Lancelot of the Lake (aka Lancelot du Lac) is a very interesting take on the King Arthur Legend. Directed by French master Robert Bresson in 1974 the film – in a brief 85 minutes – covers a very simple story line.
Lancelot (Luc Simon) and the Knights of the Round Table come home – separately – after a few adventurous years of pillaging. They too have failed to get the Holy Grail. There is ill will in the air between some of the Knights, led by Mordred (Patrick Bernard), toward Lancelot. Meanwhile Lancelot is contending with his love for Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas), which is unknown by Arthur.
Amid a dark forbidding mood the Knights set off for a lancing tournament, which Lancelot pays no heed to; yet he decides to secretly attend to prove his mettle and teach King Arthur's Knights a lesson.
The film itself has a dead pan sensibility, the actors are inexpressive and overall the film barely registers anything on an emotional level. However, this is all on purpose. More importantly from a stylistic point-of-view the film is a real marvel; particularly the way in which it is shot and edited.
There is nothing tricky about the style – in fact it is all rather austere – but Bresson shot many of the scenes with the camera pointed at a downward angle focusing in the body or the feet of the main characters and the horses. His idea was to capture posture or body movement, which we rarely see in film, rather than facial expression, which we see all too often. He does, however, show the face a good number of times so that we're never confused about who is who.
The most significant use of this technique comes in the lancing scene (chapter 11*) between Lancelot and the Knights. There is an interesting rhythm of shots that Bresson uses for the 6 minute scene. The most unique being the shots he uses for the lancing duals. Rather than shoot the scenes straight on he chooses to shoot from the side and above the running horse. Because of this choice we never actually see the lancing joust – although we do hear it – along with the audience reaction – and we do see the bodies fall. Each lancing dual is prefaced with the blowing of Scottish bagpipes by someone whose face we don't see; instead we see the guy squeezing the bagpipes and next to him the legs of a man sitting next to a drum.
Sound in the film is also interesting. Bresson has a lot of off-screen sounds including armor clanking and the sounds of horses. All of which are really just as important as the dialogue.
Bresson's take on the legend is not a romantic one as we see in the opening and final scenes of the film. For one he focuses a lot on armor; the clothing of the expressionless. The characters are not only locked in a legend but are tied down by their heavy armor. In this way Bresson is making a comment about the rigid unfeeling nature of death within the Arthurian world.
Lancelot of the Lake is a film that can be seen again and again but it is not necessarily an 'entertaining' film in the way that an Errol Flynn film is entertaining. Anyone expecting a Hollywood treatment of the subject best look elsewhere. This is an art film by a great filmmaker - therefore it is somewhat challenging but endlessly fascinating too.
BTW: be on the lookout for Merlin; he isn't what you would expect.
* The chapters don't match between the booklet and the dvd itself. The booklet notes Chapter 10 as the tournament but it is actually Chapter 11.