Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reminds us of the wide range of approaches that filmmakers have taken towards staging the Matter of Britain across the decades. It gives me great pleasure to spend a full week delving into some of the many other flavors of King Arthur films that have preceded Ritchie's contemporary stab at the material.

For at least the first ten or so minutes of Lancelot du Lac, Robert Bresson's 1974 medieval warfare drama, the squirmy & not very pleasant feeling I was stuck with was that the film was something of a Bresson gimmick film. By the time of this, his 11th feature (out of an eventual 13), the director's artistic technique was pretty firmly set: close-ups fragmenting humans into objects, unseen objects producing a noisy soundscape, erasing key story elements except through implication, and of course, that most Bressonian trick of all, casting non-actors and running them through take after take until their performance is denuded of even the ghost of emotional affect. All of these things are present in Lancelot du Lac. Initially, at least, these things appear to be also the totality of Lancelot du Lac, a film that starts off by feeling like a laboratory test of the question, "what happens if we apply Bresson to the material of an action spectacle?"

That is to say, it feels happily perverse and aggressively pointed against our expectations of the material, but it also feels somewhat straightforward and simple, without the cosmology of his greatest films. Initially, at least. One should be leery of wandering around, claiming to have figured out everything about a Bresson film, particularly after one's first viewing. And there comes a point where Lancelot du Lac... not "snaps into place", because it's already pretty much done that, but a point where the simplicity of what it's doing becomes very haunting in and of itself, and a sign less of the film's directness than its fatalism.

As the title tells us, the film is Bresson's very art house-ready take on the legend of Camelot, and so far as my decidedly non-exhaustive efforts have been able to turn up, it's the first French sound film on that topic. This gives it a little bit of added fascination, given that the great bulk of what we tend to think of as the quintessentially British myth initially came from French poets and balladeers - certainly the notion of chivalry, the emphasis on the Christian character of the Knights of the Round Table and their holy quest, and the tragic, romantic figure of Lancelot himself are all French in origin, largely from the 12th Century, when they were invented, or at least popularised by Chrétien de Troyes. Basically, all of the things that Bresson's film actively sets itself in opposition to. For this is also, again as far as I have dug up, the first deliberately revisionist take on the Camelot myth, one that considers the stories of bravery, of chivalry, of great moral duty, and solemnly declares it all to be bullshit.

Instead, Lancelot du Lac presents a medieval world of pronounced suffering and cruelty, inhabited by brutes. The film opens, very bluntly, with an ugly and crude broadsword fight that lasts for entire seconds before one of the participants has his head whacked off, blood throbbing out of his neck stump as he falls, like somebody squeezing the water out of a garden hose. For both Arthuriana and Bresson, this is a dark, cruel opening (I rather assume it's also the specific inspiration for a particularly well-known scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), presenting a horrible, gross death with the kind of indifferent medium shot that the director tended to prefer. Violence largely leaves the movie from that point, though it returns in the equally blunt final scene, where the film simply cuts off as the camera stares at a pile of dead bodies, all impossible to differentiate in their identical metallic cans. "The Middle Ages were nasty" isn't exactly a groundbreaking observation, and Lancelot du Lac doesn't pretend otherwise; that flatness with which the filmmakers present the violence is less about shocking us than it is about simply demanding our attention to the fact that these men, whose stated purpose in live was to support Godly causes and do right in the world, were involved in a system of simple barbarism, and if there is meant to be any extractable application to the world of 1974, Bresson refrains from telling us what he has in mind (he was not, after all, much in the way of a didactic filmmaker). But the rawness of the film's violence, and its complete disappointment in the characters' remarkable ability to fail and fail again, have a distinctly anti-war aura, even if there's little sense in arguing that Lancelot du Lac is an overwhelmingly anti-war film.

So that's the opening, anyway, and the film doesn't brighten much from there. A title card that kicks off the next scene tells us exactly where we are in the life cycle of Camelot (Lancelot du Lac unapologetically assumes the audience already knows at least the highlights of the legends: the noble king Arthur formed a Round Table out of a desire for egalitarian brotherhood, his knights quested to find the Holy Grail but mostly failed; their failure, compounded by the great knight Lancelot's affair with Arthur's wife Guinevere, ruined Camelot as a source for moral purity and therefore brought an end to Arthur's life and kingdom). The Grail quests have failed; Perceval, the only truly pure member of the Camelot court, has disappeared; and the knights, their numbers much reduced, have dragged themselves back to England, where Arthur's (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) bastard son Mordred (Patrick Bernard) is trying to figure out how to overthrow the kingdom. The opening comes in the form of the badly-held secret that Lancelot (Luc Simon) and Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas) have immediately resume their grubby affair, trysting in dirty haylofts and the like, and only the quick work of Lancelot's good friend Gauvain (Humbert Balsan) - that's Gawain to us English speakers - keeps Mordred at bay even a little bit. Over the course of not very long - the action seems to unspool over just a couple of days, definitely not more than a week - Lancelot feels the pangs of moral guilt and tries to abandon the queen, but her refusal to allow him to do so leads to a pair of wars: Arthur versus Lancelot, and then Arthur plus Lancelot versus Mordred.

The film is only 85 minutes long and spends very little time developing all of this: mostly, it's a depiction of a profound mood of loss and passing. Most of the emotional heavy lifting was taken care of in the casting of Simon, a man with heavy, dull features and bags under his eyes, who feels every inch like he's exhausted & forced to keep going despite his exhaustion. The simple fact of the stark contrast between Simon and the young, clear-skinned Condominas - or the just-as-young and just-as-pretty Balsan, for that matter - is staggering, and never ceases to be so; it lends a sense that there is something ultimately sad - not wrong, not bad, not immoral, just sad - in Lancelot and Guinevere's love affair, a reminder of lost youth and the disappointment of middle age.

That's the big takeaway here, I think: disappointment. The narrative disappointment that Camelot failed, the metanarrative disappointment that the rich pageantry of the Arthur legendarium should be such a trivial thicket of crap in the face of real-world death and misery, the psychological disappointment of anyone who knows that they've fallen beneath their ideals for themselves, sometimes violently so.

This is, mind you, all interpretation: Bresson famously eschewed too much editorialising in this and all of his films (hence the empty-eyed acting characteristic of his work). If he truly insists on anything, it's the universality and impersonality of his characters, all of them interchangeable cogs in an unstoppable force that crushes the life out of everything. Hence the repetitions that dominate the film: medium close-ups of knights shutting their visors that repeat three or four times in a row, or the miraculous matter of the film's joust tournament, certainly its most exceptional passage, in which the most exciting onscreen action of Bresson's entire career is represented by close-ups of hands, legs, the tips of lances against a blurry background. It reduces figures to spare parts, and reduces action to a handful of mechanically repeated behaviors that are quite segmented by the editing into little slivers that say only: do this violent thing, then do it again, then do it again, with no more context or even ability to clearly describe the specific narrative events of the passage. Aesthetically, it's as clear-cut an example of quintessential Bresson as you'll find, and it's the perfect encapsulation of the whole project of Lancelot du Lac: to strip bare the romantic accretions of legend and demonstrate a world where frankly anonymous figures robotically wallop each other. Between that, and the signature shot of an out-of-focus crucifix, Lancelot du Lac presents a mighty depiction of a cruel world, fallen from grace (if grace it ever had), and populated by figures too aware that they are unable to rise back up. In a directorial career full of some of the least cheery movies in the whole corpus of whole European art film, this is as bleak as anything else; but it is a bleakness born of observation rather than cynicism, and thus rather more powerful than depressing.