* * *
The irruption of people peripheral to the narratives of Bresson’s later films into those narratives, in brief but sharply-etched inserts – this is one of the developments which (though not totally unnoted) deserves more attention than it has had. In particular, it might alter the perception of Bresson’s filmic personality, his attitude to what he shows, which risks being mischaracterized as distanced and cold.
These ‘peripherals’ might be nominated functionaries. In two senses: they are functional in the sense of being necessary to the narrative at a given point; and within the narrative they are often literally functionaries – waiters, tellers, etc. Sometimes they occur in groups: the mail-censoring ladies in their light-blue smocks at the prison, in L’Argent (1983). In terms of looks, gestures, or intonations, there is nothing to choose between them and the people whose ‘stories’ we are following. They belong to the same world – but the emphasis should be on “belong”: they belong to the film’s world, and that is why it is a world. Because what is common to the facades must be true also of what the facades conceal. It suddenly hits the viewer that these desk-clerks, gendarmes, bartenders and so on, have ‘stories’ that the film could just as well have decided to follow. (As indeed it did in one famous case, that of Buñuel’s Le Fantôme de la Liberté , a film entirely structured on ‘taking up’ peripheral people and their eternally-unfinished stories, i.e. on problematizing peripherality, which is what Bresson also does in his own way.)
This didn’t come completely out of the blue; there were anticipations in the earlier films, particularly Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). But with Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur (1971) a definite adoption – almost, in that film, an explosion – of lovingly observed Others comes into Bresson’s work, with the notable exception of Lancelot Du Lac (1974). (The countries of myth tend to be parsimonious with population-density.) There they are – mute, expressionless, efficient…in odd, often voiceless moments that make a nick in the mind: –
The bedridden girl glimpsed near the start of Balthazar in Marie’s house, and never again: meaning, evidently, dead. (The sister life left behind? The unspoken memory creasing the embittered face of Marie’s father?) The barmaid in Mouchette (1967) turning with defiant mockery to the gamekeeper over her shoulder from the ferris-wheel car she occupies with a young male companion. The furtive couple, the ‘friends’ of the absent suitor, to whom Jacques delivers Marthe’s letter, in Quatre Nuits. In the same film, the homely hippy girl singing (in English) “If I were a pretty girl…” to a strummed guitar, on the Seine embankment at dusk – unsmilingly managing to achieve a strange specificity of identity in less than a minute. And in L’Argent alone…
There is the blonde girlfriend of the restaurateur who proposes the ‘wheel’ job to Yvon: seen on the bed in black scanties before being sent out to have a drink while ‘business’ is discussed; silent, sullen, tired – yet with a tawny, toughened sensuality that leaves its teeth-marks in one’s memory. And the middle-aged man, strolling with an opened newspaper on the far side of the small street where Yvon is parked during the failed bank-heist: we pan with him as he ambles diagonally across to the near side, behind Yvon’s car, still browsing as he reaches the police cordon – and, realizing what is afoot, ducks into the nearest building entrance, leaving two cops in view, squatting with long-barrelled handguns and aiming at the bank entrance. The mail-censoring team has already been mentioned. But the nurse who addresses Yvon by his first name (“How do you feel, Yvon?”) when he comes around after his suicide-attempt, certainly rates a notice. The familiar form of address on the part of one totally unknown to him mirrors an experience to which those – all of us – who come into contact with public or semi-public functionaries are now drearily attuned: the meaningless chumminess, quite unaware of the contempt implied in this grade-school address (on a par with the ‘Have a nice day!’ of front-counter staff). In L’Argent it reflects the insulting patronage of public-service officialdom – of the institutionally secure, as picked up by the Bressonian antenna. It was one of the reinforcing pins jabbed into an exposure of France’s backside, and not to everyone’s taste. Not to that, for example, of the French voters who believed that under Mitterand their country’s corruptions and inequities had disappeared.
Nonetheless, it is this that makes Bresson’s late films worlds, and his worlds so densely real. Far from showing an inhuman and mechanized indifference to their peripheral people – as the films have occasionally been accused of doing – the films pay them the very rare compliment of treating them as exactly on a par with their story ones: this is the effect they produce. And (even rarer) of not usurping their dignity with the pretense of ‘having done’ with them in the performance of their roles (in both senses). The attitude is deeply respectful, intensely human.
Non-professional actors are a complete mystery, like everyone I meet.
The most fascinating thing in life is curiosity. I want people to want to know, I want them to want to explore the mystery that is life, a mystery not to be imitated, only imagined.
(Both Positif interview, Projections 9 p.7)
And should we omit mention of a curious corollary attending this approach? – That one is never sure, on seeing a new face, whether it will be part of the ‘main’ story or disappear for good? By no means. It is just this uncertainty that has us watching the woman in L’Argent so closely on her first appearance (the street, the bank, the bridge and the cottage door in semi-rural setting), investing her dark-clothed figure with the haunting specter-like quality of ‘expendable’ soldiers before an attack, of all we might never see again; an intuition which proves indeed not to be false, even if its elements are a bit scrambled. On the bridge a figure from some long-lost childhood of adventure fiction in idealized settings – a thing Franju so often tried to catch – she reminds us that almost the totality of people we see, we will see once only. The value of this pathetic, perishable glimpse is something that in film Bresson alone has managed to make us feel as we view.
How many dozen more might I have mentioned? Barmaid, mistress, stroller, a dying girl…mere glimpses, but the present writer will never forget them.
THE BUG IN THE SYSTEM
It is clear that, in avoiding any overt ‘acting’ in his models, Bresson also avoided a major anachronism in cinema: that whereby a ‘performance’, regarded in hindsight, tells us less of what is being performed than of the acting styles prevalent when the film was made. To this peculiar bug of cinema a bacillus of ‘campiness’ frequently adds its symptoms, especially to films strongly marked by Genre – costume-films, notoriously. Spaghetti-westerns, for example, had already fallen under the dead weight of their own tight-lipped ‘macho’ delivery by the start of the ’70s: seen, a mere 6 years from their birth, for the imitable convention it was. (Recognition is the very soul of Genre.) While 75 years on, it arouses incredulity to find that Valentino’s pop-eyed leers, his heavy-lidded yet prim stares, could ever have been taken seriously at their own level, as valid contemporary expressions both acceptable and instantly recognizable. (‘To whom!’, one wants to howl. But then, they believed the Martians had landed too.)
For want of truth the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti’s way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer’s film, used to draw tears.
(Notes On The Cinematographer p.116)
The deadly “used to” says it all (and should be a sufficient answer to Schrader’s cacogenous grouping).
Subject, technique, actors’ style go by fashion. Result, a sort of prototype, which one film every two or three years changes for a new one.
Within the present generation’s memory there is The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), from whose time it was possible for mainstream films to lay songs over ‘montage sequences’, there is Penn and Peckinpah setting a trend for slow-motion during violent action, there is Schlesinger pushing back the boundaries for degrees and kinds of sexuality permissible on the commercial screen – all distantly indebted to European and Japanese “prototypes”. In France, Godard found himself playing this exasperating role in the 1960s; in Italy, Antonioni. Even Bergman saw his stark Strindbergian ‘chamber cinema’ turning (albeit briefly) into a subject of adulatory fashion. At a style-conscious time, no door could shut fast enough against its inserted shoe.
He was safest whose door had never been opened to begin with!
The number of films that are patched up with music! People flood a film with music. They are preventing us from seeing that there is nothing in those images.
To this sixties state of affairs Bresson is perhaps the single exception. His films were as unfashionable then – with both public and critics – as Godard’s are now (lucky man!). It should not be hard, for anyone who has read this essay up to the present point, to guess what Bresson’s door was fast against, at those and at all other times. Precisely because his films resist any sort of generic type-classification – a thing that angers academics and film so-called historians – they are without the bold dateline other products of that catwalk-epoch now sport, as its pennant. Which might ensure them a more than merely archival perenniality.
It is only when a period is over that we recognize it as a period – because only then are both its parameters seen, the one that rounds it off as well as that with which it began. And from that moment, it is dead; as dead as the orthochromatic dust of the tramlined twenties which continue to roar in such silence! This is a metaphor, for a body in two senses: a literal, material body, and a body of work – both of which for Bresson are now rounded off. But it is only from the first that one may precisely date the other.
Does this mean that Bresson’s non-acted people of the fifties and sixties are ‘timeless’? No: if they were that, no one could believe they had ever existed either. (It is, on the contrary, the theatrically-acted personas of Dreyer, of Rossellini, who are timeless – and placeless.) Priest and Pickpocket, prisoners and village girls, are securely ‘sited’, if only because of clothes, cars, and radio-music. It is truer to say that the time-bound objects and manners that come through are those that still feel unforced and valid today, because an unnoticed, automatic extension of the models’ own natural repertoire – so discreet as to fuse effortlessly with any human context in which they are placed, including us. Which doesn’t mean that they are the less individuated; but which does result in our feeling them the more authentic, because we too don’t find the surface of their times distractingly noticable. Where they depend on utilities and mechanisms of their day, they are at ease with them – and so are we.
A very basic psychological principle is at work: a man or woman who is not cripplingly self-conscious of each action, each bend of the fingers or each simple task, will ensure that their (invisible, forgotten) spectators are not too conscious of them either. We believe in the preoccupation of the person – and therefore, in that person. More: believing in it makes us readier to involve ourselves in it. When the way of showing an action is visible over and above the thing shown, it is a sign that something in the circuitry from screen to spectators and back has failed. Matter has dulled and died out under Manner. Those, on the other hand, who are at ease with their furniture, clothes, utilities, popular dances, etc., will put us at ease with them, since we won’t be continually staring at them as if they were archaeological exhibits. (In reality, do we, ever?) Like hosts who never make a parade of their own good manners, the epoch’s souvenirs have the good taste to become – ordinary.
All this leaves a very bare hunting-ground for the ‘post-historicist’ or -‘modernist’, for the academic and his label-satchel, for the gourmet of fine phrases and the critic. No self-reflexive oasis under the palms will be found on this terrain. (Bless it!)
MAKE THEM DESIRE IT
…One has to work out a principle which allows for film to affect people individually. The ‘total’ image must become something private. (Comparable with the images of literature, painting, poetry, music.)
The basic principle – as it were, the mainspring – is, I think, that as little as possible has actually to be shown, and from that little the audience has to build up an idea of the rest, of the whole. In my view that has to be the basis for constructing the cinematographic image. And if one looks at it from the point of view of symbols, then the symbol in cinema is a symbol of nature, of reality. Of course it isn’t a question of details, but of what is hidden.
(Andrey Tarkovsky, entry for 24 January 1973, in Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986, Faber 1994; quoted in part, but without
The entry just quoted, from a man who revered the subject of this article, might, with but a few stylistic changes in the direction of brevity, have come from Bresson – even to the term “cinematographic” (as distinct from ‘cinematic’). It is the best, because the most explicit, key to why “what is hidden” and “as little as possible” is more important than “what is shown” (in Bresson, this is): an imaginative decipherment is what this forces you to do; and the individual response, in consequence, is what it forces you to have.
What is hidden: the source of a sound, the object of a look causing a visible (if indefinable) change in a face. The sound may often be unidentifiable, and remain enigmatic for a long time; the cause of consternation (or joy, or anger, or any other affect detectable in the model’s look) is likely to be another person in the same setting or visible therefrom, whose identity is withheld for an unusually long time – “delivery withheld”, as one of the official stamps in L’Argent has it.
With sounds I will deal in the following section. On visible effects Bresson had this to say:
Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it.* [A footnote on the same page amplifies.] *The other day I was walking through the gardens by Notre-Dame and saw approaching a man whose eyes caught something behind me, which I could not see: at once they lit up. If, at the same time as I saw the man, I had perceived the young woman and the child towards whom he now began running, that happy face of his would not have struck me so; indeed I might not have noticed it.
This is a quite classical use of camera-angle and montage, whose immediate effect is: making us want to know (‘What happened next?’). We expect to be enlightened – which is why Bresson warns himself on the next page (93): “Create expectations to fulfil them.” It also underpins a subtler involvement with the person whose affects we view: wanting to see what he sees, know what he knows, i.e. to share his sensory space and be ‘subjective’ for a greater or lesser while.
Several memorable instances occur in Pickpocket (1959); one of them (the sudden change from discouragement to energy when the customer leaves the bank) was noticed in the last issue of Senses of Cinema. There is also Michel spotting and offering his hand to the Inspector, in the bar where he meets Jacques. The moment is an important one: we see his extended hand well before the Inspector comes into view in the foreground (yes reader, yet another elaborate tracking-shot); and it is the only other occasion apart from the ending on which Michel voluntarily touches another person. In both cases, intuition (which we can call a ‘directing hand’ if one insists) seems to have led him to those who, in different ways, will be the means of releasing him from the obsession of his illegal skills.
More immediately striking, perhaps, is the look of apprehensive surprise, almost of fear, that comes into Michel’s face as he begins descending the bottom flight of stairs at his flophouse. Only when he has reached the vestibule does a reverse-angle show one of the double doors open to the nighttime street, and the man pacing slowly back and forth outside – spotting Michel, reversing direction momentarily, then back into view, alternately masked and revealed by the decrepit doorframes. A suit-and-tie, a back sliding out of sight, then a trouser-cuff again… Michel at first seems to take him for a police agent, and continues determinedly on his way, allowing the man to pass him on the sidewalk: the experienced pickpocket, who seems to know that Michel will follow – as he does. (An ironic reversal at the end: Michel mistaking a real agent provocateur for a fellow pickpocket.) A long track facing Michel on the sidewalk – already mentioned in this essay – takes in the subtle change in his look as he realizes that no cop would be so blatant; then, still tracking, an angle over his other shoulder shows the man behind him giving a diffident little shrug, and stepping up his pace to pass.
The subtle grasp of audience-psychology is, as these examples indicate, not unakin to that of Hitchcock (alike to Bresson in other, odd ways which have been noticed here and there in this essay). At its core is a sorcerer’s use of the wants of the moment:
The eye solicited alone makes the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient. Use these impatiences. Power of the cinematographer who appeals to the two senses in a governable way. Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence.
(N.O.C. p.52; italics in orig.)
“Use these impatiences”. Involvement is the key to the ‘ascetic’ minimum deployment, so often noted, of Bresson’s filmic resources – of his tactical “slowness” and “silence”, of the “as little as possible”. This was why he avoided saturating the senses all at once with a single task, and all the duplication and wastage this entails.
An entry in the Notes reveals what Bresson required of his audience’s senses:
If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear.* [*Footnote: And vice-versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye.] One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.
All eye, or all ear: each sense was to be used at maximum receptivity, at full strength, able to register the minutest or broadest data applicable to it. But the ability to do this was conditional on the senses not diluting each other’s importance.
What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear.
If a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound, or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colors.
A sound that merely underlines and supports an image will cause both sound and image to reciprocally weaken their effects. Both contribute to a common cinematographic world, both belong – but in different ways. Sound should support that part of the picture which is not visible (except as an imaginative phenomenon of the viewer). It should not copy what we can already see: the result will be a piling-up of parallels which mutually detract.
An appeal to the non-physical organ of the imagination is immediately involving and immediately intimate, and at a not-negligible depth. Using the non-visible part of a setting, or a vaguely-familiar but unplaceable sound, as a stimulus proves to be an economy in more than one sense: not only in the deployment of available devices, but in laying up a large reserve store of them for the really important moments, the important effects – which will then hit with all their strength. Ask yourself why Bresson concealed Fontaine’s killing of the patrol-guard, at the end of A Man Escaped (1956). Wouldn’t it have provided a release? It would – but too soon, and of the wrong kind! The simple-minded satisfaction of a revenge on Fontaine’s tormentors was not what Bresson was aiming for. The burst of victorious joy – sheer and unadulterated – that explodes in the viewer when Fontaine and Jost walk off outside the wall, free as night…that shows what he was after. A Man Escaped is one of the cinema’s greatest hymns to the power of a free human will over its destiny; its triumph is the release one is to feel at the end. Providing another kind of release in advance would only have diluted the intended one; Bresson would have split his effect between them, and both would have been weakened.
That was a mistake Bresson never made, from the time of Journal D’Un Curé De Campagne (1950). There was always point to his enigmas and concealments; to the “margin of indefiniteness” whose limits he controlled with a master’s hand.
In putting the viewer’s imagination to work, one avoids buttering already-buttered bread. An over-supply of sensory information walls off the spectator. When everything has been done for him, he feels excluded, even somewhat de trop. A delusory sense takes hold, that the world on the screen is, in principle, capable of functioning autonomously and continuing on without his presence, so replete and self-fulfilling does it seem; and so superfluous to it, correspondingly, does he! By giving each viewer a share in realizing the world he evokes, Bresson closes the distance between the life on the screen and the spectator – whose realization is now a part of the screen’s life. It is irremovably embedded in the viewing experience of the film.
Accustom the public to divining the whole of which they are given only a part. Make people diviners. Make them desire it.
On the other hand, should Bresson at any moment decide to open up the resources of his medium, should he wish to make us sit up and stare – how wide the spectrum of choices and possible effects has then become! What precision is at his command! How subtle he can afford to be, how minimal his move! It has taken us seven decades to catch up with Chaplin’s observation, that a film filled with close-ups – doesn’t have any.
SOUNDINGS FROM THE SURFACE
To what Bresson himself said, in interviews and in his Notes, about his use of sound there is little to add: but that little is crucial. Examples are what I am adding; and let me remind the reader that it is for the sake of the examples that all this is being written. If the instances and highlighted moments chosen from Bresson’s oeuvre do not tempt a cinephile to re-view (with one’s own eyes and ears) and re-consider (with one’s own mind) whether it does not reach certain levels as yet unsounded, I scribble and tap in vain.
Bresson’s main observations on filmic sound remained broadly constant – though diversified in his later uses by bolder application. A schematic list of principles, then, backing each with a citation or two, can suffice to introduce the exemplary instances, and any summary comments required by way of clarification.
Synchronous, non-musical sounds were from early on used by Bresson in musical ways: as natural punctuation marks for important or singular moments (replacing the loud orchestral chords common in most films); and as rhythmic devices, setting the tempo of a mood or a mode of life.
The noises must become music.
Rhythmic value of a noise. Noise of a door opening and shutting, noise of footsteps, etc., for the sake of rhythm.
(N.O.C. p.42; italics in orig.)
One thinks of the way the sounds at first harmonize with the foreground dialogue when Dr. Delbende is given his last rites, in Journal D’Un Curé De Campagne. De Torcy is telling the young priest about his late friend’s sad last years, through the passenger window of one of the cars; a dignified line of them is parked outside the large church. As each statement of De Torcy concludes, the soft slam of a car-door is heard in the background; as his young colleague begins a question in reply, the rising note of a starting motor comes: a rhythm broken only at the priest’s startled exclamation – broken off when he sees Torcy’s look – on learning that Delbende’s death was a probable suicide. Torcy’s initial response to this, also broken off, restores the rhythm momentarily. Then he sits back, winds up his window; the loud, reverberating slam of the church-door follows; Torcy’s car drives off – fadeout on the young priest.
Despite the exceptional rigour with which this scene is ‘scored’ – which makes it a standout – this is a quite classical harmonizing of sounds for expressive purposes. The initial harmonies are those between the priest and De Torcy; then the scene concerns the interior state of the protagonist, in good 19th.Century symphonic fashion. Later, this usage became even more sophisticated, using what reality offered to emphasize or ironically counterpoint inward upheavals and concerns – the latter particularly from Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur on.
It is also true, however, that sounds considered in isolation, apart from anything they represent or ‘express’, have purely musical properties which an obliging context occasionally allows Bresson to amplify. Such ‘closeup’ sounds have a poetic capacity which is only broadened (for an attentive viewer) by being unyoked to any over-specified significance, any overt symbolism, which Bresson disliked. Part of their effect derives from the magnified clarity of normally-unnoticed tonic qualities and colors in ordinary noises, to which a purely sensory hearing is opened. How many truly non-significant noises do we ever hear – noises that don’t immediately mean this-or-that? Or to put it another way: how much genuinely sensory listening do we do?
The tone-poem of collapsing, colliding, and rolling bottles in Mouchette (1967) is a sensory bath in vitrific resonances, made possible by its dead-of-night tavern context. There they are, the friendless village girl and the epileptic thief, amid a dim forest of upturned chair-legs. Chased from table to table and hiding under each one, Mouchette sets off a ten-pin reaction of falling bottles – clatters, tangent meeting-bells, hollow and deep (empties), rolling in a sibilant gargle on the stone, growling into sudden close-up…and all in varying combinations. As an orchestration of the scene this is far better than any of Hollywood’s hollow repertory of ‘ominous’ chords, or high strings holding their breath – and as different from a spoon player’s middle-c mechanics as back-projected sky from sky.
The sensuous discovery of tonic colors in isolated sounds becomes a feature of the later films. The unaccustomed quality is put to work to achieve surprise, often via an effect of slightly delayed recognition. The noise of arrowheads striking armor, amplified by forest resonances into a massed tinkling as the Saxon archers let fly, in Lancelot Du Lac, is one instance that readily comes to mind; and the change in resonance to a hollow boom as the music from the bateau mouche glides under the Pont Neuf archway and slowly fades, in Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur – a reflection in miniature, perhaps, of what is to become of the romanticising indulged in by both the witnessing parties; hers beyond the time-frame of the film.
The omnipotence of rhythms.
Nothing is durable but what is caught up in rhythms. Bend content to form and sense to rhythms.
(N.O.C. p.58; italicized heading in orig.)
Something was said in the last installment of this essay on the strongly rhythmical use to which Bresson put sounds, in A Man Escaped and Mouchette particularly. It deserves to be added that the highly regulated patterns and formal girding given to naturalistic noises was as much a technician’s as an artist’s necessity; and that the “durability” sought concerned that of viewers’ memories as much as that of the forms themselves. The impartial precision with which the microphone turned all the ‘background’ noises into an undifferentiated roar – just what we would hear without our prior knowledge to perform its separative work – was no doubt the initiating occasion for Bresson’s delighted discovery of the mixing console. From that moment, the foregrounded dialogue of the models would no longer be enslaved to a backing which went its own anarchic and messy way. By making all the sounds as much an expression of his people’s interior states, of their tempo of associations and degrees of awareness, as their faces, words, settings and montage – a necessary component of the work, in short – Bresson assured those sounds of a nonexpendable durability and strength that any future ‘restorer’ would have to take into priority-account. They effectively became an element of his signature.
It is also true that rhythm, of itself, is one of the oldest-known mnemonic aids. What associates itself with a strongly individuated rhythm embeds, without any conscious effort, in memory – without even awareness, in most cases. On what is rhythmic, the mind simply catches, like a hook. To one as attuned to the automatism of everyday gestures and speech – and their effects on his models – as Bresson, it would be disingenuous to ascribe any innocence of its effects on his audience. (As we have seen, several of his Notes are precisely about using an audience’s automatic responses.)
This doesn’t solely apply to the memory of the film audiences will carry away with them; it also concerns local instances within a film. The use of subliminal associative mechanisms, for example, setting off silent but very effective warning-bells, the more to be felt the less they are consciously noticed: in L’Argent, the strange vividness of frames and framing devices, noticed from the very first scene (in the black-leaved ‘frames’ of the art repros) and picked up again, almost at once, in the photo shop – cheap, miniaturized alloys modelled on the old splendid Baroque types, but framing nothing, emptied of the glorious works-of-hands as well as shrunken, like the initial repros; frameworks that have lost their contents (a theme later taken up in Lucien’s little courtroom speech); at most, an occasion for a schoolboy’s fantasies (“The human body is beautiful.”). Amid the pathetic little window-display there nests a cameo-oval (there’s always at least one in any such display – a dear little toilet-seat!), and this is the trigger for linking the black hair ‘framing’ the face of the more innocent boy’s mother with the black repro-frames at the start – and what they imply. (This woman would like to be somebody’s fantasy.) Everywhere, frames and ‘frameworks’ are associated with money and the various uses, legitimate or not, to which it can be put; of which the film is a veritable catalogue. There is even the window of the cottage framing the old pianist slowly walking outside, and giving Yvon his opportunity for a rapid cash-search of the bedrooms. As for the social/economic framework alluded to in Lucien’s answer to the court, it exists only to ensnare and ‘frame up’ the film’s unlucky protagonist (a pun the attentive viewer can reach without its name ever having to be uttered in the film). Indeed, it is only thanks to this framework’s existence that a frame-up is possible in the first place: an observation not new, but rarely stated with such mercilessly linear precision in the cinema. Or such icy irony; it is as if that vending-machine slit at the start had teeth. No doubt it is why the French public – and the Cannes festivalgoers that year – saw little reason to thank the man who held up such a mirror.
One of the charms of Bresson’s aphoristic Notes is the discovery of how terms applied to one aspect of production can be transferred without change to another, and retain their validity. Thus, “Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany or precede it” (p.92) can become, with perfect right, “Let the source follow the sound, not…etc.” This applies to his work from the moment that the dry scrape of those raked leaves outside the Countess’s window, in Journal D’Un Curé De Campagne, was heard, all the way up to the metallic rasping of the dishpan dragged back and forth by Yvon on the floor of his ‘solitary’ cell in L’Argent – that hopeless oscillating sound with its listless, faltering rhythm: the very image of sad entrapment. In both these polar cases the delay from sound to source is not a very long one; a couple of minutes at most. But in each the sound is just mysterious enough to disturb, rouse, and engage. In the first, a mere reverse-angle with the window behind the priest suffices to pull the scrapes into the action of a gardener’s pumping elbow. Heard by itself, each one resembles the dry hawk of a sick throat; heard together, their rhythm makes them a puzzle, albeit a minor one. Yet they signify; their placement in the film, the scenic context, the aged Countess – all ensure that they signify.
In L’Argent the effect is more concentrated, thanks to the prison-context and the peephole through which the source of the sound is disclosed: our prone protagonist in a Mantegnan perspective, feet foremost, dish listlessly held in his left hand, strongly-cilliated eyes shut. The Renaissance cell-composition and the hard lighting – one high window source, slightly behind – give the guard’s-eye view something no viewing memory can eject.
The source-delay, however, can sometimes be a very long one. The best instance – and one of the finest on record in cinema – is the squeaking Fontaine begins to hear nightly at irregular intervals from his cell window, in A Man Escaped. Close, yet not close; apparently from the roof, yet not from the roof. Rodents? He knows no more than we do what they are. The long-delayed discovery of where it comes from has us on the verge of laughing out loud – with such dreamlike simplicity and shock does it come into view! This is a lesson on how little we really attend to what we hear. Not till a little later does it strike us that we have been sharing Fontaine’s own state of mind at this moment. But without the frame-filling closeup and badly-done pullings of the face that a film would normally indulge.
(No, reader: I am not going to spoil it for you.)
The emotion will be inseparable from the scene foreverafter: precisely because we, the viewers, have planted it there. We have assisted in drawing Fontaine’s portrait: each in our own kind and to our own degree. Which amplifies, once more, what was said in the previous section on imaginative involvement: by making it a contributor to the film, we make it part of the film; it welds to it as an inseparable component. And of necessity: the stripped-down ‘minimum essential’ in the mise en scène makes this the only way it can be viewed in any meaningful sense; we ‘get into it’, or we leave. The citations from Bresson should have made clear by now that this kind of maximal involvement was the kind he sought: a commitment of one’s senses tuned to absolute pitch. In eliminating the sideshows and distraction-alibis he was giving viewers the strongest possible indication of what was needed.
If you see the look in a man’s eyes and at the same time see the reason why he is looking as he is, you are not touched.
(Bresson, interviewed by Paul Schrader in Film Comment Sept.-Oct. 1977, p.29)
The purest effects, in short, are the strongest; and those most concentrated upon a single sense, the ones that tell longest. There can be none purer than those in whose creation a viewer has the greater share. This is as different as night is to day from the pre-cooked emotions heaped up before you on a platter by the junk-food auteurs of Bratpackville, Cal.; from the canned guffaws that tell you when a joke is funny – a mongolism that Vienna at its most decadent never dared; or from Schindlerism: materials supplied by history, ingredients arranged by historians, flavoring by humanists; then the frozen packaging in the prerequisite ‘grimness’ of scopey black & white, all ready for us to widen our eyes at the right moments, and served up by a senior high-school waiter eager for his Oscar.
The thing that struck me when I used to go to the cinema was that everything had been wanted in advance, down to the last detail.
(Positif interview, Projections 9 p.7)
To the sonic effects of music and involvement must be added sound as an artistic and technical economy: a more or less instantaneous giving of spaces and distances, and a supplying of depth to images that tampered with natural space-perspectives to the minimum possible extent.
Make known that we are in the same place by repetition of the same noises and the same sonority.
(N.O.C. p.75; italics in orig.)
This becomes of some importance in Mouchette, where the woods in the central night scene offer no easily identifiable visual clue to distances and localities. The sound of the stream shows the heroine’s distance from home, the noise of the trucks her relative nearness.
A cry, a noise. Their resonance makes us guess at a house, a forest, a plain, a mountain; their rebound indicates to us the distances.
This is literally what Fontaine has to do during Orsini’s escape-attempt, which supplies the crucial data of the distance and width of the prison’s inner perimeter. We can almost hear him waiting for Orsini to be spotted – a possible source of moral discomfort for some, although one that mightn’t become clear except in retrospect. (“Orsini had to fail, so that you could succeed,” as his cell-neighbor says.) In fact, Fontaine is doing precisely what audiences, a few years hence, would do when Marion Crane’s car stops sinking for a moment: wait with bated breath for it to go down. Indeed, it goes down – and so does Orsini, giving Fontaine his indispensable information: what part of the perimeter is visible from the guard tower, and how long his ropes have to be.
Perimeters of sound are layered all around Fontaine’s nucleic cell, from near to distant: a key turning in his cell-door, the rasp of the guard’s key-ring on the bannisters, the yard, the inner perimeter, the outer one, the streetcars and traffic of Lyons, the mysterious night-train – which turns out to belong to the old aqueduct railway on the outskirts of the city. Starting with the inner perimeter, these layers are set up as puzzles for Fontaine to decipher and resolve, each a new obstacle on his path to freedom. Each has its own amplitude, its own resonance; they effortlessly supply all the depth the images need.
Years of practice and experiment enabled Bresson to achieve a superb independence of image from image, sound from image, and one layer of sound from another. It was their recombination that gave him such control over the sensory dimensions of his films. That, and the fact that each combinative element indispensably contributed what only it could do; there were no superfluities.
I was slow to realize that sound defines space on film. A voice treated like a sound effect seems to give the screen an extra dimension. People who experimented with 3D cinema were barking up the wrong tree. The third dimension is sound. It gives the screen depth, it makes characters seem tangible. It makes it appear that one might walk amongst them.
(Positif interview in Projections 9 pp.2/3)
This economical use of sound merges into the next schematic category of this list: sounds as reflections of inner states – and that into the following one, sounds used contrapuntally. (This classificatory separation shouldn’t be taken too much to heart; in practice, all the members of our list lean on each other and work in concert.)
The eye (in general) superficial, the ear profound and inventive. A locomotive’s whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station.
Bresson might have had in mind the scene in Journal when the priest exits the café towards the end, the medical specialist’s verdict still ringing in his ears (“Not common, in men of my age-group!”): a departure whistle in the distance, followed by steamy exhalations of released brakes, greets the protagonist – an unseen departure, which no longer matters. He is off the train for good. The poetic meaning really requires no words. But it will be deepened by the scene in the ex-seminarian’s place which follows.
The café-exterior scene is preceded by the exchange between the all-but-wordless priest and the proprietess (reduced by Bresson to a stout waist, an arthritic pair of veinous hands, and some wheezy dialogue), which may be taken as a first attempt to play off a mood against a naturalistic setting – to counterpoint, in other words. The setting comprises some rather waiting-roomish remarks by the proprietess (“I move slowly in this weather…at my age you’re thankful for whatever you get…but you have your whole life in front of you.”). The result is not totally successful: a heavy-handed salting of silent wounds, resulting in a rather brutal irony. But the naturalistic speech is credible, a part of everyone’s memory of their twenties.
More successful were to be Bresson’s non-dialogue noises used in this vein: the park-pigeons, making their own commentary on the bench couple Jacques tries to recruit for his dreams with a timely cassette-recording, turning a putative dove-cooing (“L’Amour! – L’Amour!”) into an unholy screek; or the romantic Brazilian song on the bateau mouche ‘serenading’ our dissatisfied protagonists. Better still are the fidgeting noises over the interminable dying of the screen-gangster, as Marthe angrily exits the theater – his ‘throes’ and fidgets beautifully orchestrated with her sidling-past and stepping-over feet: the one totally fake, the other excusably real (or is it?). Attentive viewers will want to add the sniffles of Marthe’s ‘affected’ mother, and someone else’s irritated click of the tongue.
Different again is the way the soundtrack can anticipate or recollect, moving at a semi-independent speed now in front, now lagging behind, the visuals; keeping to a subjective clock of its own. This can be used to shift a context, under our feet as it were; or to make the screen’s space and time momentarily ambiguous. The emphasis is on “momentarily”: such effects only tell if they are not overdone; if there is only a little ambiguity. Where there is total confusion, no definite effect results at all. (The same remarks apply here as were made on believability in the earlier section on Montage: the credibility with which effects must arise out of a consistent context.)
In a film, sound and picture progress jointly, overtake each other, slip back, come together again, move forward jointly again. What interests me, on a screen, is counterpoint.
(Positif interview, Projections 9 p.7)
This was like a positive summation of all Bresson had said negatively about the relations of picture and sound (not diluting each other’s effects). In the same interview he spoke of his preference for aural scene-transitions – sound dissolves – as a means of moving his films forward, and pointed out that nobody else did it. Correct: in 1983 nobody else did. (Today, every other one does – though for all you’d notice they might as well save themselves the trouble.) The use of sound dissolves came partly from the discovery, on Une Femme Douce (1969), that optical ones are rarely successful in color film, owing to the chromatic shifts caused by the screen’s additive mixtures: dissolves from red to blue, for example, journeying through pink and a sickish violet before settling to true – a journey through a butcher’s shambles, through an abattoir! Unless some such effect is purposely planned, this severely limits the length of picture dissolves, for on fast ones such shifts are not noticable: a restriction Bresson found intolerable. That aside, his discovery that sound dissolves could be a means of collapsing and expanding time, and for rendering subjective states, made them a cherished find.
In L’Argent, for example, the sound of one scene dissolves into that of the next throughout. In at least one case, this produces a frightening ambiguity. Yvon’s “Where’s the money?” having received no answer from the woman sitting up in her bed, his axe swipes the table-lamp onto the floor. We see the glare-spot on the wall, put out with a powdery crack; a quiet trickling now fades up, and we cut to what seems total blackness. After a few seconds the axe flashes into view, helve over blade, and lands with a heavy slap of foam in the stream we could not see till now – the one earlier crossed by the woman on the bridge. There it sinks, leaving a few turbidly reflecting spots. Until that, however, the quiet trickle might belong to either locality, since there has been no clue to where the blackness is. I leave to the reader what implications may be drawn…
The superb ease and economy in suggesting what has transpired – and is still, outside, transpiring for Yvon, now and forever – gives film some of the speed and fluidity of a writer’s page. One is reminded of the dreamlike power with which certain modern novelists shift a scene into a dimension we inhabit before we are aware of it, sometimes in mid-sentence – this line’s metaphor turning into the next one’s literal context under our eyes; or an imagined dialogue which is suddenly real speech with a completely different meaning, different references… The more ordinary the means employed in effecting this contextual shift, the less we are likely to be able to say at just which point the change took place. So it is with the time/place co-ordinates of the scene – the transition, rather – just described. The sonic dissolve has dissolved the transition-point. Is the trickle an anticipation of the ‘next’ setting, or that setting’s haunted recollection of the ‘last’ one?
If it is Yvon’s state of mind being experienced, the answer would be that ‘next’ and ‘last’ have ceased to mean anything for the moment. The axing is happening now, by the stream, for all intents and purposes. Minutes before, when the wallpaper was still clean and the dog was whimpering, it had already happened because it was going to have happened, could no longer not happen. When a bolt is shot, it’s a shot bolt.
But the point is that in the cinema, the speed and suggestiveness of what ‘it’ was bypasses words, the definitive this of a word. Each spectator must resolve the mystery of such a moment privately. Once more, it is the imagination that carries the burden of meaning. Which brings us back to the “what is hidden” in the Tarkovsky entry at the head of the preceding section: to ‘know’, for Bresson, meant to know how much must remain in the dark; to know how much can not be known.
What is unusual about the effect cited is the eye and ear that sees all this in the ordinary, the standard devices: sound-effects, mixing, cutting. Setting the scale for their most telling effects against a feature-length norm of usage is the proportional art of what Bresson, throughout the Notes, called rhythm. A film, and a soundtrack, crammed with such frissons would be – Chaplin again – frissonless. The isolation and the contextual bearing of such an effect constitutes its strength.
Shake the tree, as Charlie Chaplin used to say. Not too much, in my opinion. You need a bit of disorder, because it is real.
(Positif interview, Projections 9 p.6)
And, to reiterate the appeal to the individual, private response:
When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.
In summa, Bresson’s usages of sound are musical, geared to involvement, an economical means to creating depth and characterizing localities, and a way to render interior states and counterpointing.
HOW THE POWER TO WILL BECAME THE WILL TO POWER
Throughout the foregoing essay, the citations from Bresson have shown a recurrent emphasis on the pure resources of his chosen medium. Those drawn upon were found in a pure state only in film. The insistence on utilizing what only film can do can be seen to have had two principal reasons behind it: –
One recognizes the true by its efficacy, by its power.
Impossible to express something strongly by the coupled resources two arts. It is all the one or all the other.
It is in its pure form that an art hits hard.
The things we bring off by chance – what power they have!
The idea common to all the quotations here is power, or strength-of-effect, if you prefer. The concentrated, undiluted essence of cinematography gave it to film – and to the director who deployed it, over his audience’s emotions, sensibilities, and long-term memory. But on the condition that this audience was able to adjust its receptivity to this essential level: a thing by no means guaranteed for most.
A book, a painting, or a piece of music – none of these things has an absolute value. The value is what the viewer, the reader, the listener bring to it.
(Bresson interviewed in Encountering Directors by Charles Thomas Samuels, 1972, p. 64.)
If there is something good in a film, one must see it at least twice. A film doesn’t give its best the first time.
The second main reason for purity was that it enabled cinematography to tap levels of meaning in excess of those within the ready ken of words and the intellect – types for which, perhaps, words did not as yet exist. In Bresson’s view, such meanings possess a power and effectiveness attainable nowhere else in the existing arts, except possibly in music (for which precise reason Bresson tried to avoid the impure mixture of its purity with that of film).
To affect means to disturb an existing state: in the cinema or anywhere else. To affect cinematographically means to carry a possible state of soul into another soul’s state, to convert its state momentarily to its own (as the curé of Ambricourt also had reason to know, vis-à-vis the Countess), so that a deeper long-term meaning may result, not necessarily statable in words, but erected on the backbone of the effect’s experienced genuineness – its believability, once again. Only such an effect can disturb enough to return unbidden to those affected and to survive a delayed-reaction, sometimes a very long one.
The spontaneous pulsing of an event’s afterlight, the involuntary recurrence of memory, is for some a guarantee of its importance. Bresson particularly valued the wordless institution, the immediate spontaneity of impressions, the instinctive insight and grasp – whatever eluded and persisted under the processing of the intellect. To him this underwrote something authentic and true. It would mean that whatever continues to reverberate on one or more of our sensory retainers expresses a value of utmost degree, because inmost: deepest. To finger this – the nail-tip is called ‘Affect’ – is the highest and least attainable ambition of practitioners in the arts; valued, like metal, for its rarity. And Bresson was nothing if not ambitious.
Shooting. Stick exclusively to impressions, to sensations. No intervention of intelligence which is foreign to these impressions and sensations.
(N.O.C. p. 32)
Face to face with the real, your taut attention shows up the mistakes of your original conception.* It is your camera that corrects them. But the impression felt by you is the soul reality that has interest. [Footnote: * Mistakes on paper.]
(N.O.C. p. 95)
Our senses tell us more than our intelligence.
(Bresson in C. T. Samuels Encountering Directors p.61)
To go into the depths of one’s medium to scour its dross and recover a residual natancy of expansile strength is at least courageous for two reasons: 1) The sheer weight of the decades-old dross makes it that much harder for acclimatized audiences to shrug off: the sensory muscles are numb. 2) Supposing even this were achievable, the risks of misunderstanding still don’t vanish, but for reasons that have nothing to do with any particular medium or practice. It’s just that there are two sides in the end to any art form, and you can never be sure that what you proffer is what will be received. No artist has ever worked under such a guarantee. In Bresson’s case, the insistence on an individual response virtually ensures that half the ‘work’ must be the spectator’s, and with a not-negligible gearing of the faculties, both cerebral and emotional. How many, then, are prepared to put in their half? As many as were willing to surrender their sensory habits to cubism, to pop-art, to Pollock? Or much less?
WHAT CHANGES AND WHAT DOESN’T
Bresson’s late films no longer concern any kind of fixed or stable life-rhythms (and Pickpocket barely did: its sole stability over time being the internal one of an isolated, even rigid, moral clock). Entire life-stories can change in a moment, at a whim, for their characters – a trait only emphasised by the concentration of the scenarios. Change, briskness, shock became the order of the day for these thoroughly urbanized people. One thinks of Lucien, the barely respectable photo-shop assistant in L’Argent, and his abrupt transitions from perjurer and pilferer to burglar, then money-vendor fraud to generous outlaw and anarchist (one not lacking a certain eloquent courage in his answer to the court), finally to jailbird and unsuccessful escapee… The man defies precise classification, morally or statutorily, except as mirrored in those he affects.
It doesn’t have to be ruin: there is the pawnbroker’s sudden switch in status from married lower-middle-class bourgeois with a business and a maid, to widowered lower-middle-class bourgeois with a business and a maid – the sardonic no-comment of the film quite as intentional as in the Dostoyevsky story that was its basis (A Gentle Creature). And the abrupt non-sequiturs and romantic visitations interrupting a four-night acquaintance that dog Jacques, over which he papers his fragile bridge of fantasies and tape-recorded yearnings in Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur, another Dostoyevsky-based film.
We can say, summarily, that ‘moving with the times’, and a concentrated fidelity to urban experience, grows more visible in the late films – thanks to precisely to that concentration. Bresson’s mastery over montage became such that, without omitting anything essential to both plot and theme, he could pare stories that most directors would have spun out to 2½ hours down to under 90 minutes. This is particularly noticable in Lancelot du Lac and L’Argent, able somehow to include longish moments of silence and solitude amid packed scenarios, crammed with activity and change. “Precision” is how Bresson termed it in the 1983 Positif interview.
It is also true that, as his career advanced, Bresson got bolder about applying certain discoveries about ellipsis, even ‘music’, to the final cut of his films. One instance will have to stand for many: the montage sequences in Lancelot du Lac, in which the same short segment of an action is repeated and varied in being performed by different men – generally five or six. This is actually a disruption of temporal continuity, used with particular effectiveness in the Escaliot tournament scene, where we don’t realize till the end – as shield after shield is struck by the hero’s lance in immediate succession – that the entire scene has in fact been composed of ellipses, growing shorter and shorter as we proceed to this percussive climax, but camouflaged at the start by the length of the segments and the relative brevity of the omissions between them. The ‘music’ is as much an effect of the sound as of the visuals – here and in the other scenes where ellipses appear; at the end perhaps most memorably.
The reliance on montage as a synthetic means of arriving at a perceived truth might seem too open to ‘manufacturing’ and manipulation for some tastes. It is open; but beyond a certain point one has to either trust a director or reject him – if one doesn’t simply want to be content with ‘scaling-down’ expectations and viewing- discernments. The manufacturing of non-existent ‘realities’ had no interest whatever for Bresson. It was always going to be his “impressions” of something real in his models that would be conveyed – but he claimed, and wanted, to convey them truthfully. “While wanting these to be as documentary as possible.” The reason, perhaps, why Bresson laid some stress (in the earlier notes) on what he could intuit, or “divine”, of his models; and on the importance (in the later ones) of what remained hidden from him. The principle of not over-showing, of that “margin of indefiniteness” (N.O.C. p. 94) kept faith with all that Bresson knew he could never know.
One discovers everywhere in Bresson’s Notes how the very undogmatic approach to his models applies also to his method. Thus a command given to oneself is occasionally disobeyed, like the one on not reusing models (p.80). Readers familiar with his oeuvre will know that the same model was both Arnold in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), and Arsène in Mouchette a year later: an alcoholic tramp and an epileptic thief. Are the two so very different? Except that one (the first) is dead – not at all! But one can allow that this model remained unspoiled and unself-conscious enough to deliver the goods both times. Bresson also disobeyed the p.19 injunction against all music (“No music at all.“) far too many times in the 1950s and ’60s for his own later liking. It is especially out of place at the end of Mouchette – as is the curious looping (repeat-printing) of a 2-sec. segment of the water’s ripples dilating at the spot where Mouchette has drowned. It is a back-handed testimony to how affectingly ‘real’ the rest of the film is, that these studio-effects jar so much at the end.
MISUNDERSTANDINGS. No (or hardly any) harsh criticism or praise that is not based on some misunderstanding.
(N.O.C. p. 123; caps. in orig.)
Most of what is said about me is wrong and is repeated eternally.
(Bresson interviewed in Encountering Directors by Charles Thomas Samuels, 1972, p. 61.)
Bresson had many years in which to become a familiar of asses. The early distorting of his work by ‘interpreters’ like Ayfre into religious thematics set the dogmatic pattern which would ever be adhered to: Sontag and Kael, Roy Armes (labelling him a “religious film-maker” in Films and Reality), Paul Schrader (dubbing his work “transcendental” in his unmentionable monograph) – as though Bresson had always given themes priority, and religious ones pride of place. But it is best to reply in his own words, if they can penetrate ears so tall:
One same subject changes in accordance with images and sounds. Religious subjects receive their dignity and their elevation from the images and the sounds. Not (as people believe) the other way about: the images and sounds receive from the religious subjects.
(N.O.C. pp. 87/88; quoted in full)
Be precise in the form, not always in the substance (if you can).
I never look for a Christian meaning. If it comes, it comes.
(Bresson interviewed in Encountering Directors by Charles Thomas Samuels, 1972, p. 63.)
As for the Jansenism that Schrader, following Bazin, made so much of:
I’ve been called a Jansenist, which is madness. I am the opposite. I am interested in impressions.
(Positif interview, Projections 9, p. 4)
We needn’t imagine that all this will soon change. A glance at the introductory remarks to Schrader’s 1976 interview with Bresson (quoted-from earlier) shows why. After noting that Bresson had told him he couldn’t recognize anything of himself in Schrader’s book, our wounded author goes on to admit that:
.there was never the rapport I had hoped for. His answers were not in tune with my questions, or my questions with his answers. It felt as if each idea was fighting to assert itself through a fog of misunderstanding.
(Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1977)
But, nonetheless, adds:
Bresson cannot (or will not) understand why I respect him, and I cannot (or will not) acceptance his interpretation of his films.
(Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1977)
All of which shows, reader, that a man and his dogma are not easily separated. I do not delude myself that the present essay will change anything in this respect. The shrill bray of an outraged stubbornness will continue to sound in program flyers and cinematheque calendar notes, leaving its echoes in the expectancies of newcomers to Bresson’s work.
Which is as it should be. One cannot but admire the forthright honesty with which this Schrader, having confessed himself to the reader, later uses up a large chunk of the interview in open-mindedly confessing to Bresson his fascination with pornography – whose amalgamation with his religious concerns is, incidentally, a very American mixture. Clearly, one earns one’s salvation only by first having had the opportunity to eat one’s sins, and have them.
In spite of all that, I wouldn’t want to fall into the trap of denying any importance at all to Bresson of redemption; that would be granting far too much importance to Schrader. But it is a redemption that the subject must spin out of himself, or herself, redeeming one’s life from the pit of meaninglessness. Nothing is just granted from on high, at deific whims, whatever the real Jansenists may think. It is, rather, a case of expropriated souls redeeming themselves from the pawnshop of social pseudo-prizes: lives reclaiming themselves – from conformity, from money, from all the other false gods that try to impose their ill-fitting destinies on our lives.
I could have said much more; dwelt on many more examples. But unless we wish to detain the reader until the next millennium, it is best to hasten to a conclusion.
Two films I should have liked to exemplify have had to be ignored: Une Femme Douce (1969) and Le Diable Probablement (1977). Lack of print-availability for one, and a faulty memory for the other, made any kind of discussion too hazardous to undertake. So important are details in a Bresson film that one should never attempt to say anything where they are unknown or faultily apperceived. Of the other late films, more may be said in articles devoted separately to each in future issues.
That being said, we may try, in closing, to specify in general terms two themes that seem to loom broadly over Bresson’s late works.
The first is a structural figure that distends itself over the time taken for a scenario to unfold – a moving figure, that is. It is the pattern whereby a thing one covets as a utility to serve some larger end, ends up replacing that end. A mere tool, or something solely representative, a symbol even, dilates in importance until the prize one wanted it for is first concealed, and then forgotten – for a time, at least – so that the means replaces the end, becomes an end in itself. Such is the premise governing the chilly shadow of sacrilege in which the shrinking fate of the people in Lancelot Du Lac huddles, aware of being doomed: the Sangraal, prized above its significance to the point of the knights having wantonly shed the blood and pillaged the holy places encountered on its quest. Its purpose having been forgotten in competition, it is poisoned, and foredooms its undertakers, pun intended, struggle as they might to redeem the wreckage with an inutile, hence purified, love. Such is the fanatical devotion shown everywhere to the “false god” (as Bresson styles it in Projections 9) of money – this utility par excellence, this mere tool of exchange and representative (of national bank-credit) – by everyone in L’Argent: poisoned before we even see them, the schoolboys included. The almost shocking truth, that money is nothing but credit, in its almost pure form (i.e. has no inherent value or importance other than what it is given) is one that only the man who has gone from being its tool to being its victim may experience as a dawning, and not as a skyquake.
Closely allied to this is the second broadly discernible theme: that of experiencing oneself planted in a terrible vacuity, one’s world as a void and oneself as totally foreign in it – as mad, or as a beast. Not only does a possibly-insane majority determine you as mad; any hope of one day making yourself understood has been stifled at source, before one has even awoken to this state; one’s language is heard as alien, whatever it is. One is effectively of a different solar system, wrong before one ever opens one’s mouth. One is invisible; laws don’t apply to you, the line has been crossed, you are nothing, and you are the only one who is aware that right and wrong have ceased to exist. (This is how this state at its extreme is experienced; the certified and committed ‘mental cases’ used to know it.) In this void the only detectable solution may well be suicide – and in this connection, apropos Le Diable Probablement, Bresson spoke of it to Samuels in Encountering Directors, thus linking up with one of the best-known of his recurrent themes.
Having said all that (clearly, I hope) I would emphasise very strongly that my purpose, here and throughout, has not been to replace one dogma with another. The occasional side-trips into thematic interpretation should be taken as suggestive only. I would claim for them, however, that unlike most we have seen, they are based on what can be seen and heard in Bresson’s films. That aside, it must be recognised that the seen and heard are open to varying interpretations and emphases. Readers interested in Bresson’s themes should turn not to me but to the films (or the video cassettes, if nothing else avails).
Similarly, it is not in Theory that I am interested. Theory is the word-gourmet’s alibi. I am not much embarrassed by the need for alibis. The viewer of Bresson’s films would do better to ignore it. It is best to begin a screening (or a video) with no preconceptions and one’s senses peeled and moist – adjustably fine-tuned; as I hope some of the examples have demonstrated.
Bresson wound up his last interview in Positif with the statement: “Perhaps I do see the world more somberly than I used to, unintentionally. There is something to that.” (Projections 9, p. 9)
To the current generation of viewing habits with its digitalised responses, Bresson might well have looked forward with a certain amount of pessimism. Digitalising makes them calculable; disappearance of the incalculable in audiences makes an infinite curvature, a continuum of response-curves, with the fine tonal shading they imply, impossible – and a stepped coarseness mandatory. It is only what exceeds man’s ken (calculation) that takes man beyond himself… and pushes back the kenning’s current limits. This digitalising cannot do because it cannot risk. Discovery has no place here. But where Discovery has no place, boredom follows. For then the individual response also has no room left.
It is fitting that for a man who so respected the enigma and the mystery of the person, we conclude with one last enigma of Bresson’s own making. It happens that one, and only one, of Bresson’s Notes appears twice, repeated word for word: once on page 44, and then on page 79. The entire bearing of this note is on the meaning we find in its subject; in the word “real”.