. There’s more plotting. Lancelot gets back with Guinevere, then disavows her, then saves her. Finally, he rides into a climatic battle against Mordred. Both sides have 4 or 5 knights. They all die. A horse rides in a circle. Camelot has fallen. We don’t care.
And that’s just the way Robert Bresson wants it.