Chapter II: Critical Survey
© By Jane Sloan (1983, 2006)
Reprinted from Robert Bresson; a Guide to References and Resources, G.K. Hall, 1983
Revised 2006 to include Note on L’Argent, published for the first time by robert-bresson.com, with the kind permission of the author.
Two types of film: those that employ
the resources of the theater (actors, direction, etc.)
and use the camera in order to reproduce;
those that employ the resources of cinematography
and use the camera to create.
Cinematography: a new way of writing, therefore of feeling.
–Bresson, Notes on Cinematography
The starting point of Robert Bresson’s aesthetic is a distinction between cinema and cinematography, between photographed theater and an écriture. For him the distinction is intimately tied to the mechanism of the movie camera, which is denied its capacity to discover when used merely to reproduce, that is, to create “cinema.” In “cinematography,” the gestures and words of an acted role remain, but only “in an obscure way.” 1 The linearity of the narrative is strengthened and could even be described as a hypernarrative in its opposition to the modern tendency toward a subjective liberation from chronological storytelling. Added to this is a documentary respect for processes and an elliptical view of events. Not only occasions for provoking dramatic response, these events and processes acquire a fascination of their own through Bresson’s very particular way of photographing and editing them. Sometimes we are not shown an event, but only told about it, shown it in pieces, or shown only the coming and going that accompanies it. In the case of a process, we are treated to a detailed explication of the how-to-do-it variety. While this particular aspect of Bresson’s films has since been abandoned, in the films that it dominates, Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé and Pickpocket, it remains one of the most pleasurable aspects of his work.
Though only Bresson uses precisely these terms to describe it, the exalting of “cinematography” over “cinema” is a project of long standing theoretical concern. Bresson’s elaboration of it is idealistic in the tradition of Eisenstein’s “intellectual cinema,” a similarly visionary concept of film based on an idea of overriding rhythm, and a concern above all with “the problem of portraying an attitude towards the thing portrayed.” 2
Much critical literature on Bresson touches on the application of this concept through discussions of the expansion of film language and spectator freedom. Marie-Claire Wuilleumier addresses it throughout her writings, as does Jean-Pierre Oudart, particularly in “Discours en défaut.” But it is Noel Burch, in his Theory of Film Practice, who most fully outlines the distinction between the limited possibilities of classically edited cinema and the fuller possibilities of cinematography unbound by rules created in service to the required “illusion of reality.” For Burch, and for Bresson, traditional rules of continuity are meant to deny the “essentially discontinuous nature of a shot transition . . . and . . . the ambiguous nature of cinematic space,” whereas a structural affirmation of these qualities is the “essential cinematic task.” 4 While hanging his films on a continuous narrative, Bresson demands that the shot transition function as more than a smooth conveyor: “An image must be transformed by contact with other images. . . . No art without transformation.” 5 These transitions are rarely of a discontinuous nature; they are rather a more imaginative and poetic variation on the possible filmic articulations that Burch lists. They create a more interesting space and a more volatile narrative by energetically using off-screen space and by forcing the spectator to reconsider and reevaluate not only the concrete space, but an increasingly large amount of imaginary space. Burch lists the means of creating off-screen space: 1) character entrances and exits, 2) glances, 3) a partial or metonymic shot, 4) sound, and 5) camera movement. With the exception of camera movement, each of these is a major Bressonian stylistic trait that will be explored in this essay, for most criticism on Bresson is based on an interpretation of the meaning of one or more of these characteristics.
Bresson’s oeuvre, a product of the application of these and other characteristics is an exemplary one, described variously as “the cinema of contemplation,” “the reflective mode,” and “a vision of the invisible.” It is a cinema resolutely educative, as opposed to entertaining, though as many have pointed out, this opposition is misleading insofar as it assumes that learning cannot be enjoyable. Much of the negative criticism that Bresson’s films have engendered rests on the assumption of this opposition and so will not be considered here; some of the more solid objections will not be discussed because they are objections to the core and hence constitute as personal a dislike as the films are a statement. Otherwise, few fail to recognize the perfection of craft and the depth of feeling that Bresson’s films reveal, for there is evident in them an exciting fascination with the world. They also reflect the careful, measured step of a man who does not like to be left behind and is at the same time incapable of doing anything in which he does not believe.
This fearless, consuming pursuit of the truth is Bresson’s true legacy from Blaise Pascal, and not, as if often suggested, his Jansenism. As Bresson has said, “Morality is not a matter of following rules.” Though a similar aesthetic asceticism connects Bresson to Pascal, centuries and very different means of expression make the connection more subtle than the usually handy formulation of Bresson as a Jansenist indicates.
These persistent references to Bresson’s Jansenism have allowed many to mistake his narrow formal concerns (no narrower really than a musician who plays only the piano, or a painter who paints only portraits) for a narrow sense of life, but such is not the case. Bresson has an evident interest in art, music, literature, physical dexterity, psychology, religion, mysticism, language, and mechanics, and it is rarely of the pedantic variety. These are not esoteric films that require course work in order to be appreciated; the above subjects are only occasionally presented in their theoretical aspect. They always grow from the characters and it is through their stories that these films sustain their power. By dominating the actors, Bresson attempts to reveal himself, and it is the drama between him and the actor, the battle of wills, that appears on the screen. As often as not, hostility animates the relationship; Bresson inspires them to fight, to aggress, to reveal a will (all they have left), while submitting to him totally. Theirs is the physical reality, his the perceiving reality, and if all goes well the battle is a stand-off. Having insisted on autocratically controlling the filming, Bresson submits himself during the editing to the needs – the truth – of the film as outlined by the actor, and an other is revealed in the only way we are allowed to glimpse an other: in a relation.
Bresson is first interested in “neutralizing” the image (to use Eisenstein’s word) – controlling its excessively coded quality so as to make it inexpressive in itself, and therefore more useful in combination. This concern rests firmly on a belief in the communicative power of mechanically reproduced reality, but denies a notion of cinema as an objective presentation of reality outside itself. By refusing, as much as possible, the haphazard coding of a relaxed camera that attempts to recreate realistically the narrative, Bresson destroys illusion, though not in a self-referential way. The realistic atmosphere of the film, though confounded, is never betrayed.
To this end, Bresson uses a 50mm lens, places the camera at a middle distance from the subject, avoids long shots and close-ups, and prefers short takes with only the gentlest camera movement. The 50mm lens provide a constant physical perspective, and its principle aspect as a neutral lens that flattens the image has been present since Les Anges du péché. The Bressonian medium shot, defined as waist up and infinitely varied within that general area, has a different history. Up through Journal d’un curé de campagne, long shots are common, and only with Procès de Jeanne d’Arc do they become rare as an expressive tool, along with the use of any angle other than straight on.
The short takes have also grown over the years as a principle, along with the resultant ellipses and an avoidance of scenes. As Jean-Pierre Oudart points out, the short takes “trap” the actors to obtain true looks and movements and to avoid the opportunity for interpretation that an extended shot might present. The actors play an important part in neutralizing the images, for an immediate reason, as Bresson explains:
It is necessary for the images to have something in common, to participate in a sort of union. For this reason, I seek to give my characters a relationship and ask my actors to speak in a certain manner and behave a certain way, which furthermore, is always the same.6
The sameness comes from imitating him; as one critic wrote, in a Bresson film, Bresson plays all the parts.
The matter of the actor, or model, as Bresson prefers is a complex one and the heart of the films. It is on this prominent paradox that much of the critical literature depends for a description of the films as a whole. The actor is the “automaton” who becomes a “soul,” the formally prescribed being who, if the film is successful, leaves an impression, if not of triumph, at least of holding her or his own in Bresson’s world of confinement. To this end, Bresson chooses his actors carefully, though this can be time-consuming. Over the years, he has chosen increasingly by instinct, as there are still so many qualities that one does not discover until later. Clearly, however, Bresson prefers those who are intelligent enough to divine his tricks and will not easily give up: people who, like himself, have a quality of “not letting anything get out . . . a certain inward configuration.”7 They must not have had any formal training in acting, or have acted, because dramatic art requires actors to supply motivation for studied sentiments. According to Bresson, acting is an element of stylization and abstraction in drama, and as such cannot be anything more on film than an archival document of itself. Because cinematography works with bits of nature – and acting is not nature, but art – acting has no place in cinematography.
Once chosen, the actors are rehearsed repeatedly with instructions not to think or inflect, and not to invest the words with any intent or motivation. As Bresson prescribes, everything is “weighed, measured, timed, repeated ten, twenty times” until it is automatic, until it can be done or said unthinkingly. To help achieve this effect, none of the shots are allowed to “play out,” but are usually foreshortened, and the written dialogue is of a deliberately cryptic nature.
Bresson takes an extreme posture throughout the shooting because, as to be expected, he encounters a great deal of resistance. Actors see themselves as being gratuitously used, and the literature abounds with tales of a model being made to dress in heavy clothes on a hot day for a shot of the eye, or a full suit of armor for a shot of the feet. Some are indignant that Bresson has no interest in their own intelligent viewpoint of the story or character, or are simply affronted at not being treated as equals. Others get tired of the work and the wait and of Bresson’s brusque denial of their right to object to either. Those who are writers document the experience in shocked, personal terms. Jean Vimenet, a painter, built a show around his angry portraits of Bresson done on the set. Some cooperate willingly, while others become irritated and upset; still others become obsessed with Bresson and reveal this tension, which animates them on the screen. One gets the impression that working with Bresson is a little like mountain climbing, with all the reports of fatigue and hospital stays; the fact that someone else gets the credit serves further to cast the models into the role of sherpas, a role to which many of these doctors, writers, and artists are probably not very accustomed.
The crew is not exempt from this dynamic either. L. H. Burel refused to work with Bresson after Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, saying that Bresson refused to admit error, and as a consequence, made a dreadful film. Clearly, Burel misunderstood Bresson’s aesthetic requirements, but this quarrel reveals a problem often alluded to in reports from the set. Positif and the early Image et Son repeatedly pointed to Bresson’s “inhuman” treatment of actors as a major objection to his films. On the other hand, though some actors have threatened to leave a project midway, to my knowledge none has, and many of the crew have worked with Bresson more than once. Bresson himself has disarmingly commented on objections to his manner on the set: “things are always difficult. And I lock myself into myself because often it seems that some of the others are against me. I find that when I don’t concentrate, I make mistakes.” 8
Model, he paints his self-portrait
with what you dictate to him (gestures, words)
and the likeness, rather as if it were indeed a painting,
has in it as much of you as of him.
–Bresson, Notes on Cinematography
The relationship between Bresson and his models is the first level of meaning in the films: the literal exploration of relations between people that are characterized by dominance and exploitation. It can be seen in all the films, in a hundred determined, but indistinctly directed glances. It is mirrored, countered, and confused by the plight of the characters, who add to it states of submission and love. This theme has been incredibly rich for Bresson, not only psychologically and socially, but also politically, probably beyond his inclinations.
A second quality of the composition of the image that he rigidly maintains is realism. Though Bresson does not believe in realistic recreation (for example, he accepts anachronisms), he insists on the essential realism of the shot. In this, he is joined many filmmakers and theorists who have expounded the glories of the mechanically formed image. In the wake of the of idealistic theories of the novel as the presentation of the “complete human personality,” the moving photograph was immediately recognized as an art form that offered an unparalleled opportunity to present the self, to communicate in Joyce’s “inner speech,” Eisenstein’s “imagist thinking,” Freud’s “primary process,” and Pasolini’s “im-signs.” This concept remains a visionary notion of a film composed of images that duplicate pre-intellectual thought processes by framing pieces of the same “real” world that fills our heads with dreams and memories. [And from which we piece together our consciousness.]
Suzanne Langer says that “images are read in a flash and preserved in a disposition or an attitude” that is as distorted an understanding as the image is an utterance.9 To give up such a powerful instrument of belief (as Susan Sontag says, “You can’t say no to a photograph”10), would be totally foolish to a man like Bresson, who wants, above all, to be believed. Bresson calls the camera and the tape recorder “divine” and repeatedly refers to their ability to carry him “far away from the intelligence that complicates everything.”11 For Bresson, the “crude real” as recorded by the camera is not the way he sees things, but rather a miraculous gift that allows him the possibility of making a film that is the way he sees things.
These principles of neutralization and realism serve another purpose for Bresson by providing strictures that he imposes on himself in order to limit his resources. To Bresson, limited resources mean more complete knowledge of the available resource, and like sparseness and the “appropriate,” precede truth.
Dig deep where you are.
Don’t slip off elsewhere.
Double, triple bottom to things.
Bresson, Notes on Cinematography
By allowing in the image only what he can control, but also the maximum information he can control, Bresson succeeds in fascinating the spectator, because his control is not narrow or anxious, but practical and forceful, fearless of the depths of absorption. The self-consciously executed shots are not always successful. But as André Bazin pointed out regarding the “weak spots” in Journal d’un curé de campagne:
They are simply that kind of awkwardness to which a high degree of sensibility may lead, and if Bresson has any reason here for self-congratulation, it is for having had the good sense to see in that awkwardness the price he must pay for something more important.12
The image is neutralized, then, to allow greater flexibility in the editing, for “if an image, looked at by itself, expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with the other images.”13
In Bresson’s handling of the montage, as in the composing of the images, there is an interlocking emphasis on the real and the necessary on the one hand, and the unrepresentative and the arbitrary on the other. For purposes of exposition, the elements that make up these emphases are schematized here, but it must be stressed that in a Bresson film, no rule is absolute; he is likely to do anything, sometimes, it seems, just for fun, or to allay any sense of predictability.
His theory of montage is classical in application, resulting in a calm and precise unfolding of events, but it is romantic in its hearkening back to Eisenstein with a professed desire to “transform” the images into an entirely individual expression. I will clarify these two very different and paradoxical strains of the narrative by defining one as the story, which is composed of the real and the necessary and characterized by ellipsis and an emphasis on sound; and the other as the narrative, which is composed of the unrepresentative and the arbitrary, and is characterized by metonymy and an indifference to well-defined time and space.
The story is dense and eventful and tends at every point to become immersed in the narrative. Bresson carefully constructs and accumulates details, virtually all of which eventually acquire a function in one or both strains. Maureen Turim has pointed out that the material is also thematically so carefully considered and positioned that, not very far into a film, “minimal imagery explodes.”14 The events themselves tend to be of an exciting and often melodramatic nature and the ellipses through which we understand them are of several types and purposes.
All of Bresson’s films are built around the foreshortened event. This is not really so different from the way most films are structured, but acquires distinction from the part of the event that is chosen to be shown. To suffice for the marriage in Une Femme douce we see the woman sign a register, then accept a ring over a restaurant table. In Pickpocket Michel goes to Rome and London, but we see only the train stations.
Another common use of the ellipsis is to imply an event. In Pickpocket, Michel spies a gold watch on a man sitting next to him in a café; while his friends go for a carnival ride, Michel leaves and is still gone when they return. Later our suspicion that he has gone after the watch is confirmed, but the event itself is never seen.
Another, broader use of the ellipsis is to imply a missing dimension, which in the closed world of a Bresson film creates quite a startling effect. In Une Femme douce, the man suspects his wife of being unfaithful and runs to her old home to find out where she is. When he gets an address, it comes as a shock to us to realize that this woman, who has been presented to us as a loner, has actually kept up contact with people to the point that they know either exactly where she is that day or the address of a place where she might be. In Journal d’un curé de campagne, Chantal tells the priest that the whole town knows he is a drunkard. Coming from Chantal, this could be a lie; nonetheless, the very notion that the priest is the subject of such extensive gossip comes as a surprise because we have been attuned to him alone and apart, even though such gossip has been alluded to before. In Pickpocket, Michel visits his mother, whom he rarely sees. She tells him that a friend of his has visited her and that they talked about him. This could be Jacques, but we are not told; again the very idea of such a relationship, perhaps with someone who is a stranger to us, creates havoc with the closed world of the film. A paranoiac rush of questions strikes us much the way as it does Michel, who quickly asks, “What did he say about me, anything bad?” In each case, the reference serves to suggest the larger part of the world that has been entirely omitted from the film. The emphasis on the inward and solemn moments of the character, which has inclined us to feel safe in knowing and judging her or him, is suddenly revealed as selective and insufficient. We are forced back to thinking of the film itself and its closed world, which is not a closed vie w of the world, but a closed world created for a purpose.
Another important use of ellipsis is to imply a process of routine that is peculiar to the film. Bresson exhibits a different part of the routine each time that it is shown; sometimes we are able to piece it together, sometimes not. When Fontaine in Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé, pencils over an area on his door, we know that he has already stuffed pieces of wet paper around the loose boards, put in another broken piece with splinters, and is now darkening the cracks to match the door because we have seen him do it before. When the knights in Lancelot du Lac get ready for battle, we are shown various repetitions and elliptical renderings of the horses being saddled and mounted. But it is in the hundreds of entrances and exits that Bresson uses this type of ellipsis most strikingly. He never fails to set us guessing as to the exact physical relationship of the spaces that we see and never quite manages to satisfy us with answers to these questions. These entrances and exits rarely function to establish place, and quite often tend to confuse it; in terms of the story, they could just as well be assumed, and as such are a major part of the narrative.
The purposes of these ellipses are more varied and difficult to classify. As in most films, they move the story along; but in a Bresson film they move it along in an unconventional way that allows unexplained and unmotivated actions to flow “naturally,” because everything is equally, and oddly, elliptical. Though ordinarily we are encouraged to take things for granted by their omission, or to supply some obvious rationale, here ellipses force us to accept events that are contradictory. Thus we never really develop a secure feeling about any of them. In Au hasard, Balthazar, the father refuses to buy the donkey, but in the next scene we see him and the children taking Balthazar home. This kind of contradictory transition is common. Such ellipses are denied their normal function of omitting material that can be surmised, and instead leave out precisely the incidents about which we are curious to know. Since our expectations are continually denied, we eventually get the feeling that we probably shouldn’t have any – in itself, a somewhat off-putting denial of the need to be involved and in-the-know that we take to the movies.
The ellipses serve most severely to avoid the pleasantries of everyday life. When Thérèse in
Les Anges du péché buys a gun, we merely see her accepting it over the counter and leaving; when the man in Une Femme douce buys a bed, he walks into a store and points to one. Background, anecdotal material is studiously avoided, usually for purposes of economy, but also to give a certain concentrated tone.
The ellipses also serve to avoid paroxysms (“which one is obligated to simulate, and in which everyone is alike”15), which accompany death or violence, and sometimes verbal encounters. We see Jeanne d’Arc on the rack, but it might as well be a bed for the calmness of her and the group that surrounds her, and we are certainly not privy to any use of the instrument. Not until Lancelot du Lac is there any kind of explicit violence, and there it is still stylized and distant. Raymond Durgnat, in referring to the scene in Journal d’un curé de campagne where the priest rises from the floor after making “the gesture of total acceptance,” calls this kind of “extraordinary omission . . . the clue to Bresson’s whole method.”16 Bresson, he says, prefers the fact of the gesture to the rhetorical appeal of the gesture itself, which might attract for the wrong reason. In an analysis of Lancelot du Lac, Jean-Pierre Oudart similarly argues that the film avoids the routinely rhetorical appeal of depicting fascism as perversion.17 In other words, while Bresson’s films call up the most violent and powerful actions and events, they deny us the titillation of watching them.
The other major element of the story is the sound, which Bresson has always felt to be equal to the image, and so uses very inventively. It often expands a scene spatially, into areas that we never see. In the first scene of Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé Fontaine leaps from the car, and as we watch his impassive fellow prisoner, we listen to a flurry of running steps and whistles until he is thrust back into the seat.18 In Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, there is a vocal crowd that we never see; in Pickpocket, we only hear the races that the crowd watches. Bresson says that, if possible, he will always substitute a sound for an image, resulting in a persistent use of off-screen space as far as the ear can hear.
There is a parallel to the elliptical entrances and exits in the sounds that accompany the approaches and retreats of the characters: steps, squeaking doors, and latching and unlatching handles and knobs. The doors are as important as the stairwells and elevators (in terms of screen time) and combine with them to build a grand phenomenology of shelter, the second body. The steps intrude and retreat, usually quite respectfully and with significance far beyond their suspenseful function as a warning of approach or reassurance of leave-taking.
Sound also sometimes serves as a dissolve, as when the cabaret music begins over Maria Casarès’s vengeful stare in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, or when the tinkling glassware and hum of the restaurant begin over the wedding in Une Femme douce. Such instances diverge from the realistic function that sound normally serves for Bresson. Yet, an aspect of hyperrealism also results from the numerous scratching pens, electronic whirrs (of which Bresson is particularly fond, beginning with the electric prison gates of Les Anges du péché up through the automatic bank teller in L’Argent) as well as more typical clinks, clashes, knocks, and flutters.
Sound also serves, most insidiously to the demands of the story, as ironic counterpoint. The sound of the gardener raking outside during the priest’s climatic conversion of the countess (in Journal d’un curé de campagne) is an oft-mentioned instance. Serge Daney, in an analysis of Le Diable probablement, develops an elaborate symbolism for the sound effects of a scene in that film that well describes similar instances in other Bresson films.19 It is a typical Bressonian heterology, Daney says: the high (organ), the low (conversation), and the trivial (vacuum) that destroys the simple oppositions between high and low.
In discussing the story, I have already veered at certain points into the more subjective territory of the narrative. The movement of the narrative away from representation is characterized by an insistent use of metonymy, as well as some elements already mentioned, such as the avoidance of small talk and greetings. Though in a strict sense Bresson’s constant focusing on hands and feet is a literal use of the part for the whole, it functions differently from metonymy in literature. Instead, these shots put pressure on the spectator to step back from a consciousness of the whole. Bresson calls them “fragments” and emphasizes their function as a prod to increase awareness of the independent nature of all things:
To see beings and things in their separate parts. Render them independent in order to give them as new dependence.20
Jacques Lacan has developed an idea of metonomy as a “form that lends itself to the truth under oppression,” and Oudart has applied Lacan’s ideas in an interesting way to Bresson’s films. His approach plays on the metonymic grounding of film, which, as a chain of signifiers, is denied the capacity to function metaphorically, a capacity that requires an imaginary relationship that photographically “real” images cannot sustain. To Lacan, our being in the world, our meaning, is predicated on metaphor, a poetic leap that connects how we appear with what we are. Metonymy, on the other hand, is the truth of our solitude, a “lack” of being as well as the presence of its opposite, the spirit. 21
As a form of displacement with the “power to bypass social censure,” these fragmented images are also seen by some critics as fetishized and erotic. The sensitivity that Bresson displays toward erotic content is definitely a forceful part of the frequent use of these images. Beginning with Les Anges du péché, when, at the very end, Thèrése lovingly kisses Anne-Marie’s feet and caresses them with her hands, there is a recognition in all Bresson’s films of the carnal that puts in question his reputation as a Catholic director interested only in matters of the spirit. On the other hand, these fragmented images imply a “laying hands on” by turns sexual and violent, with intent to harm as well as connect. Bresson writes of his focus on hands in a more innocent way, preferring to quote Pascal and Montaigne concerning their relationship to the soul. Their ethereal nature is evident, for these hands are always graceful and do very clever things, but as an extension of the body, they are also clearly a potential threat. And though that threat is sometimes realized, it is often thwarted and confirmed in its potential by chains, handcuffs, and so on.
Bresson’s interest in these fragmented body parts as expressive of the soul is connected to his emphasis on automatic gestures. The direct and ordinary movements of the hands and feet are the antithesis of posturing (there are few cigarette smokers in these films, except in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, where the smoke develops a theme of its own), Instead they work to make us guess what is inside. One of the few nervous gestures is Gérard’s in Au hazard, Balthazar, when he twitches his fingers while waiting for a car to pass so he can light Balthazar’s tail on fire. This transparency of meaning is very un-Bressonian, but marks the films a whole. In general, the meaning in the hands and, in particular, the feet is rarely so forthcoming, and the images are to a large extent meant to throw us off into the unknown.
The Bressonian glance, open and direct, or else fallen to the ground, is the most forceful of these metonymic structuring elements. It is not often in close-up; the recurring close-ups of Balthazar’s eye are an exception in this respect. But all the glances function metonymically as the most vivid point in images that are often otherwise static. Their alertness cannot be overemphasized; as often as not they are aggressive in tone. Jacques in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur is the major exception, and even he straightforwardly eyes the lovers in the park. Downward glances are commonly interpreted as an indication of the characters’ passivity, but here they are an expression of containment and strength as much as acceptance. Chantal in Journal d’un curé de campagne is first seen with her eyes downcast, even though she is an active troublemaker. Always there is present in the downward glance the possible confusion of acquiescence with recouping, or meditation.
The glances also provide a major way of structuring point of view. In the later films, they become more and more imprecisely directed in terms of a character, though already in Journal d’un curé de campagne there is considerable play in this area. In the first sequence, the priest stops his bicycle, looks off, and wipes his brow. The count and his mistress see him from a distance and turn away in embarrassment. The priest looks to the ground in the next shot, and we assume that he has also seen them and is himself embarrassed. Only later do we learn that the shot/reverse shot connection was unrealized, and the priest is still naively unaware of the relationship.
Variation in point of view has become an increasingly important key to Bresson’s work. With all the talk of “imprisonment,” these characters resist being pinned down visually. They may, in fact, be imprisoned, but their confinement is not one that the spectator can easily identify. André Bazin, in an analysis of Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé, illustrates at length the “arbitrary lacunae” in the spectator’s knowledge of the outlay of the prison. This disregard for perfectly delineated space is most clear, he says, with the last sequence of the escape, which is long and detailed, but “impossible to reconstruct.”22 Such construction often takes an extremely curious form, as in the scene in Au hazard, Balthazar where Marie sits on the merchant’s lap, but the cutting and angle of alternating shots make it seem for a time that each is in a separate part of the room. Bresson has a similarly curious way of photographing mechanical objects from odd angles, especially cars, which has led critics to write that he makes them look as if the were “huge bugs” or “spaceships.”
Bresson’s denial of traditional point of view is often commented on and is the subject of two interesting studies. Oudart expounded his theory of the suture around Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, and the fact that the triangle created by Jeanne, Isambart, and Cauchon never settles into a fully explained spatial relationship.23 Oudart says Bresson creates a reserved space for the “other” subject; in opposing theoretical terms, it is one of the disquieting ways that he “paints” a film, marking it as uniquely his.
Along with the refusal of traditional point of view, Bresson rejects the absolute spectator identification that accompanies it. Nick Browne, in a study of Au hazard, Balthazar, suggests that through such “disjunct views” Bresson recognizes and makes known the limits of his observation, and so, too, the limits of the spectator’s.24 In the strict sense, his point of view is omniscient, but the power of omniscience (to tell all) is denied. It does not appear as guiding, but arbitrary, and so everything we want to know and feel superior to remains ambiguous, a “clearly known unknown.”
Respect means: put your self out.
That may look pointless but it is quite right,
because it amounts to saying:
I should put myself out if you needed it
because I do so when you do not;
besides, respect serves to distinguish the great.
If respect meant sitting in an armchair
we should be showing everyone respect
and then there would be no way of making the distinction,
but we make the distinction quite clear by putting ourselves out.
–Blaise Pascal, Pensées
In 1943, Les Anges du péché revealed Bresson’s thorough knowledge of the conventions and history of film. This psychological drama, though simple in style, employs masterful camera movement, editing, and black and white composition. It is well acted, carefully scripted, and foreshadows much of Bresson’s later style, with a narrative consisting of many short sequences, mostly medium shots, and elliptical editing that at the time was seen as remarkable. Also, it exhibits Bresson’s wit, notably in the sequence of correction fraternelle where Anne-Marie knocks in turn on four door, drops to her knees as each one opens, and asks the resident what she thinks of her. She is comic not only in her determination to find out the truth, but also in the spunk that inspires her to spring to her feet at the last door and angrily criticize the occupant for spreading gossip and lies. Her assertiveness is appealing, as is Bresson’s playing of the scene as a classic comic serial bit.
Anne-Marie is the first in a long line of purposive characters who move from pride to humility during the course of the film, but who are able to do so because pride encourages them, as Pascal wrote, to put themselves out. This major theme for Bresson reveals an interest not only in learning to love, but also in the initial inclination to love that expresses itself through a confident posture of action. Anne-Marie begins by addressing God personally and ends by humbly praying to the head of the order, who is “not even a saint.” But her real substance, her goodness, is throughout the same and it is a quality that leaves her uncompromising before the truth and eventually out in the cold. She leaves the convent rather than fulfill a penance she considers wrong, and then wilfully remains secretly nearby during the day and in the convent’s cemetery at night. Her spiritual insistence does not preclude a sense of adventure in the world; rather, the two can be seen ideally to coincide, meeting at the juncture of love, which is not a symbol for God, but God itself.
The film also features the first of many admirable and active women who populate Bresson’s works. There is no “Bressonian woman,” however. The females are feminist characterizations because they are equal to the male characters, and, with the exception of Une Femme douce, because their parts are projected without a focus on sex roles, or the politics that arise from them. In Les Anges du péché, there are no men to speak of; in the first sequence, the women are seen plotting a middle of the night rescue of one of their charges, complete with diagrams and signals. They wash clothes and sew, but also chop wood, and in general take care of themselves without any of the coyness that a film populated completely by women typically displays. Bresson’s treatment of women characters arises not so much from a feminist predilection, as a refusal to stereotype anyone in any situation.
The final major aspect of Les Anges du péché, which is present in most of the films, is the documentary quality of the detail. When Anne-Marie dresses in her new habit to take first vows as a novice the camera lingers over the act, and slowly moves with a final swing over the old clothes in her luggage. Bresson shows the nun’s life of work and ritual in its complexity, and not simply as a placid existence. And others besides Anne-Marie are allowed their show of strength and individuality in what is clearly a world of regimentation.
After the success of Les Anges du péché, which won the Grand Prix du Cinéma Français, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) was a commercial and critical failure. It was regarded as particularly artificial in the emotional aftermath of the war (a criticism that Les Anges du péché had not escaped either). As a study of asocial behavior and an exercise in style, it has few competitors outside other projects written by Jean Cocteau (Bresson is credited with the story). All Cocteau’s films share his idea of the cinema as expressing “the frontier incidents between one world and another,” the two worlds in this case being the story by Denis Diderot and the cinema. The “worlds” of the characters in this film have very little import, as we are unable to fill them in, or have ideas about them, something that André Bazin said Bresson would have been “hard put to do.” The reasons are delineated repeatedly in the critical literature: the preposterous motivation, the inexplicable end of Agnès’s faint (death?), and the crucial role of Jean belittled by the slight acting presence of Paul Bernard. Michel Estève attempts to explain the revenge scheme logically, arguing that the love Hélène nurtures will be based on a lie (the hiding of Agnès’s past), and therefore will not be true love; in that case Hélène, in fact, might triumphantly harm herself more than she harms them. But the film hardly needs such strained attempts to make sense of it, since it already seems to be a series of strained attempts to make sense of itself. It is as though Bresson, after the conventional psychology of Les Anges du péché, wanted to move away emphatically from the limits and temptations of conventional realism, over which he had already demonstrated such a fine command.
André Bazin discusses Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne entirely as an adaptation, a cinematic rendering of an old story, a “structured presentation of the abstract and the concrete.” In this respect, Bazin emphasizes the sound and concludes:
The murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones, are not there just as contrast to the simplification of the sets or the convention of the costumes. . . . They are not needed either for dramatic antithesis or for contrast in decor. They are there deliberately as neutrals, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery.25
One of the most striking of these “foreign bodies” is the cascade of laughter that follows a rude slap Agnès takes in the face. Jacques Becker at the time emphasized the style of the film – the coming and going, the stairs and elevators – which he described as a complete break from cinematic styles of the past.26
These two films mark the territory that Bresson will explore throughout the rest of his career, though most of the later films take him far away from any possible straight line between the thematic poles that characterize them: real-abstract, Christian-secular, human-object, tradition-new, romantic-modern, life-art. Bresson takes into account the vast and philosophical nature of these subjects by an additional interest in the line between pretense and commitment. A quotation from an essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty serves to further chart this territory:
Beneath the gaze of this . . . [human] being who is not being at all, who has no fixed instincts, no still point of equilibrium and repose, objects lose their self-sufficiency and, in a sudden reversal, appear arbitrary and superfluous; but he too is superfluous in the world of objects. Ugliness is the collision of man as nothingness or freedom with nature as plenitude and fate.27
This collision is Bresson’s area of exploration; it is in fact ugly, but the recognition of it is beautiful and powerful force in itself.
Journal d’un curé de campagne (1950) was Bresson’s critical breakthrough and remains today a deeply affecting experience. The priest, the curé of Ambricourt (who remains nameless) is the center around which all else revolves, as in a dream. There are many close-ups of him and he is in every scene. There is the journal in which we follow the words as he writes, and the narration from it that he himself provides. The three ceaselessly overlap and sometimes repeat each other, a trope that has inspired a great deal of critical comment. The circular nature of this mode of narration moves us into a scene, first with a shot of the page in the journal with a voice-over, then with a dissolve into the scene itself as the voice-over continues, until finally the dialogue begins, only to fade into a voice-over concerned with something other than the conversation, usually the priest’s weakened condition. In this way, the priest becomes very clear, in contrast with the dreamlike quality of his encounters. The only time he is alert and absorbed in the outside world is in his second conversation with the countess, when he turns her soul into “submission;” even while on the motorcycle, he manages to look down frowning and brooding, missing half the ride. His desire to dictate right action and his social awkwardness are alarming and apparently habitual, as Louis in the end describes him as “narrow-minded in the old days.”
Because Bresson takes care to center the priest, and because the character is naturally introspective and dying, his solitude quickly becomes the focus of the film. And because he peels potatoes through it, and eats stale bread soaked in wine and sugar, and beams at the mention of his “ideas,” his solitude becomes real. Little he does makes any sense, and yet he is there, mainly because of the performance of Claude Laydu, provoking others and demanding his human right to be himself. At one point, another priest comes to counsel him and says: “People don’t hate your simplicity, they defend themselves against it. It burns them.” No one can stand the fact that the curé presumes to care about them; actually they don’t believe that he does, and so deny fearfully whatever they might have in common with him. On the other hand, he is so self-conscious that he is unaware of all that people hide, except in moments when he miraculously transcends his naivete, as when he corners Chantal with her secret letter.
This firm psychological grounding, a main aspect of the film, is due to George Bernanos’s novel, which some characterize as romantic next to Bresson’s modern rendition. This is not a matter of good and better, but of Bresson’s selective emphasis on the priest’s spirit, which is never broken. Clearly, Bresson felt that the priest, because of his absolute faith, demanded such attention. The blank screen at the end then becomes a sign of Bresson’s own faith that the film has succeeded, his own commitment and pride in the priest’s “being” there on the screen. Other scenes were shot, but removed, that reflected more of the social character of the novel and Bernanos’s concern with the changing church. But Bresson has never been interested in the church as an institution. Even in Les Anges du péché where the prioress clearly runs a spiritual community, the sub-prioress nonetheless occasionally intervenes to protect the group as a social group. It is not institutions or politics that interest Bresson, except peripherally, as they oppress.
In a series of articles on Bresson written in 1952, Bernard Chardère emphasizes the films as classical tragedy, which is above all interior drama.28 To Chardère the achievement and profoundness of tragedy rests on the kind of ambiguities that are evident in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Journal d’un curé de campagne: distancing devices co-existing with spectator identification, and serious themes played out as formal games. It is a critical structure still relevant to Bresson’s work today, along with Bazin’s ideas on the adaptation of Journal d’un curé de campagne written the year before.29
Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956) is immersed in the secular world, leaving behind the mainly religious concerns of Journal d’un curé de campagne. While Fontaine’s immediate circumstances leave him little time for the kind of agonizing self-reflection the priest experiences, the film surrounds him in a similar way. He is in every sequence and practically every shot, with close-ups that show his mind always alert to the outside, just as the close-ups of the priest show him similarly attuned to the inside. André Bazin described the whole of this film as a dual metaphor – first, for the way Bresson works, and second, for the larger theme of redemption through love.30 Both meanings of the metaphor are concerned with the relationship between chance and choice, grace and liberty, destiny and free will. Bresson is sometimes accused of not knowing what he wants on the set, of being particular yet unable to give clear instructions; he himself says that he wants to discover, not merely to uncover something he already knows is there. Fontaine, having taken apart his door and gone to visit a friend in the night, is afterward asked, “But how will you escape?” To which he replies, “I’ve no idea.” To be successful, each step requires the combination of good luck in things that are out of one’s control, and right choice in things that are within it, but no amount of planning will properly account for both. Improvisation is always necessary. As Susan Sontag put it, one must “stay light,” surpass self-consciousness to be always in the moment, always ready to receive grace.32 The importance and all-encompassing nature of this theme cannot be over-stated. Critics find many different words for it, but the matter of love, whose capability extends itself through concrete action and choice, and the matter of being loved, which extends itself only miraculously, is the most oft-commented-upon theme of Bresson’s work.
This theme can be seen aesthetically in the very way the films are made. Fontaine’s first break, his contact with Terry, which appears to be by change, is actually predicated by his choice to stand at this window and hang out the bars. The many shots from the outside of him behind his window, and later of him and his neighbor, usually being and end simply with Fontaine’s hands grasping the bars. His hands take him to this “look-out post,” as well as braid the ropes and bend the hooks he needs for the escape. The music that accompanies his escape previously occurs in the film when he is in line to empty his slop bucket, the same place where one day, by chance, he discovers a much-needed spoon. The suspenseful nature of the film is due in large part to the soundtrack, which keeps us informed of the activity outside exactly as Fontaine experiences it; that, along with the documented detail of the methods employed and the break for freedom into the night, make Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé one of Bresson’s most fascinating films.
Pickpocket (1959) is often described as a prime example of Bresson’s style. The virtuosity of the camera work and editing are matched by the virtuosity of Michel in action, culminating in the Gare de Lyon sequence. All the pickpocketing sequences are choreographed and have an erotic overtone that, in respect to the rest of the story, adds an aspect of sexual maturing to the larger theme of maturing into love. Michel is the first character to have an erotic outlet for the passion that the characters in the other films have so clearly displayed. This film is also the first to show explicitly the dual nature of the fragmented hands as an extension of both good and evil in the soul. Henri Agel, in discussing Pickpocket, describes this kind of evil as an attitude of refusal that results in solitude; Michel, because of his paranoiac fear of being possessed by love, substitutes for giving an absolute taking, a desire to possess without restriction.31 As Amedée Ayfre writes in the same article, it is a story of freedom without grace, unconsciously looking for grace.
The investigation of this dialectic becomes very complex, but it is clear that Michel, in defining himself in opposition, actually lacks the freedom he has so carefully couched as necessary part of his superiority. Here Bresson’s debt to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment comes to the foreground. Raskolnikov murders (and Michel pickpockets) in the spirit of his final dream, where he “thought the truth was in him alone.” “Everything is permitted” in the name of leaping out of the prison of bourgeois conformity. But Raskolnikov discovers he is incapable of building on the power of his deed, and is unsettled by remorse, just as Michel, “allows” himself to be arrested. However, the power of Pickpocket, which comes from the photographic documentation of Michel’s skill and coolness (in contract to Raskolnikov’s bumbling), differs from the power of Crime and Punishment, which comes from its psychological portrait. This may account for the many complaints about the incongruity of the film’s end, which echoes that of the novel, but has a puzzling instead of a moving effect.
Most critics see Pickpocket as the failure of Martin LaSalle to project the required wholeness, but some complain as well of other inconsistencies in the character. Though Bresson means to reveal the contradictions of human behavior, there is a general critical consensus that in this case the leap over motivation leaves too large a gap.
In this context of uncovering human contradictions, the theme of communication and art as an indirect communication (of things contemplated through detachment) first enters Bresson’s work, though it has always been present in the style itself. Like Fontaine, Michel is an artist in what he does, though Fontaine is temporarily removed from his activist position, while Michel wills his stance as a detached observer. The moral sense of each becomes confused (Fontaine considers killing the innocent Jost), and it is their talent and skill that separates them from others and makes them subject to this confusion. Like Charles in Le Diable probablement, Michel places himself at a distance and so “sees things clearly.” But unlike Charles, he is prey to some mysterious anxiety that shows him such presumption is empty and isolating. This dilemma is also Bresson’s: the classic dilemma of the artist to contemplate reality, but not be involved in reality; to assume or be granted a position of superiority and influence, but have no attendant responsibilities.
Each film poses new problems,
entirely different from those posed
by the preceding ones. My first problem. . .
[in making Procès de Jeanne d’Arc] was making
a film entirely of questions and answers.
– Bresson. “Entretien avec Robert Bresson,” by Yves Kovacs
Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) is the culmination of Bresson’s move toward the pared image and an antirhetoric. Oudart calls it “the only film perfectly naive . . . the accomplishment and death of a certain kind of cinema.”33 There are digressions from the medium shots that describe the interrogation: in the stairway and halls between the courtroom and Jeanne’s dungeon, in the dungeon itself when she is alone or being peered at through a crack in the wall, and in the end when she walks, half-running to the stake, the camera on her feet. There is the dog, and a pair of birds, and her mother at the beginning, but that is all. Based primarily on her words, the film kneels at the reality of Jeanne’s historical presence.
Bresson says it is one of the miracles of film to bring the past into the present -- in this case Jeanne’s words and a young girl who says them with the directness and confidence that Jeanne might have. Florence Carrez, in her containment and defiance, is one of Bresson’s perfectly chosen models. She is not a sufferer, though she is treated horribly, tortured, and ridiculed. Only once, when she closes her eyes and falls back at the news of her death sentence, is she clearly fearful; and her poignant action is as much an expression of disbelief as of fear.
That she bore arms in the name of God to save France is not commented upon; the trial relates only the subsequent events and the indignities that accompany the age-old relationship of accused and judge, the powerless and the powerful. In this relationship, justice has little relevance; as long as Jeanne hears things no one else hears, and sees things no one else sees, she is doomed. Bresson says that he sees her as “a young girl who makes herself all alone, little by little.”34
Jeanne is tried unjustly, as she will be burned at the will of the English, no matter what her defense. She does not see herself as a victim, nor does the spectator. She defies knowingly, in the faith that her truth will triumph, and her faith informs a conflict the nature of that of Antigone and Creon, not of the crude machinations of this trial. For though Jeanne is persecuted because she is a woman, she is doomed because she bore arms in a nationalistic struggle. She is burned not as a political prisoner, however, but as a witch, and it is the hypocrisy of the French church in the person of Cauchon that allows her to represent good in relation to his evil. That is why she can fling a look of disdain at him behind the crack in the wall. He is only a voyeur in the real struggles of self and society; his is not a self, but a sieve for the wishes of the English.
After the relentless directness of Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, Au hazard, Balthazar (1966) is a shift into several new areas: allegory, a nonhuman main character, and an extended social milieu with all its attendant ills. The allegory and the long time span (a donkey’s life) make the film exceptionally episodic and anecdotal. The random nature of events to which the title refers allows Bresson for the first time to casually insert extraneous material, such as the comments by the artists and philosophers who pay Arnold to tour the countryside riding Balthazar, the donkey.
The action also amounts to a great deal of bad luck for the donkey, aggravated by his position as a beast of burden who is purchased to be used. He is no better treated by the spineless Marie, who watches from a window as Gérard beats him. Balthazar and Marie are linked through their positioning as victims, and their fortunes in the film are parallel, though Balthazar is the more interesting character. At one point when he is owned by a circus, and hailed as “a genius,” he even displays the spirit to rise up in alarm at the sight of the wicked Arnold, who has happened in to the show by chance. It is Balthazar’s eye that watches over the film, not Marie’s, for she lacks the power of recognition and is cynical and passive from the start. However, she carries with her cynicism the banner of feminism as anti-romance and confidently tells the straight-arrow Jacques that marriage is “old-fashioned.” She prefers her masochistic sexual relationship with Gérard to the boring Jacques, even though that preference confirms her view of herself as a female victim.
The theme of dominance and exploitation that characterizes the sexual arena surrounds as well the rest of the film, which lays out a network of various bourgeois enterprises and all the distrustful transactions that sustain them. Money is often present, not in the special context of Pickpocket, but in its everyday use as a resource pridefully gained and jealously guarded.
Balthazar is exploited for money by everyone except Marie, who has no interest in having money or influence.
The sense of inexorable destiny that runs through Au hazard, Balthazar and the absence of any purposeful character in it mark if as dark. Balthazar and Marie are solitary not be choice, but by societal decree. As Tom Milne has written, this film and the subsequent Mouchette begin in Bresson’s work a “process of exteriorization shifting the emphasis from the malleability of the Christian soul to the implacable indifference of the Christian world.”35 Bresson, however, does not allow Balthazar to die ignominiously, but in a beautiful meadow surrounded by sheep and softly clanging bells.
Mouchette (1967) takes the small town and countryside realism of Au hazard, Balthazar, but moves away from the narrative complexity of that film into a realism that verges on naturalism. Like its predecessor, a great deal of this film takes place outdoors, so that there are no stairwells and corridors, and the few doors are not dwelt upon; Mouchette, like Marie and Balthazar, has no private shelter, but only a one room shack shared with an abusive drunken father and a dying mother.
This near complete rendering of the action in a very short Bernanos novel is wholly affecting because of Mouchette’s fully realized rebellious nature and Nadine Nortier’s performance. The condition of the film’s many trapped animals is illuminated by Mouchette’s similar condition; we feel that they might be equally furious at being so deprived, and the futility of their condition in turn illuminates hers. Mouchette does not say much, but her gestures are often insistent of the her feelings, an unusual relationship for a Bresson character, which accounts for the occasional lapses into naturalism that many critics have noticed. The dirt balls thrown at her classmates and the insolent look over her shoulder at her father acquire dramatic punch when one of the dirt balls hits a perfume bottle, and the insolent look is followed by an insert of her stomping her foot in a mud puddle. Still, these gestures and others, like the rag thrown with a flick of the wrist into her employer’s sink, and the flair with which Mouchette pours coffee and milk, give the film its special emotionality. There is no contemplation of some larger meaning; there is only Mouchette, an enormously appealing and sad child, to whom we give our heart the first time we see her scuffing along in her galoshes.
Bresson’s style in general is restrained in this uncharacteristically explicit film with, for instance, few ellipses, and even a rape sequence. The rape has posed a problem for critics who have noted that it concludes in a cliché – Mouchette’s struggling hands suddenly grasping Arsène’s back in agreement. The cliché has its application, for Mouchette’s need for even the violent semblance of affection has been amply demonstrated. Nonetheless, Bresson himself writes, “A too expected image [cliché] will never seem right, even if it is.”36
Mouchette’s vulnerability, just beneath the surface of her defiant image, finally assures her strong presence. Her conflict with middle-class ideas of right conduct (in the person of her teacher), which ends in intimidated tears, and her ride on the bumper cars reveal her innocence and charm. The bumper-car sequence is worth noting as one of the longer action sequences of fine-tuned montage that come to the fore in Pickpocket and punctuate almost all, but especially the later films.
Une Femme douce (1969) is another startling departure from what has gone before and at the same time a more intense investigation of thematic content that has always been in Bresson’s work. Critics have long pointed to an intellectual strain that need not be understood in order to understand the other, emotional strain. The feeling of these films can be appreciated without any prior knowledge of the cultural references, though the references produce another contributory tension. In Une Femme douce this particular opposition becomes all encompassing as it structures the film and defines the expectations and failures of the couple’s relationship.
Based on a story by Dostoevsky, it reflects his ideas in the lack of understanding that marks the couple’s communication and in the narrator’s preoccupation with truth (the theme of the story, as Dostoevsky explains in his introduction). These themes provide the emotional core of the story; the woman’s desire for truth in intimacy conflicts with the man’s failure to recognize that intimacy demands truth until it is too late. It is well explicated by Oudart’s article on the film.37
But there is also a quote from Goethe’s Faust, a scene from Michel Deville’s Benjamin, several museum visits, clips from many different books and records, a long sequence (almost the whole last scene) from a French production of Hamlet, and persistent unacknowledged references to Germain Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922). Several crucial images from this early feminist film about a similarly estranged middle-class couple are repeated and rearranged to strengthen the feminist elements of the story. Aside from several images that are used in a different context, there is in the Dulac film a gun in a drawer that the husband uses to tease the wife; she fills it with bullets only to become anxious with remorse. Also, the woman spends long listless moments staring in the mirror in between abuse from her husband about spending money. Finally, there is a climactic sequence of near-murder played under mocking puppets and a sign that says “theater,” where the husband assures his wife she must not kill herself (she had intended to kill him) because he could not possibly live without her. All this in Dulac’s extremely rhythmic and highly edited style that is a precursor to Bresson’s own. Both works focus on money as a dominating force and the imprisonment of a wife who has only her husband’s home and nowhere else to go.
The other major “quotation” is the final scene from Hamlet, followed by a sequence back in the couple’s home in which the woman declares, “They left something out in order to shout their lines.” It is Hamlet’s advice to the players to speak naturally, of which she reads a few lines over a close-up of the page. So after contemplating her obvious absorption in the mysteries of Hamlet (in contrast with her husband’s comparatively inattentive view from the shadows), we have also a comment from Bresson referring to his own disdain for “shouting.”
Une Femme douce is not only a film built around quotations; it is also a very successful depiction of a modern relationship. A description of the suicide that frames the film – a tipped over balcony table, a floating scarf, and a series of shadows and feet that flutter toward the body – hints at the feeling for the material that Bresson displays and Dominique Sanda, as the woman confirms in her performance.
The seriousness of Une Femme douce was followed by Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1971), Bresson’s only film that could possibly be described as lighthearted. It is also in color and set in contemporary Paris, which is silvery modern and materialistic, but not emphasized as such. There are no exalted themes, only a tale of a youthful romance, which Bresson revels in describing with some very dry wit and a relaxed lyrical sense. Jacques is a carefree and relatively extroverted artist (he unhesitatingly approaches the stranger Marthe on the bridge) whom we most often observe lying on his back talking banal fantasies into a tape recorder. This position is a striking change from the Bressonian character’s normal seating position, leaning forward on the edge of a bed or seat.
Jacques, who is eventually rejected by Marthe, is nonetheless a good-looking, sincere fellow who is doing well enough in the world, painting and tape recording, and who probably will not be lonely for long. His story is a stroll through Bresson’s world with no pauses for thought. Many of Bresson’s repeated images appear here deliberately shorn of any meaning except the vaguest notions of beauty and life; the film is a true “romance,” without any of the sobering intrusions of doubt or time, except at the end. The camera lingers over the traffic lights, even as they change color, and a bateau mouche gliding down the Seine is the opening shot. Several sets of musicians fade in for a few seconds, then fade away; and the traffic and crowds are always heard, though rarely seen.
Jacques stares down women in the street and blankly receives a fellow student who lectures him on “presence and absence’ in modern art. Marthe, as the erotic center, is transparently looking for security, hedging her bets with Jacques while she waits for her ‘true love.” She quickly becomes the takes over Jacques’s fantasy life as he replaces the tired tale on his recorder with just her name – “Marthe! Marthe!” – sticking the machine under his coat and playing it wherever he goes. The film ends in the same charming way that it tells its story – with Jacques speaking another fantasy into the recorder, then moving over to the floor to paint while he plays it back . . . again.
Lancelot du Lac (1974) moves back into the pessimism that accompanies what for Bresson is clearly a dying culture. It is a film about the end of things and the illusory heights of idealism. It stresses abstract form in a way that suggests hard-edged constructivism rather than the cubist forms that offer a parallel to Bresson’s work as a whole. The reliance on individual series of repeated images as set pieces also presents the clearest instance of the approximation of musical form in Bresson’s work. The riderless horses galloping through the dark woods are a particularly haunting melody in this respect, but there are many other instances: the opening and closing of the visors that punctuate a conversation between the knights; Gawain’s repeated utterance of “Lancelot!” during the tournament; and the several series of multicolored horse mountings. The elegance and coldness of this aesthetic search for the “purely abstract” has its parallel in the search for the Grail, the impossible search for the spiritual in the living world.
The search for the Grail is shown to be patently prideful and stultifying: Lancelot is a fool and a dreamer who has “killed and plundered” to find the Grail. But, as Guinevere admonishes him, “God is not something you bring home.” Guinevere is not only “carnal love,” as she is often designated in the literature, she is also the only character who is grounded, willing to take life for what it is. If she is also frequently referred to as a “spiritual ideal” it is because of the special knowledge that she pointedly shares with Lancelot throughout the film. She tells him that both the devil he fears and the God he searches for are only his “imagination.” “You are alone in your pride,” she says, “and pride in what is not your is a lie.” Guinevere is entirely circumscribed by the male culture that surrounds her. She is idealized by all the knights, who yearningly peer up at her window. Yet she has no effect; sorrowful at the desolation around her, she lacks the power to change it. At the end, surrounded by wounded and dead, she poignantly responds to Lancelot’s accusation that she chooses to suffer: “Ah! I’ve chosen nothing.”
Lancelot du Lac ends on a scrapheap of dead armor. Lancelot cries “Guinevere!” and falls; there is a last wry clink of metal as his leg shifts. The knights never transcend the limitations of their body metal and Lancelot du Lac is indeed an “icy” film, as it is often described; but then it has something icy to say: there is only the love that is near you, and when that is denied, there is nothing.
I think in the whole world things are going very badly.
People are becoming more and more materialistic and cruel,
in another way, than in the Middle Ages. Cruel by laziness,
by indifference, egotism, because they think only of themselves
and not at all about what is happening around them,
so they let everything grow ugly and stupid.
(David Robinson, “Bresson and the Battle Against Evil”)
Le Diable probablement (1977) is the filmic explication of the feeling that Bresson expresses in this quotation, a witty but serious chronicle of the breakdown of institutions and the attendant breakdown of faith. Jean-Pierre Oudart calls the film the “deep questioning of a person from a particular class” and a “merry-go-round of death and desire.”38
The protagonist, Charles, like Lancelot and Joan of Arc, is one of the few Bressonian characters to be “popular;” he is surrounded by friends who obviously care for him. But his monied, leisurely life is a “merry-go-round” of evil, both in the larger world we view through the newsreels of organized destruction and pollution, and in his small circle of friends who casually compromise and betray. Charles waits in the street and morbidly looks up at the window behind which his friend Edwige plays sexual games with the Le Monde reading, hypocritical bookseller. He throws a teasing, furrowed brow at his friend Michel, who assures Charles that the trees they have seen being felled will be replaced. Charles is so sensitive to the most subtle forms of hypocrisy and compromise that he has become arrogant; he is so busy observing the merry-go-round that he has not the time for the “interior demons” that have preoccupied other Bresson characters and granted them sympathy. He is sought after because he is clever and fun to be with, and consequently leads an active sexual life, but the jaded quality of his middle-class existence allows him the choice of “doing nothing.” He says, “ If I wanted money and profit, all would respect me,” and he is justified. Once worldly effort takes over, compromise and hypocrisy are quick to appear. From that awareness, it is an easy step to remaining “pure” by refusing all.
Many critics have commented on the presence of “unopposed evil” in Le Diable probablement because the events appear to develop a rationale for Charles’s suicide. But Charles is a born poseur and Antoine Monnier’s portrayal of him is hip and knowing. The few humorous sequences save the film from being unrelievedly pessimistic, and mark Charles’s death as an arbitrary, fictional one. Much as been made of him being gunned down in mid-sentence, with a thought that is not as “sublime” as what he imagined would come to him at such a time. It’s probably something very silly, for Charles, unlike virtually every other Bresson character, is not inclined toward the sublime, except in its most haughty sense. By his frequent snickers (Bresson’s characters are frequently the butt of snickers, but Charles is the only one to openly indulge in the practice himself), he reveals his contempt for other people, and so is denied the role of exemplar. When his latest pickup scoots him naked out the door carrying his clothes, with his gym shoes and a box of candy set on top, he looks more like a sap than the elegant Hugo-quoting know-it-all who diagnoses his own illness as a case of clear-sightedness. Unlike Mouchette, Charles is not a victim. His death is no more an understandable response to the decadent world around him than his life is. And though we feel acutely his and Bresson’s clear sight and the truth that informs both, that truth also allows us to see both the filmmaker and the character as artists, viewing from a distance, seeing clearly, but also relieved of the skirmish at the bottom.
This state of relief is not without its paradoxical counterpart, however. As John Berger says, the artist has “wrestled with the knowledge that life is always freer than the observation of it.”39 Bresson, being attuned to even the minutest discrepancy between belief and action, would naturally feel acutely this lasts confining awareness. Sensitive to the sophisticated cries of “blind and bourgeois” that became particularly loud with the appearance of Lancelot du Lac, Bresson responded with Le Diable probablement by looking more carefully, squinting, trying to arrest the ease of his privileged position as a famous artist, trying to better the world through a painfully accurate clear-sight, but seeing only that we compete with “things” that overwhelm us. Indeed, the force to be combated is not only vague, but “probably” the devil; and the devil, like God, is really only the result of the way we view ourselves and others.
With all Charles’s brilliant mind and comfortable position, he has no respect for other people, the primary trait that Pascal said distinguished the “great.” He is a long way from Anne-Marie in Les Anges du péché, who was equally sensitive to hypocrisy, yet able to maintain her faith in the future. Virtually all of Bresson’s characters are an illustration of potential failed or seized during a crisis. Everyone has the potential to be great, no matter the extent of talent or intelligence; everyone has the potential to be generous or not, loving or not, respectful or not, and the millions of variations in between. As a thoughtful observer of human potential, Bresson has a problem. Because he judges others, he must be careful to judge himself in the same harsh light. He knows intimately the “problem of portraying an attitude towards the things portrayed,” and the power of the judgment expressed through that attitude.40 Therefore, he scrupulously inspects that attitude and the means by which it is expressed, tirelessly reevaluating and readjusting his aesthetics, revealing at every turn the exemplary fulfillment of his own potential and a profound respect for his audience.
Note on L’Argent
Though Bresson attempted to get funding for other projects through most of the last 15 years of his life, L’Argent (1983) was his last film. In its bitterness and despair, it allows one to understand the increased commercial resistence to his work. Until the last sequence, there is only one honest character, Yvon, a sullenly inarticulate oil delivery man who is passed a counterfeit bill for payment, then becomes violent when a waiter accuses him of being one of those “small timers who handles forged notes.” When the perpetrators (who have been victimized themselves) conspire to blame him, he can only stare at them in disbelief and mutter that they are “crazy.” In turn, the judge admonishes him for making accusations against such honest, middle class people. By the end Yvon is a calm hatchet-wielding murderer.
All the characters in L’Argent walk the same sturdy walk as if to the gallows. They repeatedly disappear into the middle of the frame, moving through doors angled at the center, often proceeding through a corridor or around a corner and then another door. The off screen space behind the screen, frequently used, creates a trope of the vertical lines within the frame and a depth into which characters disappear without a sense of actually getting anywhere. This type of off-screen space is uncomfortable for the viewer, for while it might open on a limitless horizon, in this film it indicates an already occupied, enclosed, or otherwise restrictive space -- the classic example is the now cliche shot of an elevator door opening. Because character or camera movement more usually develops space at the edges of the screen and so implies the open world, this strategy also emphasizes the two-dimensionality of the screen, and the viewers’ passive voyeuristic position.
One of the few repeated scenes (the other is the letter sorters, who read the prisoners’ mail -- actually, everyone intrudes on Yvon by reading his mail) is the mundane prescribed process of getting handcuffed prisoners out of their transport and into the prison, first their bags, then them, each locating their bag and taking it inside. The scene appears again in an ironic repetition when the arrogant young criminal who framed Yvon enters the prison at the same time Yvon returns in an ambulance from an unsuccessful suicide. This intellectual blond man, who fancies himself a Robin Hood “with nothing serious” (like physically harming people) on his conscience, tries to make up with Yvon, who tells him bitterly, “I’m on your conscience now and don’t you forget it!” In this way, vengeance becomes Yvon’s rational for his bloody actions.
The infrequent close ups in L’Argent, unlike those in other Bresson films, which sometimes create a repetitive lyric or act as grace notes, are strictly functional, limited to things up for valuation (money, watch, camera, a woman’s legs) or violent actions (hands ready to slap, a thrown soup ladle, spilt coffee, and broken glass). Strictly functional, that is, until the last sequence when Yvon follows an older woman to her countryside home and she, a calming presence of patience and gravity, takes Yvon on a potato dig, and then outside to hang up laundry and eat nuts from the trees. L’Argent is startling in its minimalism, completely lacking in the soft beauty of metonymic close ups that conveyed a sense of spiritual grandeur in other Bresson films. Here, all meaning in the closeups is contained within the frame, just as the characters are made to move into the frame rather than out of it.When they do venture outside to walk in or off right or left, they are “tied up” in some other fashion, chased, stalked, slapped, or otherwise victimized.
The film opens with the snapping shut of an automated bank teller, in 1983, a steel grey wallet sized pocket in a wall that is more foreboding even than the plaque that holds the keyhole of a prison door cell. It closes with a crowd of people collecting at the sound of a police siren. Rather than following the action -- the arresting police walking Yvon away -- the crowd remains frozen, craning their necks in the opposite direction to look inside the café door at the center of the screen, beyond which no people are visible. Their blackened silhouette also makes them look like people in the next row of seats.
1. Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), p. 32. “Gestures and words cannot form the substance of a film as they form the substance of a stage play. But the substance of a film can be that . . . thing or things which provoke the gestures and words and which are produced in some obscure way by your models.”
2. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949), p. 150.”Let us say that grief is to be represented on the screen. There is no such thing as grief ‘in general.’ Grief is concrete; it is always attached to something; it has conveyors, when your film’s characters grieve; it has consumers, when your portrayal of grief makes the spectators’ sorrow too. . . . The latter result is not always obligatory. . . . The grief of an enemy arouses joy in the spectator, who identifies [with] the conqueror on the screen. . . . Beneath [such considerations] . . . lies one of the most difficult problems in constructing works of art, touching the most exciting part of our work; the problem of portraying an attitude towards the thing portrayed.”
3. Ropars-Wuilleumier’s writings are indexed and annotated in this volume. Oudart’s “Discours en défaut” appears in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 232 (October 1971).
4. Noel Burch, Theory of Film Practice (New York, Praeger, 1973), p. 11
5. Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, p. 5
6. Roy Armes, “Robert Bresson,” in The French Cinema Since 1946, vol. 1, The Great Tradition (New York: Barnes, 1970), p. 143
7. Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, pp. 40. 60. “The TRICK is what is hidden in them, not let out , not revealed. . . . Your film is beginning when your secret wishes pass into your models.”
8. Charles Thomas Samuels, “Robert Bresson,” in Encountering Directors (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1972), p. 59.
9. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (New York: Mentor, 1951), p. 91.
10. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977). One of the principal arguments of the book.
11. Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, p. 5.
12. André Bazin, “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson,” in What Is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 132
13. Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, p. 5.
14. Maureen Turim, “The Textual System of Au hazard, Balthazar,” M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1975.
15. Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, p. 31.
16. Raymond Durgnat, “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne, in The Films of Robert Bresson, ed. Ian Cameron (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 47.
17. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Un pouvoir qui ne pense, ne calcule, ni ne juge?” Cahiers du Cinéma, nos. 258 - 259 (July - August 1975).
18. Actually, Fontaine’s capture can be seen obscurely through the corner of the rear window of the car; nonetheless, it is the sound that fully conveys what is taking place.
19. Serge Daney, “L’Orgue et l’aspirateur,” Cahiers du Cinéma, nos. 279 - 280 (August - September 1977).
20. Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, p. 46.
21. Jacques Lacan, “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Structuralism, ed. By Jacques Ehrmann (New York: Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 101-36. Oudart’s writings are indexed and annotated in this volume.
22. André Bazin, “Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé,” France Observateur, no. 340 (15 November 1956):22-23.
23. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “La Suture” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 211 (April 1969), no. 212 (May 1969).
24. Nick Browne, “Narrative Point of View: The Rhetoric of Au hazard, Balthazar,” Film Quarterly 31, no. 1 (Fall 1977).
25. André Bazin, “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne,” p. 131.
26. Jacques Becker, “Hommage à Robert Bresson,” L’Ècran Français, no. 16 (17 October 1945).
27. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “A Scandalous Author,” in Sense and Non-Sense (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 45.
28. Bernard Chardère, “À-propos de Bresson . . .,” Positif, nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 (1952)
29. André Bazin, “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne.”
30. André Bazin, “Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé.”
31. Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Delta, 1966).
32. Henri Agel and Amedée Ayfre “Pickpocket: débat sur le film de Robert Bresson,” Recherches et Débats, no. 32 (September, 1960).
33. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Bresson et la vérité,” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 216 (October 1969): 54.
34. Yvonne Baby, “Entretien avec Robert Bresson,” Le Monde (16 March 1963): 14.
35. Tom Milne, “Mouchette,” Sight and Sound 37, no. 3 (Summer 1968): 153.
36. Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, p. 13.
37. Oudart, “Bresson et la vérité.”
38. Jean-Pierre Oudard, “Modernité de Robert Bresson,” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 279-280 (October 1969): 29.
39. John Berger, Toward Reality: Essays in Seeing (New York: Knopf, 1962, p. 105