The French directors 1969 spectacle about the wife of a pawnbroker who kills herself is still difficult, devastating and captivating 50 years on
Robert Bressons Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman), is now revived in UK cinemas 50 years after its original release although this stark, austere, forbidding spectacle could just as well have been made in 1959 or 1949. This was his adaptation of the Dostoevsky short story Krotkaya, or A Gentle Creature (the inspiration for a quite different film of the same name by Sergei Loznitsa in 2017). It was his first colour film, and the colours themselves appear muted and darkened, as if from a neglected church tapestry.
Dominique Sanda plays Elle, the delicate young wife of a pawnbroker (that ominous Dostoevskian trope) who takes her own life by jumping from the balcony of their handsome Paris apartment, leaving no suicide note or explanation. The eerily calm widower Luc (Guy Frangin) his face set in the mask of suppressed emotion that he wore throughout their unhappy marriage explains the course of their relationship to their equally subdued maid (Jeanne Lobre) as they sit together over the decorously laid-out corpse. This narrative unfolds in flashbacks that are disturbingly, almost seamlessly interleaved with the present: his wife is at one instant dead and at another alive.
What is striking is that Elle, blankly unsmiling (except for a sudden, devastating moment just before she opens the balcony window) is not especially douce. She seems cold, reserved, unreconciled to her situation and oppressed by his icy controlling jealousy. She first made the acquaintance of Luc as one of his customers, people who receive from him a curtly proffered handful of banknotes in return for their treasured possessions, whose worth he sizes up with the merest glance. No argument, no explanation, as if in a bank or receiving holy communion. She gives him a crucifix, and in a scene of somewhat unsubtle symbolism, Luc detaches the plastic image of Christ before weighing up the gold cross itself.
In some ways, Elles suicide is no great mystery. She was always oppressed by her husbands business, which he had gone into after having to resign from a banking house in disgrace, and perhaps feels that she has in some ways pawned herself, pawned her very soul, to live with him in material comfort. She has a morbid fascination with visiting zoos and the natural history museum, to brood over caged animals or the bones of dead ones. The couples attempts to consume culture are unsuccessful, although she certainly pays attention to a production of Hamlet. (There is a later scene when she ponders the speech, cut in the production they gave just seen, in which Hamlet advises his players not to overact. This could be Bressons own coded rebuke to the hamminess of conventional realistic acting his cast remain studiedly opaque.)
What strikes me now is how very similar the married couple in are to Catherine Deneuve and Jean Sorel in Buuels Belle de Jour, which had come out two years previously. Both husbands are buttoned-up bourgeois types; both wives have fiercely inaccessible inner lives and both women are in revolt against their marriages, against marriage in general and perhaps existence altogether: one erotically and the other spiritually.
In Une Femme Douce, the suicide is perhaps a transcendental moment of spiritual crisis or sacrifice not amenable to the rationalist or secular concept of motivation whose meaning floats like the womans scarf after she has thrown herself from the balcony. And her husband and maid are gathered by her body in a kind of prayer. It is an unforgiving film: sombre, difficult, like a medieval poem.
Une Femme Douce is released in the UK on 2 August.
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