Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne first published by Movie Gazette
Maria Casarès, who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and then fled to France where she became Albert Camus’ lover and the star of his plays, is perhaps best known for her portrayal of Death in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) – a part which she reprised in Le Testament d’Orphée (1960). Yet it is in Robert Bresson‘s earlier Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne that Casarès gave her definitive performance, in a rôle which oozes wounded desire, indignant menace and calculating malevolence.
When wealthy socialite Hélène (Casarès) is dumped by the bumblingly caddish love of her life Jean (Paul Bernard), she swears she will be avenged. Reacquainting herself with an old friend from the provinces, Madame D (Lucienne Bagaërt), who together with her daughter Agnès (Élina Labourdette) has fallen into financial ruin and ill repute in Paris, Hélène charitably offers them lodgings where they can escape their public ignominy. In fact Hélène has far more sinister motives – plotting to ensnare and humiliate Jean (with Agnès as both bait and innocent victim), she engineers a ‘chance’ meeting between Jean and Agnès at the Bois de Boulogne, knowing Jean’s taste in women all too well. Jean is at once smitten, but Agnès, sensitive to the possibility that her past might return to haunt her, keeps evading his advances. The meddling Hélène toys with Jean’s lovesick sufferings for a while, reserving her final stroke of vindictiveness for the wedding day that she knows cannot be forever avoided.
Adapted by Bresson from a story by the writer Denis Diderot, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne effectively transposes Diderot’s eighteenth century values to a noirish twentieth century made up of femme fatales, rainswept streets and billowing cigarette smoke. The story contrasts one woman destroyed by love and another redeemed by it, fascinating us with Hélène’s malicious cunning even as it moves us with Agnès’ resilient nobility – and while Hélène’s revenge plot is followed through to its conclusion, the film does not simply end with her triumph, but rather with a coda in which Agnès, from her sickbed, promises to keep fighting. This virtuous oath offsets Hélène’s earlier, vicious vow of vengeance (also made from a bed) – but more importantly, it offers a message of defiant resistance which, as the humiliating German Occupation of France came to an end, would have been much needed by a French audience no less scarred than Agnès herself by a recent past of commingling and compromising behaviour.
It is difficult to fault Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. The small cast and restriction of events to just a few sets lends the drama a claustrophobic intensity, the dialogue (written by Jean Cocteau) is sophisticated and full of nuance, the narrative is austere and economic – and then of course there is Casarès, whose combination of modern composure and elegance with a more ancient brand of fury makes her simply magnetic as the woman scorned.
strap: In Robert Bresson’s elegantly cruel revenger’s tragedy, Maria Casarès is perfect as an icy femme fatale.