King Arthur in Hollywood

Lancelot of the Lake (1974), Rated: NR , Starring: Luc Simon, et al., Director: Robert Bresson, VHS Color, NTSC, ASIN: 6303336981

French director Robert Bresson's spare and haunting version of the legend of Camelot. The Knights of the Round Table return to Camelot after their futile search for the blessed Holy Grail. Lancelot (Luc Simon) is portrayed as a ruthless and ignoble opportunist who returns from his impossibly futile mission to locate the Holy Grail, only to callously rekindle his affair. However, when another knight's jealousy spurs rebellion in the land, Lancelot decides to remain in Camelot and fight until death for King Arthur.

The tragedy of Arthur's dream of chivalry and peace, and the failed search for the Holy Grail, were long-time passions of Robert Bresson, and this portrait is both deeply personal and coolly reserved. The film opens in the midst of battle, presented in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner that is nonetheless moody and startlingly graphic: limbs are hacked off and blood spurts freely (the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail is surely a direct parody). Bresson continues his unemotional reserve throughout the tragic tale of the adulterous triangle that cleaves Arthur's dream of chivalry, and the rebellion led by Mordred that casts the shadow of the dark ages over this brief, shining paradise. The love scenes between Guinevere and Lancelot show no outward passion, but Bresson invests them with a quiet intensity. The joust sequence, traditionally a dramatic spectacle of flashing shields and crashing bodies, is signified by fragmented shots of blaring trumpets, waving flags, and horses' hooves while offscreen sounds tell the story. Such defiance of conventions will surely limit the audience of this film--anyone looking for the dash and sweep of Excalibur will be sorely disappointed. Fans of Bresson will see the director slip even farther into darkness and hopelessness--but it remains one of the director's most visually stunning films. Awash in color and glinting silver armor, it stands (along with Eric Rohmer's enchanting Perceval) as one of the most striking portrayals of the Middle Ages put on film. --Sean Axmaker