Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

“You’re suddenly so sentimental.”

Jealousy and revenge are the main themes of the elegant French film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne from director Robert Bresson. The story is simple–Helene (Maria Casares), a wealthy woman, is discontent with her lover, Jean’s lack of devotion, and so she decides to confront him. She expresses feelings that the passion and excitement have left the relationship, and while he’s supposed to take that as a cue to profess ever-lasting love, he grabs at the chance and agrees to end the relationship. Jean (Paul Bernard) seems relieved that Helene expressed the same thoughts he had, so Helene’s plan backfires–instead of rejuvenating their love with reassurances of passion, their relationship ends. Jean assures Helene that they will continue their friendship, and he’s too insensitive to see how stunned and upset she is.

After a period of mourning for her lost love, Helene plots revenge. She seeks out a young dancer/prostitute, Agnes (Elina Labourdette) who is living with her mother, Madame D. (Lucienne Bogaert) in Paris. Madame D. and her daughter used to be Helene’s neighbours but they are now completely destitute. Helene offers to pay all their bills and move them away from the gang of marauding males who visit Agnes. In return, Helene extracts a promise from Madame D. that they will receive no visitors, live a cloistered life, and that Agnes will not work as a dancer. The mother is eternally grateful–the daughter is not–and she see Helene’s offer of a new home in the Bois de Boulogne as a form of imprisonment.

Once Helene has the two women installed in their flat, she maneuvers a meeting between Jean and the women intending that Jean and Agnes should fall in love …

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne has the feel of a Greta Garbo drama, but somehow it never quite reaches that level of intensity. Jean, the lover, is a particularly weak character. He’s the target of Helene’s revenge, but he’s just not developed enough to gather much interest or sympathy. Agnes, on the other hand, comes alive when she dances, and it’s through these scenes that we see the passion she possesses. Helene is also a deeply passionate woman, and unfortunately, their meeting ground is Jean–a character who ultimately remains all too uninteresting for these two women to fight over. The film is beautifully acted, and the drama builds slowly as Helene’s plans for revenge come to fruition. In French with English subtitles.

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