Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 20, July 2001

 

 

Thomas Deane Tucker

A Patient Cinema or a Cinema of Patience?

(Robert Bresson for Foreigners)

 

 

 

Keith Reader

_Robert Bresson_

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000

ISBN 0 7190 5365 X (hardback)

0 7190 5366 8 (paperback)

166 pp.

 

In the Preface to his short but substantial work on Bresson, Keith Reader cites as the catalyst for the book a very dramatic experience of watching, or more appropriately confronting, Bresson's laconic masterpiece _Journal d'un cure de campagne_ after several previous viewings. Teaching, along with a colleague, a course on French cinema at a British university, Reader was a seasoned veteran of Bresson screenings but did not share his colleague's enthusiasm for Bresson's work. Though intrigued and impressed by the tight and methodic visual organization of the films, Reader viewed Bresson's overall form as oppressive and happily let his elated colleague teach the material on Bresson. Although he doesn't actually say it, I think it safe to assume that at this point Reader thought of Bresson's work as overbearing, saddling his audience with the extra burden of deciphering the significance of heroic themes from a deliberately un-heroic narrative structure and style. In other words, he found Bresson to be 'boring'.

 

The change came about when, owing to his colleague's sabbatical, he found himself teaching the whole of the French cinema course by himself at a period in his life when he was going through an unnamed emotional crisis. Reader writes: 'As the cross filled the silent screen at the end of _Journal d'un cure de campagne_ (hereinafter _Journal_), I left the room in tears' (ix). This might seem to some a confession hardly befitting a scholarly approach to film studies, but to those who, like myself, have had similar experiences in their engagement with Bresson, such passion is almost unavoidable and can be a professional asset to the film scholar adopting a director-based approach to Bresson's work. The static image of the empty cross confronting the spectator, juxtaposed with the remarkable voice-over of the Bishop reading Dufrety's fidelity to the dying priest' s pronouncement over his own death, 'Tout est grace', is endemic of the predicament in which Bresson places his viewer. Freeing every element of the cinema to comply with the 'pen' of Astruc's 'Le Camera-Stylo', Bresson writes his art across the blank screen as if it were, to paraphrase Valery, a 'Riemann surface'. Bresson meticulously presents the dehiscence of our everyday world like a gaping wound held in reserve before the viewer's eyes. But at the same time, Bresson carefully shaves the emotional content from his images (and dialogue) through the elision of key psychological details of his characters, placing the entire ontology of the material world he so patiently constructs 'under erasure' to strip his audience of even the barest possibility of a conventional emotional response. His cinema is an art of patience, on both sides of the screen, demanding that the viewer 'wait' through the intermittences in a sort of decisive spectatorial performative act to allow 'intermittence' itself to speak. [1] A film like _Journal_ seems deliberately 'foreign' to filmic discourse, but usually after several re-viewings one begins to sense the infinite distance measured in waiting through its uncanny structure as an interruption of cinematic convention that introduces 'waiting' as the true measure of human expression, discourse, and communication. [2]

 

The book is a volume in the Manchester University Press French Film Directors Series, whose aim, as stated in the Series Editor's foreword, is to 'extend the range of French directors known to anglophone students of cinema'. Reader succeeds in this by combining detailed descriptions of Bresson's individual films against their historical backdrops with an engagement with the numerous critical discourses -- ranging from Oudart to Predal -- generated by the films themselves. Reader navigates through each of Bresson's fourteen films, organizing the book through seven chapters which chronicle the development of Bresson's individualistic style as a director, and one chapter that focuses on Bresson's _Notes sur le cinematogaphe_. He negotiates his passage through the films along two intersecting lines of analysis: 1) a logical chain, followed chronologically, through which Reader correctly traces the 'patterns of evolution' of Bresson's work; and 2) an attempt to account for the complex Catholic discourse found in each of the films and to illustrate both the scope and importance of this dimension to approaching Bresson's style. [3]

 

Reader introduces us to Bresson with an orthodox but appropriate quote by Jean Cocteau: 'Bresson is 'apart' in this terrible trade' (xi). Cocteau regarded his epithet as enthusiastic praise for Bresson's uniquely elliptical style, and Reader appropriates it as the epicycle which will move through and structure the rest of the book. The remainder of the Introduction is a mini-synopsis of the themes (Bresson's laconic style, the refusal of detail embodied by his narratives and characters, his refusal to use professional actors) along with an explication of three approaches to these themes -- Sadism, Lacanian, and Catholicism -- to which Reader will return throughout the book. At the end of the Introduction, Reader offers an extremely brief one and a half page biography of Bresson. But this is not too bothersome, because the discussions of the individual films in the succeeding chapters revolve primarily around Bresson's working methods and helps to sustain further reflections upon more specific biographical details from Bresson's life.

 

Reader even sets Bresson apart from himself, as the title of the first chapter ('Bresson before Bresson: _Affaires Publiques_, _Les Anges du peche_ and _Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne_') suggests. This chapter adumbrates some of the elements of conventional cinema, elements Bresson mostly avoided in his subsequent work, which traverse these three early films. But Reader balances this by carefully sifting through these films to uncover the seeds of Bresson as an auteur -- the use of nondiegetic music, the flattened out painterly quality of the cinematographic image, the overabundance of the Catholic (Jansenist) concept of grace, the elision of dialogue, off-screen sounds, and the sado-masochistic qualities of both his characters and *mise en scene* -- that will progressively germinate throughout Bresson's career.

 

Chapter Two offers a detailed account of _Journal d'un cure campagne_. Most of the chapter is taken up by a lengthy synopsis of the film, but Reader does offer some interesting insights into the way Bresson uses the journal-device to dissect the problem of fidelity in a film adaptation of a literary text. Though Reader culls much of his argument concerning this issue from other sources, such as Andre Bazin and Bernard Chardere, he transposes these readings with an adroit application of Lacanian theory to the overarching presence of the diary in _Journal_ that at the same time refuses to reduce the function of writing in the film to a psychoanalytical operation. To regard the journal as a 'writing-cure' akin to Freud's 'talking cure' is one way, but not the only way, to account for Bresson's paradoxical fidelity to the 'spirit' rather than the 'letter' of Bernanos's novel. Consider the following:

 

'The disappearance of images from the screen at the end, likened by Bazin to the 'dark night of the senses' of St. John of the Cross, is the film's final exhaustion and transcendence of the possibilities of its language . . . Exactly the same remark might be made about the written verbal language of the priest's diary. That too is 'only a sign, there is nothing beyond or 'behind' it; it is the process of writing the diary, not any definitive result it may bring, that has been important for the priest and the film . . . Writing and speech in this film, rather than being hierarchised, stand in undecidable recto and verso to each other, and it is the passage through and finally beyond them that leads to the final image' (40).

 

Reader briefly suggests that an interesting relationship between 'writing' and the absent body -- both the priest's and Christ's from the cross -- might be teased out of this static image of the cross, and my only complaint is that he doesn't pursue this line of argument further. [4]

 

Chapter Three focuses on Bresson's so-called 'prison cycle' (_Un Condamne a mort s'est echappe_, _Pickpocket_, and _Le Proces de Jeane d'Arc_), and stresses the thematic and stylistic similarities and differences between the three films. In these films Bresson fully emerges as a *mettuer en order*, rendering through sparse and elliptical cinematographic gestures an equivocal rhetoric of grace for the screen. Reader correctly views Bresson's progressive juxtaposition of materiality with spiritual themes in the prison cycle as giving the event of filmmaking a sublime *mise en abyme* effect. The stress on hands and action, a systematic concentration upon the minutiae of physical detail coupled with the absence of psychological detail of main characters, and a mixture of the trivial with the transcendent, become familiar terrain for Bresson at this stage. Once again, Reader's analysis superbly folds the Christian themes glossed from the films into psychoanalytical discourse, as when he juxtaposes a reading of the dream-like quality of _Pickpocket_ as reflective of the Freudian concept of *Unheimliche*, for instance when Michel steals the banknotes from a woman's purse at the racetrack. Reader asserts that the uncanniness of this scene is derived from Michel's exhilarating feeling of weightlessness 'closely associated in the Christian mystical tradition with rising up towards God' (55). Bresson heightens this sense of uncanniness by creating a tactile space where Michel's hand seems to literally float across the screen.

 

The section of the chapter devoted to _Le Proces de Jeane d'Arc_ is divided along two lines. The first tracks the 'visual sadism' of the film in comparison to the versions made by Dryer, Preminger, and Rivette. Reader cites the many scenes in which Bresson's camera 'spies' on Jeanne through the spy hole of her cell door as evidence of the latent sadistic qualities of the shots in the film. The second line is a critical response (in regards to the function of this 'visual sadism') to Jean-Pierre Oudart's reliance upon the film to develop his theory of spectator positioning and concept of suture. Reader argues against Oudart's theory by turning to Philippe Arnaud's work on the construction of cinematographic space to show how Bresson constructs the shots of the trial scene so that the viewer's spectating position is identified with Jeanne to offset the 'sadistic voyeurism at work in the cell scenes' (69).

 

Chapter Four takes up Bresson's last black and white films, _Au hazard Balthazar_ and _Mouchette_. Almost eight pages of the chapter are devoted to a summary of _Balthazar_, but it is not at all cumbersome since Reader tells us in his Introduction that he views it as Bresson's most important work and warns us to expect a lengthy amount of space dedicated to it. I think readers will appreciate his unknotting of the convoluting narrative of _Balthazar_, which is a film that takes the concept of replacing the actor with the *modele* to its most extreme limits. Reader does an excellent job of evoking the seriousness of what seems on the surface of a first viewing to be a playful, or even childish narrative. And in his analysis of _Mouchette_ Reader concentrates on Bresson's sparse but poetic use of language, the significance of both non-diegetic and diegetic sound, and the rich visual images found in the film to make us appreciate the *texture* of the film in comparison to Bernanos's text.

 

The next two chapters deal with Bresson's entry into color film, _Une femme douce_ and _Quatre nuits d'un reveur_, both adapted from short stories by Dostoevsky, and _Lancelot du Lac_, a retelling of the Arthurian legend. Reader treats the two former films in one chapter, and devotes an entire chapter to _Lancelot_ which he subtitles 'Sixth time lucky'. In some aspects, this is the tightest chapter in the book, offering highly original ruminations on Bresson's forays into the representation of what Reader calls the 'pre-modern body'. Most films set in the Middle Ages, Reader argues, deploy the pre-modern body 'to a largely comic effect in a manner often spoken of as Rabelaisian' (118). Reader sets Bresson apart from this tradition by claiming:

 

'The lewd and the excremental, it should now be clear, do not belong in Bresson's work, yet the number of shots of legs and feet, human or equine, in _Lancelot_ suggest that the specificity of his 'pre-modern' body is nevertheless reliant on its 'lower stratum', deprived of its comic possibilities through being encased in armour and thereby much more close to tragedy than Rabelais's ambivalence' (119).

 

Such prose, reminiscent of Bataille's _Tears of Eros_ when he writes about the enticing link between death and eroticism expressed in medieval painting, evokes the very materiality of Bresson's cinematography. Reader goes on to argue that the opening and closing sequences, which show blood spurting out from beneath the butchered knights' armor, is the most telling example of the body as tragic, marked on one side by the contrast between the 'spouting gore and the metallic sheen of the armor', and on the other -- like the empty cross in the final shot of _Journal_, the disappearance of Jeanne's body from the stake as the smoke lifts in the closing scene of _Le Proces_, and the weight of Mouchette's unseen body heard in the sound of the splash as she hits the water at the end of _Mouchette_ -- by the 'absence of a visible human body' (119).

 

After a short section on Bresson's Pascal-inspired and aphoristic _Notes sur le cinematographe_, Reader concludes the book with a chapter on _Le Diable probablement_ and _L'Argent_ aptly titled 'Civilisation and its discontents'. Reader brings his analysis of the struggle between Eros and Death in Bresson to its culmination by tracing the circulation of desire running through both films, as nihilism in _Le Diable_, and in the form of money in _L'Argent_ . While I do not completely agree with his overly theoretical reading of the final shot of the bystanders gazing through the open door into the cafe in _L'Argent_ (the last shot of the last Bresson film) as signifying a 'perpetual opening, or even a Mobius-like looping back into a body of work . . .', such a reading is an elegant decanter to substantiate the philosophical questions he set out to answer at the beginning of the book.

 

If I have seemed overly generous in my praise for this book, aside from the fact that it is lucidly written and thought provoking, it is because Reader, mimicking the style of his subject, somehow manages to distil the enigma of Bresson as a director down to its essential elements and pares his study of Bresson's oeuvre down to what is most critically necessary for his project. The book boasts a comprehensive filmography, and will serve as an excellent compendium in the classroom for both teachers and students of French cinema. With this book, Reader emerges as a leading voice in the next generation of English-speaking Bresson scholars. In light of the aim of the series editors to make French directors seem less 'foreign' to anglophone students of cinema, Reader's passage through Bresson is a paragon of success.

 

Chadron State College

Nebraska, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Blanchot, _The Infinite Conversation_, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 78.

 

2. Ibid.

 

3. In the Introduction Reader quotes Philippe Arnaud to describe his own approach to writing on Bresson: 'The logical chain which can be followed through Bresson's films: . . . chronologically, through his various transformations -- actors replaced by models, fragmentation, delayed identification . . . and aesthetically through the constitution of his 'anti-system' or method' (8).

 

4. For slightly more on this thought, see Reader's essay, 'D ou cela vient-il?': Notes on Three Films by Robert Bresson', in James Quandt, ed., _Robert Bresson_ (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1998).

 

 

Copyright © Thomas Deane Tucker 2001

 

Thomas Deane Tucker, 'A Patient Cinema or a Cinema of Patience? (Robert Bresson for Foreigners)', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 20, July 2001 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n20tucker>.

  

 

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