Bresson’s 1974 film is now available on DVD in the US from New Yorker Video. This is a difficult and powerful film. Visually, he tends to use tightly framed close ups: a joust is portrayed with shots of banners and the galloping horses’ feet. Similar scenes are repeated. Key events are often unshown, and revealed only through their aftermath or portents.
Like Kubrick’s 2001, it can be a baffling and frustrating experience if you don’t already know the story, and his style may not be to everyone’s taste. The Death of King Arthur (La Mort le Roi Artu) seems to have been Bresson’s starting point: if you’ve read that the narrative of the film is quite clear. However, I think the ellipses are deliberate. Real human beings don’t know where they fit into a neat narrative: the characters in the film are confused and doubtful, riding through dark woods, ignorant of their fate, looking for portents.
The film shows the characters’ belief in the reality of the supernatural world. Early in the film an old woman tells a child: “the person whose footsteps I hear but do not see will die within the year.” We hear horse’s hoofs, and the child looks up to see a knight; Lancelot. Later Lancelot is missing after a tournament. After a storm pieces of his banner lie on the ground before his tent: the other knights immediately conclude he is dead. They are thinking like medieval people, not like moderns in costume.
This ties back to Bresson’s presentation of the story in selective scenes and shots. From rational, non-mystical viewpoint the portents are there as well. Early on we are shown enough of the character of Lancelot, the queen and Mordred, and of the factions and disunity in the court, to infer where the story will end up, just as we can infer from three riderless horses fleeing through a wood that something very unpleasant is happening to some knights further in. But when we see only fragments of the world, it’s easy enough to mistake the signs and portents of our fate: the knights have misread the omen of Lancelot’s banner, and Lancelot misjudges his ability to break off from his relationship with the queen, reconcile with his enemies and surmount his challenges through personal prowess.
Like Malory, the film is rife with anachronism. The body armor generally follows the style of the 16th c., the helmets and crests are roughly those of the 15th c., or 14th c. visors on 15th c. skulls. I suspect that this, like the lack of mail gussets and collars, the mail-fingered gauntlets and the many backless greaves, was forced by budgetary limitations. The decision to dress the non-noble characters like Breton peasants from some time in the past century or so seems deliberate, perhaps to break the story loose from its medieval moorings a bit and emphasize the more universal elements of the tale.
There are some very gory sequences, beginning with the opening scenes in which the Grail Quest has turned into a bloody chevauchee. It’s hard to see them in a quite the same way today: they are far too close to similar sequences in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, released the following year.
This is a film of contradictions: gritty and mystical, in which aspiration struggles with human failing. It’s not so much a revisionist script as a return to the roots of the story: the flawed characters, bickering nobles and bloody combats are not so far from the spirit of the 13th c. romance that inspired it.