A young woman steps off a bedroom balcony and falls to her death, her white shawl hovering above, deflected by the breeze. Her pawnbroker husband (Guy Frangin), speaking with methodical detachment, recounts their relationship in a series of flashbacks. But inevitably, the answers remain as elusive as his lost, despondent (and appropriately nameless) wife (Dominique Sanda). Robert Bresson’s A Gentle Woman is a spare, elegant and poignant story of isolation, miscommunication, and emotional cruelty. An early transaction between the two characters foreshadows the tragedy of the film. She is a poor orphan, pawning her final possession – a crucifix. He pulls off the plastic figure of Jesus Christ and weighs the gold cross. Struck by her beauty and enigmatic demeanor, he is attracted to her, and attempts to pay her more than its fair value. She returns the additional money, and explains that she cannot be bought. He is persistent in his pursuit of her. Eventually, she relents and marries him. It is apparent that the two are ill suited: she, passionate and generous; he, calculating and materialistic. There are unbearably long silences between them: walking in parks, listening to records, working in the shop. He scolds her for buying a worthless brooch from an elderly lady. Yet, after her prolonged illness, he attempts to assuage her by purchasing other equally worthless objects, believing that his “generosity” would endear him to her. He begins to suspect her of adultery, but cannot prove it. When he finds her alone with another man, he overhears her reject the man’s advances, but rationalizes that she must have seen him. As in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, he attempts to win her by adopting the persona of what he perceives to be her needs: aggressive suitor, generous benefactor, sacrificing husband. The use of cycles in the film, as in Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, further conveys a sense of entrapment: from the suicide leap to the repeated breakups and reconciliations. Searching for the gentle gaze extinguished by his smothering obsession, he now possesses her body completely…but in the process, has lost her soul.
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