Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Gentle Woman (1969)

The fear of modernity that was hinted at by director Robert Bresson in Mouchette positively explodes off the screen with this, his first color film and first film explicitly set in the modern day. Hamlet is a big touchstone for this tale of a young woman who marries for money only to kill herself when she comes to realize that money doesn't solve everything -- there's parallels between Dominique Sanda's title character and Ophelia, particularly the use of flowers as a harbinger of sickness and/or mental unstability -- yet without having to be told, I was silently thinking, "The time is out of joint," from the roll of the opening credits. Bresson's view of the present day, with this film, moves into rage at what he perceives to be materialism and Godlessness. This gets summed up quite precisely in an early scene where Sanda brings a crucifix to sell to the pawnbroker (Guy Frangin) she later marries; Frangin removes the figurine of Jesus, weighs the golden cross and tells her, "You keep the Christ, I'll take the metal." The story proceeds in flashback from Sanda's suicide as Frangin goes over their life together, trying to figure out what would drive her to this final gesture, and the great sadness that drives the rage present in this film becomes apparent when we realize that Frangin won't find any answers nor anything to make himself feel better. He never knew Sanda, never really could have (according to the credits, he might not even know her name); her needs were never truly financial but emotional, a need that Frangin's business mind was wholly unequipped to fill (this gulf between them is represented by his anger at her overpaying needy people for trinkets and his inability to understand the kindness of such a gesture), so her death is symptomatic of a malaise within the capitalist culture he represents. There's a scene at a natural-history museum exhibit where a character notes that the building blocks of life are "the same raw materials for all animals," and Sanda's ferocious performance, saying as much as she does with a heated glance as most actors can convey in a thousand lines of dialogue, suggests that living in a world such as this where the physical is valued over the spiritual and mankind's pursuit of pleasure and comfort have turned them into just another animal is unthinkable. Bresson's edging up on nihilism here, but his outlook contains just enough overwhelming sadness for the state of things to make that come off as intelligent and not posturing.

Grade: B+


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