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Lancelot of the Lake 
Written by: on March 19th, 2006

Release Date: FRANCE/ITALY, 1974
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Luc Simon, Laura Duke Condominas, Humbert Balsan, Vladimir Antolek-Oresek

DVD released: May 25, 2004
Approximate running time: 80 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: NR
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: New Yorker DVD
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $26.99

King Arthur has sent his knights to look for the Holy Grail and their quest has been unsuccessful leading to deaths of knights and a schism developing between those knights who support Mordred who opposed the quest and those who admire Lancelot who is faithful to Arthur. Lancelot’s romance with Guinevere comes to light and Mordred uses it to challenge Lancelot’s place as a favourite of Arthur. Despite Lancelot’s efforts he can’t end his relationship with Guinevere leading to Arthur fighting him and Mordred taking advantage of this split to attack Arthur.

Bresson had long nursed his ambition to make this film. Given Bresson’s style and philosophy about cinema, it seems a surprising story for him to be so enthusiastic about. For a director who valued authenticity above spectacle and who looked for truth rather than performance, the tale of the end of the round table seems strange source material. Given the conventional approach to this story which is of a majestic love triangle where personal and spiritual loyalty vie for dominance, it would seem foolhardy to go for a more downplayed naturalistic approach.

Bresson constructs a film where this contrast between the personal and the political is at it’s core. The central characters attempt to be noble but in their efforts to do so they bring about their downfall with the battles between the knights being as bloody and gory as many horror films. At the same time, the film is soundtracked by the clunking of weighty armour rather than regal music.

The jousts of the knights are faceless affairs of little climax or victory and their ceremony is emphasised rather than any personal drama. Similarly, King Arthur is a character of little nobility whose lack of charisma and blind leadership sows the seeds of his own failure. The folly in searching for the Holy Grail is a somewhat Babel-like with this vain attempt to come closer to God leading only to dispute and discontent.

Bresson also presents the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere with little comment or censure and merely shows that Lancelot had tried to be loyal and to break the romance but didn’t because of his oath to Guinevere and his passion.

In the end, Bresson’s approach to this usually dramatic subject matter is dispassionate and rather spiritual. The needs and vanity of men bring them down and their violence is visited back on them by those who were once allies. The end result of Lancelot du Lac is anything other than majestic but it is singular and brilliant with the cinematography emphasising the earthiness and the pain rather than the attractiveness of the central drama.

Lancelot du Lac is a stunning achievement of a lifetime’s work and it is only the quality of Bresson’s previous work that prevent it being seen as a masterpiece. Superb and original.

The DVD:

The New Yorker disc contains the feature and a trailer and nothing else.

The print is sourced from an analogue source and as reported elsewhere has lots of ghosting. It does feel awfully dark when watching the disc and this is probably a lot to do with how it was shot but I think it is the transfer too. The sound is very good picking up the clanking of the armour and little noise or distortion is present. The English subtitles are good.

This is an acceptable release but better versions will happen at some point, for now this is the best place to go.

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