Jonathan Hourigan

Interview with Tim Cawkwell — « part two »

This is the continuation of an interview which started here.

NOTE: We regret that we are unable to bring you the promised photos, taken by Jonathan Hourigan, of Robert Bresson at work on the set of L'Argent. The photographer, who is also the Copyright holder, has received a request from the Bresson estate that the photos not be made public. We are under obligation to respect the wishes of the Copyright holder.


JH – Tim, we've been discussing the general thesis of your book THE FILMGOER'S GUIDE TO GOD and most recently, the persistent influence of Calvinism and Protestantism on American narrative and cinema. I'd now like to look more closely at Bresson.

Calvin's notion of the elect: Is that similar to the metaphysics of Dostoevsky? Or, at least, the Dostoevsky of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, which seems to have been a major influence on Bresson?

TC – No, I don’t think so. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is the paradigm story and it’s about someone who is damned, who is converted and then saved. And the same happens in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV where you get the religious brother, Alexey and you get the atheist brother, Ivan. Alexey is a religious novice. Ivan goes mad I seem to recall. In the middle is Dmitry, who behaves terribly and then has a conversion experience, like Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. I think it’s very important in Dostoevsky’s theology to have the possibility of conversion. But I’ve never understood, in Calvinism, how, if you’re not one of the saved, you can become one. I think, with Dostoevsky, he’s talking from his own experience. He’s damned but he gets back in. But I don’t understand in Calvinism how they affect that. If it's predestined, how do you do it?

I think that could bring us onto Pascal and A MAN ESCAPED. One of the most arresting things for me that Bresson said is in that famous Godard/Delahaye interview: He’s asked if he’s a Jansenist and he replies “Janséniste, alors, dans le sens de dépouillement…”, i.e. in the sense of “privation”. I think he means because he’s austere and not florid, not flamboyant. He’s a Jansenist in the sense that he has an austere, stark, subtractive style. If he wants to show someone opening a door, he shows a hand on the door handle. He doesn’t show the whole figure, or the whole door.

But immediately following that Bresson says Pascal is so "important for me". So he’s not really a Jansenist here. It’s Pascal who’s important for him. Then he adds “but he’s important for everybody” and you think, “Yes but how many people have read Pascal?” I certainly felt that, if I was to get inside Bresson, I really ought to try to get inside Pascal. Now, I haven’t got as far as I’d like. I tried reading the PENSEES, a really extraordinary book which has influenced the tone and content of Bresson’s NOTES ON THE CINEMATOGRAPHER. But I couldn’t really get inside its Bressonian quality with regard to a worldview.

However, I did write an article on A MAN ESCAPED after reading Pascal’s ECRITS SUR GRACE. In that essay, Pascal argues in favour of the theology of St Augustine. He rejects two groups, the Molinists — whom no-one’s ever heard of — who were followers of Cardinal Luis de Molina (1535-1600) and who argued that God has a conditional will to save all men generally. Pascal didn’t like this because it excludes God from free will. It makes it sound like all that humans have to do is to be good and deny evil and they’re saved, so why bother with God. And at the other extreme is Calvinism. In creating men and women, God made them by an absolute will without prediction of their merit. God sent Jesus to redeem those he wished to save and to give them his grace and salvation. And God deprives of grace all those he’s resolved to damn. Pascal calls this ’insupportable’ and he’s absolutely right. It’s dreadful. You couldn’t possibly go through the world thinking “I’m going to Hell, and there’s nothing I can do about it”.

Pascal follows the Augustinian position. Cutting a long story rather too short, he interprets this as God willing absolutely to save some people and willing conditionally to damn others; that salvation comes from the will of God and damnation from the will of man.

So, A MAN ESCAPED is a marvellous story on this theme. It’s about a man condemned to death – ie. damned – and through his own will fights his way back to salvation. That seems a wonderful parable about humans and free will. It makes Fontaine’s free will absolutely central, but then so is chance, so is the help of others and so is the grace of God. There are all sorts of factors working in there. Now, that’s all very well but as someone asked me about the film, “Yes but who is going to Hell?” And Pascal did, I think, believe some people were going to Hell. But Bresson and indeed, the book he made the film from, neither book nor film contain an explicit condemnation of the Nazis, of the Gestapo, or of the French collaborators. The villain of the piece is Klaus Barbie sitting in the Hotel Terminus, saying "You will be shot on day X”. Yet all we see is his back. He’s totally anonymous. So Bresson is far more interested in how someone can be saved.

JH – So, I’m still trying to disentangle Pascal and Jansenism.

TC – Jansenism first. You get the Protestant Reformation in response to perceived Catholic excesses, then the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which reflects Catholicism regaining confidence after this great schism. Then you get this swirl in the seventeenth century in France, a very intellectually vibrant country, with Descartes and others and Pascal. You get a counter-Counter-Reformation, as it were.

Enter Cornelius Jansen, a professor at Louvain University and briefly, Bishop of Ypres, who died in 1638. His AUGUSTINUS was published posthumously and in it he writes about the depth of human sin and the invincibility of divine grace. Enter Bresson: LE JOURNAL, A MAN ESCAPED and PICKPOCKET are all stories about deep human sin. Perhaps especially LE JOURNAL. It’s an absolutely corrupt world, the village, among which the person with grace — and he brings them all to grace — is the priest.

So, you have Jansen coming up with this theory. How does that feed through in practical terms? Well, four things. Apparently, Jansenism put emphasis, first, on practical acts of charity as opposed to pious exercises. You get that tension between the Catholic institutions just mouthing things and an alternative regime, claiming to do it properly and actually to be charitable. Secondly, there’s a very important element of discipline concerning the Eucharist. Lapsed Catholics may say “Oh, anyone can go to communion at anytime and get shriven” and then go back to what they were doing. The Jansenists were much more rigorous about this. They said “Look, if you’re going to have pleasure, if you’re going to do something pleasurable today, then you can’t go to communion.” They said you must be much more prepared when you go to communion. So that’s a new, much more austere approach.

JH – So I imagine that Bresson would take, not the strict theology of that but the tone?

TC – Absolutely. We’ll come to that further but I think that’s absolutely right. Thirdly, a deeper, personal prayer life. And as I say, Jansenism also contains, fourthly, an awareness of man’s wretchedness and dependence on divine grace, which is what AUGUSTINUS is about, as opposed to – and this is quoted from Krailsheimer’s book on Pascal, which is very good – “comfortable optimism and reliance on human means of salvation.” So, they’re being radical in the church by saying “Look, the religious life is much, much harder than you’re making it sound. It’s vital that we approach it seriously.”

Well, the Jansenists were in danger of being excommunicated and in all sorts of trouble with the Catholic authorities. They enlisted Pascal — somehow they got him on their side – and he wrote for them a famous polemical work, LES LETTRES PROVINCIALES. It’s a defence of Jansenism in part but it’s mostly famous for being an attack on the Jesuits.

JH – I see. So, in fact, Jansenism and Pascal are very close at some point?

TC – They’re close. But Pascal is much bigger, I think, intellectually and for Bresson, than Jansenism. He’s a brilliant mathematician and scientist and a very original thinker. There is this Jansenist strand in his writing, especially about human sinfulness but I think he’s also very intrigued by reason and the operation of grace and the relationship between these two.

Pascal seems a modern thinker in this understanding of other human functions and reason. Famously he said, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.” He understands that reason is important. He couldn’t help that. He’s a mathematician and mathematics is the reasonable discipline par excellence. Everything must be logical. Yet he found a place for what has to be called the irrational.

Let’s bring that to L’ARGENT. The narrative in L’ARGENT is completely logical but the characters in it are doing things, all the time, that have nothing to do with reason. To Bresson, Pascal is great in that sense. And let me add as well that Pascal had this extraordinary sense of man’s cosmic smallness in the universe and yet his importance at the same time. That feels very modern when put alongside the existentialist sense that the individual is alone in the universe.

So I think that Pascal is larger than Jansenism and it’s why Bresson says he’s important for everybody. Because I think he likes that larger picture. It’s not too reductive. And I think that’s why Bresson responds to Dostoevsky. I think Dostoevsky tried to delve into the way an individual can do one thing one minute and the very next, do something quite different. And chance plays a role, as well as free will.


JH – Let’s use that as a way into one of the central debates around Bresson and his films. You come down, on page 69 of your book, firmly on one side of the debate. You divide the oeuvre at BALTHAZAR, as do many others. And I think it touches on some of these issues around grace, redemption and transcendence.

And I wondered if you’d talk a little about the divide in Bresson’s oeuvre and especially about the later films. Many who come from a theological background find these films less satisfactory, or less satisfying. Many who are modernist film lovers also find them less satisfying too. They’re more modest, more austere in some ways. Although I’d certainly want to make a defence of L’ARGENT and the other later films.

TC – I have no problem with the later films as films. I think L’ARGENT is an extraordinary film. Of the later work, you can pick out four of the films, QUATRE NUITS, FEMME DOUCE, LE DIABLE and L’ARGENT, all set in Paris, all about modern youth. There seems to be, suddenly, a coalescence around a particular milieu, even quite a well-off milieu in comparison to the earlier films, eg. the Prison Cycle, where Michel in PICKPOCKET seems to have no money.

JH – Very snappy suit though!

TC – Well, up to a point, Jonathan! The different milieu makes the later films feel different. But it’s much deeper than that. I wonder if LANCELOT DU LAC couldn’t be interpreted as a remake of A MAN ESCAPED, turning it on its head. Now that’s a rather provocative thing to say. But what I mean is that A MAN ESCAPED is a wonderful, religious film, with a lot of formal religion in it; a Protestant pastor, a Catholic priest, inmates quote the Bible at each other, even when they’re not allowed to speak and you feel, at the end, Fontaine and Jost running off into the smoke, accompanied by the Mozart, into Heaven. It feels thoroughly Catholic and religious. Fontaine has worked hard but God has helped him and he’s attained salvation.

LANCELOT, by contrast, has none of these comforts. And yet it’s the same theme. The knights come back to Arthur’s camp, having not found the Grail and it’s all dreadful. Right at the beginning of the film, the old woman says the person whose footsteps I hear but do not see will die within the year. And who turns up? Lancelot. She’s actually telling us that Lancelot will be dead by the end of the film. We know the end of the film before the beginning. So, like A MAN ESCAPED, where we’re told the end in the title, the suspense is in the ‘how’. Similarly, for Lancelot, the suspense is in how he must die. He’s the great, courtly knight, so surely he must live. Anyway he comes back and things go from bad to worse. Arthur says, “What we must do is practice. And pray”. Which is exactly what Fontaine had done. He practices. He keeps his hand in all the time. He starts filing away at the door, not knowing what the next step is. He’s doing something, careful and methodical. With craft, just like Bresson’s own filmmaking. And in the end it pays off. The steps pay off.

So, Lancelot and the other knights, they practice their jousting, they keep in trim. And they pray. There is one church service in the film. But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t come off. They’re not saved at the end and you wonder well, what is the redeeming feature of this work? And all I can think of is that Lancelot behaves in the most knightly fashion. He goes to the tournament. He wins all of his contests and he tries to behave chivalrously to Guinevere and yet, actually, he gets slaughtered at the end, like they all do. The whole world, the whole medieval world is wiped out, isn’t it?

So it’s got an utterly pessimistic ending and yet it’s got shared elements with A MAN ESCAPED. But the really interesting thing is that Bresson had been trying to make LANCELOT for 20 years, I think. So if it is 20 years, in 1953 he’s got the LANCELOT project. A year or two later he makes A MAN ESCAPED, thinking about the same thing. But when he comes, finally, to make LANCELOT, it comes out quite differently. If he’d made LANCELOT in 1955, would it have been quite a different story? I think his mind has moved such a long way.

JH – That’s a fascinating thought. But Bresson always objected to this attribution of pessimism. If pressed, he preferred to talk about lucidity and I think that’s interesting. Then there’s this parallel argument that Kent Jones, for example, makes I think. That the films, whether they’re pessimistic or lucid, they’re so articulate and graceful, in the non-religious sense, as artefacts, that there’s still something beautiful, engaged and redemptive about this, even in such a world.

TC – Let’s say, Jonathan, something about L’ARGENT. I think it’s very important. It only comes at the end and after all those dreadful things but at the end, Yvon does go to the police. “Put the handcuffs on me.” It’s only 30 seconds, isn’t it but it’s still, surely, meant to be redemptive.

JH – But less so, perhaps, than when the parallel scene occurs in LES ANGES DU PECHE?

TC – Yes, there’s no music at that point is there? It’s striking that in PICKPOCKET there’s Lully, in JOURNAL there’s the Grunewald score, A MAN ESCAPED ends famously with Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, in BALTHAZAR there’s the lovely bells and Schubert and Monteverdi in MOUCHETTE. Bresson uses music to inject the redemptive element but he then reacts against that. He becomes subtractive. I’ll take that way. I’ll take that away because it’s more lucid without it. I’m not being pessimistic I’m being clearer. There’s still, just, at the end of his working life, in the last frame of his career as a filmmaker, he’s still got a redemptive moment. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, about his style, of course, there’s this gift for finding young people, particularly.

JH – Yes, there are rather few old people in his films.

TC – Famously there’s Jean-Claude Guilbert in BALTHAZAR who then appears, unusually, again in MOUCHETTE. He’s got rather a good face, a wonderful, painter’s face. A painter would love that face. Now he’s an older central character, although, having said that, the Klossowski character in BALTHAZAR, he looks really unpleasant. He’s the man she sells her body to, isn’t he? Really creepy and he’s an older man.

JH – On L’ARGENT, what do you make of that final shot? Yvon is arrested, passes through the crowd and yet the crowd seems to continue to look into the café.

TC – After he’s gone. Did you watch that being shot?

JH – No, I was ill, I think, on that day. My guess is that Bresson said “Right you lot, look that way” and so they did and then didn’t dare pan to follow Yvon’s departure.

TC – My guess is that that’s the way crowds react.

JH – But if a murderer walks out of a café, you’d expect their eyes to follow him. But not one person does. I wonder, is evil, if such a thing exists, still in the café?

TC – But isn’t it difficult, dangerous even, to read too much into that?

JH – It’s the last shot of his last film. So it carries a little bit of a burden!


JH – But maybe let’s look at it from a different angle. Thinking of Bresson, Dreyer and Tarkovsky – Rossellini I know less well – do you think there’s something more that one might say about a spiritual style of filmmaking? We’ve talked already about respect for faces, the unknowability of souls and your sense of Tarkovsky’s pre-eminence in this area but I wonder if we could talk a little more?

TC – This is really an interesting question. One thing I’ve been thinking about this week and wanted to say is that I think Bresson’s style is spiritual in this sense – as well as others – and that is that he understands the dynamic and resonance of Biblical narrative.

You’ll be pleased to hear that I have my Bible with me. I don’t carry it everywhere! Just as an aside, the reason why I think Pasolini’s GOSPEL remains the benchmark film of the Gospels is that he understands the narrative style of the Gospel. Which is “Jesus did this. The disciples did that. Jesus did this.” It’s fact after fact. Sentence after sentence. The presentation of fact after fact after fact. Pasolini joins those facts together but he doesn’t elaborate or explain, whilst the whole tradition of modern cinema is to explain everything and it has to seem to make sense psychologically. Which contradicts what we’ve said about respect for — and the unknowability of — souls. And Biblical narrative, it does make sense psychologically but you have to discover it for yourself. So, famously GENESIS, which Bresson wanted to make a film of…

JH – Yes, I wanted to ask you about that because you claim the great unmade religious film is Dreyer’s…

TC – Yes, I might have to change that assessment! But you see, look at this, just opening the Bible at random. The verses begin “Then Jacob”, “And he looked”, “And Jacob said unto them”, “And they said”. You see, it’s like L’ARGENT, event after event. Relentless.

JH – Of course, you’re absolutely right. I’d never thought of it quite like that.

TC – The film has this wonderful logic. You want people to behave differently. You want to say “Stop” but actually, everything that everyone does in that film makes psychological sense. You say “Oh yes, I can understand that that could happen”. And so in part — and BALTHAZAR is definitely the same — like Biblical narrative, people do something and then do something else that may seem to contradict what’s gone before and yet it has credibility. I think Bresson has a spiritual style in that sense because he understands the complexity of human nature without explaining it. We’re back to his imagination; he wants the viewer to do the work.

That’s really why I think he’s the greatest filmmaker. Because he puts the onus on the viewer to understand the narrative. And if you understand it, or are prepared to make that commitment, then you are part of the creative process and it’s much, much more rewarding. It’s also why you have to see the films lots of times because you have to learn the sequence of events and then when you see these sequences of images, that’s when understanding comes. So I certainly think he’s spiritual in that sense.

But there must also be something about the way he films faces, to do with his background as a painter and having a painter’s sensibility. You know, the marvellous thing about Italian Renaissance painting is that everyone looks so lovely. And yet, real. I’m not saying they’re idealised. But they look lovely. And Bresson respects the beauty of human appearance. Which is perhaps why he likes younger people because they haven’t been ravaged by age and time. I think his style is spiritual in that sense. Michel in PICKPOCKET is one of the most interesting characters. He’s getting a bit older and he looks quite gaunt but still beautiful.

JH – As did Raskolnikov.

TC – As did Raskolnikov. And Schrader is interesting on this. He tries to link this with the iconographic tradition. It’s an interesting idea but I’m not sure I’m entirely persuaded. But then, Jonathan, I’m beginning to get troubled. Isn’t this 'radiance' true of the star system too? Isn’t the whole aesthetic of Hollywood lighting intended to bring out the beauty of its stars? Now I’m sure Bresson would have a fit if he heard me make such a comparison. They put on all that make up, then the cameramen light them painstakingly. But ultimately, that’s what it is. Clint Eastwood in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, he’s got a very inexpressive face. He’s a good Bressonian in that respect. He doesn’t go around grimacing much, not that I can recall but something still radiates from him.

JH – I think most great Hollywood stars approach a Bressonian quality in that sense. They’re not meant to do much. John Wayne, even Richard Gere, they’re not meant to do a lot. A star’s stock in trade is a magical, elusive stillness. Bogart didn’t do a lot. It’s an ineffable, interior quality. Being. And allowing writers, directors and audiences to project something onto – or find within – a film star. Bette Davis is maybe a counter-example.

Bresson writes in the Notes, ‘Model. “All face”’ but of course, his faces are never consciously expressive and whilst Bresson uses any number of close-ups, his close ups of faces are invariably looser and less intrusive than those of mainstream narrative cinema.

TC – And actually, it’s when star actors go most over the top and show off that I have most sympathy with Bresson’s problem with actors doing things that get in the way, rather than reveal.

I can’t resist mentioning something I’ve just read in an obituary for Virginia Mayo, who’s just died. Very much Hollywood glamour of the 1940's and 1950's. Apparently she was described by the Sultan of Morocco as “tangible proof of the existence of God”!

JH – Touching on Bresson and actors, or ‘models’ do you see something in terms of his spiritual endeavours that goes on in this area? I’m thinking of his argument about automatism, taken from Montaigne and the states of soul unconsciously revealed to camera and tape recorder. Do you have any sympathy with that approach?

TC – I do. But I’m not sure that I understand it properly. What I do understand is something I think Bresson says in one of his interviews. The word “ascetic” comes from the Greek “askeesis” which means “practice” or “exercise”. And that’s a very important feature of religion. Religion is about practice.

So, if you’re a monk, a medieval monk, you have to go to services seven times a day. Imagine what it’s like. You get bored. Of course you can drop out mentally but you keep going. The spiritual life – and this is true of Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism – is about the progress of the soul. Which means going through hard labour, regular practice, doing it all the time. And getting better all the time. And I think Bresson’s practice is his filmmaking. Keep working to get it right. Keep practising to get it right.

You start with LES ANGES DU PECHE and you end up with L’ARGENT. It’s a continuous process, undertaken with continuous practice and through asceticism. And in religion, of course, this is what comes out. You engage in the ritual all the time and then, suddenly, a spiritual experience happens. Certain conditions arise which could only have arisen because you’ve been there, waiting for them as it were. It’s like if you support a football team, let’s say Torquay United. You go to watch them, week in, week out. A passionate supporter — although for nine-tenths of the time it’s absolutely dreadful, until there’s some wonderful match where Torquay win 3-2 in the last minute. It’s the moment of illumination you’ve been waiting for. Well, with religion it’s a bit like that. I go to the Eucharist each Sunday. Sometimes it’s boring and other times I get a real insight, a powerful experience. And that’s just at a very prosaic level.

I do think that, in the monastic life, or the life of the hermit, you wait for God to happen. And I think Bresson’s filmmaking is like that. He’s waiting for the special moment and that’s why, I think, he puts his actors, or models, through that automatism. What was the Montaigne quotation again?

JH – “The movements of the soul were born with same progression as those of the body.” Although Bresson later expands on this elsewhere I think, “Only… if it’s automatic.”

TC – So Bresson is waiting for the magic to happen. And maybe he’s trying to help the magic happen, or is waiting for it to happen, in each shot. I can see Claude Laydu in LE JOURNAL as Bresson’s paradigm case. He’s a wonderful find. Laydu has this wonderful quality to him, in almost every shot.

JH – I find what you’ve just said incredibly interesting and insightful. As you know, I’ve spent a long time thinking and writing about this and even indulging in my own practice, this stuff around the spiritual documentary aspect of Bresson. And what you’ve just said is, for me, a revelation. You’ve found a way to make sense of my feeling that Bresson is all about process, before and above and beyond product. And your discussion of spiritual practice has given those intuitions a particular form. Form, which is psychologically and theologically plausible in Bresson’s case. So, I’m personally very grateful for those insights. Insights I find very penetrating and absolutely born of your own spiritual awareness and focus.

On a more prosaic level myself and just to calm any Torquay fans out there, who might otherwise have been on the verge of buying Tim’s book, I’m a Chelsea fan. And even if we do win many weekends at the moment, it’s still a frustrating experience and after 30 years of waiting, this feels briefly like our moment. A brief moment of grace. We’re probably running slightly out of time now Tim but two things I’d like to talk about are Bresson’s literary sources and the unmade films. The unmade films include, of course, LOYOLA and GENESIS, two very self-consciously spiritually, or theologically, engaged subjects.

TC – Very much so and let me pursue a specious train of thought here. Loyola is founder of the Society of Jesus. We talked of Pascal and Jansenism earlier. The Jansenists were at loggerheads with the Jesuits. Pascal was a Jansenist. Bresson is a Pascalian, if not a Jansenist. Therefore, Bresson is in the Jansenist camp against the Jesuits and yet he wants to make this film about Loyola, who founded the Jesuit Order. Now, where does he stand on all of this?

JH – Would he have demonstrated that Loyola was a Jansenist?

TC – No. I think that he’s looking for a religious life from which to shape a religious narrative, and focuses on Loyola who is, after all, the author of the Spiritual Exercises. Which would have appealed to Bresson enormously, I’m sure. Exercises. Religion is about process. Painful, demanding exercise. Religious experience is hard to come by but one way you can do it is through exercise; and the Greek “askeesis”, which I mentioned earlier, can mean not just “exercise” but also “military exercise”. As King Arthur says to his knights, “Practice and pray.” This is Bresson’s classical education coming out, is it not?

JH – That’s terribly interesting. I’ve just never seen it like this. You’re underlining conclusions I’ve come to from a quite different direction but this is absolutely fascinating.

TC – So that’s LOYOLA. But GENESIS, I think he’d have been intrigued and terribly interested by the narrative. Is there a treatment or a script?

JH – Yes, I think so and he came close to raising the finance to make the film too, I believe. Even after L’ARGENT. And he’d thought about the appropriate language. But on literary antecedents, what are your feelings about Dostoevsky and Bernanos?

TC – I’ve been keen personally on Dostoevsky all my life. AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, I think, was written and then he heard about Mishkin in THE IDIOT hearing the donkey braying. “Quelle idée admirable.” But there is a Dostoevskian quality to the narrative because the donkey is the IDIOT himself, witnessing all these dreadful things going on around him. And then, of course, you’ve got FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER and UNE FEMME DOUCE. And PICKPOCKET. Did he read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT? He must have and then said to himself, “Well, I won’t make that film exactly” but PICKPOCKET is a film that came out of that.

Things appeal to him in the story. What is that appeals in that story? Well, the conversion, or the repentance, in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Dostoevsky was a very fashionable author in the twentieth century but what was fashionable was the crime bit. It’s the psychology of the criminal. And I think some people can’t be bothered with the hundred pages at the end when he goes into exile and experiences conversion. There’s a marvellous Soviet version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, by Lev Kulidzhanov in 1969 and I think they jettison it. They stop where he gives himself up to the police inspector. They don’t bother with the religion. So I think it’s interesting that Bresson clearly saw that as a key part of the story. The way the relationship between the police officer and Michel progressed, he liked that tremendously but also the character of the girl, Sonya in the novel, Jeanne in the film. I think he liked the character of the prostitute and he transferred and updated that to Paris.

JH – Interestingly, in L’ARGENT, Kent Jones notes that Bresson gets rid of much of the religious subject matter and tone of the Tolstoy original but then it might be that Tolstoy is rather more cloying and pious.

TC – That would be worth looking into but I haven’t read the Tolstoy short story. Let’s come on to Bernanos. Although Bernanos’ JOURNAL may be a bit of an acquired taste, I think it’s a wonderful book. Partly because it enlarges the film for me. You can’t help reading it without seeing the film. It’s one of the most wonderful adaptations of a novel for the screen. And despite the fact that Bresson throws a lot out, it is extraordinarily faithful.

When the Curé goes to see the Curé de Torcy, who tries to knock him into shape, there’s a two-page speech from Torcy in Bernanos. Bresson’s preserved just one sentence from that but he’s captured the spirit of it. It’s a wonderful piece of French polemics, about how people should behave. And so true to life. This is how God has made us. In the parish you will spend your day building things up and in the night it will all be blown away, so the next day you will start again. You get this in the film as well as the book. The Cure has dreadful nights. He’s awake. He can’t sleep, he can’t pray. All his dark pessimism comes out at night. That is so true to life, especially for a parish priest. Human beings can be so difficult to work with; you wanting to love them and wanting to save them. Also, he’s writing about rural France, not the affluent, bourgeois urban communities but poor people, living in squalid conditions. That comes out very clearly in MOUCHETTE.

I re-read LA NOUVELLE HISTOIRE DE MOUCHETTE recently and it’s quite powerful. Bernanos had a thing about alcohol and drunkenness, which is a very strong metaphor about people’s minds being corrupted. We’re back to the depths of man’s wretchedness. Bernanos was a very modern writer in that sense. There’s no sentimentality. I suspect a lot of Catholic narrative in the nineteenth century — and into the twentieth — was sentimental. Pious too. And he wants none of that.

JH – Bresson is this great, central figure in auteur cinema and yet, of course, apart from LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT, every single film had a pre-existing source of some sort.

TC – True. Bresson was a wise auteur. I’m sure he’d have recognised the importance of these people and he’s clearly very widely read and interested in literature. Any great artist, all of that stands behind him or her and Bresson is no different. So, while PICKPOCKET is a version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, maybe it’s not what you’d expect.

JH – No but they do all have these literary antecedents. Not true of Tarkovsky, for example.

TC – No. Jonathan, is this again something to do with Bresson’s spiritual style? It’s almost as if he put all of his originality into his style. Well, that’s not quite true because he adapts so radically that his stories become original. BALTHAZAR, I know there’s a source for it but the film is terribly original and so much his. But he does delegate responsibility for narrative material. He’s concentrating on ways to handle narrative, to be expressive. His central concern is not that of the narrative itself but of the way of exploring and expressing it in a way that makes it viable on screen.

JH – In fact, I think he probably struggled to write. I don’t think he enjoyed writing. So, I think, perhaps he liked to work with a source. I think that there’s something around that. I think there’s something in what you say, that he found congenial, profound sources that he found some connection with and then both, simultaneously, often remained rather faithful to those sources and yet, also transformed them and made them entirely serve his ambitious and very particular purposes.

It also accords with my view that the narratives were pretexts for Bresson but not pretexts that one can dismiss. And so, turning to such engaging and engaged sources might have proven very fruitful to him. Pretexts in the sense that you’re saying he was drawn to exploring ways of handling narrative, exposition, tone and expressiveness. And in the sense that particularly interests me, which is that Cinematography aspires to a kind of documentary approach. A documentary of the model’s soul.

Tim, before we finish, I wonder if we could explore one final area. In the mid-1930’s Bresson made his début with the medium-length AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES. He was in his mid 30s himself at the time, so a mature man. Just a few years later, however, in 1943, during the German Occupation, he made the very different LES ANGES DU PECHE. A confident, mature, more serious and fully realised film. Forty years after that, he made his final film, L’ARGENT, which has a recognisable relationship to LES ANGES DU PECHE. AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES is quite separate from the later films and so it’s impossible not to ask what happened during the War that so radically affected Bresson. Of course, it’s also underlined by his subsequent fascination with imprisonment, following his own period of imprisonment as a POW.

We’ve also spoken about the emergence of neo-realism at the end of the War and something else I wanted to ask you about is the influence of post-war Existentialism on Bresson. I often think about Bresson in terms of pre-war Modernism and all those creative and intellectual currents in pre-war Paris. But you write about Existentialism. So I guess my question – if I’m ever going to form one — is in two parts. What do you find in this Modernism/Existentialism debate and what do you see in this maturity/prisoner of war debate?

TC – Pre-LES ANGES DU PECHE, I know little about Bresson and his life.

JH – Well, there are some surrealist photographs, the paintings which seem to have been lost at the time of the War. And then AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES, which was just relatively recently rediscovered.

TC – It must be the case that the experience of having been a prisoner of war will have been influential. He’s released early and comes back to Paris. France under Occupation is awful. And he makes this film about a convent, ostensibly perhaps so that he didn’t have to engage with the modern world. He starts thinking about narrative. He’s made these paintings and these photographs but they’re static images. And now he starts thinking about narrative and what narratives he’s drawn to and in what ways and what he can start to do with narrative.

JH – And what would it have been like to have made a film in Paris during the Occupation? Would you have had to make some kind of accommodation with the occupying power?

TC – Well, I think you would. The classic way to do that would have been to make a film set in the past. The best example is the Prévert/Carné film LES VISITEURS DU SOIR, which is set in medieval France and so, ostensibly, nothing to do with the modern world. But I believe that French audiences at the time felt that the film was commenting on their predicament and even more so, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS although, admittedly, that was finished after the liberation of France. Again, it is set in the past but that scene at the end, with the crowds, must have reminded the audience of the liberation of Paris. And yet, everything goes wrong for Baptiste. Carné and Prévert make this very pessimistic film about the joy of carnival and crowds, in which the individual is sad and lonely.

So what was the experience of Occupation? Well, of course, lots of filmmakers just made entertainment films and didn’t worry too much about other things. You were making a livelihood. If you wanted to comment seriously, if you wanted to be a Resistance writer, you had to be a journalist, like Camus. You couldn’t make films openly about the Resistance. And moving to Italy, where you faced the same problem, one of the things about Rossellini is that he made films under the Fascist regime, so are they a collaborator’s films? The fact that he did make films during the Fascist era is rather held against him. But the Germans leave and they immediately start on ROME OPEN CITY, trying to tell Italy and as it turns out, the whole world, about what life was like under Occupation. I think it must have been very difficult. If you had a conscience and you wanted to portray the world as it was, how could you make films? Very difficult.

JH – Was Existentialism born in a moment, if you will, at the end of the war?

TC – Well, what is Existentialism? In France, the central character is clearly Sartre and he’s published LA NAUSEE in 1938 and THE ROADS TO FREEDOM in 1945. Camus is working as well in France. Elsewhere, there are Jaspers and Heidegger. Certainly Existentialism, or Existentialist texts, were in circulation before the discovery, or widespread knowledge, of the horrors of Auschwitz. But the excesses of the War, of the concentration camps and of the moral and economic corruption of collaboration, all underpinned the post-war ascendancy of Existentialism in France. And Sartre’s short story, LE MUR, is about people in prison awaiting execution and might be characterised as an atheist counter-balance to A MAN ESCAPED in that it ends with a random death. French Existentialism undoubtedly equates with Sartre and Camus.

Did Bresson’s attraction to the apparent reasonableness of suicide come in any way from Existentialism? Camus had published THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS in 1942, whose opening sentence goes, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Life must have felt devoid of meaning for many Frenchmen during the war and Bresson, being a thinking Catholic, must have reflected deeply on death. Was it, in fact, the solution to meaninglessness if it could be linked in with some act of salvation? It could be a willed route to heaven.

JH – Tim, the sun is setting and I’ve taken up your entire afternoon. It’s been fascinating to discuss the filmmakers we both hold dear and especially to discuss Bresson’s spiritual style. Your insights around Bresson’s Biblical approach to exposition and psychology, his focus on practice in an almost spiritual sense and your thoughts on the choice of narrative sources have all been especially valuable. Thank you. end block

Tim Cawkwell’s THE FILMGOER’S GUIDE TO GOD, published in 2004 by Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN 0-232-52466-1, is available from the Norwich Cathedral Gift Shop (go to, or from Amazon.

Tim Cawkwell’s article, SALVATION BY GRACE: BRESSON’S UN CONDAMNE A MORT S’EST ECHAPPE, which discusses the influence of Pascal on Bresson’s film in greater depth, was originally published in THEOLOGY (March/April 2002). It is available from Theology, SPCK, Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone Road, London NW1 4DU, or from Tim Cawkwell, 30 Eaton Road, Norwich NR4 6PZ.

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