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With: María Casares, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette, Lucienne Bogaert, Jean Marchat, Yvette Etiévant
Written by: Jacques Cocteau, Robert Bresson, based on a story by Denis Diderot
Directed by: Robert Bresson
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 85
Date: 09/21/1945

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Low Society

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Everyone who loves movies eventually comes to Bresson, though it may take some detective work to find him. Bresson worked so much in his own distinctive style and in his own distinctive world that very few connections exist between he and other filmmakers. Bresson (1907-99) developed his theories on cinema early, likening it to a marriage between art and music, rather than theater and photography as most other filmmakers imagined. Most writers use the word "austere" to describe his work. He sometimes leaves out crucial events and focuses heavily on seemingly mundane details -- especially feet. He loves to study feet walking or climbing stairs, transporting humans from place to place. Bresson never used trained actors or movie stars. He preferred his "models," as he called them, people who could be molded to act and react exactly as he specified without their own interpretation or input. And he worked slowly, turning out only 13 features and one short in his fifty-year career. The finished works probably sound aggravating, but they're poetic, passionate, alive and transforming in ways that no other filmmaker's works can ever dream of being. You might imagine that his films would be poorly distributed, misunderstood and financially disastrous, but Bresson made his reputation in the 1950s with three beloved masterworks: Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket.

Now the Criterion Collection has released the very first Bresson film on DVD, and it's probably the most atypical of all his works, made early on before he established his working methods. But his talents are still clearly evident, and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) remains an absolute must for DVD fans. Not only is Les Dames a melodrama featuring a known star, but it was co-written by Jean Cocteau, who added his own subtle flourishes while adapting the source novel. Maria Casares (Les Enfants du paradis, Orpheus) stars as a beautiful high-class society woman tries to trick her lover (Paul Bernard) into a deeper commitment by staging a fake breakup -- except that he agrees. To get revenge, she rounds up a prostitute (Elina Labourdette), turns her into a society woman, and tricks her lover into marrying her, only to reveal the truth on his wedding day. (Scandal!) Bresson's treatment of the material has the marks of his later style, but it's also more overtly stylized than anything else he did later.

DVD Details: Criterion's DVD preserves the film's beautiful lighting and contains two terrific essays by local critic David Thomson and the late Francois Truffaut, and a still gallery showing the director at work.

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