Monday, April 19, 2010
Marriage is an institution: Robert Bresson's UNE FEMME DOUCE
"There is no such thing as love, only proofs of love." So began my introduction to Robert Bresson's unique vision of the crazy things people do for the sake of love (or is it only the proof of it?), in his near-fantasy Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, written by Jean Cocteau and borrowed by Bernardo Bertolucci in two of his films. Perhaps the lines would become more pertinent in his little-seen 1968 adaptation of Doystoevsky's short story A Gentle Creature, which opens with the sudden suicide of a beautiful young woman, and a question: Why couldn't love unite these two people, who need a connection more than most cinematic creations ever made?
These two people are left unchristened by a name, known only as "She" and "He." In the opening moments, She commits suicide, poetically visualized by a white shawl falling in the wind, her life and innocence gone forever. Her husband is left to pick up her body, and the pieces of their marriage, via flashbacks. A near-destitute student, she comes to His pawnshop to sell what little possessions she has. Pitying her, he buys everything she brings, even obviously worthless objects ("I'll only do this for you" he commandingly reminds her). As a pawnbroker, the husband sees himself as a sort of Faustian alter ego, having the power to do good as well as evil through his handling of money. When he asks her to marry him, he probably does so in the belief that this proof of love is a good-doing, not so much because he truly loves her. She accepts his proposal. Bresson reminds the viewer that this marriage is little more than a practicality on both sides by visually comparing the signing of a marriage certificate and the receipt of a barter made at the husband's pawn shop.
In many ways, the marriage resembles that of Tippi Hedron and Sean Connery in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, one of commodity rather than love, with a beautiful blonde suffering from her trapped cage. Although the first few days of marriage show nuggets of happiness, including a moment of an impulsive hug ("She loved me then," the husband assures himself in the present), the marriage is still little more than a business transaction--the husband sets rigid rules for their lifestyle and limits the amount of money they may give away through the pawn shop. Knowing her prior life of near-destitution, the wife rebels against this, causing friction, jealousy and even an attempted homicide. When the wife becomes seriously ill with fever, the husband has a change of heart and promises a more positive change. When the wife recovers, she agrees to this radical new life, but jumps off their balcony moments later.
Why didn't love unite these two? Surely they're two characters in need of redemption--the pawnbroker's capitalistic ways would've been softened, and the girl's need to be taken care of would've been sated. The man claims he wants to love her, but the girl defensively states that he only wants to marry her, not to love her. (This line, juxtaposed with the image of the couple behind a wire fence at a zoo, cements their trapped natures) Their marriage is one of occasional mutual respect and admiration, but not one of communication and understanding, the fatal flaw in the business transaction of their marriage. The man does not know anything about her other than he wants to help her; his action might be "proof of love" as Cocteau once wrote, but his lack of heart and thought--the exact place where the love should've come from--is the defining nail in the coffin.
Bresson's film remains a close adaptation of Dostoevsky's short story, though lifts some of the misogonist undertones to make the wife a more sympathetic character, deletes what little bit of a past the wife came with, and shifts the setting to then-present day Paris. His actors color the enigmas that are their characters, particularly Dominique Sanda as the wife. Of all the actors Robert Bresson worked with, Sanda went on to have the most successful film career, receiving cinematic immortality as the second coming of Marlene Dietrich in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. In her film debut, which she serendipitously received simply because she called Bresson on the phone inquiring about his latest film, she channels the innocent waif of Joan Fontaine to very moving results. Sanda is an actress whose face is always taking note of something, who is always thinking and observing beneath the beautiful surface. As the wife, Sanda continually reminds us that there's so much more intelligence and emotion underneath her seemingly unmovable facade. In fact, given Sanda's professional relationship with Bertolucci, one can almost see this as a prequel to Last Tango in Paris, in which a similar man is left with unanswered questions after his wife's sudden suicide. Sanda had helped Bertoluci develop the idea and was expected to play the female lead, but her pregnancy prevented this from occurring. Had she been able to play the role, not only would the film's male/female battle been more equal, but the film could've added another layer in which Marlon Brando's widower Paul acts out sexual release with the image of his dead wife, only to be killed by her all over again when he tries belatedly to understand this beautiful creature.