Robert Bresson’s second film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, is based on a tale by Diderot and features characteristically idiosyncratic dialogue by Jean Cocteau. Maria Casares, who was later cast by Cocteau as Death in his Orphee, plays Helene, a wealthy socialite who has been slighted by Jean, the man she loves. Initially, Helene is caught out by her own game when she tests Jean’s affections by saying that her own affections for him have waned. The bluff backfires when, relieved, he confesses that he no longer loves her as he once did. Helene remains outwardly composed and inwardly resolute as she hatches a plan to avenge herself by making Jean fall in love with a club dancer (a profession that, at the time, was synonymous with prostitution). Claiming the dancer, Agnes, whom Helene has purposefully taken under her wing, is beyond reproach, Helene manipulates all the characters to suit her purpose – she fans Jean’s affections for the dancer, knowing that he won’t be able to resist the image of Agnes that she herself has created; she encourages Agnes’ mother, whom is financially indebted to her, to look upon her as a protector; and she traps and betrays Agnes who wants only to escape her previous life. Ultimately, however, she plays her game too well, and not even the truth is able to destroy love.
Bresson’s characteristic pared-down, sparse style, whilst not yet fully developed here, nonetheless is already evident, adding to Cocteau’s dialogue to create something of a distance between the actors and their subject which gives an added tension and an occasional surreal quality to the most emotive scenes.
The film is a fantastic portrait of the scheming woman who spins a web of deception in which, ultimately, she catches only herself.