Robert Bresson would be the last filmmaker I would think to adapt any story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a man who might be the greatest writer of melodrama- and melodrama as in gut-wrenching, emotional stuff, with a characters in, for example, Crime and Punishment having a big screaming or dramatic fit, all described in massive amounts of painstaking detail (mostly so Dostoyevsky could get paid by the word, perhaps). Because Bresson was a filmmaker who was completely uncompromising for what his vision required: usually non-professionals, saying dialog with a passive, almost restrained quality, with emotion held back until the most necessary (if at all) moments. Bresson was even on record once saying he didn't like sets or actors for that matter. But with Dostoyevsky's story he crafts another work that is all his own while honoring the harsh view on the human heart that the author had. It's a story where one might be tempted to take the woman's side, or (arguably) that she even did the right thing for herself at the end (or, as we at the start, at the beginning told backwards), but it's never that easy.
A Gentle Woman leans more to searching for common sense where there is none: Elle is a simple girl in a family that doesn't treat her well (we don't see this, we just hear it second-hand), and has a gentle quality (or 'meek' as Dostoyevsky's story was originally titled) that somehow allures Luc, who works as a pawnbroker. He pursues her, even though she's not much interested in his advances ("I told you not to follow me," she says to him as he follows her up to his house, in a tone soft but firm). He marries her. They seem momentarily at peace, but this soon breaks: Luc is continually insecure with himself, in a sense, because he can never feel secure in his relationship. Unlike That Obscure Object of Desire, where there was a mind-game involving the sex in the possessive relationship, there's no question that they do go to bed. It's the whole factor of what's really there in terms of trust, love, redemption, and above all a connection between two people. A scene that could be in a silent film (a form Bresson desperately would love to have tried), the couple are watching a film in a theater, and she is sitting next to a guy on her other side. Luc can't stand this, and almost on instinct he stands so the two can switch. A glance, or a couple of glances, speak a thousand ideas in a Bresson film.
In fact it's Bresson's attempts, as in other films, to try and intellectualize an emotional downward spiral that gains interest. Because it's the opposite of your usual melodrama, where the characters get all excited and angry and yelling and lots of misunderstandings and so on, the style is stripped down, leading to what is a much more distressing relationship they're in. Neither one can give in, but Elle just can't seem to leave him or go through an affair. And Luc likewise can't seem to ever go to lengths of domestic violence or on the flip-side leaving him. It's all about him having her, not the other way around, and the moments that she tries and asks him about his past doings (i.e. being fired from a bank teller job) he hesitates. There's a mold in shape that he can't seem to break of her, and by the time he goes for it and says over and over "I love you" it's clear as day- she's already past that point saying "I thought you were going to leave me." Enigmatic, maybe, it depends on the viewer.
It might be understandable this is one of Bresson's least available selections (no DVD yet, and a very paltry availability on the internet quarters of VHS sales), even though it shouldn't be. It's a fascinating experiment in dissecting character through narrative (albeit Bresson cuts back and forth between Luc at Elle's dead body at the bed a wee bit much through good narration from him), and in revealing little things about the relationship for a modern audience. There's a subtext I liked that dealt with diversions, theater, television, films, that are like little respites for the two of them (for Elle more-so, as we see with her interest in Hamlet). And, of course, the Catholic dimension of feeling- from Dostoyevsky carried over into Bresson- is felt more that almost any other of his films; divorce, it seems, is never called into question. This makes it dangerously close to being behind-the-times with its ultimately tragic fate for the characters.
But it also puts up an ultimatum of morality, not just for Luc but for Elle in hindsight: the film doesn't condone suicide, for all of the poetic splendor it's revealed in at the start and finish (not to mention that amazing final shot of the coffin being nailed in). Many interpretations, existential, feminist, even Marxist to a smaller extent, could be taken into account. One thing is for certain: A Gentle Woman isn't an easy film to digest, but for those willing to give it a shot it offers some intriguing layers beneath the subdued manner. By the way, watch for the scene that finally comes up that was taken for the (somewhat misleading) video cover; it's a total 180, aside from the basic initial physical motion, of a similar scene in Goodfellas!
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