International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 37, July 2005







Joseph Cunneen


Response to Davis



Robert W. Davis Jr

'Cunneen's Bresson'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 36, July 2005


Robert Davis has written a fair and demanding analysis of my book on Bresson. Clearly, my intention was to introduce Bresson to English-language readers who had not seen his work; under Davis's prodding I would have been forced to produce a more analytical book, though notions of *the spiritual* and *style* would probably remain as open-ended as they always will be.


I wasn't attempting a theological work, but see no problem in understanding Bresson's 'if there is a human presence, there is a divine presence' as in harmony with Christian emphasis on the Incarnation. Davis finds the spiritual in the late films *intractable*; I would remind him that the older Bresson conceded that he had reached greater *lucidity*, but insisted, 'I don't want to shoot something in which God would be too transparent . . . I want to make people who see the film feel the presence of God in ordinary life.' [1]


Although the nuns in his first full-length film _Angels of Sin_ can be taken far more seriously than their Hollywood counterparts, the mature Bresson could never again produce the pious melodrama of its conclusion (one sister dying, the other surrendering to the police). Comparing this with the ending of _L'Argent_ is instructive. Here Bresson offers no pious trimmings, and fails to include the long process of repentance found in the second half of his Tolstoyan source. 'I am sorry', he said, 'that in _L'Argent_ I was unable to linger on Yvon's redemption . . . but the rhythm of the film, at that stage, would not stand for it.' [2] The affective force of his ending is powerful, but depends on the audience remembering Yvon's peaceful moments working with the gray-haired woman who told him, 'If I were God, I would forgive everyone.' But is there not also a sense of the spiritual in the purity and harshness of Bresson's hatred of money, as expressed in this film?


In _Lancelot du Lac_ Bresson deliberately emphasizes the collapse of the code that had sustained the round table, but also shows the nobility of Lancelot's knightly idealism, however confused. Audiences find it easier than Davis to find both profundity and contradiction in the love of Lancelot and Guinevere. They respond to the deeply *human presence* found in the hero's struggle: first rescuing Guinevere, then sending his men to defend Arthur, and finally returning the queen to her husband. Although my book quotes Michel Esteve as saying that _Lancelot_ is the film 'in which the presence of God is least felt', Guinevere's critique of the religious blindness of the knights -- 'God is not a trophy to bring home' -- seems in itself a demonstration of the film's 'spiritual' depth.


Davis is correct in asserting that my treatment of style is neither as detailed or technically sophisticated as it should have been. But this would have required a longer book, one aimed more at specialists like himself. I am probably incapable of doing justice to the subject, even though I recognized at the outset of my book that the 'spiritual' in Bresson's films is a matter of style rather than subject matter or ideology. Properly understood, _Lancelot_ and _L'Argent_ are as 'spiritual' as _Proces de Jeanne d'Arc_ and _Diary of a Country Priest_.


Perhaps what is most admirable about Bresson's films is their precision and restraint: he never manipulates his audience with the false emotion endemic to the blockbuster. Paradoxically, however, his films often occasion profound emotional involvement. As Davis says, referring to the performance of Bresson's 'models', 'the audience often pours its own feelings on the empty models'. He refers, appropriately, to the end of _Au hasard Balthasar_. _The Man Escaped_ may offer an even more extreme example, since, with its very title, the director seems to eliminate the natural opportunities for suspense available in a prison drama. In practice, however, we feel an intense involvement in the smallest detail of the hero's efforts to escape. As elsewhere, there is violence in the material but its expression is always presented by indirection and with the greatest discretion.


Despite its shortcomings, I hope my book will strengthen the call for more Bresson retrospectives on both sides of the Atlantic.


Nyack, New York, USA





1. Cunneen, _Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film_ (New York: Continuum, 2003), p.164; source is Paul Schrader, 'Robert Bresson, Possibly', _Film Comment_ vol. 13 no. 5, 1977.


2. Cunneen, _Robert Bresson_, p. 173; source is Michel Ciment, 'I Seek Not Prescription But Vision: Robert Bresson on _L'Argent_', in James Quandt, ed., _Robert Bresson_ (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, l998), p. 507.



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Joseph Cunneen, 'Response to Davis', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 37, July 2005 <>.













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