Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 21, July 2001

 

 

David Sterritt

Bressonians on Bresson

 

 

 

_Robert Bresson_

Edited by James Quandt

Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1998

ISBN 0-9682969-1-2

612 pp.

 

Robert Bresson is unknown to the overwhelming majority of moviegoers, but among those who have cultivated an acquaintance with his oeuvre he is an artist to inspire superlatives. This may be a self-fulfilling situation, since Bresson's stylistic mannerisms depart so radically from those associated with conventional cinema that only spectators who find some sort of initial appeal in his approach -- whether despite or because of the aesthetic and hermeneutic challenges it poses -- are likely to explore his works in the detail that's required if they are to be even minimally appreciated and understood. This said, some of the smartest and savviest contemporary critics and scholars have been motivated to explore those works with notable care, and have returned from their investigations with enthusiastic reports about the artistic, philosophical, and even metaphysical value they have found therein.

 

Many of these commentators have found their way into _Robert Bresson_, the invaluable new anthology edited by Canadian critic and curator James Quandt as the second instalment in Cinematheque Ontario's ongoing series of auteur-centered monographs (a volume on Japanese director Shohei Imamura was the first). Quandt himself establishes the tone in his Introduction, which begins by citing the 'daunting beauty and difficulty' that pervades what is 'perhaps the most singular and uncompromising [oeuvre] in the history of narrative cinema' (1), and ends by calling it 'among the most exalted poetry in all cinema' (15). Shortly thereafter, American writer Jonathan Rosenbaum ratifies such encomiums with the personal touch that often characterizes his criticism, noting in his essay ('The Last Filmmaker: A Local, Interim Report') that among his most cinematically sophisticated acquaintances he doubts whether there are many -- 'if any' -- who do not consider Bresson to be 'the greatest of all living filmmakers' (17). Bresson died in 1999, but his reputation has hardly declined since Rosenbaum wrote his remarks a couple of years earlier, as the appearance of Quandt's beautifully produced collection -- and the travelling retrospective of Bresson films that it was designed to accompany -- itself attests. Many would agree with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, who said in a 1995 comment (reprinted in the book's 'Filmmakers on Bresson' section) that he 'is one of the giants of the last fifty years of cinema. Maybe *the* giant' (560).

 

Some of Bresson's enthusiasts have been drawn to his work initially by its sheer physical allure, or -- to be more precise about this important Bressonian issue -- its sheer physical *presence*, manifested through what Rosenbaum calls the 'brute reality' (19) of his images and sounds. My own admiration for Bresson was sparked to some extent by my first encounters with the sensuously rhythmic editing of _Pickpocket_ (1959) and the poignantly etched pictorialism that punctuates _Au hasard Balthazar_ (1966); and, while my preferences within his later films incline toward the rigorous framing of _Lancelot du Lac_ (1974) and the astounding stasis in the valedictory shot of _L'Argent_ (1983), I still confess an affection for the color-enhanced urban romanticism of _Four Nights of a Dreamer_ (1972), the most problematic of his major films but a vibrant and seductive vision nonetheless. Rosenbaum adds another dimension to this matter by contending that Bresson's films tend to be diminished or even annihilated in their sensory impact (and therefore their impact, period) if not experienced via 35mm prints properly projected onto a large theatrical screen. (I have had some stirring Bresson viewings via 16mm prints and even VHS videocassettes, but I tend to agree with Rosenbaum on this; hence I insisted on film prints for all screenings in the Senior Seminar on Bresson that I taught at Columbia University recently, and most of my students heartily concurred with this approach.)

 

All of this said, however, it is Bresson's tendency to raise imposing philosophical issues that gives his oeuvre the kind of lasting, self-renewing resonance that only works of impressive intellectual magnitude are likely to attain. Different commentators have emphasized different interests and concerns within this broad category, as the present anthology demonstrates, and Quandt concisely summarizes them in his Introduction.

 

Under the rubric of aesthetics we find the questions raised by Bresson's unconventional style, which marks all of his films starting with the 1951 masterpiece _Diary of a Country Priest_. (Some of its idiosyncrasies also appear in his two earlier features, _Les Anges du peche_ (1943) and _Les Dames du Bois de Bologne_ (1945), as such contributors as Rene Predal and Gregory Markopoulos suggest.) It is the distinctive qualities of this style that separate Bresson's system of 'cinematography', associated by Quandt with 'abstraction and precision . . . music and painting', from conventional systems of 'cinema', which lean toward 'theatre . . . fraudulent realism, vulgarity, and facile psychology' (3). Chief among Bresson's stylistic traits are unusual deployments of sound, including voices and music, and a preference for nonprofessional 'models' over trained performers. The latter is an especially controversial predilection that reduces the appeal of Bresson's films for audiences expecting mimetic or dramatic acting; but it reflects the sincerity of his desire to capture the existential reality of authentic human figures '[c]apable of eluding their own vigilance, capable of being divinely 'themselves,'' as he wrote in _Notes on the Cinematographer_, his 1975 collection of observations, admonitions, and meditations. [1] Also central to Bresson's style are his intertextual allusions to a wide range of works in painting (e.g. Vermeer, Giotto), music (e.g. Mozart, Schubert), literature (e.g. Bernanos, Dostoevsky), and cinema (e.g. Dulac, Renoir), which sundry essays in Quandt's volume adduce in sundry ways.

 

More pointedly philosophical are matters that Quandt groups under the heading 'A Cinema of Paradox', including the productive tensions within Bresson's work relating to surfaces and depths; analysis and synthesis; hopefulness and despair; minimalism and plenitude; the expression and suppression of emotion; the utilization and occlusion of narrative elements; corporeality and transcendence; physics and metaphysics. Moving next into terrain that's as proper to theology as to philosophy, Quandt recognizes that one cannot meaningfully engage with Bresson unless one considers his fascination with Blaise Pascal (whose _Pensees_ exerted a strong formal and ideological impact on his thinking) and with Jansenist doctrines involving questions of predestination, free will, the possibility of grace, and the knowability of the divine presence. Some critics identify these issues as formative influences on the Bresson oeuvre, while others see them as enigmatic mysteries that Bresson sought to probe and wrestle with rather than understand and elucidate. This leads to the key question of whether Bresson should be considered a 'transcendental filmmaker', per Paul Schrader's argument in his influential book _Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer_, [2] or an artist with a persistent inclination toward the 'atheistic', or at least the 'materialistic', or at very least the 'concrete', as Rosenbaum (21) and others have maintained. My own inclination vis-a-vis the 'transcendentalism vs. materialism' issue is to see Bresson as an implicitly Derridean artist who not only (a) sees such matters in profoundly dialogical terms and (b) accepts the inevitability of their ultimate nonresolution but also (c) actively embraces semiological contrast, conflict, and contradiction as epistemological and ontological virtues, viewing such tensions as sources of an all-embracing *differance* that provides spiritual comfort precisely because mere human understanding cannot begin to encompass it.

 

These are among the issues most germane to a thoroughgoing engagement with Bresson's work, and Quandt has artfully dealt with them in assembling his anthology. Although he has chosen not to divide the collection into sections and subsections with descriptive or analytical labels, he has organized the essays in such a way that they loosely trace the development of Bresson criticism as it has evolved since the appearance of Andre Bazin's seminal article '_Le Journal d'un cure de campagne_ and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson' in 1951. Bazin's essay is placed near the beginning of the book, right after the contextualization provided by Quandt's introduction and Rosenbaum's pithy 'interim report', followed by two similarly influential pieces: 'The Universe of Robert Bresson', by Amedee Ayfre, which played a strong role in Schrader's thinking on transcendental cinema; and 'Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson', by Susan Sontag, perhaps the best-known American essay on the subject.

 

Further along, the versatile scholar P. Adams Sitney pursues his 'philological' approach in two nicely complementary essays ('The Rhetoric of Robert Bresson: From _Le Journal d'un cure de campagne_ to _Une femme douce_' and 'Cinematography vs. the Cinema: Bresson's Figures'), and Mirella Jona Affron probes crucial territory in 'Bresson and Pascal: Rhetorical Affinities'. Bresson's early films are explored in essays by William Johnson, Tony Pipolo, and the ever-helpful Roland Barthes, while specialized aspects of the oeuvre are probed by Nick Browne (unconventional use of off-screen narration), Donald Richie (music, discussed with a fluid blend of scholarly information and critical perception), and Mireille Latil de Dantec (the Dostoevsky connection). Keith Reader, Michael Dempsey, and Kent Jones each focus on particular clusters of Bresson films, with Dempsey and Jones casting particularly helpful light on later works. Kristin Thompson's meticulous essay, 'The Sheen of Armour, the Whinnies of Horses: Sparse Parametric Style in _Lancelot du Lac_', is a superb example of neoformalist film analysis, although readers not already familiar with Bordwellian approaches may find it unwieldy at times. Another superior offering is 'The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson', by Raymond Durgnat, an overview of the oeuvre touching on everything from the Pascallian puzzles of 'Bresson and the Hidden God', to Bresson's relationships with various schools of realism, to a look at his 'Phenomenology of the Spirit' and what Durgnat calls 'Christendom's Last Stand', most of it handled with brisk wit and cogent intelligence.

 

Also present are essays by Pridal, Allen Thiher, T. Jefferson Kline, Lindley Hanlon, and Richard Roud, plus a 35-part section labeled 'Filmmakers on Bresson', ranging from brief paragraphs by Michelangelo Antonioni and Aki Kaurismaki to lengthy commentaries by the gifted avant-garde cineaste R. Bruce Elder and the ornery Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, with a single provocative sentence by cinema saint Chris Marker thrown in for good measure. A group of interview pieces includes Schrader's memorable _Film Comment_ miscommunication with the master (wittily called 'Robert Bresson, Possibly') and Michel Ciment's conversation with Bresson about _L'Argent_. Rui Nogueira's interview with cinematographer L-H Burel is notable mainly for the latter's ironically short-sighted criticisms of _The Trial of Joan of Arc_, a film that carries Bresson's asceticism to such extremes that even some of his admirers are hard-pressed to defend it, although they shouldn't be. But the extraordinary _Cahiers du cinema_ colloquy between Bresson and interviewers Jean-Luc Godard and Michel Delahaye is worth the price of the volume in itself, if only for its record of a rambunctious encounter between two of French cinema's most gifted and radical modernists, neither one of whom has much use for interviews in general or self-exegesis in particular. To provide at least one brief excerpt is irresistible:

 

Godard: I do not see the difference between an actor and a non-actor, since in any case he is someone who exists in life.

Bresson: But there, to my mind, there is the point, it is about that that everything turns . . .

Godard: If one has a theatre actor, then one must take him . . . good Lord, as what he is: an actor, and one can always succeed . . .

Bresson: Nothing can be done about it . . .

Godard: A moment comes, yes, when nothing can be done about it, but there is a moment, too, when one can do something.

Bresson: I have tried, in the past. And I almost succeeded in doing something. But I realized that a gulf was being hollowed . . .

Godard: But it is all the same a man, or a woman, that one has there, before one.

Bresson: No.

Godard: No?

(464; ellipses in original)

 

And a bit later:

 

Godard: It is true: a moment comes when actors are rotten, but, finally, when you take a non-professional, from the fact that you take him to have him do certain things in a film, he is acting. In one way or another, you are having him act.

Bresson: No. Not at all. And there indeed is the point.

Godard: Finally . . . let us understand each other about words: you are having him live.

Bresson: No. And then there, we arrive at an explanation . . . which I would prefer to leave for another time.

(465; ellipses in original)

 

It is both amusing and alarming to find such short-circuited understanding between two filmmakers who have so much in common. (Providing evidence of their shared sensibility in this conversation, Bresson describes his filmmaking as '[p]ainting -- or writing, in this case, it is the same thing' (483) to Godard, who one year earlier had described himself as 'painter and writer' in his 1966 masterpiece _2 or 3 Things I Know About Her_.)

 

A cover-to-cover reading of Quandt's anthology unsurprisingly reveals that not every page is worthy of equal attention. Even good essays may contain disappointing material; see the simplistic comments on religious labels like 'Christian atheist' near the beginning of Durgnat's contribution, for example, or the false distinctions he makes in a superficial critique of psychoanalytic thinking (411, 443). Some items appear to have been included because they have interesting authors (filmmaker Babette Mangolte, author Roberto Moravia) rather than productive ideas. And some portions are stronger on creative thinking than on simply getting the facts straight. For example, Reader's analysis of Mouchette's death would be more persuasive if the 'twofold disappearance' of her body (from the screen, under the water) really did find correspondence in 'the absence of the voice' from the Monteverdi passage heard at the film's conclusion. But the voice isn't absent from this music, and while its perfectly audible presence doesn't badly damage Reader's overall argument, it injects a distracting note that could easily have been avoided. (Ditto for occasional errors in Reader's generally strong book _Robert Bresson_ -- e.g. a quick check would have shown that _American Gigolo_ is Schrader's third film as a director, not his first. [3])

 

There is strikingly little second-rate writing in this enormous collection, however, and that stands as a signal achievement by Quandt, who deservedly earned a special award in 1999 from his American colleagues in the National Society of Film Critics for this book and the film series that he organized at the same time. He has made a large and lasting contribution to Bresson studies.

 

Long Island University

New York, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Robert Bresson, _Notes on the Cinematographer_, trans. Jonathan Griffin (London: Quartet Books, 1986), p. 67. This volume has also been published as _Notes on Cinematography_, creating the same sort of titular confusion that is generated by the circulation of most Bresson films under both French and English titles. I have chosen to use the titles that I deem most familiar to English-speaking viewers and readers, but I have not standardized them when quotations depart from my usage. (Quandt does the same.)

 

2. Paul Schrader, _Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972).

 

3. Keith Reader, _Robert Bresson_ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 60.

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

David Sterritt, 'Bressonians on Bresson', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 21, July 2001 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n21sterritt>.

 

 

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