When I first saw this film about ten years ago, it blew me away and immediately went to the top of my list of best pictures you never heard of. Happily, the film is much better known these days, with much of the credit for its increased familiarity going to the Criterion DVD release in ’03.
The story itself is pitifully thin: a beautiful society woman plots revenge on a boyfriend who has jilted her for another woman. And for all the riches that director Bresson and cinematographer Philippe Agostini tease from such limited material, Les Dames is ultimately about atmosphere and character. Indeed, with one notable exception, discussed below, the stars of the film are its irresistible black and white look and the Paris locales . Speaking of Paris, I’d be interested in the film’s production history. It was released in 1945, only a year after the Liberation, but there’s not the slightest hint of the War.
There are good performances throughout. Though not a particularly memorable actor, Paul Bernard is competent and sympathetic as he glides through the role of the smitten playboy. Cary Grant lite, if you will. The wonderfully luminous Elina Labourdette gives an affecting performance as the virtuous heroine with a shady past , her naiveté a perfect foil to the calculating malevolence of her nemesis Hélène. But ultimately the movie belongs to the incredibly intense, elegantly creepy Maria Casarès  as the said character Hélène. With her thick, flowing black locks, Madame Grès and Schiaparelli wardrobe (dark tones, please) , vampiric features (those eyes!), and the vague hint of bisexuality, she’s the very embodiment of the noir spider woman. Apparently she was a legend on the Paris stage in the Forties and Fifties but alas made few films, and we’re the poorer for it.
But is Les Dames film noir? Well, maybe. There’s no crime, strictly speaking, but the spitefulness and maliciousness of the Casarès character borders on the criminal. It also has the requisite b&w look, the themes of psychosexual obsession and betrayal, and an incomparable femme fatale, all noir staples. Then again, one could just as easliy describe it as a cross between a drawing room melodrama and offbeat love story, almost a comedy of manners, done in an eminently Forties style.
Multilayered, subtle and strangely haunting, with a great cast, score and visuals, Les Dames is a terrific film, whatever its genre. One caution: it has a very restrained, quintessentially European pacing and tone (i.e. it’s slow). Thus if your thing is explosions, car chases and generally action-filled high adrenaline, then better pass this one by.
Reviews : Film Sufi ; Film Couture: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne ; The Power of Resistance: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne ; Dress Inspiration: Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
 Curiously, in view of its noirish bonafides, including being the city where the term and the concept originated, Paris has not been the setting for many noirs. Rififi and Touchez pas au grisbi spring to mind but few others.
 It was unclear to me whether the Elina Labourdette character was supposed to be a former prostitute or simply a notorious dancer (in 1940s movies is there a difference?).
 She reached her cinematic zenith four years later as Death in Orphée, about as fatale a character as one can play!
 Incredibly, neither lady's contribution is mentioned in the credits.
|In Les Justes of Albert Camus. Paris, Theatre Hebertot, 1949. [Photo Roger Viollet].|