5 February 2011 | oOgiandujaOo_and_Eddy_Merckx
A story of a relationship that fails, has much more resonance than the standard romantic drama
I've had difficulty with Bresson films in the past, because I love what he despises - acting. His films seem to rely on Kuleshov effect, which is to say that you have to feel the actors' emotions by extrapolating from the events that just happened, rather than reading their faces. Some people find this easier than others, for myself, when I watch Kuleshov's experiment I see only a neutral face when the frame cuts to a neutral face! However the Dostoevsky source for this movie is so rich that it allowed Bresson's style to work for me.
Une Femme Douce is a story of a love that fails, and feels very realistic. The success is down to the Bressonian style, which I usually find antithetical. Normal people as opposed to professional actors, are not very facially demonstrative; so when I saw the couple in this movie I really felt like I was watching a real couple. The lack of demonstration leads to a sense of ambiguity at key moments. There's a kind of Renoir-ian multifacetedness which tends to see a person as a congregation of souls pulling in different directions, jostling for the rudder, rather than as a coherent identity. But there's also ambiguity in the sense that the couple plain just can't read each other at points. There are several examples of uncorrected miscommunication in the film which again feels very authentic in terms of relationships.
Some people have great difficulty finding someone to love and share their lives with, may only get one attempt at something that could work, and often fail. That's a great, very human tragedy, that you don't get to see very often at the cinema. This story of a young couple, the man a pawnbroker, Luc, the woman simply known as "elle", is a story of two people who don't fit in modern life. She is fey, inquisitive, at home with the natural, distrustful of people, and entirely at odds with the systems of living that define human "progress". Luc is the opposite, a creature of the system, he makes money from debt, has fixed expectations about relationships, and lacks spontaneity. She suffers from weltschmerz, a pain of the sensitive that arises from an understanding or feeling of how life could or should be in comparison to the dismal and feeble structures that we have. They try to inhabit the centre ground together, but the compromise doesn't hold.
I like that the film acknowledges that even the most significant moments in a person's life can be fairly banal, a fleeting disengaged conversation on a bench at the zoo in this film.
Although I chose to see the film as a rather blameless story, you could view "elle" as the victim of Luc, who compares himself to Mephistopheles at one point. The film is feminist under that sense, although I think in a very patronising way. For example, at various points in the movie, the TV in their apartment shows spectacles which are very male-oriented, such as motor car racing. There's a sense that culture is about the male, that authentic female culture is something rare and unpreserved. I don't think that "elle"'s condition is unique to women, it actually reminds me RD Laing on schizophrenia: "The experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation."
It's worth pointing out that the film is substantially aided by the talents of Ghislain Cloquet, one of the great cinematographers, who certainly was shooting only top drawer material in this film.
It is a matter of irony to me that although Bresson chose non-professionals, as usual, for this film, Dominique Sanda ("elle") later went on to win Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival seven years later. The role demanded someone beautiful, so Bresson picked her up from her job as a model for Vogue. Guy Frangin (Luc) on the other hand has this film as his only credited role.