↔ (Part Four)
“I certainly join you in rejecting the notion that the late films are grounded in any straightforward atheism.”
Let’s broaden that and agree to agree—which I know we do but which we must state outright for the enlightenment of our readers—that the idea of Bresson’s late films (or earlier or earliest films, for that matter) being “grounded” in anything, be it Christianity, atheism, or eroticism, is absurd; that Shklovsky is on the nose and that the greater the artist the more “enstranged” the work; and that fundamentalism of any stripe is a horror.
For that reason, I part company with you over your contention that the move away from thinking of Bresson in transcendental/Christian terms had “other, more salutary motives.” First of all, the “pietist hairshirt” idea (well, your characterization of it) comes from one book, an expanded Master’s Thesis, in which the section on Bresson is about a handful of his films. The employment of the word “transcendental” doesn’t seem like an inherently bad idea to me: it’s a vague term and necessarily so, employed to describe what is unnamable, elusive, slippery (and by the way, Schrader was not speaking in exclusively Christian terms: he went to Eliade, Freud, and Jung, in addition to Rudolf Otto, when he attempted to actually define the term). “Apophatic” might have been a better choice because it would have taken the weight off the viewer who might attend a Bresson film anxiously awaiting the “transcendental” experience. To conjure the uncanny sensation of being alive . . . to create a space in which what can’t be seen or touched or named is fleetingly felt—every artist who rivets our attention is operating in this sphere, whether it’s Stevens or Bresson, Godard or Borges, Ozu or Dreyer. My problem with a lot of the “anti-transcendental” stuff about Bresson is that it moves so violently in another direction that it winds up being a grotesque mirror image of what it’s trying so strenuously to avoid. I have trouble seeing a lot of it as salutary in either motive or effect.
I wanted to point out the absurdity of trying to deny or obliterate the presence of Christianity in Bresson (which now amounts to another kind of fundamentalism), not to insist on re-framing the conversation according to Christianity (and by the way, I think it’s important to separate the array of terms we’ve been employing here: Christian, Catholic, transcendental, pietist). I can’t improve on Tony Pipolo here. “Many critics and admirers of Bresson would prefer that such questions just go away,” he writes, quite accurately, about this very issue in the introduction to his excellent book on Bresson. “Whether convenient or not, politically correct or not, fashionable or not, or simply awkward for those who write about him, the question is unavoidable.” A few paragraphs later, he summarizes matters quite succinctly: “Bresson’s work . . . bears the signs of one raised Catholic as well as the doubts of a deeply engaged modern thinker. Pivoting on the line between the two, his cinema reflects an authentic mind-set of mid-twentieth-century thought . . . One might say that the psychological tension in which the viewer is held is a result of the sense one has of Bresson’s ambivalence toward Catholicism along with his attraction to the vision it embodies.”
As for the other -isms, I fully agree with you that each one can be “legitimately . . . felt in Bresson’s work.” But in every case, the -ism in question manifests itself differently and occupies a unique space within individual works. For instance, anarchism and revolutionary politics seem to me to be the exclusive property of The Devil, Probably (in a discussion in which I participated that was published in the second edition of James Quandt’s Bresson collection, Brian Price suggested that A Man Escaped and Pickpocket offer “blueprints” for “criminal or at least anti-social acts”—to me, that’s a ligament-torturing stretch). And where is Bresson in relation to anarchism and revolutionary politics in that film? My answer would be: profoundly curious, deeply sympathetic to the rage felt by young people at the economic and ecological horrors perpetrated in the Western world, and suspicious that said rage and its accompanying confusion have been exploited and capitalized upon by “revolutionary” organizations and their charismatic leaders.
As for eroticism, that’s a different story. Bresson himself reckoned (in his discussion with Charles Thomas Samuels) that it began on an overt level with Balthazar, and it obviously reaches a peak with Four Nights of a Dreamer. But from Les Anges du pêché on (sorry, I haven’t seen Les Affaires publiques in ages), there exists an eroticism of perception and touch, a rendering of the shivering contact between eye-hand and physical world.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulonge
A Man Escaped
We were getting into this in our last exchange, and I know that it will play an increasingly important role as we go along. It’s certainly there in the clip you included from L’Argent, and in Pickpocket with its euphoric ballet of fingers liberating wallets from pockets and watches from wrists (which has prompted some to take the plunge into the “cruising” fallacy). I think every great filmmaker has his or her proper “eroticism.” In Hawks it’s a matter of pure movement and gesture;
in Godard it’s the fullness of presence in everything from a rock picked up from the forest floor to one form—becoming-another via dissolve.
Histoire(s) du cinéma
I think that part of what we’re trying to do here is to describe Bresson’s particular eroticism and its central importance in his art. Back to that in a bit.
We also mentioned modernism. There’s a great deal that we do not know about Bresson, but we do know about his close relationships with Cocteau, Ernst, Aragon, Chanel, and Les Six. Even without the benefit of this knowledge, one might, if so inclined, characterize him as a modernist. Many have. But is it really possible to be a modernist without any discernible interest in the adventure of modernism per se (or the modernist “project,” to use a more fashionable term)? The more I think about it, the closer Bresson and Godard seem as filmmakers. Anne Wiazemsky notwithstanding, La Chinoise and Au hasard Balthazar, to take two roughly contemporary films, feel much closer to each other than either does to Persona, Blow-Up, La Guerre est finie, The Round-Up, Le Samourai, or even Not Reconciled.
Au Hazard Balthazar
Each film feels like it has been built from moments occurring within the greater circulation of the surrounding world which contains the respective films’ subject matter, settings, characters and the actors (or models) who play them and, crucially, the filmmakers themselves with their proper desires and idiosyncrasies and pursuits of mystery. If this seems like an obvious point, I think it’s instructive to look at Godard and Bresson in relation to a lot of cinema of the last 25 years—by Hou, Apichatpong, Costa, Alonso, Kiarostami, Omirbaev—which hugs tightly to the skin of reality but maintains an artfully sustained effacement of the thinking, desiring filmmaker and his/her tools. Not a value judgment, by the way . . . just an observation.
But there is also, of course, a big difference between the two filmmakers. I was struck by an exchange at the beginning of the Cahiers interview in which Bresson talks about looking for a “dramatic rise” in the writing of Balthazar and eventually creating a character who existed as a “parallel” to the donkey. I doubt that one could ever find Godard talking about dramatic rises or parallels. In Godard’s cinema, narratives and characters are archetypal and treated somewhat like found objects. Bresson is a very different story. Whatever else he is or isn’t, Bresson most decidedly is a narrative filmmaker, and he approaches narrative in a traditional sense (as opposed to, say, Rivette or Fassbinder). Olivier Assayas sees the foundations of Bresson’s art in the “concision” of French 18th-century prose. This seems just to me. Of course, we’re not talking about an academic appreciation or emulation of Diderot, Rousseau, or Laclos, but about turning to the shared idea of writing during the era in which they lived as a living source of inspiration.
“I am a painter,” Bresson proclaims to Godard, and adds, “I am scarcely a writer.” Nonetheless, the films are written and structured, and painstakingly so. And at this juncture, lest I be misunderstood, I want to clarify what I mean by “writing.” Let’s talk about another fundamentalism, this one in film criticism based on the truism that writing is the enemy, or at best the lowly servant, of direction; that writing is lifeless and stiff and direction is spontaneous and fluid. It’s as if all writing = Paddy Chayefsky and all direction = John Ford ripping 30 pages out of the script of Wee Willie Winkie. In reality, most scripts are not written to be admiringly rendered but rewritten, reworked, reshuffled, torn apart, and burnt to the ground—as Luc Dardenne says in his published diary, the scenario for La Promesse was designed to be “incinerated in the fire of the film.” Bresson’s films are meant to “die on paper” and then require resuscitation “by living persons and real objects.” He’s articulating something here that I think many filmmakers of all persuasions would agree with but that few have consciously recognized as a goal, or carried out so faithfully and thoroughly. The relationship in Bresson’s work between what is planned and what is realized, between the information covered from scene to scene and what actually lives on the screen, is so seamless that there’s a strong temptation to sidestep the intricacy of the narratives and discuss the films as if the events within them, micro and macro, had simply happened.
A lot of discussions of Bresson seem quite willful in this sense, but just as Bresson can’t be remade as a material/anarch/erotic/athe-ist, neither can he be checked off as a modernist (I don’t mean to imply that this is your intention, but it happens commonly). The degree to which his films are not traditional and are uncanny seems to me to be tied in some way to Tony’s remark quoted above. The tension he describes is present not only in the relationship with Catholicism but with dramatic structure as well. It seems clear that Bresson parted from Catholic doctrine in his growing need to meet those in despair on their own terms, even when they’re driven to suicide or murder. Unlike many modernists or post-modernists who see a world filled with traps in which acts of madness are logical and justifiable, Bresson seems to have arrived at his point of view after painstaking thought and effort. Le Feu follet, The Merchant of Four Seasons and Le Vent de la nuit are made by people for whom the idea of suicide as a sad but viable alternative was, in some way, available and acceptable. Mouchette, Une femme douce and The Devil, Probably are something else again. Unlike the Malle, Fassbinder, and Garrel films, Bresson’s do not take place in a carefully appointed world that mirrors the inner desolation of their protagonists. The states of despair and confusion and acts of violence he depicts in those films occur within, to use your well-chosen word, a world that is “replete” with the wonders of reality. Like Godard, Bresson never adjusts or tweaks the outer world to conform to the dramatic dilemmas of his films. “In nature there is no emphasis,” wrote Emerson, another “believer” whose belief took him far away from the church. The final section of L’Argent is extraordinary for exactly this reason: the example of the world in all its plenitude and overwhelming “thereness” is always present before Yvon, and the beautiful words of his final victim—“If it were up to me, I’d forgive the entire world”—are in harmony with the spaded earth, the green grass, the nuts picked off the trees, the clicking clothespins, the sunlight.
This is what gives the ending its extremely odd overtone: he’s less like a man who has recognized the gravity of his actions than a child who has thrown one tantrum too many and realized that he’s cut himself off from everyone and everything in all its “repleteness.”
I’m very fond of your starting point with Lancelot, and I guess it makes me think that the postlapsarian state of affairs is central to Bresson on a very basic level. The surrounding world unfolds repletely and, per Emerson, unemphatically, while confusion is man-made. In the opening scenes of Lancelot, we feel the contrast with a thwack. All of a sudden, we’re witness to the strangeness of heavy swords puncturing skulls and severing heads, wielded by figures clad in ant-like armor reflecting the greenery of the forest and the sunlight from above, and our ears are suddenly tuned to the unearthly sounds of clanking metal, grunting, the pounding of horses' hooves. The rhythm is immediately arresting—scene of violence/ride away/scene of violence/ride away.
Lancelot du Lac
This “pre-credit sequence,” which begins in media res (to put it mildly—in the middle of the middle of things is more like it), is almost a film unto itself. And I think that in the later work (from Four Nights of a Dreamer on, I suppose), one has the sense of multiple films, of Bresson going so deep into the particulars of a reverberant passage or refrain that a sequence can feel like a remembered whole broken into discrete sensual fragments resonating and doubling. As if any given scene could be taken apart and put back together in another order, as your piece demonstrates: the flags, the bagpipes, the name “Lancelot” uttered in a low tone, the galloping horses…
In this sense, Bresson feels comfortably, perhaps reliably, modern(ist). But just as he came to his hard-won understanding of suicide, so I think he arrived at something that feels like modernism through practice rather than an attraction to alternate forms of storytelling. There’s a wonderful exchange between Bresson and Godard on photography that illustrates the contrast. Bresson is talking about simplicity, about the fact that one must approach it carefully and never jump on it, how this requires “a certain strength, a certain vigor,” and then he adds that cinematography can be “too easy a thing, too convenient.” Every step must be taken with great care. And I love Godard’s answer about his own practice: “Yes, it is necessary, if one can say so, to violate photography, to push it in its . . . But as for me, I go about it differently, for I am—let us say more impulsive.”
Au Hazard Balthazar
Le Gai savoir