Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne ★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There's considerable talk of how this reflects a collision of Robert Bresson's sensibilities with Jean Cocteau's, but I have to admit an inability to comment on that, because this is my first experience with Bresson -- and I wish it was a better one -- and while I've recently come to really love Cocteau, I had a hard time detecting much of his tortured whimsy or florid romance in this melodramatic but joyless story of revenge, inspired by an 18th century French novel, which probably explains its extremely weird attitude toward the actions of its female characters, whereby one is shunned for working in a supposedly immoral profession to make ends meet for herself and her mother while another is celebrated for scheming to pointlessly wreck everyone's life. Usually I don't have a hard time accepting a dated story as a comment upon or consequence of old-world morals rather than an undiluted example of them, but in this case the film lost me pretty dramatically. The story is absurd and antiquated almost from the outset, with Maria Casarès play-acting a kind of Marlene Dietrich burlesque as a spurned lover who decides to enact a wildly convoluted comeuppance for her ex by "forcing him to fall in love" (??) with another woman, a cabaret dancer named Agnès who hates her work and is not interested at all in romantic relationships. Said dancer, sensitively portrayed by Élina Labourdette, is a solidly written and acted character whose boredom with and disdain toward men is rendered completely understandable, almost in the manner of Ozu, and one's heart goes out to her in the scattered moments when she feels alone and free; the same can't be said for Paul Bernard's creepy Jean, who falls like putty right into the machinations of "the plan" by immediately becoming lustful and obsessed over Agnès and refusing to accept her consistent rejections... though it is sort of funny that he's such a horny idiot that his former lover can set a watch by his complete fixation on a random quiet woman observed at lunch.

We're moving along at an awkward but engaging clip until, abruptly, Agnès develops feelings for her suitor and, for incomprehensible reasons, consents to a marriage even though she doesn't really want to, with Casarès smirking a la Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons the entire time. (I know this is juvenile of me but I continually thought of this moment from Futurama.) And at the wedding, things go completely sour, and yet again credibility is stretched beyond comprehension; I know the '40s were different from now but this still wasn't Sheakespearean times, so the idea that Jean makes it through an entire engagement unaware that his wife-to-be is a well-known performer and then the fact that he's seemingly viewed by the film as the "bigger man" for being able to see over his ego and let go of her past, when just one reel ago he balked at the very idea of leaving the woman the fuck alone... well, let's just say that the skill set Cocteau employed in transferring myth to the modern world in Orpheus isn't nearly as seamless when it comes to this sort of domesticated pouting drama, which by its finale is so reliant on the unquestioned oppression of women, oppression it seemed to be implicitly criticizing earlier, and somehow presents it as a grand love-conquers-all moment. There are telling moments and details and excellent performances, but the product on the whole vacillates between silly and disturbing, and it seems likely that the misguided nature of the adaptation itself in the first place is to blame for its limited appeal, rather than the attitude changes that the decades since have inflicted upon it.