One of Robert Bresson's most incandescent works, this early film also marks the teaming of two of France's most personal and idiosyncratic artists: Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau (whose 1949 film Orpheus mesmerized post-World War II audiences), in addition to his numerous other accomplishments, wrote the dialogue for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, loosely based on Denis Diderot's short story Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître. Elina Labourdette plays Agnès, a young woman who has been forced into a life of prostitution in wartime Vichy, France, in order to support herself and her ailing mother (Lucienne Bogaert). At the same time, Hélène (the serpentine Maria Casarés) is breaking up with her longtime lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), and, feeling jilted by him, concocts an elaborate plot for revenge. Contacting Agnès and her mother, Helene offers to take over their debts, move them out of the brothel they call home, and set them up in a sleek, modern apartment, with no strings attached. We discover too late Hélène's true motives; she is doing all of this so that Jean will "accidentally" meet Agnès, fall in love with her, marry her, and then become the subject of public ridicule because of Agnès' past. All of this goes off with clockwork precision, but Jean, when confronted with the monstrousness of Hélène's treachery, shakes off his bourgeois prudishness, embraces Agnès despite her fall from grace, and the film ends on a note of hope and Bressonian redemption.
Cocteau and Bresson were uneasy collaborators; Cocteau's brilliant, incisive dialogue displeased the reticent Bresson, as did the theatricality of the actors. Before long, Bresson would quit working with actors altogether, and create some of his most compelling films using non-professionals, or as he called them, "models," for the leading roles. But in this film the young filmmaker and his scenarist combine to make a telling commentary on the vicissitudes of living in occupied Paris; indeed, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is one of the key works of the French Resistance. Working at night on unheated sets (you can see the actors' breath condensing in front of their faces in several scenes), Cocteau and Bresson crafted a brutal parable about the realities of living life under the Nazis in occupied France -- one had the illusion of freedom, but in fact, the leash was very short. Filled with sumptuous sets by Max Douy and a superbly moving score by the great Jean-Jacques Grünenwald, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is one of the most subtle masterpieces of classical French cinema.