Full Bloom: Daisies in Robert Bresson's “Une femme douce”

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Dead daises found in Bresson's film—and not in Dostoevsky's short story from which it is adapted—reveal the cracks and faults in a marriage.

By Patrick Holzapfel

Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.

DEAD FLOWERS AT THE WAYSIDE

Every day there are hundreds of dead flowers, originally torn from the earth in order to display love, rotting at the side of the road. Some of them have just fallen victim to time: They dried out or their colors faded, leaving a sad and ultimately unbearable reminder of a beauty that is no more. Others, however, are thrown away in full bloom. Helpless bouquets cover streets and garbage cans like monuments to frustrated loves. Discarded in moments of anger or passionate refusal, they represent the end of love. It’s not only the flowers that people get rid of, but also what they stand for. Sometimes their beauty does not correspond with actual life and sometimes they become a suffocating presence reminiscent of bourgeois expectations such as the neatness of homely life.

I have often seen such bouquets at the side of the road and I’ve always wondered what their story was. Tellingly, I’ve encountered them most frequently while living close to a register office. The legal procedure of marriage does not always go hand in hand with the fragrance of flowers. Almost every week, a new bouquet would lie on the street next to the sewers while rats, in joyful anticipation, were waiting for the night to eat it all up. I find the image of abandoned flowers deeply touching. However, none touched me as profoundly as the thrown away bundle of marguerites in Robert Bresson’s Une femme douce.

Elle, embodied by Dominique Sanda, collects the daisies from the side of the road when she and her husband Luc take a trip to the countryside. Bresson shows his not-so-gentle woman in profile holding the bouquet as if she was a painting. Maybe that’s the way Luc, her not-so-gentle husband, would like to see her. The pernicious tendency of the husband to shape his younger wife after his ideals is more present in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s source material because Elle is more intelligent and less innocent than the 16-year-old girl in the 1876 short story A Gentle Creature. Nevertheless the filmmaker includes the man’s fake perception of innocence in this shot, which is reminiscent of the daisy chain used in Hamlet to represent Ophelia’s innocence. Elle is no Ophelia. In the next shot she observes another couple with another bouquet of marguerites. Suddenly a shadow emerges in her expression. She sits down next to Luc in the car and throws the flowers out of the window. He asks her if she doesn’t like flowers. She doesn’t really answer. The sequence ends with a shot of the abandoned white flowerheads in the grass. 

There are many inexplicable occurrences in life. In Bresson’s words, they are related to feeling. Jealousy, shame and a desire to live a different life are very present in Une femme douce. There is a sense of incompatibility between the temptations of modern life and the spirituality of traditional forms of being. The image of another couple taking the same trip, picking the same flowers, becomes unbearable. Marriage is not enough for Elle if it is just a set of preconceived tasks and pleasures. She strongly feels the redundancy of life and her oppressed role as woman in this unhealthy struggle for power and freedom between husband and wife. The tedium of typical life patterns suffocates Elle. How can love survive in all this?

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