Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Destiny is tragic. But I prefer one of our own making to one that is forced upon us.

– Agnès (Elina Labourdette) in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson, 1945)

As I wrote of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne in 1999,

One of Robert Bresson’s most incandescent works, this early film also marks the teaming of two of France’s most personal and idiosyncratic artists: Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau (whose 1949 film Orpheus [Orphée] mesmerized post-World War II audiences), in addition to his numerous other accomplishments, wrote the dialogue for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, loosely based on Denis Diderot’s short story Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître. Elina Labourdette plays Agnès, a young woman who has been forced into a life of prostitution in wartime Vichy, France, in order to support herself and her ailing mother (Lucienne Bogaert). At the same time, Hélène (the serpentine Maria Casarés) is breaking up with her longtime lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), and, feeling jilted by him, concocts an elaborate plot for revenge. Contacting Agnès and her mother, Hélène offers to take over their debts, move them out of the brothel they call home, and set them up in a sleek, modern apartment, with no strings attached. We discover too late Hélène’s true motives; she is doing all of this so that Jean will ‘accidentally’ meet Agnès, fall in love with her, marry her, and then become the subject of public ridicule because of Agnès’s past. All of this goes off with clockwork precision, but Jean, when confronted with the monstrousness of Hélène’s treachery, shakes off his bourgeois prudishness, embraces Agnès despite her fall from grace, and the film ends on a note of hope and Bressonian redemption. (1)

And, indeed, this unique collaboration between Cocteau and Bresson would be a one-off in every sense of the term. Bresson’s later “stripped down” style, so brilliantly presented in such films as Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé ou le vent soufflé où il veut (A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where it Listeth, 1956), Pickpocket (1959), Mouchette (1967) and his other mature films, was directly at odds with the studied artificiality of Cocteau’s brittle yet transcendent vision. As Daniel Millar points out in his perceptive essay on Les Dames, Bresson’s signature late films are marked by, among other notable characteristics,

drab clothes and stark, bare settings, filmed strictly on location, with little or no studio work; a low-key, matt, realistic photographic style [. . .]; a sense of ritual, either overtly religious or apparently secular, emphasised sparingly by music; a reticently indirect treatment of sex and of emotion generally; [and] a predominance of non-professional actors. (2)

In Les Dames, we can see many of these later stylistic tendencies beginning to blossom, albeit under the auspices of professional actors, whom Bresson would henceforth do away with entirely. This rigorously sparse mise en scène is diametrically opposed to the dark-hued celestial paradise presented by Cocteau in his second film, Le Sang d’un Poète (1930), a world of camera trickery, overt homoerotic symbolism, ornate sets and autobiographical self-promotion. Where Bresson sought to efface himself in his films, Cocteau’s public personality is the centrepiece of not only Le Sang but also Orphée and his 1946 fairy tale for adults, Le Belle et la bête. Yet one could certainly conversely argue that, in his later stark, sparse visual style, Bresson is equally “present” in his films; the empty spaces, downcast glances, monotonal dialogue delivery and deliberate absence of spectacle make Bresson’s style at once unique, and also offer a direct link to his persona as a filmmaker.

And yet, as Richard Roud commented in a 1959 essay in Film Culture, it is precisely this clash of methodologies that gives Les Dames much of its richness as a text. For Roud, it is the contestation between Cocteau’s distanced representationalism and Bresson’s severe moralism that forms the stylistic and thematic cove of the film. As Roud wrote,

[the] most extraordinary thing about Les Dames is the way the different levels of abstraction are constantly brought into play […] The dialogue written by Cocteau is itself a stylization or an abstraction of the speech of today. Furthermore, the dialogue never describes the actions of the characters but always counterpoints them. For example, in the scene where Hélène tells Jean that he has married a whore, she is standing at the window of his car. Over her highly stylized words – “Vous avez epouse une grue […] On dirait que vous ne savez pas ce que c’est qu’une femme qui se venge” [“You’ve married a tramp. […] You don’t seem to realize what a vengeful woman is capable of”] – we hear the sound of the windshield wipers moving back and forth. [sic] Dialogue and sound, action and character are all[; …] there is an interaction of one mode of reality and another […] (3)

Bresson found working with professional actors both trying and ultimately unnecessary as his career progressed, but even in this most theatrical of his films (with the possible exception of his early farce, Les Affaires publiques, 1934, and the dark moral fable, Les Anges du péché, 1943), Bresson still effectively managed to bend his performers to the demands of his austere vision. Maria Casarés, a favourite of Cocteau’s as an actor for her “fire and ice” emotionalism, originally tackled the role of Hélène in Les Dames with the same sense of theatrical bravado, which soon led to a clash of will between Casarés and Bresson. But as Bresson told interviewer Charles Thomas Samuels during an interview conducted in English in Paris on 2 September 1970, many years after the completion of the film, the director soon devised a method to counteract her somewhat theatrical approach. As Bresson recalled:

A friend told me that in Julien Green’s South she had to appear on the stage saying, “it’s raining”; in French, il pleut. Despite the simplicity of these words, her tragedian’s temperament made her shout emphatically: “Il … Il … pleut!” […] To get courage, she used to drink a little glass of cognac before acting. When I chanced to discover this, I asked her to take a sedative instead, which she willingly did. Then things started to go better. (4)

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

In doing this, Bresson prefigured his late style of direction, in which his protagonists would be subjected to intensive rehearsal periods during which they would be obliged to repeat their dialogue over and over, until nearly all emotion was stripped from its on-camera delivery. By drugging Casarés, Bresson tamped down the actor’s inherent emotionalism, and forced her to become an instrument to recite, as dispassionately as possible, Cocteau’s dialogue. It is one of the great performances of the screen, as Casarés dispassionately arranges for the destruction of all who oppose her. As Doug Cummings documented, “Years later, Casarés described Bresson as ‘a sweet tyrant’ who forced his actors to abandon their personal wills in order to offer ‘a body, hands, and a voice that he had chosen’” (5). Perhaps no better description of Bresson’s attitude towards professional actors exists; in these few words, Casarés perfectly distils both the strength of Bresson’s will and his studied detachment.

When one recalls that Cocteau often described, as in the prefatory titles of Le Sang d’un Poète, his ideal cinema as consisting of “a realistic document of unreal events”, the direct contrast to Bresson’s own cinematic approach becomes immediately apparent. Again, speaking to Charles Thomas Samuels, Bresson emphasized that for him,

filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument – the camera – things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real […] My first film was made with professional actors, and when we had our first rehearsal I said, “If you go on acting and speaking like this, I am leaving.” […] I think that in other films actors speak as if they were onstage. As a result, the audience is used to theatrical inflections […] I want the essence of my films to be not the words my people say or even the gestures they perform, but what these words and gestures provoke in them […] We are too clever, and our cleverness plays us false. We should trust mainly our feelings and those senses that never lie to us. Our intelligence disturbs our proper vision of things. (6)

And yet it is this “cleverness”, this flirtation with the “false’ or theatrical, that remains the hallmark of Cocteau’s work as a novelist, scenarist and playwright – a complicit acknowledgment of the inherent artificiality of all fictive presentation. Conversely, what Bresson was seeking, seemingly from his first films, was a minimalist approach to his, for in his words, “cinema is the art of showing nothing” (7). For Cocteau, the realm of the cinema belongs to the magical, the inherently unreal. As always, Cocteau wants to “astonish” his viewers; Bresson wants to force them to concentrate on an inner struggle that lies beneath the surface of his carefully composed images.

So what, then, brought these two disparate artists together? The answer is simple: the occupation of France during World War II by the Nazis, and their puppet Vichy government. In his moving appreciation of Resistance cinema, André Bazin, the Occupation, and I, François Truffaut argues persuasively that, for all of the restrictions placed on artists during this grim period on France’s history, the cinema flowered under the yoke of the occupation precisely because of the moral imperative to make films that defied the ruling order, films that criticized the dominant régime in the time-honoured disguise of genre, and thus managed to slip under the radar of the occupation’s censors. While agreeing that

there was no place for subversion or protest in the films of this period; the sanctions imposed would have gone beyond those of the Commission de Censure [… and thus] it is therefore understandable that cinema took refuge in historical films and films of fantasy and enchantment […] (8)

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Truffaut noted that in comparison to the years directly following the war:

Whereas twenty-five new directors had […] the opportunity to make their debuts during the four years of the Occupation – among them [Jacques] Becker, Bresson, and [Henri-Georges] Clouzot – in the fourteen years between 1945 and 1959 (the beginning of the New Wave) the only new names were René Clément, Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Melville, Roger Leenhardt, Yves Ciampi, Alexandre Astruc, and Marcel Camus. The numerical disproportion is obvious. (9)

Thus adversity created an atmosphere – a hothouse, pressurized zone of creation – in which divergent artists gathered together to create works in defiance of a common enemy whose tyranny they were dedicated to abolish.

In my essay “‘How Will I Get My Opinion?’: Jean Cocteau and the Treachery of Friendship”, I noted that, while many French cinéastes and other artists fled Paris during the Occupation, Cocteau elected to stay behind and play a dangerous double game, retaining his place in the spotlight (always an important consideration for Cocteau, to whom publicity was as essential as oxygen) while clandestinely fighting for the concerns of his countrymen, and still managing to stay in the good graces of the Vichy authorities (10). Cocteau was, during the Occupation, certainly a much more recognized artist than Bresson, who at this point in is career had only one short film (Les Affaires Publiques, which the director never really cared for) to his credit before his 1943 drama Les Anges du péché, with dialogue by Jean Giraudoux, brought him to initial public attention. (See Erik Ulman’s insightful essay on Les Anges du péché for more details; in many respects, the film is an equally dark companion piece to Les Dames.) But Cocteau during this period was overcoming a crippling addiction to opium, and had essentially been idle as a filmmaker since Le Sang d’un Poète.

It was only through the intervention of his lover, Jean Marais, that Cocteau re-entered the cinema with a script for Serge de Poligny’s Le Baron fantôme in 1942 (Cocteau also served as narrator for the film and made a brief cameo appearance), and then the scenario for Jean Dellanoy’s updated version of Tristan and Isolde, L’Eternel retour (1943). This set the stage for Cocteau’s participation in Les Dames, which began shooting on the 24th of April, 1944, under the working title “L’Opinion Publique”, during the last days of the Occupation (11), an ironic title in view of the film’s initial reception. Due to a variety of production difficulties, the film was begun, stopped and then begun again under circumstances of direst financial concern, eventually bankrupting the film’s producer, Raoul Ploquin, and opening to initial public indifference after the liberation of France in 1945.

Indeed, during the film’s production, which lasted until February 1945, the production of the film was halted for nearly six months, due to electrical shortages and a severely limited supply of raw film stock. The film was almost scrapped until Cocteau’s connections prevailed and shooting presumed. (12) In short, the film almost vanished before it even had a chance to exist and, although it is readily available on DVD today, for many years before the advent of video it was a “phantom text”, intermittently available in 16 mm film from a variety of small distributors, before dropping out of sight almost entirely in the mid 1970s. The ephemerality of the project is thus apparent from the outset; here is a film made in spite of, rather than because of, circumstance.

In addition to the differing temperaments of the film’s two key auteurs, one must factor in the knowledge that while Cocteau treated Paris during the war as an extended salon for his creative efforts, managing to remain on good terms with both the members of the Resistance and the occupying authorities, Bresson himself had direct contact with the war, being taken prisoner by the Germans in 1939 and held for 18 months in a prison camp, events which, in part, influenced Bresson’s postwar film, Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé, a historical drama set during the period of the Resistance. This imprisonment, in many senses, marked Bresson for life, and made him simultaneously suspicious and fearful of capricious external authority. Taught by circumstance to internalise his emotions during this period by his captors, Bresson’s own approach to the war became that of a direct combatant, while for Cocteau the Occupation merely served as the backdrop for his work as an artist.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

The narrative of Les Dames, described in brief thumbnail form in the opening paragraphs of this essay, is thus a jumping-off point for two competing, yet incontestably real, visions of the French wartime milieu. Cocteau, the boulevardier, never strayed far from the public’s attention, no matter what else he did, while Bresson, a much more interior personage, sought to express himself only through a series of screens, or baffles, deflecting attention from himself. And yet for all the luxury of its surroundings, Les Dames exists in a world of privation and emotional starvation. In the film’s opening moments, Hélène is returning from an evening at the theatre with a gentleman friend, who knows of her tortured relationship with Jean, and warns Hélène that “There’s no love there, only tokens of love.” For all this, Hélène remains infatuated with Jean, despite the fact that – in the next scene – it is apparent that he has forgotten the anniversary of their initial meeting. Hélène presents Jean with a gold cigarette case, which Jean describes as “warm, cold, light, dark, incorruptible”, but Jean himself has nothing to offer but regrets, and subsequently the “shocking” revelation that he is no longer in love with her.

But even this moment of honesty must be extracted from Jean; he gives nothing, but in his weakness wants everything, immediately and without discussion. Hélène speaks first of the gradual breakdown of their relationship and only then does Jean admit that he, too, feels a diminution of passion between them and wants to terminate their affair. Although she struggles to retain her composure, it is clear that Hélène is stunned by Jean’s rejection. It is one thing for Hélène to break off their relationship, but quite another for Jean to admit that his own ardour has cooled. Hiding her outrage and surprise, Hélène shows Jean to the door in wordless silence and then collapses on her bed, idly playing with her pet dog. As the camera tracks in on her face slowly and impassively, Hélène utters the words that will set the film’s entire plot in motion: “I’ll be revenged.” Thus, Jean’s fate is sealed and the rest of the film documents Hélène’s campaign against him.

In nearly every – if not every – critical account of Les Dames, Paul Bernard’s performance as Jean comes in for rather harsh criticism, often mentioned as the one “weak spot” (13), as being “lacklustre” (14), or even as being “a […] unanimously accepted […] failure” (15). It seems to me that this is far from the case; Jean is a fool, as Agnès says to her mother midway through the film – “Men are fools; too bad for him” – and his own desire to possess first Hélène, and then Agnès, reveals that he is interested only in the surfaces of people, not in their interior selves. Bernard’s weak, pliant, falsely earnest performance is in many ways the perfect contrast to Casarés’ barely controlled ferocity; he is the ultimate dupe, absolutely unaware of the web that Hélène spins for him. He is unconscious of having gravely offended Hélène during their break-up, and supposes her to be his “friend” in some curious regard; in this, he could not be more mistaken. In contrast, Agnès is almost immediately suspicious of Hélène when she comes into her life, sensing sinister motives behind Hélène’s seemingly reassuring smiles.

The film is composed of a series of visually dazzling, almost sensual set-pieces, despite the somewhat desperate circumstances of its construction. Hélène’s apartment is like a museum, lit from above with a series of coldly efficient “pin spots”; and Jean-Jacques Grünenwald’s relentlessly romantic score suffuses the film with a sense of both grandeur and tragedy. When Hélène decides upon revenge in the opening scene, Bresson uses a sound bridge of music and percussive accompaniment to transport us, with a dissolve, to the precincts of a shabby café when Agnès dances for a group of bored, indifferent sophisticates, many of whom will try to force their attentions on her later that evening. Alone at a table, Hélène, appearing as if by magic, watches her with cool circumspection.

Only 22 at the time of the film’s production, Casarés makes Hélène a creature of menace and destruction, as she coolly observes Agnès’ dance routine in a series of even tighter close-ups, her cloak covering her head like the hood of a coiled cobra, her face wreathed in cigarette smoke. As Agnès (who has in the film a serious heart condition) dances for the crowd, Hélène regards her simply as a means to an end – without any regard for Agnès’ free will, or even her life. It isn’t hard to make the connection between Hélène and the occupying Nazi forces here; it is absolutely explicit. Hélène’s rapacious pursuit of her plans against Jean will threaten to destroy all who oppose her, and Hélène’s wealth and social position (particularly in wartime, for Les Dames is firmly, I would argue, situated in the world of occupied Paris) will always protect her from reprisals.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Agnès completes her pathetic cabaret performance with a falsely confident smile and leaves the stage, pursued by a horde of young men, all seeking her sexual favours. It is clear that economic circumstances caused by the war have brought ruin to Agnès and her mother, and that even cabaret dancing is not enough to support their increasingly tenuous lifestyle. Agnès, it is clearly implied, has drifted into prostitution, with her mother as her apparently willing enabler. The young men pursue Agnès back to her apartment, where her mother, a simple yet morally ambiguous figure, seems quite content to almost literally pimp her daughter to the admirers, in exchange for endless bouquets of flowers, money, chocolate and other false tokens of affection. Even at the start of the film, Agnès is disgusted with her situation and reproaches her mother for accepting the vases of flowers – as she puts it, “Behind every flower there’s the face of a man.”

In return, the young men treat Agnès as little more than a tramp, blowing smoke in her face while dancing and tormenting her with their unwanted advances. At length, while dancing with a particularly insolent suitor, Agnès reacts to his “smoke in the face” gesture of contempt by grabbing his lit cigarette and stubbing it out on his cheek. He immediately slaps Agnès in response and she pushes him back into an end table, knocking both him and the table over, spilling champagne and an ice bucket on the floor of the room. As always, Agnès’ mother reacts by trying to restore a sense of order to this utterly amoral social universe, obediently rushing to pick up the champagne, while Agnès regards her with ill-disguised disgust. Hélène, who has followed Agnès and her mother to their apartment, watches this degrading scene with a smile of satisfaction, and then moves in for the kill.

Confronting Agnès’ mother in a side room, Hélène feigns sympathy for the mother and daughter’s desperate situation, and offers to set them up in a luxury apartment, settle their debts and restore them to society, seemingly with no strings attached. Agnès is immediately suspicious, but goes along to keep her mother happy, and yet the airy, spacious apartment seems strangely barren and claustrophobic. Whenever Agnès dances around the rooms and opens the windows in an attempt to take “possession” of the space, her mother closes the windows that let in light and air, trapping Agnès further within the décor of the apartment, and Helene’s machinations, along with protests that Agnès should not exert herself in view of her weak heart. Indeed, Agnès collapses after one brief attempt at pirouetting through the apartment, and it becomes clear to her that Hélène’s entire scheme is simply a trap for Agnès and her mother.

But it is also a trap for Jean, after Hélène arranges an ‘accidental’ meeting between Jean and Agnès at the park near the Bois de Boulogne. Immediately smitten with Agnès, in a sequence staged in a series of sensuously interlocking reciprocal dissolves, Jean demands to know Agnès’ address and begins pursuing her with manic, childish intensity. He knows nothing of Agnès’ interior torments, or her past life, but is attracted by her physical presence alone. Hélène, shrewdly judging this infatuation as a dream state from which Jean refuses to awaken, devises various means to keep Jean and Agnès apart, while gradually divulging more and more information about their supposedly “secret” apartment. At length, Jean’s pursuit results in a proposal of marriage, which Agnès eventually acquiesces to and immediately regrets. She composes a letter to Jean, telling him of her past, but he refuses to read it, and, in a detailed and resonantly Catholic ceremony, the couple is wed.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Her triumph complete, Hélène doesn’t even wait for the wedding to conclude; as she works her way down the receiving line, Hélène whispers in Jean’s ear that she has made a “terrible mistake” about Agnès’ pedigree. “Make inquiries”, she urges and, when Jean demands clarification, Hélène coolly tells him that he’s married “a tramp” and that this is the revenge she has exacted for his “betrayal” of their love. Jean, speechless, flees the scene of the wedding, as Agnès collapses on her bed, the victim of another heart attack. At length, ashen, Jean returns, and in the film’s final moments begs Agnès to “stay” with him and not to die. Agnès’ last words in the film – “I’ll stay” – signal that, despite all of Hélène’s elaborate plans, despite Jean’s essential human weakness and the general condemnation of society, the couple will make a go of it. More important, Jean has finally begun to look behind the surface of both people and things, and value Agnès as a wife and partner in his life. Hélène, ultimately, has failed. It is not so much love, but rather faith, that has triumphed.

Cocteau, ever the expert manipulator of both people and things, saw to it that the film opened at the Rex Theatre in Paris, the largest cinema in the city. Despite the subsequent cool reception, director Jacques Becker, who was present at the première, later wrote that “the public has understood Bresson, I know, and I had the proof of this in a large Boulevard cinema in which some three thousand spectators followed the film in attentive silence” (16). Thus, the well-known story of the film’s immediate failure should be qualified by Becker’s account of this initial success, even though Cocteau himself noted that the film ultimately “won its case in the appeals court” of subsequent critical opinion, particularly with the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (17).

But most contemporary critics and audiences misunderstood or disliked the film, perhaps because it reminded them of the recent Vichy past, and for many their collaborationist share in it. Bresson’s future as a director hung in the balance for a time, while Cocteau immediately skipped along to his next project.

Another factor that militated against the film’s reception was Bresson’s relative disinterest in dealing effectively with the critics. As he himself later noted,

I hate publicity. One should be known for what he does, not for what he is. Nowadays a painter paints a bad painting, but he talks about it until it becomes famous. He paints for five minutes and talks about it on television for five years. (18)

This is a sentiment that Cocteau, who always cultivated public opinion in his favour, would never have understood. As a result of these and other factors, Bresson never worked with Cocteau again. The two dissimilar artists were moving in decisively different directions in their respective careers, Bresson gravitating towards asceticism, while Cocteau was drawn to a world of fantasy and ornate spectacle. Thus, the intensely romantic vision afforded by Bresson’s meticulous direction, Max Douy’s sumptuous décors (Douy would later work for Jean Renoir on his equally transcendent romance, French Cancan, 1954, as well as Jules Dassin’s Topkapi, 1964, and, amazingly enough, on Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker, 1979, along with numerous other films), Grünenwald’s passionate musical core and Philippe Agostini’s sharp-as-a-knife cinematography became a curiosity in both Bresson and Cocteau’s respective careers.

Bresson would not make a film again until 1950, when his Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) emerged as the first of a series of austere, sculptural films that completely rejected the theatricality of conventional screen performance, editing, camera movement and musical cues to create nothing less than an utterly unique and distinctive language that Bresson made entirely his own for the rest of his long, but not prolific, career. For Cocteau, Les Dames remains a triumph of polished, cynical upper-crust dialogue on a par with his masterful 1929 play of love betrayed, La Voix humaine, which was eventually filmed by Roberto Rossellini in 1948 (titled “La Voca umana”; part of L’Amore). But Cocteau had his own vision as a director to pursue on screen and made a triumphant return as an auteur with his La Belle et la bête, shot in 1945 shortly after the liberation of Paris – a film as far removed from Bresson’s spare, sculptural style as one could possibly imagine.

Yet their collaboration in Les Dames – one might even call it a clash of wills, both intent on the same object, but approaching it through different means – remains a key text in understanding the work of both artists. In the precise choreographing of movements, gestures and screen space, one can already see the beginnings of Bresson’s later style. Composed of a series of precise, individuated movements, and edited with an air of inexorable inevitability rather than kinetic excitement, Bresson’s deconstruction of time and motion is both mathematically precise and laden with meaning (the champagne and table fall, the mother mops up, momentary violence is followed by order restored). Cocteau’s script is almost a catalogue of aphorisms; at one point, when Agnès has gone missing, in an attempt to evade Jean’s ever-more-intensive advances, Hélène professes ignorance of Agnès’ whereabouts, saying, “Wherever she is, she’s doing something sublime; in short, ruining herself.” And so Les Dames can correctly be seen as a romance, a drama of revenge and its consequences, a window into France under the Nazi occupation and even, in a bizarre way, as a seriocomic melodrama on the vicissitudes of friendship and maternal attachments.

But, in the final analysis, Les Dames remains, as François Truffaut and André Bazin both suggested, a film of resistance, in which a group of talented men and women joined forces to create a parable of one’s need for personal responsibility and the consequences of evading it. Reductive though it might be, on at least one level, Les Dames is an attack on the “caretakers” of the Vichy regime, who implicitly promised Parisians, and by extension all of France, that nothing would change under their rule, except perhaps the loss of a few personal liberties, and the disappearance of much of France’s Jewish population. As Truffaut pointed out in 1975, Marcel Ophüls’ epic examination of French culpability during the occupation, Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity, 1970), placed the era of the Vichy regime into much sharper focus and he is quick to acknowledge that more than a few French cinéastes, especially Lucien Rebatet (who often wrote under the pseudonym François Vinneuil), willingly cooperated with the Nazis in creating an atmosphere of anti-Semitism in French cultural life, with, as he put it, a very “heavy hand” (19).

To place the production of Les Dames in its proper context, Truffaut quotes from a text written in April 1941 by Rebatet/Vinneuil under the title “Les Tribus du Cinéma et du Théâtre” (“The Tribes of the Cinema and the Theatre”), in which the author categorically lays out the future of French cinema in a world ruled by the Nazis.

Sooner or later our soil will have to be cleared of several hundred thousand Jews, beginning with Jews without regular papers, those who are not naturalized, those who have most recently arrived, those whose political and financial malfeasance is most obvious – in other words all the Jews working in cinema. Before this is done, we will pick out those for whom exile would be too benign a punishment and who will have to pay their debt with prison terms at least. In the meantime the entire French film industry, from the production to the printing of films to the management of the smallest theater, will have to be inexorably and definitively closed to Jews without distinction of either class or origin. (20)

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

What does one do in such an untenable situation? One either fights or flees. Now, from the perspective of more than fifty years, the struggle for the mind and souls of France during World War II seems simultaneously remote and difficult to quantify; we look back from the standpoint of those who have vanquished evil (at least in this case), as if victory was always assured. But it was not. Life in France during the Occupation was a constant battle, a series of opportunities for resistance and obligations to one’s conscience that were either heeded or ignored. In Les Dames, Cocteau and Bresson created a parable that still resonates today, in a time when governments fail to heed the will of their citizens, and engage in violence to extract both information and the subjugation of all opposing voices.

If you give up your freedom, you give up your ability to alter your situation. To fight against such tyranny is not only the right thing to do, Bresson and Cocteau argue; in the final resolve, it is the only thing to do. What will be the “resistance” films of today, in a time of war that seems to stretch endlessly before us? No doubt, they masquerade as genre entertainments – romances, action films, other escapist fare – in order to stay off the radar screen of the ruling culture. But they exist, as Les Dames exists, and offer examples of strength and courage in a time of extreme adversity. Ultimately, Les Dames’ lasting power derives from the brilliance of its execution, the sophistication of its dialogue, and the message of faith, hope and struggle contained within its narrative. Such was the work of the Resistance cinema, and all “resistance” cinema, and such is the achievement of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne.

Works Cited and Consulted

Robert Bresson, Jonathan Griffin (translator), Notes on the Cinematographer (London: Quartet, 1986).

Ian Cameron (Ed.), The Films of Robert Bresson (New York: Praeger, 1970).

Doug Cummings, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne”, Movie Mail, 27 July 2004.

Joseph E. Cunheen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003).

Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Review: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne”, All Movie Guide, posted 20 September 2005.

_____, “‘How Will I Get My Opium?’: Jean Cocteau and the Treachery of Friendship”, in Murray Pomerance (Ed.), Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil and Slime on the Screen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 127-41.

Jake Euker, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne Movie Review”, Filmcritic.com, 15 October 2007.

Stephen Harvey, “The Mask in the Mirror: The Movies of Jean Cocteau”, in Arthur King Peters (ED.), Jean Cocteau and the French Scene (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), pp. 185-208.

Daniel Millar, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne”, in Ian Cameron, op. cit., pp. 33-41.

Richard Misek, “Jean Cocteau”, Senses of Cinema, January 2004, 5 October 2007.

James Quandt, Robert Bresson (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1998).

Keith Reader, Robert Bresson (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000).

Richard Roud, “The Early Work of Robert Bresson”, Film Culture 20, 1959, pp. 44-52; reprinted in Andrew Sarris (Ed.), The Film (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), pp. 34-8.

Charles Thomas Samuels, “Encountering Directors: Robert Bresson”, Robert-Bresson.com, 3 October 2007.

Jane Sloan, “Chapter II: Critical Survey”, Robert-Bresson.com, 5 October 2007.

Francis Steegmuller, Cocteau (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).

François Truffaut, “André Bazin, the Occupation and I”, in André Bazin (Ed.), Stanley Hochman(translator), French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: The Birth of a Critical Esthetic (New York: Ungar, 1981).

Erik Ulman, “Les Anges du péché”, Senses of Cinema, October 2001, 15 October 2007.

James S. Williams, Jean Cocteau (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2006).


  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Review: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne”, All Movie Guide, posted 20 September 2005, accessed 3 February 2008.
  2. Daniel Millar, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne”, in Ian Cameron (Ed.), The Films of Robert Bresson (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 33.
  3. Richard Roud, “The Early Work of Robert Bresson”, Film Culture 20, 1959, reprinted in Andrew Sarris (Ed.), The Film (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), p. 36. Editors’ note: It is actually the sound of Jean revving the car engine; the windscreen wipers are not on.
  4. Quoted in Charles Thomas Samuels, “Encountering Directors: Robert Bresson”, Robert-Bresson.com, 3 October 2007.
  5. Doug Cummings, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne”, Movie Mail, 27 July 2004, 10 October 2007.
  6. As quoted in Samuels.
  7. Ibid.
  8. François Truffaut, “André Bazin, the Occupation and I”, in André Bazin (Ed.), Stanley Hochman (translator), French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: The Birth of a Critical Esthetic (New York: Ungar, 1981), p. 18.
  9. Ibid, p. 20
  10. See Wheeler Winston Dixon, “‘How Will I Get My Opium?’: Jean Cocteau and the Treachery of Friendship”, in Murray Pomerance (Ed.), Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil and Slime on the Screen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 127-41.
  11. Richard Roud, “The Early Work of Robert Bresson”, Film Culture 20, 1959; reprinted in Andrew Sarris (Ed.), The Film (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), p. 35.
  12. Keith Reader, Robert Bresson (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000), p. 20.
  13. Roud, p. 37.
  14. Reader, p. 23.
  15. Millar, p. 33.
  16. As quoted in Reader, p. 22.
  17. As quoted in Jake Euker, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne Movie Review”, Filmcritic.com, 15 October 2007.
  18. Samuels.
  19. Truffaut, p. 13.
  20. As quoted in Truffaut, p. 13.

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s second, expanded edition of his classic book A History of Horror (2010) was published in 2023. Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018; and a fourth revised edition with a great deal of new material will be published in early 2025. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Exploding Cinema (London), The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and other venues. In addition, Dixon’s films have been screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world, including presentations in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Monterrey (Mexico), Urbino (Italy), Tehran (Iran), Naples (Italy), Athens (Greece), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rybinski (Russia), Palermo (Italy), Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Australia, Qatar, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Milan, Switzerland, Croatia, Stockholm (Sweden), Havana (Cuba) and elsewhere.

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