If this is not where Bresson becomes the Bresson we recognise, stereotype and speak of the power of in hushed whispers, this is nonetheless where Bresson becomes a master. He is a melodramatist still at this point, supported by the timeless, literary dialogue of Jean Cocteau, but he is a melodramatist of pure grace and toughness, on a level with Ophuls and Renoir in a similar mode.
Maria Casares is Helene, plotting the social destruction of her ex-lover Jean (Paul Bernard) by leading him to fall in love with and marry Agnes, a dancer/prostitute taken under her ‘protective’ wing (alongside her mother, an old friend). The film ends in the first vision of Bressonian redemptive grace, still somewhat more theatrical and even Cocteauian in its portrayal here than it would become, but for much of the film what we see is Casares in her black shroud stalking through the action like a fallen, malevolent angel, and Elina Labourdette as Agnes, equally capable of soft, open vulnerability, being the wounded doe, and of stubbing a cigarette out in the face of a suitor who breathes a thick cloud of smoke into her eyes.
So we are somewhat in noir territory here, the streets often nocturnal and drenched in rainwater, the figures existing in shades of grey and black, but the spiritual feeling is already tangible and, one has to say, somewhat alien to the American cinema in such serious, subtle, almost sober form. But Cocteau is about and so we must not forget that this is almost fairtytale too, the fresh-faced, disgraced and hard-done-by princess locked away by a scheming, evil stepmother before Prince Charming, supernaturally obsessed, rescues her and- in the end- awakens her from paralysing slumber.
According to Francois Truffaut Jean Cocteau called this the “skeleton of a film”. He is both right and wrong one must conclude, for this is the first dawning of Bresson’s true elliptical style, the crafting of works open to endless ambiguity and suggestion, but also existing with a feeling of completion, of being closed, with every gesture imbued with a sort of cosmic gravitas. Bresson’s camera movements, so underrated throughout his career in favour of the fixation on his direction of actors and the ‘starkness’ of his aesthetic, have this quality also, being remarkably fluid and subtle, rich in meaning and import, always felt both physically and metaphysically (to return to the stereotypes of Bresson). When Labourdette dances the screen becomes a beautiful flurry of light and movement, almost carnal. The film floats like a cloud, but is also precise and sharp. Everything and nothing is spared. Stillness and movement is both poetically and scientifically measured. And Maria Casares’ smile of revenge is the smile that will greet the end of the world.