How Even Highly Intelligent and Spiritually Gifted People Are Trapped By the Limitations of Their Culture’s Unconscious

The Grail, a divine relic, the goblet of the Last Supper in which Joseph of Arimathaeas caught the blood of Christ on the cross, would give the Knights of the Round Table a supernatural power…
Introductory titles of Bresson’s “Lancelot…”

The future of cinematography belongs to a new race of young solitaries who will shoot films by putting their last cent into it and not let themselves be taken in by the material routines of the trade.

R. Bresson, “Notes on Cinematography”, Urizen Bs, 1977, p. 62

“Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.

R.Bresson, ibid, p. 18

We should tend to leave the spectator as free as possible… There is nothing more stupid, more vulgar than working for an audience… I move farther and farther away from a cinema that is sinking into the music hall.

R. Bresson

To Guinevere, this obsession with serving God ascetically is just masculine vanity, which would possess a divine token like the Grail, or even God himself, like a trophy.
James Quandt (Ed.), “Robert Bresson”, Toronto Int. Film Festival Group, 1998, p. 381

Western civilization irrupted on the earth like a fever, causing a crucial, profound estrangement of the inhabitants from their habitat. We have become a ruthless, restless people…in a ceaseless search for some gaudy ultimate… More than just a symbol of a diseased spiritual state, that fever is now palpably evident in the rising temperature of the earth itself.
David W. Orr, “Earth in Mind (On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect)”, Island Pr, 1994, p. 170

Most films appear to me as competition in grimaces… this kind of perpetual mimicry…
R. Bresson

I was trying to transfer this fairly-tale (“Lancelot”) into the realm of feelings that is to say to show how feelings change even the air that one breathes.
R. Bresson

Transcendental style can take the viewer through the trials of experience to the expression of the Transcendent; it can return him to experience from a calm region untouched by the vagaries of emotion or personality.
Paul Schrader, “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer”, Univ. of Calif. Pr., 1972, p. 169

Men’s game of tournament and Guinevere’s adult suffering

Totalitarian surveillance of private behavior

Robert Bresson on the set

Knights who were lucky enough to return alive (after adventurous military expedition of searching for the Holy Grail) become aware how many seats at the Round Table are empty.

By naming “comrades in arms” who didn’t make it back King Arthur (to the right), Lancelot (at the center) and Gawain give themselves to the noble ritual when soldiers survived the war feel that the dead comrades and friends are still with them – emotionally, psychologically, “forever”. This experience of mutual togetherness/similarity to the point of identity creates the spiritual illusion of overcoming individual death through a kind of collective immortality.

When Lancelot has returned without the Grail he felt defeated – as if marked by failure. This feeling torments his pride of the hero. Love, in a world of fights, enemies and wars: a world of glorious deeds and heroic achievements is a basic heresy. Now, Lancelot feels that he must sacrifice his love for Guinevere in the belief that then he can regain his ability to find and bring the Grail to Arthur’s kingdom. He has surrendered to the standard (moralistic) idea of love – he started to believe that it’s his betrayal of Arthur (his love for Guinevere) is responsible for his failure to fulfill his Grail mission.

Lancelot and Guinevere’s dialogue after his return: for a long time the audience hears G’s disembodied voice but does not see her.
L. Consent. Free me from my vow.
G. You have changed, but I am the same.
L. Consent. I beg you for the salvation of all of us.
G. No; I’ll save no one at that price. God does not ask us to foreswear love.
L. That which was must be no more.
G. Can we make it be no more?
L. We can forestall fate; deflect the menace.
G. There is no menace. You all imagine it.
L. Yield, Guinevere. I yield. I humble myself.
G. To think yourself responsible for everything is not humility. (We finally see her when she says this.)
L. Are you then the enemy?
G. I am the one created to help you, who will go with you through the void, the darkness. I am your strength. (She takes his hand, puts it on her lap, moves her shawl to the bench.) You said, “Without Guinevere there is no Lancelot”.
L. I wish to be alone.
G. You are alone in your pride. Pride in what is not yours is a falsehood.
L. I was to bring back the Grail.
G. It was not the Grail. It was God you all wanted. God is not trophy to bear home. You were all implacable. You killed, pillaged, burned. Then you turned like maniacs on each other. Now you blame our love for this disaster. Am I to destroy this love which cost so much to preserve? I will not.
L. It is not what you want that matters.
G. I cannot.
L. Neither is it this happiness you seek that matters.
G. Is it happiness that devours my soul?
L. Who am I not to throw myself at your feet?
G. I did not ask to love you. Is it my fault I cannot live without you? That I need you? I do not live for Arthur. Just say: “For you I prefer death to life.” Then I shall consent. All becomes easy.
L. That is impossible.
G. Happy is he who knows why he sacrifices himself.
L. But you know.
G. God cannot separate us. If I surrender, it is to you alone. (Finally she looks at Lancelot). You do not want that? What must I say?
L. The “yes” I see on your lips.
G. If you see it, it is there. You can do with me as you wish.

The idea of participating in the tournament to revenge these disgusting gossipers and love for Guinevere are in conflict – Lancelot’s psyche is split between desire for victory and the need for love, between triumph and “surrender”.

Guinevere prepares herself for Lancelot – for her their night together is an attempt to save him from spiritual vanity – from his passion for heroism on the battlefield and for getting power over life and death.

”The tournament is the film’s structural center, with other scenes forming a rough symmetry around it… The entire scene contains 93 of the film’s 644 shots…” (Kristine Thompson, “Breaking the Glass Armor [Neoformalist Film Analysis])”, Princeton Univ. Pr., 1988, p. 305).The reason for this “disproportional” accent on the tournament on the part of Bresson is, it seems, the extreme importance of personal victories in our culture. The tireless, even obsessive self-assertion in competition with others is the main ritual of our life, today even more than it was centuries ago.

Heroic self-realization in competition with others on the tournament field cannot be separated from passionate reaction of the public with its admiration for super-star knights. Burst of public enthusiasm follows moments when the lance strikes the body, like today with boxing or Ultimate Fight championships knockdowns, knockouts and especially hurting blows. When the body of the knight is thrown off his horse, flags (representing the competing knights) are going up, bagpipers are playing, horses’ legs rush obedient to the will of the armored figures, etc.

Lancelot is ready to strike – a paradigmatically basic gesture in Western culture trapped in wars, destruction of the environment and self-aggrandizing contempt for anthropological otherness. Is it only lance in Lancelot’s hand, or is it also a fire arm, a shell, a missile?

The victims of Lancelot’ mastery and prowess are struck down one after the other– killed or maimed. His cruelty is justified, in his own eyes by the fact that he is giving a moral lesson to the gossipers about his affair with the Queen, that he punishes those who are ignoble enough to use facts of private life of their opponents to advance their political interests. It is as if Clinton could challenge his prosecutors in Monica Lewinski affair to a duel.

Arthur and Gawain solemnly observe the fights and joyfully recognized who is hiding under the iron mask of the unknown knight.

In “Lancelot…” Bresson‘s camera is almost “obsessed” with making shots of the horses with or without riders. Horses signify an alternative world to that of the noble masculine dedication to “over-natural” – spiritual virtues: the desire to possess the supernatural power demanding the readiness to sacrifice the flesh, matter and nature. The whinnies of the horses are a leitmotif in the film – it is as if the flesh/nature appeals to people to stop their destructive actions.

This shot registers the moment of tranquility psychologically unknown to the culture of warriors. Even spiritual exceptions like Lancelot and Gawain are over-indulgent in fight and megalomaniacal amorous dreams.

Gawain, one of the most noble, decent and honest among the knights dies accidentally by the hand of his best friend, Lancelot.

The old peasant woman, who nurtured Lancelot (wounded after the tournament) back to health, characterizes the knights as those whose footprints precede them, pointing out their inability to spiritually learn from life and change their ways. She tried to persuade Lancelot not to return to his life…

For the old peasant woman it’s too tormenting to see that Lancelot wastes his spiritual potentials and eventually will lose his life instead of living it productively. She doesn’t want to see the end of him.

Legendary King Arthur is defeated by Mordred click – by people who pursue not spiritual but earthly power and use gossip, insinuations and private relations “staff” to get an advantage in their fight for leadership. Mordred in “Lancelot…” can be a good personification of the conservative witch-hunters in US politics who, for example, in order to succeed in their fight against Clinton created and used Monica Lewinski scandal. Interesting that Mordred as ideologically a conservative Christian is free from the “pagan” element of the Grail-knights’ dedication to find the key to immortality but is drowned in the psychological vanity of indiscriminate fight for earthly power.

Already dying, Lancelot wants to share his last breath with his already killed friends, as if dying in their company could justify and glorify the meaning of his life.

Bresson depicts the last minutes of Lancelot’s life with a prophetic power referring to the destiny of the values of rivalry, competition, militarism and megalomania.

Western civilization with its incredible achievements in philosophical, theological and ethical understanding, with its elaborate concept of piety, with pluralistic aesthetic sensitivity and developed scientific thinking is dying because of its pompous militancy as scrap metal in Bresson’s film. This shot is Bresson’s ultimate parody on the Round Table mythology (the Round Table has collapsed into a hip of metal junk).


The thirst for power and fierce hierarchical fight for domination is the fundamental motivation of our specie. Our social nature (we share with other socially living species) is responsible for this proclivity with which we target the world outside trying to subdue it by our dreams about the possession of supernatural might. For human beings with our traditional and moralistically dogmatic ideas of sinfulness it could be easy to debunk our fixation on fight with one another for power as one of our basic sins, but tricky human intuition knows how to envelop even our obviously sinful and vicious obsessions in elegant wraps and by this fool our conscience (by definition too naïve) and our orientation on truth (by definition too straightforward). For example, among our arsenal of sins there is a tendency in us to fight not only for earthly power but also for spiritual one (possession of which we mix with having superhuman wisdom). Fight for spiritual power sounds much less sinful than that for earthly power, so our intuition (that very often acts as an agency of our unconscious) resourcefully represents the second as the first. The difference between noble and ignoble motivations for wars becomes masked by propaganda slogans that a population deprived of humanistic education, consumes as ice-cream-coffee with triple cream. Today, like so many times before, the noble motivations for conflicts, fights and wars cover up the ignoble ones (unconscious and extreme) with moral cosmetics. Here we are already amidst Bresson’s film. Even with the noblest of characters, like Lancelot and Gawain we see how the decent and not so decent motivations are intertwined. The same problem can be observed with other characters, for example, Mordred, in whom petty and mean motivations are covered by justifying religious and moralistic ideologies.

In the Arthurian legend and Bresson’s film the reason for military adventure was a kind of elitist war of conquest (search for the Holy Grail that is able of providing a supernatural power to those who possesses it). If you, like so many people today, believe that religious/ideological wars of conquest our country is involved are not like this (that they exist for the glory and immortality of the 1%) but that they are about the defense of “our” country and safety of your families, if, in other words, you believe that enemies of our land are everywhere, the very difference between patriotism and desire to conquer the world becomes blurry. The masses don’t differentiate between narcissistically created wars and justified wars of self-defense because of their gullibility and the absence of skeptically oriented thinking. Bresson’s film is about the very essence of human civilization that from the beginning wasn’t able to make the distinction between self-aggrandizing violence and inevitable and justified one.

For the sake of possessing the supernatural power Arthur’s knights went to the world, on campaigns of killing and murdering. But put instead of the “supernatural power” they were looking for, Iraqi or Iranian oil and our pompous self-image of being the ones who cannot be resisted whatever we are doing because we are religiously, ideologically and ontologically “more advanced”, then you will have the definition of our today’s military adventures when wars of conquest are justified as wars of defense. If instead of Holy Grail we put technical sciences and super-technology we search/rush to develop we‘ll quickly recognize ourselves in many heroes of Bresson’s film.

Bresson divides the knights into the spiritual people and those with a lack of internal world, with souls as flat as a banknote. The first are dedicated to the great task of getting the Grail – (spiritual) power over life and death, like Lancelot and Gawain, while the second are interested in getting just earthly power (through hate, intrigues and mean and nasty political strategies, like Mordred who uses private behavior of his opponents in the style of special prosecutor Ken Starr and moralist-gambler Bill Bennett, and propagandist tricks like Karl Rowe). But both groups are occupied with endless fights and wars with their enemies and with each others. The noble knights accept killing as soon as it is for superhuman, spiritual goals, while people without decency – for the sake of earthly goals of domination and self-enrichment. Needless to say that today the noble types are almost absent among decision-makers while the barbaric types are dominant in all the areas.

Our culture today includes the both elements in its fight for global supremacy, the spiritual and the earthly. Our religious and/or ideological beliefs, a developed secular culture including humanistic and technical sciences and globally victorious mass-culture – invest in our national pride and become the “noble” justification for conquering other countries and cultures as a “spiritual” motivation for adversity and war (Lancelot aspect of militancy). Simultaneously the desire for self-enrichment and exploitation of other lands and ethnic groups become the reason to hate other nations and cultures (Mordred aspect of militancy). But not Lancelot’s heroism in pursuit the Holy Grail, not his valor in his fight for Guinevere and later for Arthur against Mordred, but his love for Guinevere is the only real thing that happened in his life.

Bresson questions our culture’s traditional occupation with sublime (spiritual) power not only because he sees that power valorized as spiritual tends to prepare the road for its earthly (ignoble) variant, but because even its sublime form is inhumane, anti-existential, and ultimately means the destruction of life, nature and self-destruction of humanity (that’s the meaning of the apocalyptic end of the Arthurian Court in the film). Bresson criticizes the “spiritual” roots of our culture that opposes the “majestically spiritual” to the “contemptibly natural”, “spirit” to the “flesh”, the glory of immortality to misery of mortality, and establishes binary opposition of transcendent model of spirituality over the feminine immanent model. Lancelot and Guinevere’s love is shown as incompatibility between men’s world of fight and achievements and women’s world of care and loving dedication. But Bresson‘s Guinevere is much more than it is allowed for woman in the traditional Western culture – she is a latent feminist philosopher, a fighter for the humanization of spiritual values. According to Bresson’s film, love between man and woman is impossible as soon as this love follows the traditional Western model.

Psychological code of courteous love is depicted in the film by accenting the fact that the knights have the need to look up at their Queen’s window. When they are not busy searching/fighting for the incarnations of absolute value, they as if transform the Queen into a kind of the Grail – they idolize her while she tries to involve Lancelot into humane existential spirituality. For the knights Guinevere, on the one hand, represents the totemic object symbolizing King Arthur’s power (to be infatuated with the Queen means for them to be fascinated with King’s power, to dream to become the King). But on the other hand, Guinevere for the knights is a precious object, beautiful, sublime, unreachable, over-worldly, almost a superhuman, a creature the association with which means connection with a greater ontological value. Nobody is interested in the Queen’s real feelings. The encounter between two worlds – Lancelot’s (and the other knights’): that of heroism, courage and readiness for self-sacrifice for the sake of superhuman achievements, and Guinevere’s: a world of love and the sacredness of intimacy is the most important part of the film. She, representing the woman’s potential for immanent spirituality, is free from the noble men’s spiritual vanity of participating in false game of heroism.

The noble rider and the horse represent for Bresson the unnaturalness of the hierarchical combination of the otherworldly spirituality with that of nature as the realm of the immanent. In the language of Bresson’s visual images a noble rider on the horse is a monstrous combination of a shining armor (of a transcendentalist pretension) and human and animal flesh (to which it gives transcendent meaning). The shine of the armor is, simultaneously, a metaphor of the shining of the spirit and a metaphor of the necessity to defend the value of spirituality in the world of material factuality (in this sense the Knights’ armor is not so much for the protection of the knights but to upgrade human flesh with a symbol of superhuman value). Then the horses neighs are the audible metaphor of the condition of the flesh (as opposite to that of the spirit) – of the nature and the human bodies under the benign rule of the spirit. On the other hand, Guinevere is shown as wholeness, as a body and spirit together, a being where contrast between spirit and body (a knight in armor and the horse) is undone. She not only represents a spiritual nature but personifies the very harmony between spirituality and life, being and thinking, sublimity and reality – the identity that Bresson is trying to grasp and elaborates in many of his films. If whinnies of the horses (complain of the living flesh of nature) is the appeal of the flesh, horses’ eyes are that of the body, of the being in the world. And the spurs, swords, arrows (bullets, shells and missiles) – that’s how Western civilization treats the flesh, nature, matter. Bresson often shoots the rider and the horse in a way that only the lower part of the “centaur” is seen – the legs of the rider and the torso and legs of the horse. The horse gets visual preference in comparison with the armored knight because Bresson debunks traditional value of noble militant figure in comparison with value of the body.

The fact that each knight has a pantaloons of different color that is emphasized in the scene of the tournament, is connected, it seems, with Bresson’s motif of the profane aesthetics he deploys in order to underline the spiritual vanity of the Knights whose dedication to super-existential goals leave life spiritually/aesthetically not attended. In this situation the beauty of life became profane – decorative, gaudy and gaily colored. It is the same with parti-colored flags which are raised up during the tournament to announce the readiness of a new knight for the fight. So much is for flag-pantaloon aesthetics of noble battles and shining heroism. “Your film’s beauty will not be in the images (postcardism) but in the ineffable that they will emanate.”(R. Bresson, ibid, p. 61) Even the best people, the most equipped with critical consciousness, are part of their culture and are not able not participate in its basic rituals even when they understand how absurd they are. In this sense Gawain’s conformist behavior is especially exemplary – even being dedicated to Lancelot he still attacks him because according to the custom he is obliged by the honor to avenge his brother’s death.

Lancelot is an exemplary person: he is modest, ascetic, never will backbite other people, his love for Guinevere is honest and genuine, he is morally straight, and his nobility is without any affectation. But with all his spiritual determination to be dedicated to the highest goals than his empirical ego, Lancelot’s deeds always end with blood. His very spirituality is latently impregnated with sociomorphism, as it is always the case with traditional spirituality oriented on direct or, in the most noble people, indirect power. Bresson registers spiritual vanity with a sad objectivity. “All of them are doomed” – the old peasant woman says about the knights, and this phrase implies her dream about a time when spiritual energy of the most gifted and intelligent people will not be wasted on childish narcissistic adventures and return to real life. We, today in the beginning of the 21st century are still far from realization of this possibility. Bresson’s Guinevere’s problem is exactly the opposite – she has the gift of the ability to transcend her cultural environment, to be ahead of her times and civilization. She is as far from us today as she was centuries ago from her contemporaries.

Questions for those who like to elaborate their understanding of Bresson’s “Lancelot du lac”

1. Why Bresson repeatedly, even obsessively, throughout the film uses close-ups of the horses’ eyes and why is it always one eye and never both?

2. Can we say that Bresson’s film is a demythologized version of “King Arthur’s Round Table” theme, a kind of “King Arthur for adults”? Why is it important to see the myth striped of all attributes that for centuries stimulated delights of childish admiration among children and adults of everywhere?

3. Why did Lancelot, after returning back from his search for the Holy Grail, change his position towards his love for Guinevere?

4. Why does Lancelot’s Grail ambition contradict his love for Guinevere? Why does he perceive these two desires of his as contradictory and feels he has to choose one over the other? What is one of the basic characteristic of machoistic society and how can it be applied here?

5. Why throughout the film the knights are almost never without their armors? What is the answer to this question on the level of the plot? And what is the answer on the level of deep or semantic structure? What does the knights’ armor signify?

6. How to interpret the fact that Gawain who is too intelligent to act macho and whose face and manners express rare nobility, says that he dislikes weaklings and that they should be hanged?

7. What is the equivalent of Holy Grail for us, Westerners, today?

8. How the scenes of the meeting between Lancelot and Guinevere after his return from the Grail-adventures are so drastically different from most representations of lovers reuniting after a long separation?

9. What is the equivalent of what Queen Guinevere’s window is for the knights, for our youth today?

10. How can we define the difference between the two kinds of knights: one group consists of people like Lancelot and Gawain, and the other – people like Mordred?

11. Why during the scene of the tournament Bresson in so many shots doesn’t show the upper part of the knights’ bodies including their heads, but mainly their torsos and tights?

12. Why, according to the old peasant woman – the knight is someone whose footfalls precede him? What does it mean to say: the knights’ footfalls/footprints/footsteps precede them?

13. Why in the scene of tournament, Bresson has the identities of the knights participating in the competitions hidden and prevents us from identification with them, while at the same time leaves it to Gawain and Arthur to “recognize” Lancelot and to pronounce his name?

14. What is identified by the director as morally decent behavior and what, according to him, is immoral? Is the secret love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot identified by Bresson as sinful? Is Mordred, who spies on the lovers and reports to Arthur identified as a moral person battling with sin and vice? What analogies can be drawn between this characterization of Bresson and the modern politics?

15. Why Bresson could choose Lancelot as the main character of his film, and not Gawain or, say, Arthur? What is it about Lancelot that makes him a hero? What is the answer on the level of the plot? And what can be the semantic (meaningful) answer?

16. How to understand the scene where Mordred plays chess with fellow knights and laughs about “the maneuver with the queen and the castle” and where Gawain walks in, overhears what Mordred said and semi-brandishes his sword? Why in this very moment Mordred comes close to Gawain unarmed? Is it heroism or calculation?

17. Why in the scene before Lancelot’s departure from the peasant woman’s place, after his recovery, when the young girl brings him his armors it look like prostheses?

18. What does it mean when Lancelot prepares to leave the house of the old peasant woman and she takes his hand as a gesture of saying goodbye, he tells her – “not so tight”?

19. How to understand Bresson’s image of the peasant girl kissing the footsteps of the Lancelot’s horse? Which character from “Tunes of Glory” by Roanald Neame can be compared with this girl?

20. What is the meaning of the close ups of the two latches on the doors (rattled by the wind) after Lancelot’s disappearance from the castle?

21. What is the point of the contrast between the permanent physical mobility of the knights and Guinevere’s physical immobility?

22. With which other character (in “Lancelot…”) Queen Guinevere can be found similar in her position toward the knights’ worldview and their way of life?

23. What is spiritual vanity and what is real spirituality according to Bresson’s film?

24. How Gawain’s ironic characterization of other knights’ enthusiasm about the coming tournament – “Has an angel descended or a tongue of fire licked our heads? It is only a simple tournament, but look how happy they are!” – is relevant for understanding of our today‘s enthusiastic readiness to start new wars and trust pro-war slogans?

25. What among stylistic particularities Bresson, according to Paul Schrader in his “Transcendental Style in film…” uses in “Lancelot…” is “a lack of attention to plot and editing”? How this stylistic feature can be connected with “transcendental style”?

26. But is Bresson really using “transcendental style” in this film? Or, perhaps what looks like “transcendental style” is his aesthetic strategy of preventing “immediate” (sentimental) identification of viewers with the characters in order to open the perceptional space for contemplation? Doesn’t “transcendental style” belong to the traditional (super-existential) spirituality while Bresson orients us on spirituality rooted inside existence?

Posted on 5 Oct 2014 –   “Lancelot of the Lake” (1974) By Robert Bresson  by Acting-Out Politics

Posted Dec 10 2014 –