The film critic David Thomson wrote that a short commentary on the French filmmaker Robert Bresson is “a hopeless task,” in large part because “no other great director seems less intrigued by cinema itself…he seems to shame the extrinsic glamour and extravagance of movies.” The comment about the hopelessness of the task is certainly true – I’ve thought several times of writing an article on Bresson and then backed away, knowing it would only expose my superficiality. But Thomson’s remark about his distance from cinema is a bit misleading, and ultimately unhelpful. I once described in this space an extra on the DVD of Bresson’s last film L’Argent, made in 1983, in which the interviewer asks him about a rumour that he’d recently enjoyed a James Bond film. The aging, massively distinguished director almost leaps to confirm this, saying that he took his two nieces to see For Your Eyes Only because they asked him to. “It filled me with wonder,” he says, “because of its cinematographic writing...if I could have seen it twice in a row and again the next day, I would have done.”
Of this world
I speculated at the time that “for a director brought up in the silent era, who perhaps took himself less seriously than the legend suggests, it’s beguiling to think even a humdrum action film might be divorced from its formulaic plotting (the sense of which of course is primarily rooted in our having seen too many of them) and superficial characterization and dubious moral underpinnings, and regarded solely as a show of light and movement and possibility.” Subsequent to this I read about a French memoir in which one of Bresson’s young actresses basically described him as a dirty old man; the cinematographer on that same film said: “He was immense as a filmmaker. But I would never confide my daughter to him, never.” And it’s said that as a young man, Bresson worked as a gigolo. All of which is only to say that it’s probably unnecessary and unrewarding to see the director, as commentators often do, and as his films might certainly encourage, as someone of such mystical austerity and focus that he barely seems of this world.
In his introduction to a recent series of Bresson’s films at the Lightbox, James Quandt called his a “cinema of paradox, in which the denial of emotion creates emotionally overwhelming works…a chaste aesthetic generates potent sensuality…documentary naturalism becomes abstract formalism.” I think this goes to the difficulty I’ve had in coherently expressing myself – I’ve returned constantly to Bresson’s films (there are only thirteen of them), at least twice a year in recent times, partly out of fascination at how they never quite seemed to feel as I thought they should. For example, the Lightbox program quotes descriptions of his Diary of a Country Priest as “a film of great purity” and “the screen’s most devastating account of the arduous ascent to sainthood.” These comments aren’t at all unearned, but they all but direct you to kneel down before the picture as you watch it. This film too though has a distinct streak of more earthly pleasure. Near the end, the horribly suffering priest accepts a ride on a motor cycle for the first time, experiencing a profound feeling of youth and of appreciation for the risks of youth, which he terms as “blessed.” “I understood,” says his voice over, “that God didn’t want me to die without knowing something of this risk. Just enough for my sacrifice to be complete when its time came.”
The Devil, Probably
It’s possible (at times, probably inevitable) to watch the films without absorbing the full weight of such moments, to collapse their specificity into a generalized “transcendentalism.” But that example richly illustrates the paradoxes that Quandt refers to. The motor cycle seems at first like a somewhat crude intrusion into the film, something a lesser director might associate more with Satan than God. Maybe the priest’s reference to God’s wish for him is a profound breakthrough to the divine; but maybe it’s a rationalization, an indulgence even, just as the term “sacrifice” is inherently overblown as a label for something out of one’s control. At least once in the film, the priest experiences a moment of knowledge that might seem “supernatural,” but the observer reflexively attributes it to Satan. The priest’s death, and his last words that “all is grace,” occur off-camera, described in a letter written by an onlooker; whatever the truth of his ascension, it belongs only to him (and perhaps to God), not to us, and not to “cinema.”
Bresson’s second-last film The Devil, Probably, made in 1977, extends this unknowability to an almost terrifying extent; the French authorities viewed it as an incitement to suicide. At times, the film seems unsubtle for Bresson, incorporating depressing documentary footage of various environmental atrocities. By this point, his use of actors had become more stylized; at times you get the feeling of gorgeous zombies, repelled and often almost frozen by the ugliness of the world, yet always feeling themselves capable of breaking through to something, if only because they’re seduced by their own beauty. The tussle extends right up until the end – the protagonist pays someone to kill him, and the trigger gets pulled as he’s in the middle of a sentence; maybe a cruel joke, denying him his sense of closure, or a mercy, saving him from having to look back with regret from the next world at whatever banality he was about to utter. It’s startling that a director so identified with “spiritual” themes could make such a matter-of-fact film about suicide, an act sometimes regarded as almost the ultimate blaspheme.
Nights of a Dreamer
I’m focusing on those two films only because they’re among the ones I happened to see most recently. The other was Four Nights of a Dreamer, from 1971, about a young man who intercepts a girl who’s perhaps about to (again) kill herself after her lover abandons her, and helps her find him again even as he falls for her himself. The film is perhaps Bresson’s most tender and enchanted, less bleak than The Devil, Probably because it acknowledges the possibility of escaping into dreams (or into art, posited here as much the same), short of self-extinction. We’re lucky to be living in a time when the majority of his work is easily available on DVD, not one weak film among them, and although it’s not a large body of work, it sometimes fills capable of satiating your capacities (other than those I’ve mentioned, the most essential include Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar – constructed around the lifelong suffering of a donkey – and Mouchette; Lancelot du Lac is probably the most puzzling for the uninitiated). The films are almost beyond human reckoning, which is why it’s so essential to perceive them as the work of a man.