Robert Bresson Revised edited by James Quandt. Indiana University Press $39.95, 752pp
First the name. Bresson. There is no other of note in history, unless one counts the hyphenated photog enamored of the moment. Bresson. The name, when pushed out of the mouth, is like some special essence, a fluidity of French pronunciation breaking open slightly with the “e,” only to close off after the electric double “s” with the cheeks flaring before hollowing to halt that long “o,” so it won’t go too far afield when the tongue taps the cleft behind the front teeth to sound the “n” and signal closure.
The name is a mantra I would gladly repeat to remind myself what art is, what truth is probably like, and why I should take life more seriously than I can afford. Robert Bresson’s cinema (better described as the “cinematograph,” his favored word for the device he chose to work with) is still largely looked at askance, but this is only to be expected since we are still coming to terms with Bresson, whose oeuvre “is at once riven and structured by paradox.” Whether the general public has become more accepting or not, the fact that Bresson has more films, seven, than any other director in Sight and Sound’s recent poll of the 250 greatest films, speaks to the degree to which critics and the public have caught up to his awing and maddening artistic enterprise.
Though Bresson gave interviews, he is still a sphinx when it comes to any autobiographical reading of his work, the little that is known being that he was a painter until about age thirty, then a photographer. While in his mid-thirties the Germans held him as a prisoner of war during World War II. He made his thirteen feature films (there is one early short film) after his wartime experience, with his last, L’Argent, arriving in 1983; he spent his final sixteen years searching for financing of his pet project on Genesis. From this there are many films centered literally and metaphorically on prison: Les Anges du Péché , A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, The Trial of Joan of Arc, and L’Argent being of the former and The Diary of a Country Priest, Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, A Gentle Woman, and The Devil, Probably the latter. Yet what makes Bresson so valuable is how his themes are enhanced by his images and sounds, as the crux of his art becomes not what is happening but how what is happening is presented. A hand entering the frame and turning, a face gazing at another, a wine glass falling and breaking—though many “events” happen, it is these scenes that define Bresson. As he said himself, “Rhythms are all-powerful. This is the first thing . . . Then, there is colour (it may be cold or hot), then a meaning. But meaning comes last.” And though “transcendental” has become a watchword when discussing Bresson, in an essay on his images, Jean-Michel Frodon says, “The sensuality of Bresson’s cinema arises out of a mysticism that does not require a belief in any kind of transcendence.”
James Quandt is the editor of this volume. He also contributes one of the essays and stands as one of the world’s foremost Bresson scholars, as he organized the first complete Bresson retrospective in North America in 1999, the year of the filmmaker’s death. Quandt’s introduction to the artist and his films is a fine place to start taking account of this force.
Most these 700 pages present a diversity of critical perspectives on Bresson, like Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Mirella Jona Affron’s account of Bresson’s and Pascal’s rhetorical affinities, and Mireille Latil Le Dantec’s look at his relationship with Dostoevsky (Pickpocket, A Gentle Woman, and Four Nights of a Dreamer are based on the Russian’s works). There is a curious, insightful piece by Jean-Claude Rousseau comparing Bresson and Vermeer, as well as Serge Daney’s examination of one brief, inimitable scene in The Devil, Probably, where an organ is tested and a vacuum cleaner hums away in a cathedral as people argue about God and revolution in an ad hoc meeting. Yet there are not only thematic readings. Robert Creeley and Patti Smith contribute poems, Kristin Thompson examines the “sparse parametric style” of mise-en-scène and editing in Lancelot du Lac, Bresson’s 1974 color film, with all 644 shots of the film broken down within a recounting of its action, as well as nearly fifty stills from the film. All thirteen features are given a good amount of coverage, with the most words reserved for two of the masterpieces, Pickpocket and Mouchette, including Lindley Hanlon’s piece exclusively on the use of sound in the latter film. And two essays by noted scholar P. Adams Sitney give excellent overviews of how Bresson’s camera and soundtrack affect the viewing, with special notice of how his figures move in the pregnant spaces he places them in.
Rounding out the volume are pieces from other filmmakers on Bresson, including Louis Malle (a one-time assistant) and current European art-house auteurs Michael Haneke and the Dardenne brothers. Haneke’s piece is both a celebration and a decoding of Bresson’s methods, particularly his use of actors, which Bresson called “models” in his aphoristic book Notes on the Cinematographer. Haneke finds the very frozen faces and slight gestures of Bresson’s actors as nearer the truth of living, seeing most cinema as shirking reality and not investigating it: “The lie that pretence is reality has become the trademark of cinema—one of the most profitable in the annals of business.” Because Bresson was more interested in truth, there is no room for “realism” in his work. Viewers get acquainted with the characters in his films as they do strangers on the street—mystery must remain, and he doesn’t use ploys to pull an audience on the side of a character or coerce some sentiment by trivializing life. Their meaning, their thoughts, and their spirits are explored by facial and bodily gestures. Talk has always been cheap in film, and the most important moments in Bresson are when a face feels, such as the many shots of Mouchette’s youthfully rounded visage trying to understand her family and the villagers who abuse her, or when the body goes to work, as the eponymous pickpocket picks or the prisoner in A Man Escaped scrapes at the wooden door of his cell with a spoon. It’s no surprise that Charlie Chaplin is one of the few filmmakers Bresson cited as an influence.
One further highlight, and an addition from the first edition, is a symposium conducted by Quandt with some celebrated film scholars, including Kent Jones, artistic director of the World Cinema Foundation, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, a retired film critic whose renown is rivaled only by Roger Ebert. This section gives the subject of Bresson a different charge because each participant’s thesis and pronouncement gets checked instantly against someone else’s knowledge and relation to Bresson, with the result of clarifying each idea. The contributors address a range of key topics: the questions of transcendentalism and existentialism in the films, his black and white films versus the color ones, Notes on the Cinematographer, 1960’s youth culture, the cult of work, and Bresson’s influence, of which Rosenbaum adds, “When I spoke to [Abbas] Kiarostami in an interview . . . about Bresson replacing an image with a sound whenever possible, Kiarostami replied, ‘In fact, I’ve studied all his films for precisely that reason.’”
The book closes with four interviews with Bresson, which take up nearly one hundred pages. Three of the interviewers are very key figures in cinema history: Jean-Luc Godard; Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Taxi Driver and author of the one of the first books on Bresson in America; and Michel Ciment, French film critic whose book Kubrick is the best study of the iconoclast. These interviews serve as a “Letters to a Young Poet” to anyone desiring a topography of the artistic impulse. Bresson lays out his aesthetic ideas, “ . . . it is true that the ear is much more creative than the eye. The eye is lazy; the ear, on the contrary, invents,” and at times displays a true prescience: “Soon films will be three hours long because they don’t know, they’ve stopped looking. It is a form of rest, a holiday for directors who are really theatre directors.” The person I picture from these words is one unwavering, brusque, impatient, insatiable, and unchained to any politics except truth, but he is also one who fights for humanity, loves art, and looks to the masters before him to guide his own work: “ . . . Degas said, ‘When you know nothing, life is easy.’”
Bresson’s films gain more viewers because his art is a brand of mysteriousness that he cultivated, “The difficulty is that all art is both abstract and suggestive at the same time. You can’t show everything. If you do, it’s no longer art. Art lies in suggestion. The great difficulty for filmmakers is precisely not to show things.” After some major critics dismissed him in his lifetime, the cineastes of the 21st century are again looking at Bresson, admiring his spiritual style at a time when what Bresson himself forecast (without the knowledge of how our eyes would go googly over the internet) in 1977 what has come to the fore:
I think in the whole world things are going very badly. People are becoming more and more materialistic and cruel, but cruel in another way than in the Middle Ages. Cruel by laziness, by indifference, egotism, because they think only about themselves and not at all about what is happening around them, so that they let everything grow ugly, stupid. They are all interested in money only. Money is becoming something you must live for.
Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. His website is GregGerke.com
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