Christ and Metal: Une femme douce and its symmetries

Curator's Note

Une Femme douce revolves around symmetries, spatial and temporal. One hour into the film, a beautiful exchange unfolds between the man, Luc, and his maid, Anna. They discuss the funeral of the man's wife, the gentle woman of the title, whom we have already seen commit suicide and whose body is now lying on the bed around which Luc and Anna speak. The scene continues with the man, feeling weary, seeking rest on a different bed than the one where the woman's dead body is lying. As we saw earlier, this second bed bought by the man marked a significant decline in this couple's relationship, as they had to sleep separately afterward. He opens his eyes and hears the footsteps, sits up on the bed, and the next shot shows Anna reentering the room. There is another cut, and the man asks Anna, "When she got up, you sat her in that armchair." He's referring to his wife, but not the dead woman, because this new shot shows them in the past rather than the present. Bresson's adept manipulation of time transports us seamlessly between past and present, facilitated by the symmetrical framing that creates a sense of continuity. This spatial and temporal manipulation relies heavily on the presence of the woman's body. As Anna returns to the room, Bresson frames the woman's body lying on the bed, as he does throughout the film in the present tense. However, this particular shot takes us to a time when she was alive but ailing, confined to the main bed. Whether alive or deceased, it is this body to which the man refers when conversing with Anna across different temporal planes. Despite the shifts in time, Bresson's symmetrical compositions maintain a sense of sameness. The scene concludes with a new shot of the wife alive, moving to the armchair with Anna's assistance. She isn't dead, but she is ill.

Among many subtle symmetries in Une Femme douce is the recurring motif of doors opening and closing. The film begins with a powerful opening shot of Anna's hand pushing open a door, revealing the aftermath of the woman's suicide. This pivotal scene not only establishes the narrative tone but also introduces doors as a central formal element recurring throughout the film. At the end of the film, we see the reverse shot of that opening. Anna is looking through the window of the same door. Throughout the film, each instance of door opening/closing is meticulously paired with a symmetrical counterpart, emphasizing the film's visual symmetry and narrative cohesion. Prior to the woman's suicide, a pivotal scene unfolds as she interacts with balcony doors, each opening and closing serving as a formal expression of her inner turmoil and hesitation. Throughout the film, doors are used to highlight moments of isolation or confinement experienced by her. Moreover, doors serve as transitional markers between interior and exterior spaces, signaling shifts in perspective or emotional states for the characters. The man's suspicion regarding her fidelity is subtly conveyed through a series of symmetrical door shots, each opening and closing echoing his internal conflicts and uncertainties. But in the film's closing scene, a door closes without any symmetry, signaling the ultimate finality of death. Her coffin is sealed with screws, marking the conclusion of the film's exploration of doors. This pivotal moment brings the narrative full circle, emphasizing the irrevocable end of the woman's story and themes of closure.

Exchanges become pivotal in Une Femme douce, shaping its symmetrical form as they intricately weave into the fabric of the couple's relationship. Their initial encounter takes place in the man's pawnshop, where transactions unfold at his desk, exchanging bills for items brought in by customers. This setting serves as a poignant backdrop, laying bare the stark contrast in their relationships with objects. She brings small items; he gives back some bills. When she brings forth a Jesus statuette for sale, he dismounts it: metal for him, Christ for her. The girl merely laughs, taking it as a jest. As their relationship progresses into marriage, their contrasting preferences become more apparent: her affinity for books and records versus his penchant for collecting. She despises the marriage, seeing it as a repetition of what others do. Patterns, repetitions, and symmetries repel her; they feel stifling, suffocating. Bresson ironically employs symmetries in depicting a world around a woman who despises them. In her observant nature, she notices the uniformity in the patterns of animal bones, a revelation she shares with her husband. When he takes her to see Hamlet, she despises the performance, frustrated by its failure to include Hamlet's advice to the players on delivery. She values naturalness and spontaneity, rejecting overacting or exaggerations. Her preference is for authenticity over fabrication. On their wedding night, her laughter rings out freely as she leaps onto the bed, defying any semblance of symmetry or convention. But the weight of patterns, woven into the fabric of his expectations and norms, gradually extinguishes her youthful vigor, her boundless energy, her innate gentleness. The finality of the coffin shot, accompanied only by the harsh sound of screws tightening, serves as a somber reminder of the irreversible nature of her fate. After all, it was the man who took the metal.

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