Considered a classic, this 1945 French film, directed by Robert Bresson, shows that when it comes to sex and love the French may seem to be more sophisticated than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts; but that nonetheless no one is more determined to wreck revenge than a woman scorned, even a refined and cultured, Parisian socialite.
This is the essence of the story to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. Vengeance comes in the rather shapely, determined and Machiavellian form of Hélène (Maria Casares). Hélène exacts retribution on her former lover, Jean (Paul Bernard) by arranging for him to fall in love and marry Agnès (Elina Labourdette), an ex-prostitute; and thereby in one fell swoop making him a laughing stock among the well-to-do social clique to which they both belong.
Hélène runs rings around Jean from the very beginning – from the moment she tricks him into admitting that he no longer loves her to arranging for him to fall in love with Agnès. And to prove she does nothing by halves, she even takes it upon herself to make the arrangements for the marriage to be a big social event rather than the quiet little affair Jean suggests, and in the process making her revenge complete or so she thinks.
Jean’s behaviour shows an astonishing (and rather realistic) lack of understanding by the male of the species of the female psyche. He not only foolishly believes he can break up with Hélène without her harbouring any hard feelings towards him, he even believes they can remain the best of friends. He is so convinced of this that he has no qualms in confiding in her about his new-found passion for Agnès. The dangers caused by such a dearth of comprehension have been chronicled from time immemorial. I remember years ago watching a brilliant production of Medea with Diana Rigg at the Donmar Theatre. The play of course deals with the similar theme of a woman scorned. I remember actually laughing out loud when Jason, Medea’s lover and father of her two young children, foolhardily informs Medea rather by-the-by that he is trading her in for a younger model after all that she has done for him (including killing her own brother). As with Jean, he is likewise unable to see why she would possibly have a problem with this. And as with Jean, Jason of course soon finds out that the opposite is true, though admittedly with rather more calamitous consequences.
In Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne Hélène seemingly has the upper hand in this war of the sexes. However I personally don’t adhere to the view that once scorned, a woman’s only raison d’être will then be to seek revenge. Maybe this is because most women nowadays have too much going on in their lives to be that single-minded and/or obsessed. However Hélène seems to be in the fortunate position that she doesn’t have to work for a living, and as a result – unlike her modern counterparts – has a lot of time on her hands to plot and scheme. Consequently, while watching the film, I did find myself wondering why such an attractive and intelligent woman would feel the need to expend so much energy and time on seeking revenge rather than building a more fulfilling life for herself.
The film though is a wonderful testament to the beauty of black and white film and is beautifully shot. In addition, I’ve watched several classic French films and this is definitely one of the more accessible ones to those of us who are not native Francophones. In the end, rather aptly for a story set in the city of love, if rather unexpectedly for a film which deals with how corrupting love can be when it goes wrong, it is not Hélène who has the last laugh but love.