Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 36, July 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert W. Davis Jr

 

Cunneen's Bresson

 

 

Joseph Cunneen

_Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film_

New York: Continuum, 2003

ISBN 0-8264-1471-0

200 pp.

 

'When the public is ready to feel before understanding, what a number of films reveal and explain everything to it!' -- Robert Bresson [1]

 

Joseph's Cunneen's _Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film_ provides a clear, conservative, jargon-free introduction to the filmmaker's work. The first chapter, 'A Demanding Artist Who Respects His Audience', outlines the book's stated dual thematic concerns, spirituality and style, and the last, 'Images in a Certain Order', reiterates them. In between, twelve chapters treat Bresson's thirteen features. Each chapter is divided into three sections. A four- or five-page introduction maps the genesis of the film project and its often literary sources, situates it within Bresson's work as a whole, and gives a smattering of details and anecdotes concerning its production. A five-page précis of the film's action follows, including relevant bits of dialogue and descriptions of significant sounds and images. Finally, another five pages summarize and integrate the contemporary critical consensus concerning the film and its supposed spiritual style. Here, in the last pages of each chapter, Cunneen's book serves as a helpful summary of recent French monographs and essays from Jean Semoulue, Michel Esteve, Georges Sadoul, and Rene Predal among many others, and, of course, of Bresson's own writings and interviews. Because of this, there's nothing particularly new or daring here. Revisionism, though, is not Cunneen's aim. Rather, he seeks to present the uninitiated with materials that may 'prove useful in unraveling the central themes of [Bresson's] films and in getting a better understanding of what Cocteau calls Bresson's 'construction'' (12). And Cunneen is largely successful. Still, one could always hope for more.

 

 

1. The Spiritual

 

Notions of both *the spiritual* and *style* in Cunneen's book are rather broad. The author cautions against 'an airy discussion of 'spirituality' in Bresson's work' (22) and wisely rejects attempts to pigeon-hole Bresson as, for example, Jansenist. But what emerges instead is something that ranges from the underdeveloped -- e.g. Bresson 'draws on an explicitly Catholic spirituality' (56, in remarks about _Diary of a Country Priest_) -- to the extremely vague: the audience, somehow, despite _L'Argent_'s puzzling ending, 'emerges both cleansed and renewed' (177).

 

This imprecision may, in the end, be endemic to analysis of Bresson's films. Questions of spirituality, the divine presence, grace, redemption, and their like have dominated the discussion of Bresson's works largely because of the critical popularity of _Diary_. But already in 1967 the director, in a Roger Stephane interview Cunneen quotes, distanced himself from the notion that a simple redeemer God is present in his early work: 'To begin with, I don't think that speaking of God, pronouncing God's name, indicates his presence.' (108) Instead, Bresson equated the *divine* presence with a *human* presence, a human defined, by Bresson, as someone 'who is not a marionette who wiggles' (108). (But if the divine is, in the end, a subspecies of the human, then, applying Occam's razor . . .) Cunneen and his sources' searches for traces of the divine (or the Bressonian *human*) in the director's later films feels increasingly forced. Cunneen rightly questions Lloyd Baugh's identification of the donkey in the 1966 _Au Hasard, Balthasar_ as a 'Christ-figure', but he also rejects some (unnamed) commentator's contention that Bresson had fallen into 'an undiluted pessimism' (107). Cunneen wants to find a middle-ground for the spiritual in Bresson's late work too, but the spiritual remains ill-defined and the films, intractable.

 

For 1974's _Lancelot du Lac_ -- with its near Bergmanesque absence of God (the Grail quest has failed, Lancelot's prayers go unanswered, an altar is ransacked, mysterious archers decimate the pious) -- Cunneen is forced to find evidence of the spiritual (human) in what he calls the 'profound' love of Lancelot and Guinevere. But Lancelot strangely sacrifices that love to an absent God. The knight vowed to that God (after imagining a vision of the Grail and a voice accuse him of deceit) to end his affair with the queen. Lancelot's loyalty to Arthur and his chivalric code trumps his feelings, his human instincts. He even sends his comrades to die for Arthur the same day he returns Guinevere to her husband. Cunneen's reminder at chapter 11's end, then, that for Bresson a human presence signals the divine, seems especially strained.

 

Cunneen ends his description of Bresson's last film, the 1983 _L'argent_, by suggesting that '[a]s the screen turns black, we understand that the handcuffed Yvon is truly free for the first time' (173). But this heart-warming interpretation is hardly self-evident. (Is Yvon truly free because he confessed? Does his confession somehow represent a change? an end? an assertion of self? How so?) Nor does it account for the incredibly bizarre way the film ends. In _L'argent_'s last shot, patrons assemble outside a café staring in, very still, their faces obscured by the dark night. After a few seconds Yvon is escorted out the entrance by two policeman. But the crowd does not move, does not adjust its gaze as Yvon passes, but continues to peer into the café.

 

Sémoulé, whom Cunneen quotes approvingly, alleges the café-goers 'represent the audience in the theater which is watching the screen' (173), but this kind of clever interpretation, one focused on secret meanings, undermines the affective force of Bresson's film. That that force is formal -- and not a philosophical puzzle or an intellectual in-joke or, somehow, spiritual, whatever that is taken to mean -- was suggested by the director, for example, when he said he decided not to film the overtly religious end of the Tolstoy fiction on which _L'argent_ is based in order to preserve the 'rhythm' of his film (173). For Bresson, this rhythm -- his form, his style -- is paramount.

 

Cunneen briefly considers, but judges 'too neat', novelist Alberto Moravia's argument that in Bresson this form, his style, is 'the good': 'The real axe, stained with blood,' Moravia claims, referring to the murder weapon Yvon uses to dispatch his aged hostess and her other lodgers, 'is a baleful object; but the image of the axe is somehow beneficial. In brief, style exorcises evil.' (176) That style, which, after all, is largely what makes Bresson such an important director, deserves more detailed attention than Cunneen gives it.

 

 

2. Style

 

Whether or not the transcendent, however it is characterized, can be felt in Bresson's films, the films themselves have a largely definable style. But Cunneen, while correctly emphasizing style's importance in an approach to Bresson, treats it in a catch-as-catch-can way. He has intuited that Bresson 'may well have been an intellectual, but his movies are concerned with feelings, not ideas' (12), but his book in large part ignores this insight, one that might lead to a nitty-gritty analysis (a la the program Susan Sontag set out in her famous essay 'Against Interpretation', or exemplified in the work of, say, a David Bordwell) of the *what* and the *how*, the surfaces and the technical mechanisms that give rise to these feelings.

 

The language the author uses to consider technical matters is lay-person friendly but, perhaps because of that, often imprecise. Global structuring of episodes, the ellipsis of dramatic events, transitions between scenes, and shot-to-shot rhythms all count as *editing*, for example, though each involves different sets of aesthetic and technical considerations, none of which ever becomes the focus of any detailed investigation for any film or sequence of scenes or shots. With respect to shot-to-shot rhythms, to consider for a second the element Sémoulé thinks makes _L'argent_ 'the most boldly experimental of Bresson's films' (168), it might be profitable to investigate the film's average shot length (ą la Barry Salt) in order to determine whether or not the cutting is truly 'rapid' compared to, say, _ProcŹs de Jeanne d'Arc_ or _Lancelot_. When it is discovered that the shots are, indeed, not significantly shorter than those in other Bresson films, one might search for the real causes for his final film's rapidity. Perhaps Bresson cuts more 'on action' here. Perhaps _L'argent_'s frequent tilts and dollies, and their relative speed is the affecting agent. Or is it the speed of movement of the actors? If this last, does that speedier movement of Bresson's models represent a development in his attitudes towards acting? And, of course, one wants to know what effect this stylistic novelty has on us. More simple editing questions can be asked. Are the cutting patterns rigorously consistent throughout each film? Does Bresson occasionally engage in typical editing effects, like decreasing the length of shots at dramatic moments? (I'm thinking of the cuts, towards the end of _L'argent_, through which the drunken piano teacher slaps his landlady.) And on and on.

 

In his discussion of _Diary_ Cunneen quotes Prédal on Bresson's well-known preference for a 'normal' (50mm) lens. According to Prédal, Bresson respects 'as much as possible the vision of the eye. For this reason he did not like labored dolly or panoramic shots, which do not correspond to our way of seeing because they separate the eye from the body.' (17) Oddly, Cunneen seems to consider _Diary_ an outstanding example of this approach. The film however, is filled with dramatically emotive, unmotivated dollies, often into the face of the curé. And a careful consideration of image size would show that _Dairy_ evidences much greater variation -- from wide shots to close-ups -- than each of Bresson's later films, which are striking in their austerity. Again, the physiological (if not spiritual) effect of each film's variation in or affinity of image sizes -- and angles, and camera heights, etc., etc. -- seems important in thinking about Bresson's style and how it works.

 

The performance of Bresson's 'models' is perhaps the most obvious feature of his style. In his introduction, Cunneen quotes Sontag, relaying her assertion that Bresson, like Brecht, sought to distance viewers through his models' vacant acting. 'The emotional distance typical of Bresson's films', Sontag claims, however, 'seems to exist for a different reason altogether: because all identification with characters, however deeply conceived, is an impertinence -- an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.' (14)

 

Sontag's conjecture, that for Bresson identification is impertinence, is powerful, and Amiel's contention, that 'the primacy of body over consciousness' is 'the material of [Bresson's] entire work' (55), is worth mulling over too, but these formulations do not account for the striking effect of the emptiness of his actors on Bresson's audience. It is clearly not the case that the effect is, at least for some of Bresson's most appreciative audiences, distance. On the contrary, it seems that, in the absence of explicit expressive cues from the Bresson's subjects, the audience often pours its own feelings into the empty models. This Kuleshovian idea -- explicitly taken up again in a little book called _On Directing_ by David Mamet, whose early films' acting style seem more Bressonian than any other major contemporary director's -- might help explain, for example, why audiences are left in tears at the end of _Au hasard Balthazar_. Viewers apparently project onto the eponymous donkey -- that ultimately blank Bresson model -- feelings the animal can't possibly have.

 

Rather than consider the tensions between Sontag and Amiel and Collet and Bresson's and others' ideas about the nature and consequence of performance in these films, Cunneen simply weaves them into a fluid series of paragraphs. His work is not so much synthetic (finding the common ground on which Bresson's critics stand), much less adjudicative (evaluating their various positions), but rather Cunneen connect-the-dots, presenting some of the highlights of Bresson scholarship. Viewed as such, _Robert Bresson_ is a useful digest. Those hoping for a rigorous investigation into Bresson's style will find here hints and leads, but few questions or answers.

 

California State University, Fullerton

California, USA

 

 

Note

 

1. Robert Bresson, _Notes on the Cinematographer_ [1975], trans. Jonathan Griffin (London: Quartet Book, 1986).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Robert W. Davis Jr, 'Cunneen's Bresson', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 36, July 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n36davis>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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