This is an image from 1:00:00 into Lancelot du Lac (1974), Robert Bresson’s harsh deconstruction of Arthurian legend. The film follows the ancient, familiar path of everything from Le Morte d’Arthur to Camelot and The Once and Future King: Arthur’s kingdom is powerful and unified, but then the popular Sir Lancelot engages in a doomed affair with Queen Guinevere, and everything falls to pieces. But while keeping with this plot, Bresson subverts every other familiar aspect of Arthurian lore. Gone are the magic, heroism, and righteousness. All that remains is, as T.S. Eliot said, “a heap of broken images” – a quote that’s particularly well-suited to this movie and its medieval waste land.
The young man seen in profile above is Sir Gawain (French actor/producer Humbert Balsan), a well-intentioned knight who admits that his fealty to Guinevere won’t be enough to save her or the kingdom. The other man is his uncle, who is aiding him in Guinevere’s service. The scene’s unusual blocking, with Gawain facing away from his uncle, is symptomatic of both the character’s emotional exhaustion and of Bresson’s peculiar style, in which he cut through to a situation’s essence by rehearsing his actors until their behaviors took on a ritualistic quality. Neither of their faces is at all emotive; they’re going through the motions, in the most profound sense.
Besides the physical relationship of the actors, the most striking aspect of this frame is the color. It’s extremely subdued: the dullness of the silver armor matches that of the brown trees and the green leaves. Contrary to the tradition of adventure movies (like, say, an Errol Flynn swashbuckler), the color isn’t heightened at all, though it’s still very stylized. If anything, it’s flatter, drabber, and more mundane than real, day-to-day life. Bresson isn’t just peeling away layers of myth to get at natural reality, but rather creating an anti-myth that emphasizes the microscopic gestures and tedious responsibilities that fill the lives of these mythical knights and royalty.
But Bresson doesn’t take the fun out of Arthurian legend for its own sake. He’s providing a totally new way of viewing it, just as some of his other masterpieces made it possible to view crime, jailbreak, or animal labor with new eyes. Like the characters in those films, knights must also toil and suffer as they cope with the outcomes of their leaders’ selfish political machinations. Gawain is caught up in a larger story whose outcome he can’t really sway, and he has to reconcile himself with that fact. This crisis is manifested in the curiously detached acting, and when combined with the fragmented mise-en-scène and muted palette, it produces an eerie, hypnotic beauty.
Right after the moment pictured above, Gawain strolls away from his uncle and past a tree before saying, “Go quickly.” There’s a very discernible disconnect between his behavior and the behavior we expect of a knight: he’s neither authoritative nor confident. Yet in a way, he’s more sympathetic because of it. In his hesitance, he feels like a human being rather than the superhuman knight of yore. He pauses, he wears clunky armor, and he inhabits a decaying, disappointing world. These depressing commonalities bridge the gap between the present and the legendary medieval past. Lancelot du Lac is King Arthur colliding with modernity.