On the Absence of the Grail

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The interest of the reader (and one reads the Grail stories with a real interest) does not come, one can see, from the question which normally provokes such interest: WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS? One knows very well, from the beginning, what will happen, who will obtain the Grail, who will be punished, and why. Interest is caused by a totally different question, which is: WHAT IS THE GRAIL?

-Todorov, Poetique de la Prose

Obviously Bresson is not aiming at absolute realism. The rain, the murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones … are there deliberately as neutral agents, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery. They are like lines drawn across an image to affirm its transparency, as does dust on a diamond—it is impurity at its purest.

-Bazin; on Diary of a Country Priest

It seems inevitable that Bresson would have eventually filmed the Arthurian legends; in a real way the director’s entire work points in this direction. An important thing to keep in mind is that in France the Arthurian legends are known by heart to virtually everyone schooled beyond the tenth grade. In adapting Lancelot, Bresson is not indulging in a sort of culture-for-the-masses approach or more-intellectual-than-thou snobbery. He is telling a story which has the value of a totally familiar myth or folk tale for francophone audiences, a fact that grants the director extraordinary liberty in his manner of telling his tale (and allows, as we will see, some important contradictions to arise and shape the work).

The first, long titles, which the English print leaves largely untranslated, give the essential background: After a series of earlier and miraculous triumphs by Arthur and his knights, Merlin the Magician assigned them one last task before he died. They were to seek the Holy Grail, the sacred vessel into which Joseph of Aramathea had gathered the blood of Christ on the Cross, and which was thought to be somewhere in Brittany. Merlin designated as leader of the quest not Lancelot, hero of the previous exploits and knight-attendant to Queen Guinevere, but the young Parsifal, named the “pure at heart.” Upon leaving Merlin, the knights dispersed; they were never to see Parsifal again. The film begins two years later. Tired, discouraged, their ranks decimated, the remainder of Arthur’s forces returns to his castle.

The film will recount the story of the fall of Camelot and the final mutual slaughter which closes the history of Arthur and his court, all brought about by the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Thus it might be a bit surprising that the first written titles speak so lengthily of the Grail, or that we actually see a traditional image of it behind the red, upward-moving characters which describe its role in the story.

For the narrative of the Holy Grail itself, the legends follow Parsifal, though Lancelot (as recounted in the film) and others do have visions of it. Yet the Grail is in a real sense the subject of Lancelot of the Lake, because it is a constant subject of dialogue, because we see it once and probably twice, and most importantly because it isn’t there, because everything seems to turn around this object forever absent. We do not know why, in Bresson’s work, the Grail may be attained. But we know why Lancelot may not do so: in his pride he wishes to “bring back God,” to use Guinevere’s words. Only we see the Grail, but we may sense why the characters in the film are not worthy of it.

The first line of dialogue on the soundtrack is spoken by an old woman who lives near Escalot, a locale with great importance in the film. Her words are a prediction of death—death for an unidentified knight and for the others (presumably also members of Arthur’s forces) who have passed by. “For all of them it was the same sign.” The lone knight is Lancelot, and his first words identify his position in the film: “I have lost my way.” This is not the only importance of this scene, for it sets up the return of Lancelot and the other knights to Escalot for the tournament at Pentecost. In a sense, by showing Lancelot in this locale at the very beginning, the film implies that he brings with him to Camelot the possibility of the tournament and the chaos which will result from it.

The old woman speaks the truth. Lancelot and the others will die, and this fact privileges her in the film. From first line of dialogue to the last image of the knights in armor strewn like broken dolls across a green forest floor, her words are true ones. Furthermore, the only shot (other than that behind the explanatory titles) where we may see the Grail—or rather an icon of its presence—is later, in her cottage, when she tells the departing Lancelot “Tu n’as rien compris” (You have understood nothing). Look for that shot; it’s easy to miss because so many narrative segments of the film begin and end with the camera pointing toward the ground. Here, though, Lancelot walks out screen right and the camera pans down and past him to reveal: a silver vessel shaped like the grail representation of the titles, with a swab-handle protruding as before and filled with blood, Lancelot’s own blood…

During the tournament, Lancelot is wounded in the genitals, and the effect of other Grail-legend resonances in Bresson’s film may be seen here. In the Parsifal stories, the Grail is kept in the land of the Fisher King, also suffering from a wound in the same location. By extension (remember the film’s audience is presumed to know all the legends, if only dimly held in memory) Lancelot is for a brief moment in the place of the sick ruler of the Land of the Holy Grail. But he does not know this, and so he moves on, losing his way when he thinks he has found it. Here, an important issue of Bresson’s adaptation arises. In most of the Grail stories, Lancelot’s recovery is accompanied by a seduction of the servant girl who tends him, and the old woman’s prophecies and her very presence are not suggested. Not only does Bresson’s version desexualize the episode, a fact to which we will return below, but it also makes possible the identification Lancelot/Fisher King. (The affair, which in the legends results in Lancelot’s failing another test and being refused access to the Grail, is transferred in the film to Lancelot and Guinevere, making the “test” he fails an entirely different one.)

The woman’s words to the departing Lancelot—“‘Tu n’as rien campris”—have an added power for a French audience, because she speaks to him with the familiar tu, as opposed to the formal vous she employed at the beginning of the film. In this context the tu suggests that she has power over the knight, that she knows him better than he does himself.

The Grail is not to be sought; it is to be found, there where one doesn’t bother looking for it-in this case, on the ground, at the old woman’s feet. Looking at Lancelot with Freudian eyes, one might be tempted to see quite a bit of foot fetishism. But this would be to miss the point. Here, the ground is merely (or, rather, supremely) the ground, and feet are privileged because they tread upon it. The knights, as is consistently noted in the film, look up: at the moon, at Guinevere’s window, at flags flying over the tents and at the tournament. The camera seemingly joins their vision with an effort, and the ends of most units of the story have it pointing down where it was originally looking. Likewise, the more dialogue the more the camera assumes a “normal” angle; otherwise up and down alternate—do battle—without mediation, as at the tournament or during the carnage of the film’s beginning and end.

Up and down have easy but applicable meanings in much of Western literature: pride and humility. One aspect of Bresson’s celebrated Jansenism is obviously the notion that salvation may not be sought, merely awaited, and that it will arise from the most humble details of life rather than from glory earned through any motivation tinged with pride. Thus, Lancelot of the Lake is built on a paradox: precisely those aspects of the Arthurian legends most celebrated in literature (heroism, battles of personality, ambition, and such) are rejected, cast upward out of our vision. Up is a dangerous direction in this work: it is where we find Guinevere’s meeting-place with Lancelot, the hallway where his death is planned, the trees from which archers hurl deadly arrows. It is the direction from which the knights fall wounded from horses, the position in which they see the enemy, the place where clouds may “strangle” the moon.

If one were to do a Freudian reading of Lancelot it would be necessary (I think) to try to make a connection between this rejection of all that is not earthbound and the film’s negation of sexuality, even the limited sexuality normally included in the Arthurian legends. Flying, in Freudian terms, signifies the sex act. Metaphorically, with the position of Guinevere’s room and of the loft where she meets Lancelot, it has the same meaning in Bresson’s film. As I mentioned earlier, in most tellings of the legends, Lancelot has an affair with the servant girl at the place where he recovers from his wounds. Here, the only indication of this is a spiritualized, particularly Bressonian one: still sick, the knight leaves on horseback and the girl kisses the ground where he last stepped before his departure.

This is probably as far as we can go into Bresson’s Arthurian universe without some more detailed remarks about technique. It is immediately evident, even in the agonizing first shot of two unidentified knights fighting with long-swords, that this is not a “normal” narrative film. Even before we notice the unpracticed gestures made clumsy by heavy armor, we hear far too much noise on the soundtrack. Or rather, we hear a good approximation (the film is largely post-synchronized, or dubbed after shooting) of what noises the armor really makes when used. Narrative film ordinarily takes a rather sparing approach to sound (except for dialogue); we may not realize it, but a process of selection and simplification is at work in practically all film sound tracks. Slamming doors do not reverberate, complicated noises like breaking glass are reduced to a few frequencies and durations, and so on.

Not so in Bresson. Rather than using totally “live” sound as have Godard and other modern film artists, the director accords selected sounds their full weight and complexity. The result is a curious, contradictory event: “natural” sounds (like horses neighing, armor clinking, doors slamming, or birds chirping) become abstract, almost intrusive elements, signifying “nothing”—or rather signifying their refusal to mean something. Language itself, the language and intonations of real people (the director uses mostly nonprofessional actors) undergoes the same sea-change. What should sound “natural” (and would, in the films of Rossellini, for example) emerges as totally abstract, one element among many in a complex web of signs which tells us not where to look for meaning but that we should not look for it at all. It is simply there, like the Grail.

That language has the status of one type of sound among others (albeit a privileged one) is underlined by a curious facet of the film’s structure. In a subtitled version it is particularly evident that the film falls into large chunks which alternate between very little or no dialogue and “too much” (by conventional standards) of it.

Language has no role in the three, symmetrically spaced and ordered sequences of pure action: the opening carnage, the tournament midway through the film, and the final battle. Its role in a larger structure is only slightly more complex, on this level, than the film’s orderly alternation of night, day, and then night again. WHAT IS THE GRAIL? Language cannot answer Todorov’s question (the passage cited is part of a beautiful commentary on the Arthurian legends). Bresson gives us some indications, largely through what the vessel is not. This is the only “information” which words can convey.

In an interview, the director said that the knights seek “the Grail, that is the Absolute God.” But absolutes are not accessible in this film. “Give us a goal, my uncle!” cries Gawain to King Arthur midway through Lancelot of the Lake. “I gave you a goal,” the king replies; “we must pray.” I would suggest that the Grail, in the context of Bresson’s movie, is meaning itself, the final goal, the Absolute Meaning which is never reached, approachable only through the confused silence of the mind in prayer. The Grail is the Absolute End, that which gives meaning to life, and as such it continually escapes those who do not simply await it without inner turmoil. Thus Bresson’s final morale is that the quest itself prevents the attainment of the Absolute, and Lancelot of the Lake is in this sense anti-Arthurian, and a profoundly, troublingly modern work.

In detaching bits of real actions performed by non-actors, real sounds treated as such but in a disturbing isolation, real (known to the audience) sequences of actions from a familiar, mythic context and putting them back together as one would assemble words into a sentence with huge gaps for missing, unknown elements, Bresson leads us into a world where meaning is to be experienced only in its absence, and we can only sit and wait….

LANCELOT OF THE LAKE (Lancelot du Lac)
Screenplay and direction: Robert Bresson. Cinematography: Pasqualino de Santis. Editing: Germaine Lamy. Sets: Pierre Charbonnier. Music: Philippe Sarde.
The players: Luc Simon (Lancelot), Laura Duke Condominas (Guinevere), Humbert Balsan (Gawain), Vladimir Antolek-Oresek (Arthur), Patrick Bernard (Mordred), Arthur de Montalembert (Lionel).

Copyright © 1976 Alan Williams

A pdf of the original issue can be found here

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