I watched French auteur Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot of the Lake” (1974), via NetFlix.
Bresson’s dour medieval drama opens with a montage depicting moments from the dogged, ruthless quest for the Holy Grail – knights behead other knights, blood sprays this way and that. Naturally, I didn’t want to laugh, but I had to laugh. I had to laugh because…well…
…”Now stand aside, worthy adversary.”
“‘Tis but a scratch.”
“A scratch!? Your arm’s off!”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Well, what’s that, then?”
“I’ve had worse.”
“Come on, you pansy!”…
The quality of the spurting blood, the small-scale budget, the gloomy 1970′s photography – if you can watch the opening of “Lancelot of the Lake” without remembering “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” (1975), well, then you probably haven’t seen “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. It’s juvenile of me, I know, but Bresson’s gore gave me the giggles.
It’s the same kind of idiocy that once caused an audience to rock with laughter at a screening of “The Wild Bunch”. Pike Bishop said “We’ll make a run for the border” and the audience busted up. You see, it happened that there was a Taco Bell commercial on in those days that employed the slogan “Make a run for the border.” Yep. We laugh good. Good laugh long time. Then Pike shoot shoot all bad men with gatling gun not so funny. It’s the same immature foolishness that makes me giggle like a 12 year old when people in 1930′s films declare how very gay they are feeling. Sometimes I’m just ashamed of myself – but not that often.
But back to “Lancelot” – the Grail quest has ended badly, knights dead and lost, and no Grail to be found anywhere. In fact, maybe there is no Holy Grail at all. Maybe the Grail never existed. The story begins at the end – the end of the days of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the end of the golden age embodied in the persona of Lancelot, the perfect knight. And in the wake of the failed Grail quest, these ideals of chivalrous nobility degenerate into mere infatuation between a man and a woman, selfish – and all too human – desire that will destroy the whole kingdom, destroy the whole world. That is perhaps the central message of the movie, perhaps the message at the heart of the Arthur / Guinevere / Lancelot story. When our idol, our ideal knight, decides to become an ordinary flesh and blood man, when our perfect queen decides to become an ordinary woman, then doom is near.
“Lancelot of the Lake” is an eerie and haunting telling of the story in large part because its characters and situations are rendered in their most symbolic aspects here – in deep contrast to the more literal, swords & sorcery vision of, say, “Excalibur” (1981). These characters are archetypes, resounding throughout all of western civilization – the embodiment of the noble husband who is also a blind fool, the idolized and elevated queen of the castle who longs for a life of the flesh, the outsider hero whose concealed desires will bring destruction to those he most loves. Bresson understands this and amplifies it so that the actors seem to be filling the roles of characters who are themselves filling the roles of mythological archetypes.
The characters seem to move from scene to scene out of a sense of obligation, they are merely showing up to deliver their lines, in a predetermined series of events on which they can have little effect. They are subject to the myth they inhabit, only along for the ride in this titanic, eternal struggle. The film succeeds very well in this sense of tragic inevitability, the individual subordinate to the grand story he is part of. George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels attempt a similar thing, reducing character personality to a minimum in order to make the mythology stand out more, but in that case the technique reveals that there is very little worthwhile mythology to emphasize, and so we are bored, rather than enlightened.
I spoke to my mother and father this morning. Mum said she was sending me “King Arthur” (2004), directed by Antoine Fuqua, which I have not yet seen. I gather it is a de-mythologizing of the Arthur story, though I dread that there will be less de-mythologizing and more deliberate ignorance of the mythology. I have no hard information on which to base this prejudice, only a general observation of a trend in recent movies’ attempts to depict “larger than life” characters. But I am curious. It does seem difficult to irretrievably mess up the Arthur story. “Excalibur”, “Camelot”, “The Sword and the Stone” – and “Lancelot of the Lake” – each offer up something worthwhile. The exception may be “First Knight”, which I did see once on a plane. I try not to take too seriously my impressions of films watched on flights, but – John Box’s production design notwithstanding – it was a real stinker.
Despite its minimal production value – because of it, in large part – “Lancelot of the Lake” is probably the most sophisticated of the Arthurian films, also one of the saddest, and certainly one of the strangest.
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