In Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (or The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne), we see a society woman Helene played with icy and curiously subtle perfection by María Casares (notice the colorful hats and little white dog and servant) get her form of revenge on an ex-lover (or would-be lover) by having him fall for another woman, a sort of wonderful dancer but more "street" type named Agnes (also very wonderful Elina Labourdette). He doesn't know about her past, since she and her guardian of sorts Mme. D have moved out of their previous dingy place of living, and she can't stand him falling for her since, frankly, she starts to fall in love with him too. What to do? Marriage of course, with some results that on the surface look right out of a TV soap opera.
Which, perhaps, is part of the point. A Hollywood director could make a tawdry melodrama out of the ingredients present here, but the director Robert Bresson is interested in other things, what makes the passions of these characters tic themselves. We see letters written (sometimes with the "help" of another in a conniving way), glances turn into loving stares, significant little things like the lending of an umbrella or the presence of new flowers, the drop of a glass during dinner from minor shock or dismay. At the same time Bresson doesn't let us think these people shouldn't be together, making the eventual dastardly twist make it even harder but even more necessary for Agnes and Jean to be together. Or to try.
Some may be thrown off slightly, as I was, by Bresson's direction here having seen his later, more famous works like his masterpiece A Man Escaped and near-great films (or arguably just the best there is) like Au hasard Balthazar and Pickpocket and how much more restrained and 'stone-cold' emotionally one might say compared to this film. If he hadn't gone his own way with Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson could have gone the way of a more conventional career on the basis of this project, which features some more conventional touches like in the editing, or in allowing for certain moments of incredible and even sensual joy like when Agnes dances. But it's the small touches, and certain traits in the performances that he's able to bring out of his actors, that do mark it as a Robert Bresson picture. And if anything having such a tug-of-war of what is love, what is it to fall for someone dearly in the face of a trick or whatever or cynicism benefits from having somewhat more conventional emotional scenes than the drained sorrow of Balthazar.
Not to mention having Jean Cocteau writing the dialog, which is such an added bonus that it must not be dismissed. Here we see Cocteau's mark by way of the dialog being very rich in getting to the heart of the matter in almost every scene but seamlessly still adhering to Bresson's scenario. One might say it's very "French" in the romantic sense, but why carp? It is a film with three big French names in the writing credits (Diderot, a famous novelist also responsible for The Nun, has a credit as well), and as far as French romance films of the period go it's so deeply affecting that I would say it's mandatory for someone following films of the 1940s from the country. It's about what may or may not be futile in the ways of the heart, or in the worse ways of the heart, and what surpasses society by two people just connecting with each other. A+