Jun 5, 2019

Lancelot of the Lake

A number of years ago, I started binge-watching various TV series and eventually encountered a new show I never heard of called Game of Thrones. As a fan of HBO original series like The Sopranos, Oz, and Carnivàle and classic epic fantasy flicks like John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), I had no reason to suspect that I would dislike the show and—at least for a couple seasons—I was proven right as I found the mostly-all-European cast and sometimes brutal fight scenes to be rather refreshing compared to most of the xenophiliac crypto-commie crap that passes for popular entertainment.  Of course, as someone that was told as a very young impressionable kid by a much older faux-sword-wielding cousin that he was a medieval knight in a former life, the show naturally also had personal appeal for me in the true fantasy sense.  Rather unfortunately, over the years, the show has became more and more insanely popular despite its glaring overall declining quality and has become a sort of sports-ball equivalent for craft-beer-fetishizing urban chic hipsters at dive bars as demonstrated by the countless radically retarded reaction videos on YouTube, yet I kept watching the show in the naïve hope that the Night King and his army of undead Aryan Übermensch White Walkers would destroy the entire world in a glorious end-of-the-world showdown where death—and only death—prevails in a truly apolcapyitic fashion that concludes with a Säuberung of all of humanity. Of course, being a show penned by two Hebraic hacks that did not have the benefit of relying on source material for the last couple seasons because source writer George R. R. Martin (who, incidentally, recently magically discovered that he was about 1/4 chosenite after a genetic test for the PBS show Finding Your Roots) seems to suffer from perennial writer’s block (or, probably more accurately, he seems to have written himself into a corner), the final season is innately idiotic shit and involves a number of patently preposterous and carelessly contrived deus ex machine scenarios, including a virtual little girl inexplicably killing the most powerful supernatural creature in the entire world in what is arguably the most painful cinematic ‘ruined orgasm’ scenario in all of moving picture history.

While coethnic show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss—two proud beneficiaries of nepotism that are so severely hated by die hard GoT fans that they are affectionately known as ‘dumb and dumber’—try to justify their shitty writing under the guise of ‘subverting expectations,’ it is clearly motivated to some degree by atavistic racial hatred and contempt, hence its gleeful kabalistic approach to warping and distorting perennial European myths and archetypes (surely, it is nothing short of painfully symbolic that former CIA Deputy Director David S. Cohen, who is the brother-in-law of Benioff, had a cameo on the show). Needless to say, after foolishly enduring such asinine aesthetic terrorism, I felt the need for complete cinematic purification in the form of immersing myself in real European medieval fantasy that is everything that GoT is not and naturally decided on re-watching Lancelot of the Lake (1974) aka Lancelot du Lac directed by French master auteur Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar). Unlike GoT, which tries to pass off cheap gratuitous sex and violence and an alien hatred for ancient European archetypes as being brilliantly ‘subversive’ (undoubtedly, ressentiment-driven ‘culture distortion’ is a more apt description), Bresson’s film is the real delightfully Delphic deal as a seriously subversive piece of arcane yet assiduous Arthurian cinema that thankfully does not depict an insultingly idiotic fantasy world where dipsomaniacal dwarfs, all-noble eunuchs, foreign savages, and potty-mouthed little girls are the greatest and most heroic moral crusaders and a tiny tom-boy magically defeats literal death in icy anthropomorphic form.  Magnificently metaphysically morose and melancholic in its great tragedy, like Christ's still-warm corpse trampled on by a wandering band of money-changers on a humid mosquito-ridden night, the film utilizes the great Occidental myths of the past to depict foredoomed spirit of the present in a manner that can almost be described as Cioranian sans the gleeful cynicism and spiritual sterility.

 Whereas Game of Thrones concludes in a manner that is more underwhelming, insipid, and morally retarded than one might expect from the weed-whacked fan fiction of a considerably mentally feeble Moroccan teenage sociopath and was clearly written by sickeningly self-satisfied speds with a clear kosher contempt for their audience where marvelously Michael Bay-esque spectacle is supreme and narrative consistency is, at best, a sad secondary concern, Lancelot of the Lake is a spiritually stark yet deathly devout Arthurian tone poem that basks in the inevitably tragic and depicts knightly battle as appropriately entertaining as a blood-splattered abattoir and as romantic as the cold blue bloated corpse of an unfaithful soul mate. Austerely apocalyptic, the film depicts a somewhat anachronistic realm of deluded desires and dead dreams where people oftentimes pray to god yet he never responds and where the disappearance of the Grail is symbolic of man’s moral and spiritual descent. While not romantic in the ‘traditional’ sense, the film is certainly equipped with a sort of uniquely understated lovelorn pathos as personified by the tragic ill-fated love affair of the eponymous protagonist Lancelot and his beloved mistress Queen Guinevere as they sneak around the shadows like forsaken somnambulists that haven’t quite considered that they might already be in hell. Of course, the forlorn dark romance does not stop there as Lancelot’s moody and broody men also perish under lamentable circumstances, including his young protégé and best friend Gawain, who tragically dies at the hand of the man he loves yet still manages to express with a certain degree of unforgettable ghostly resonance the last dying words, “my heart is with him.”  And, despite their glaring flaws and all the more glaringly dejecting demeanors, your heart cannot help but also be with Lancelot and his knights, thereupon making the sting of their brutal demise all the more indelible just as any great Bresson character, no matter how ‘model-like.’

 Right from the get-go, Bresson establishes an eerily yet exquisitely morbid tone with premonitions of things to come in the form of brutal battle scenes, including the senseless destruction of religious icons, knights being decapitated and taking blades to the genitals, and skeletons (still sporting plate amour) hanging from trees while being pecked at by crows. From there, the film opens with a prologue spelled out in blood-red-letters unfolding on an image of a chalice (aka the Holy Grail) that reads: “After marvelous adventures in which Lancelot of the Lake played a heroic part, the Knights of the Round Table set off in search of the Grail. The Grail was a vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea had gathered the blood of Christ. It was to bestow supernatural power. It was believed hidden in Brittany. Merlin, before his death, pledged the knights to the quest. Merlin had indicated that the quest should be led by Perceval (Parsifal), not by Lancelot. After leaving the castle, the knights were dispersed. Perceval was not seen again. Two years have passed. Decimated, the knights return to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. They have not found the Grail.” After the prologue, the viewer encounters another unsettling premonition where an old woman declares to her assumed granddaughter, “He whose footfalls precede him will die within a year.” When the granddaughter points out that she said the same exact thing the previous day, the old woman ominously replies, “It is the same omen for them all.” In what ultimately proves to be a less than auspicious scene, Lancelot (Luc Simon), who (quite symbolically) got lost after a disastrous battle that claimed the lives of many of his men, then appears to the old woman and asks for directions so that he can get back to his camp. Of course, things only go downhill from there as the film progresses and Bresson leaves it up to the viewer to speculate as to why the knights could not find the Grail and why Camelot and the Round Table eventually completely fall apart. While Lancelot’s treacherous love affair with his beloved king’s wife certainly contributes to this, there are other (seemingly much darker) forces involved that hint at a certain collective forsaken state of man, as if all hope and goodness has been extinguished from the world, hence the staying power of Bresson's film in the increasingly spiritually and culturally necrotizing Occident. 

 I hate to sound like a simple knuckle-dragging mamzer, but arguably the most potent theme of Lancelot of the Lake is the particularly precarious nature of putting pussy on a pedestal, especially in an all-male context, and how a single woman can lead to the destruction of an entire male order, though Bresson apparently had a more romantic view of the situation as indicated by his words, “Lancelot and Guinevere are like Tristan and Isolde without the love potion. A predestined love, a passionate love facing impossible obstacles. This love and its fluctuations provide the movement of the film.” Indeed, to quote the GoT character Maester Aemon played by the late great Peter Vaughan (Straw Dogs, The Remains of the Day), “Love is the death of duty,” or so the titular antihero and his comrades discover the hard way. For being a patently poorly written show that attempted to pass off the bastardization of classic fantasy conventions as brilliant displays of literary subversion, especially during the last couple seasons, Game of Thrones did have its memorable moments of perennial truth and Maester Aemon’s words ultimately inspire the show’s hero Jon Snow to more or less save the world by selflessly sacrificing his love and killing his demented dragon bitch lover-cum-aunt who, among other things, used foreign brown hordes to carryout out a full-blown genocide of Dresden-esque proportions because her ‘feelings were hurt.’ In Lancelot of the Lake, the titular hero also decides to sacrifice his love, but it ultimately proves to be too-little-too-late. Notably, as Bresson wrote in an essay entitled ‘Torn Between Fidelity and Felony’ in regard to the film, “I am a Christian filmmaker. But I have no intention of drawing a parallel between our secularized culture and a previous time when people lived lives of exalted faith. I didn’t make LANCELOT to elaborate on a parable. Our hero is aware of his responsibility for the failure to find the Grail; I’m interested in how he is torn between fidelity and felony, love and purity. He’s a man crushed by the machine of a destiny shaped by luck and predestination. . . .There is neither conversion nor redemption in my film—unlike some other stories about the Knights of the Round Table. Nonetheless, Lancelot’s remorse could be seen as the beginning of atonement. . . .I am absolutely not the Jansenist people sometimes call me. . .except maybe when it has to do with form.”   As Bresson's words indicate, he completely subverts expectations and, quite unlike the Hebraic GoT hacks, brings aesthetic honor to his cultural heritage in a largely aesthetically bankrupt age without honor.  In that sense, Bresson follows in the footsteps of his Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) collaborator Jean Cocteau in terms of taking a respectably subversive modernist approach to classic European myths.

 Notably once describing the absence of the ever elusive Grail as its “secret engine,” Bresson somewhat curiously made the film after deciding to dedicate his career to ‘contemporary’ cinema as opposed to period pieces, so it is only natural that it is inordinately contemporary in the metaphysical sense. Indeed, as Bresson stated himself, “I think the temptation of modern life was constantly with me; it was brought up by the events in LANCELOT. Even religious faith: How could I forget the current crisis in the Church? I wanted to title the film THE GRAIL, precisely because of the intensity of the Grail’s absence throughout the film.” Surely, after watching a film as decidedly dispiriting and hypnotically hopeless yet as strikingly transcendental as Lancelot of the Lake, it is no surprise that Bresson followed it up with Le Diable probablement (1977) aka The Devil, Probably where suicide seems to be the only true reprieve from the superlatively spiritually/culturally/politically bankrupt world of (post)modernity.  Indeed, in many ways, Bresson's almost intolerably hopeless (anti)Arthurian tragedy foreshadows the suffocating Weltschmerz and despondency that afflicts the characters of the auteur's singularly bleak last couple of films.  In other words, although a masterpiece in its own right, Lancelot of the Lake—a fantasy flick that is carefully stripped-down to the bare essentials and mostly glaringly devoid of the escapist elements that typically define fantasy flicks—feels like a sort of imperative cinematic initiation for The Devil, Probably and the auteur's swansong L'Argent (1983).

 While probably not Bresson’s intent, it is surely strikingly symbolic that Queen Guinevere is portrayed by Laura Duke Condominas, who is the daughter of decidedly degenerate French-American feminist sculptor and sometimes filmmaker Niki de Saint-Phalle. Aside from the fact that Condominas was married to a man that was associated with the Zanzibar Group—a counterculture experimental cinema (micro)movement that was led by alienated (and mostly long-haired) youth not unlike the characters of The Devil, Probably—her mother de Saint-Phalle demonstrated with her incest-driven experimental feature Daddy (1973) a fiercely forsaken spirit that could not be further from the Grail in terms of spirit. Still, despite her madre’s debauched essence and association with a bunch of frog hippie weirdos, Condominas could not be more immaculate in her forsakenly lovelorn gloom in Lancelot of the Lake as she manages to keep both Lancelot and the viewer hopelessly leashed to her penetratingly pensive pulchritudinous despite her complete and utter lack of sexually suggestive behavior. Indeed, Condominas’ Queen Guinevere ostensibly bleeds purity despite cuckolding her honorable royal husband and, in turn, completely compromising the very existence of the Knights of the Round Table. Of course, to go back to Maester Aemon: “What is honor compared to a woman's love?” While the singularly honorable Lancelot virtually unwittingly unleashes a knightly Ragnarök due to his betrayal, the film makes it almost seem worth it, at least for a second, hence the true timeless tragedy of it all. In that sense, quite unlike most cinema, Bresson's film is as timeless as the ancient parable that inspired it despite its sometimes glaring aesthetic anachronisms. 

 While Queen Guinevere’s infidelity and Lancelot’s treachery surely act as the catalyst to the virtually apocalyptic downfall of Camelot, certain feminine tendencies among certain very resentful effete males also contribute to the destruction of the Knights of the Round Table. While Lancelot’s betrayal is at least somewhat understandable, his longtime enemy Mordred (Patrick Bernhard)—a cowardly little toad that acts as a central source of chaos inside Camelot—is an innately repugnant creature without even the remotest redeemable qualities and he arguably plays the most crucial role in collapsing the kingdom. When all the Knights went to battle in a tragic event that lead to the deaths of many of the members of the Round Table and disappearance of the Grail, Mordred—a sniveling “virgin sword” that cons others into doing his fighting for him—stayed behind with the women. Ostensibly a knight yet seemingly completely unwilling to fight, Mordred undoubtedly makes Queen Guinevere seem look like a naively innocent virgin as far as negative feminine qualities are concerned as he is a prissy yet quite pernicious passive-aggressive narcissist and compulsive coward that, instead of offering Lancelot’s friendship, conspires like GoT queen bitch Cersei Lannister to use the most craven of means to destroy the protagonist and takeover Camelot. As even Gawain remarks to Lancelot in regard to Mordred’s refusal of peace, “For much lesser affronts, you’ve drawn your sword and struck at the heart.” Needless to say, Mordred believes he has all the ammo he needs to destroy Lancelot when he learns of his affair with Queen Guinevere and he even conspires to have the protagonist assassinated, declaring his followers, “His blood on the floor here will unmask the adulterous traitor.” While the assassination plot is an abject failure and Lancelot manages to avert a battle with King Arthur by voluntarily relinquishing his ladylove, Mordred destroys everything by unexpectedly capturing the castle in an apocalyptic battle that concludes with seemingly every single character dying, including the horses. Indeed, in a deceptively ominous forest, men die from blood loss via their genitals while renegade archers pick them off from the comfort of trees. As for Lancelot, he cries out “Guinevere” and then collapses next to a pile of his dead comrades, including his king. 

 Notably, in the imperative (yet somewhat dated) film resource Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980), Richard Roud argues in regard to Bresson’s great accomplishment with the film, “Psychologically, the film is his richest—for it is not a simple triangle story. There is also Gawain (Gauvain), who is presented as Lancelot’s best friend and also in love with Guinevere—and yet loyal to both Arthur and Lancelot. Between these four characters there is a tension which is all the stronger because it is never clearly defined. Although the films ends in total destruction, there is a kind of transcendent radiance in the relations between the main characters because of the way in which Bresson portrays this birth of desire and a more exalted form of passion. And it is from this struggle that LANCELOT derives its strength and luminosity and that sense of physical and spiritual exaltation that had been absent in Bresson’s oeuvre since PICKPOCKET.” Indeed, the film leaves the indelible sting that comes with the death of beauty; the beauty of young porcelain-like epicene bodies and a sort of emotional war between true love, true friendship, and honor, hence the true tragedy of it all. In its brazenly brutal climatic depiction of archers killing the knights from trees with the comfort of knowing they do not even have to face their victims, the film also alludes to the Battle of Crécy (26 August 1346), which marked the beginning of the end of knights after the English effortlessly decimated the French with the longbow; or, in short, the death of honor and heroism following the Middle Ages and evolution of technology and, in turn, rise of emotionally detached/dishonorable forms of warfare (notably, such a scenario is not just typical of Occidental cinema, as it is poetically depicted in Japanese auteur Masaki Kobayashi's masterpiece Harakiri (1962) when three Ashigaru contemptibly use matchlock guns to kill the film's protagonist as he stoically commits seppuku). As Roud noted in this regard, “Ostensibly the subject of the film is the self-thwarting love of Lancelot and Guinevere, but it is also—or even more—a film about the end of the Middle Ages. The impossible quest for the Grail has ended in failure, and the impossible dream of an ideal society has also proved unworkable. It is not accident that Bresson ends the film with the slaughter of the knights by foot-soldiers with cross-bows. This may not be historically accurate, but this is not a realistic film. Nevertheless, it presents us with a view of feudal society that is marred by none of the complacency or sentimentality of films like LES VISITEURS DU SOIR.” Of course, the death of true belief and spirituality would also follow, hence the disappearance of the Grail. 

 Since it is probably impossible to gauge the true aesthetic influence of a film as understatedly masterful as Lancelot of the Lake, it almost seems like an act of heretical cinephilia to argue that Bresson was probably somewhat influenced by younger filmmakers, namely Philippe Garrel and his early experimental parables like Le Lit de la Vierge (1969) aka The Virgin's Bed and La cicatrice intérieure (1972) aka The Inner Scar. Of course, Garrel was obviously heavily influenced by Bresson himself and never quite achieved the maturity and influence of the old master who, quite unlike any other filmmaker, demonstrated a unrivaled understanding of younger generations well into his golden years as is especially obvious in The Devil, Probably.  One cannot also forget that Garrel was associated with the Zanzibar Group, which Lancelot of the Lake female lead Laura Duke Condominas was also associated with.  Undoubtedly, in its beauteously brutal and audaciously anachronistic approach to ancient European myth, Yvan Lagrange’s underrated Tristan et Iseult (1972) is insanely idiosyncratically Bressonian in the best sort of way. While utilizing slightly more supernatural elements, Dutch auteur Jos Stelling’s debut feature Mariken van Nieumeghen (1974) can almost be described as brutally Bressonian due to its uncompromisingly unflattering depiction of humanity and no bullshit approach to death and destruction.  Speaking of Dutch filmmakers, Paul Verhoeven's Flesh+Blood (1985)—a sort of proto-Game of Thrones that subverts classic fantasy archetypes and is full of blood, boobs, and barbarism—is like Bresson meets Hollywood. It is also certainly fitting that Perceval is MIA in Lancelot of the Lake as Éric Rohmer’s Perceval (1978) could not be more different than Bresson’s film in terms of its absurd artifice, flowery fantasy, and preposterous pageantry. 

 Notably, in his virtual cinematic manifesto Notes on the Cinematograph (1975)—a tiny book that is certainly worth its weight in gold where the auteur reveals his cinematic ideas and philosophy in aphoristic form—Bresson declares, “Cinematography, a military art. Prepare a film like a battle.” Of course, Bresson’s words are dually true in regard to Lancelot of the Lake, which also can be described as embodying both the original French military meaning and contemporary artistic meaning of the word ‘avant-garde.’ Undoubtedly, it is strangely fitting that the Arthurian avant-garde led by the titular lead of the film is exterminated in the end by a more technically advanced group of archers that are fighting in the name of a cowardly traitor as it not only foreshadows the future of Arthurian cinema and (European) cinema as a whole, but the Occident in general; just as it is strangely fitting that gay mischling SS-Obersturmführer Otto Rahn ultimately committed suicide under rather dubious circumstances after his noble yet hopelessly naive failed real-life attempt to find the Holy Grail. While Game of Thrones and the books based on it played at attempting to be ‘subversive’ in the realm of epic fantasy (it is probably no coincidence that George R. R. Martin was heavily influenced by kosher frog Maurice Druon), they ultimately represent failed exercises of nihilism as less than nobly sired by aesthetically hostile racial aliens that have only contempt (and ultimately nil innate understanding) of the ancient Occidental archetypes they frivolously play with. Indeed, whereas GoT is nothing more than normie entertainment that ultimately proved to excel in little more than execrable escapism in its final season, Lancelot of the Lake represents the apocalyptic state of an ancient myth and ultimately an organic representation the sick soul of Europa.

 Indeed, in its depiction of a morosely moribund männerbund that accepts total death before dishonor, the film also celebrates the European spirit in its twilight. Of course, the all-too-pretty long-haired hippie knights with anachronistic fruity lime-green tights more than hint at Occidental decline, but it is better that they accept death in battle than a slow degenerative decline, just as it would be ideal if Europe went out in a Götterdämmerung over the slow and painful humiliation that is the insanely insidious and innately anti-European globohomo game plan of the present where even Nietzsche's Last Man has been totally transcended in terms of pathetic passivity and aberrosexuals, hostile alien invaders, and the melanin-privileged have been absurdly morally elevated to the level that knights, war heroes, and great statesmen once were before the latently apocalyptic Americanization of the world.  After all, even if a young enterprising Europid wants to attempt to demonstrate their heroism in battle nowadays, they don't really have any real options aside from fighting for a perennial enemy in a cold and detached war against his own racial/cultural interests in a decidedly dystopian technocratic zionist military comprised of women, illegal aliens, perverts, and other less than knightly elements.  Rather unfortunately, to quote Death In June, “IT IS THE FATE OF OUR AGE THAT WE FIGHT IN ISOLATION.”

-Ty E

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