New Yorker Films // 1974 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // July 23rd, 2004
You, good sir knight, have lain with the queen.
Robert Bresson's 1974 deconstructionist take on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table comes to DVD in this spare edition from New Yorker video. Bresson's attitude toward the subject is established immediately via the decapitation of one knight by another, complete with continuous and far-jetting blood spurt. A few more such atrocities swiftly follow before an opening title narration, accompanied by the tinniest of horn fanfares, begins with an incendiary irony regaling the knights' "noble adventures." Thus Bresson drops us into his minimalist Arthurian world, with tongue so firmly in cheek that it pokes through to the outside. Being that this is a French art movie, that irony takes the form not of humor but of intense bitterness and an effort to show these legendary heroes with very human feet of clay.
While there are various elements in the film dedicated to this principle, there is one that stands out most: Bresson continually chooses to show the knights' armor from behind, revealing bare hamstrings and unprotected heels -- these knights are armored but only according to their own rules of battle, and any "honorless" innovator will be able to swiftly cut them down. In this reviewer's provincial eyes, that translated in part to a metaphor about the American Revolution and the eventual fall of England's power. Perhaps not what Bresson intended, but one of the virtues of minimalism is the audience's power to project into the work. This minimalism shows not only in the sets, constructed mostly of plain clay, brick, or even cloth (far from the "Golden City" we normally see, this simple Camelot is rarely even seen in long shots), and the scenes (one extended dialogue between Guinevere and Lancelot takes place in the form of two close-ups in profile), but the plot as well, which has the knights returned from their failed Grail quest to find little in the way of activity. Lancelot (Luc Simon) is wracked with guilt over his affair with the queen (Laura Duke Condominas), while Arthur (Vladimir Antolek-Orasek) attempts, even while demoralized, to gather the knights back into the familial strength they once shared. On the sidelines, though, plots Mordred (Patrick Bernard), whose resentment of the king has grown strong during the pointless quest -- and who has come to notice the bare hamstrings, metaphorically speaking. Lancelot and the fierce Gawain (Humbert Balsan) try to appeal to Mordred's better nature, but it seems to have vanished in the face of his bitterness. Lancelot, however, clings to the chivalric ideals and, driven by his guilt, separates himself from the court. But, like most heroes, he underestimates his own importance: his presence may have been the only thing left to hold the round table together at all.
Another of Bresson's points seems to be the general unpleasantness of living in medieval Europe; a theme that would also permeate the following year's European Arthur movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I mention Holy Grail not only for that reason, but for the fact that some of its humor seems to be in direct parody of Lancelot. This supposition may be taking the similarities between the movies' scenes a bit too far, but you'll have a hard time not associating the two once you see those heads and arms fly off in the opening reel. As the film progresses, Bresson takes many opportunities to blow very loud trumpet fanfares, as if saying, "Can you imagine living with this all the time?" This is particularly felt during the tournament scene in which a knight, who may or not be Lancelot, defeats a mighty number of opponents. How do we know he defeated them, when all we see is the legs of the opposing horses and cuts away to the flag being raised for a new joust? Well, it's the same horse going in one direction every time. That's it. The entire tournament is covered in this fashion -- as if Bresson, who unflinchingly showed us the horrors of actual combat, is afraid to look at a fight on these knights' friendly terms, somehow more horrible than the actual death because here we have friends fighting each other for the first time in anger. But as the situation approaches critical, things become more and more realistic, until the film clouts you soundly in the face with its iron-gloved ending. Even with the film clocking at only eighty minutes, it feels like a long trek followed by a slam into a brick wall. Ouch, ouch, ouch.
New Yorker presents Lancelot of the Lake in a letterboxed transfer, with the image at 1.66:1, maybe just a hair less tall, within the 16:9 frame. The transfer is not strong, with much edge enhancement, clearly an older (albeit good) television transfer resized. This means that the embedded 3:2 pulldown is present, unfortunately, eating up the bitrate and providing stuttery motion for the MPEG-2 encoding to try and interpolate. This will also mean, as usual, that viewers using progressive display systems will suffer an even worse stuttering unless they apply a pulldown removal. While the case touts the film as "visually breathtaking," (from a Wall Street Journal review likely written at the time of original release), the film is anything but. There are a few lush forest scenes, but again I must turn to Python for reference and say that they really look not much better than anything from Holy Grail. Perhaps the transfer fails to bring out elements of the cinematography that would make a crucial difference; I cannot say. The audio is an unremastered monaural track in French. This is good in that it is authentic, but on the other hand, it is very tinny and often grating, as I suspect is intended. This whole movie seems to want to put your teeth on edge in a way, and it's not too bad at doing so, but the teeth will be on edge not only from tension (to some degree) but from the mere fact of all the unpleasantness in which the film immerses itself. The only official extra is an incomprehensible theatrical trailer, which seems to include most of the violence; included in a side menu are also a few trailers for other New Yorker offerings such as Underground and The Eel.
Lancelot of the Lake is an interesting and compelling movie on some levels; on others, it is almost totally flat, particularly in the acting department -- although, as noted, this flatness does seem to have a purpose. I would recommend it -- as a rental -- to any serious student of deconstructionism or Arthurian legend generally, with the former group more likely to be satisfied than the latter, who may take issue with anachronisms and liberties Bresson has taken with the tale. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see the Arthur legend used in a serious context, no matter what the particulars. The experience is largely academic, but it is possible to catch the rhythm of this film and enjoy its tragic tale at gut level. It's just not easy and for most people may not be worth the effort. At $29.95, this is nothing to purchase, but a qualified rental recommendation seems not entirely out of order; and with a New Yorker pedigree, it's likely to be a good candidate for inclusion in a number of public libraries. Lancelot is released into its publisher's custody, under the provision that it not slaughter anyone horribly on its way out the door.
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic (windowboxed within 1.78:1 frame)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Additional New Yorker Video Trailers