What to make of this movie? Blood squirts and drips from severed heads and sliced groins like thick cherry juice. Lancelot says "J'taime' to Guinevere with all the passion of a piece of cheese. As in most of Bresson's films, the acting is expressionless, but here it is emotionless. "You are alone in your pride," says Guinevere to Lancelot, while she stares at him without a trace of feeling. "Pride in what is not yours is a falsehood." "I was to bring back the Grail," he tells her. "It was not the Grail," she says, "it was God you all wanted. God is no trophy to bring home. You were all implacable. You killed, pillaged, burned. Then you turned blindly on each other. Now you blame our love for this disaster...I do not ask to love you. Is it my fault I cannot live without you? I do not live for Arthur." Guinevere is austere and relentless. And Lancelot? "Poor Lancelot," one character says, "trying to stand his ground in a shrinking world."
It's been two years since Arthur sent his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail. Now, exhausted, defeated, at odds with each other, their numbers severely reduced by disease and fighting, the remnants have returned. Lancelot saw in a dream that he must renounce his love for Arthur's queen, but Guinevere will have none of that. Mordred lurks in the shadows, hinting and insinuating. Before long, the knights have chosen sides. A few will stand with Lancelot in defense of Guinevere. The rest will stand...not with Arthur, but with Mordred.
Bresson has taken the Arthurian legend and turned it into a tale of hopeless pessimism. If you don't care for spoilers, read no further. How hopeless? Nearly everyone dies except Guinevere. There is no Robert Goulet in paper mache armor singing "If Ever I Should Leave You," no Nicol Williamson urging Arthur to do the right thing. It's difficult to say who is the more pig-headed...Guinevere for adamantly refusing to release Lancelot from his vows of love, or Lancelot later deciding that love is all. By the time they realize that Guinevere must return to Arthur, it's far too late.
The legend of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, and of Mordred and Gawain, is emotional and powerful. Bresson takes it and squeezes it down until it is nearly wrung dry. Loyalties are as much based on self-interest and delusion as on true fealty. Love is as selfish as it is consuming. There's no room for hope, or even noble tragedy, in Bresson's version of the myth. Making the movie even more difficult to access is the Bresson style. Even in the most charged moments, the characters speak in a monotone. Bresson's penchant for amateurs and a flat style of delivery can work wonders in some of his movies (just look at Au Hasard Balthazar), but here everything is just flat. The photography is fascinating -- particularly the tournament sequence; all close-ups of the sides of galloping horses, just the legs of the knights, the sound of lances crashing into armor -- but it also is self-conscious. More than once I caught myself thinking, "Wow, this shot is sure pure Bresson." That may do much for cineastes appreciating an auteur director; I'm not sure it does much, in this case, to advance the emotions of the story. And yet, the film picks up a lot of steam. The last half hour is a beautiful, powerful picture of pointlessness. Mordred and his followers are going to usurp Arthur. Lancelot and his followers will ride for Arthur. And we see a shot of a riderless horse galloping through the forest, then a cut to a knight on the ground bleeding to death, then yeoman in trees firing arrows, then the sequence again, and again, and again. No music, just the twang of arrows, the sound of hooves, the muted clanking of armor. And then we see a pile of dead and dying knights. There's no winsome little boy to carry the tale of Camelot this time.
On balance, I enjoyed the pessimism, the rhythm of the movie and some of the sequences. The film is worth seeing, but I just don't think this is one of Bresson's successes. The DVD has a fairly good film transfer. There are no extras.