Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film
New York: 2003. 200pp. $29.95 (cloth).
As the Sixties rolled in, not the least of the revolutionary cultural forces crashing onto American shores was the remarkable collection of French filmmakers known as La Nouvelle Vague, with the still-familiar names of Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, and Erich Rohmer. But one great French director had started out fifteen years before the New Wave (and was still active into the 1980s): Robert Bresson (1901-1999). An impossibly painstaking artist, Bresson made only thirteen movies over forty years, and he never became very popular in this country. But there's no doubt that, even if you can't find his work at Blockbuster, he was one of the supreme filmmakers of the 20th century; and Joseph Cunneen has now produced a fine general introduction to Bresson's austere oeuvre.
Newcomers to Bresson will appreciate Cunneen's clear, sensible style, his detailed plot summaries, filmography, and solid bibliography (though an index would have helped). Cunneen ably addresses the many eccentric features that combine to create Bresson's strangely severe and haunting style: the consistent use of non-actors (B. spoke of "models," rather than actors), the endless retakes, the absence of psychology (critic Vincent Amiel called it "the primacy of the body over consciousness"), the discontinuous narrative flow, the obsession with hands, the weird insistence that the "models" speak as if to themselves rather than to the other characters, etc.
But what does all this add up to? Cunneen argues that Bresson is not a "religious" cinematographer in any obvious sense, although religious themes naturally come to the fore in Angels of Sin (1943), Diary of a Country Priest (1951), The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), and Lancelot of the Lake (1974). Still, Bresson is neither a theologian nor a preacher. A Man Escaped (1956) retells the true story of a French POW's escape from a Nazi prison. Of the two films frequently acclaimed as Bresson's finest, au hazard Balthasar (1966) is about the life and death of a mistreated donkey, and Mouchette follows the path to suicide of a poor and utterly wretched young teenage girl. Similarly, less celebrated works, such as The Ladies of the Bois du Boulogne (1944), Pickpocket (1959), and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1972) have what looks like a plainly "secular" content.
True, Bresson did say, "The more life is what it is--ordinary, simple--without pronouncing the word 'God,' the more I see the presence of God in that..." But this "presence" is much closer to a well-nigh ineffable intuition than to any traditional formula. As Bresson wrote in 1988, his overriding intention was, "Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that 'heart of the heart' which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or philosophy, or by drama." (But isn't film a form of drama?)
That is what Cunneen means by Bresson's" spiritual style--"method," somewhat like Descartes' method, namely both an approach and a complete worldview. And if it defies definition, Bresson's vision can be both illustrated and appreciated, as Cunneen does with careful analysis and support from a host of first-rate critics. Thus, while not completely agreeing with his assessment, Cunneen cites Alberto Moravia's stark summary, which dovetails with his own: "Bresson sees 'the good' in the Attic basis of French civilization--that is, its traditional mixture of rigor, restraint, and rationalism [the three r's, pour ainsi dire--PH], the distinctive sign of its national genius. In other words, 'the good' would be 'style.' This leads to the curious conclusion that evil exists in life, and good in the way that it is represented. The real axe, stained with blood, with which the assassin kills his victims is a baleful object; but the image of the axes is somehow beneficial." If nothing else, that would explain the bare, classical purity of Bresson's scripts, a language one can find in authors as radically different as Jean Racine and Samuel Beckett.
But the last word in the baffling attempt to pin Bresson down should go to Cunneen himself. In discussing Diary of a Country Priest he notes that its aesthetic form "depends on the duplication of sound and image, emphasizing the interiority of all action." That is, the scene portrayed coincides with the words of the diary--and the doomed cure d'Ambricourt's reflection on that moment. But does this actually take us inside the priest, into "the heart of his heart"? (Does anything?) Probably not, since all art, including the cinema, the most beguilingly "real" of all the arts, is still an illusion.
Still, Bresson carries us a long way in that direction; and Cunneen helps us to see where this subtle, understated yet passionate master is heading. Perhaps it's time for a Bresson renaissance.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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