When François Truffaut wrote “Une crise d’ambition du cinéma francais” (1955) in his characteristically inflammatory tone, he was reacting against directors producing “canned theatre”, the cinematic effort of producing spectacle on screen by adapting literature into cinema. Acting as the cultural mediator of his era, Truffaut categorized directors under the headings of “Ambitious”, “Semi-ambitious”, “Commercial, but decent”, and “Deliberately commercial”. Among the pantheon of ambitious auteurs, Truffaut did not fail to include Robert Bresson, whose works reflect “the real ‘qualité francaise’” (p. 86). Truffaut was not the only director who lionised Bresson, with Jean-Luc Godard praising him as a grand inquisiteur who penetrates to the very depths of human being.1 An aura is bound to envelope around an artist who attracts such descriptions. Like all revered artists, Bresson has become something of a mysterious figure, which can be partly attributed to the many gaps in his biography. And there is no doubt that Bresson, a trickster himself, has contributed to the creation of the myth of Bresson as a recluse. He repeatedly claimed that he was unaware of contemporary cinematic trends, to which the editors of Cahiers du cinéma offered the cheeky remark, “Bresson goes to see all the films.” (p. 14) But there is another more significant factor that has heightened the aura that surrounds him – the collective desire of critics, scholars, and cinéphiles of sanctifying Bresson as an uncompromising, towering, engimatic, and solitary cinematic genius, a centennial wunderkind of world cinema. Such a hagiographic and uncritical view of Bresson, Burnett claims in his book The Invention of Robert Bresson: The Auteur and His Market, is not only resoundingly false but also acts as a barrier to a deeper understanding of an auteur whose cinematic craftsmanship we have yet to fully appreciate. A thoroughly researched portrayal of the visionary auteur, Burnett’s book attempts to fill the glaring lacunae in critics’ efforts to find the origin of the style bressonien.
Although Bresson’s stature in world cinema is undeniable, many existing studies on Bresson, as Colin Burnett argues in his book, have not yet truly explored Bresson’s role as a participant in the French cultural sphere. Rather than thinking of Bresson’s works through theological (Paul Schrader’s famous book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer is one example) or philosophical frameworks, Burnett proposes that we examine Bresson’s works through a historical approach that acknowledges Bresson’s active interactions with institutions, artists, and cultural discourse. Only by doing so can we answer pressing questions that really matter:
How did Bresson participate in the exchange of aesthetic and intellectual ideas within alternative film culture? Did the market these cultures produced influence his art-making and vice versa? Would such an exchange reveal that his style is less personal, less sui generis, than previously [sic] assumed? Is it possible that, contrary to received wisdom, Bresson achieved his artistic individuality and forged the famously demanding style bressonien by accepting artistic challenges posed within the market? And what remains of the concept of authorial style if the auteur took his aesthetic bearings from prevailing preoccupations about art? (pp. 2-3)
Addressing these questions implies that critics need to resist the perception of Bresson as a solitary genius in the Romantic sense; instead, it is more productive, Burnett insists, that the critic, as a curious bricoleur “digging through the debris of history” (p. 242), re-imagines Bresson as a social actor in the French cultural sphere. In order to achieve such a portrayal of Bresson, Burnett deliberately avoids a biographical schema that has been the staple of Bresson studies (pp. 7-10).
Burnett organises his book into two sections: “Alternative Institutions” and “Vanguard Forms”. For many readers interested in French cinema in general, the first section, part historical excavation and part informed historical contextualisation, should be of great interest as it focuses on tracing the early professional career of Bresson and how he negotiated, ever so nimbly, within film culture and institutions as he developed his own sense of aesthetics. A wide array of figures from Coco Chanel, for whom Bresson worked as a photographer in the early 1930s, to the screenwriter Jean Aurenche, later condemned by Truffaut as part of “quality cinema” derivative of the theatrical tradition, loom large as important connections that introduced Bresson to the field of fashion photography (yes, you read that correctly) and the Parisian avant-garde. With the backdrop of the first section, Burnett continues to explore the manner in which Bresson’s engagement as a social actor within the cultural marketplace of France informed his inventive approaches to problems of film-literature adaptation, cinematic realism, and rhythm, all of which contributed to the development of the style bressonien in his lifetime search for a new kind of cinema.
As indicated by the subheading of the book, Burnett proposes that we look at the auteur and his market. What methodology would the bricoleur critic use in order to imagine Bresson as a social actor within “the cultural marketplace” of France? From the outset, Burnett makes it clear that he is not invoking the notion of the cultural marketplace in economic terms, a vulgar Marxist view of seeing everything determined solely by the economic base.2 However, a critic need not be unsettled by the fact that auteurs like Bresson had to make certain compromises due to commercial circumstances. We must simply acknowledge the fact that “materials and relations tied to his culture’s assumptions about cinema as an artistic medium” played a role in the development of Bresson as an auteur (p. 12). Citing influences from Michel Foucault and the British art historian Michael Baxandall, Burnett finds it helpful to employ a “more fluid and less deterministic” view of the cultural marketplace that becomes a medium through which a culture’s paradigmatic interests are translated and refashioned into a series of tasks for artists (p. 13). A critic who adopts such a view of the cultural marketplace has to go beyond the activity of connecting dots between circulating ideas and the artwork:
The cultural marketplace critic seeks more than a loose inventory of aesthetic ideas and questions in the air that can be matched to features of an auteur’s film. Instead, the critic has a two-pronged responsibility: he or she must demonstrate how these ideas are manifest in the auteur’s film (as an artistic brief, or a set of practical creative problems or challenges) and how these ideas are evident in the languages and relations that organize the auteur’s social life (and insert the auteur into what sociologist Bruno Latour calls an “actor-network”). (p. 13)3
Reading Burnett’s formulation of his theoretical underpinning, many literary critics will immediately sense a déjà-vu. Burnett’s theoretical framework essentially harkens back to New Historicism, that whirlwind of a movement initiated by Stephen Greenblatt’s study on Shakespeare which focused on analyzing the material relations, or the “social energy”, that influence the creation of the literary product. Greenblatt’s study sparked controversy in literary studies in part due to its alleged subversive reading of Shakespeare’s plays.4 However, Burnett’s study, unlike New Historicist studies, does not solely focus on unconventional readings of the filmic text; in fact, Burnett puts equal emphasis on examining the social conditions of the artist, biographical details, and the filmic texts. Indeed, Burnett is equally invested in drawing connections between Bresson’s personal relationships and his artistic trajectory, and he makes it very clear that Bresson studies will benefit from the opening up of the personal archive of Bresson.5 And if Greenblatt became the target of unfair criticism due to his supposed neglect of Shakespeare’s language with his employment of Marxist framework, Burnett is free from such accusations of reductive reading as he devotes himself to close and lengthy (one might even say over-lengthy) analyses, sequence by sequence, of Bresson’s films. Hence reading Burnett’s book does not subvert our preconception of Bresson as the theologian of cinema; rather, it enhances our understanding of his works by drawing into Bresson studies the various potential elements – surrealism, debates on cinematic realism, and philosophical discourse – that became the “raw material,” a fertile ground from which Bresson came into being as an auteur of a personal cinema.
A unifying theme that runs throughout the book is the treatment of Bresson as a flexible mediator within the larger film-cultural market. There are two notable aspects to Bresson’s negotiation: Bresson’s embrace of the role of the auteur as a cultural mediator in understanding experimental cinema, and his flexible definition of the avant-garde. In order to establish himself as a genuine auteur, Bresson actively engaged with the press so that he can nurture a healthy cinéphile culture in which the auteur “primes” the spectator to interpret films correctly (p. 51). In other words, the auteur becomes the curator of his or her own works, a view closely aligned with André Bazin’s emphasis on the facilitating role of criticism in helping the audience better understand cinematic experiments (p. 74). Such a view of the auteur is striking as it directly goes against the myth of the reclusive auteur, persistent not only among today’s critics but filmmakers as well. In fact, Bresson, according to Burnett’s account, strongly felt the necessity to guide the spectator to interpret his works correctly from the very beginning of his career (p. 51). That Bresson had such a belief is surprising, if not wholly disconcerting. An important question arises as to how Bresson’s view of the artist’s role in society evolve throughout his career. The question lies outside the scope of Burnett’s study, but hopefully it will soon be taken up by other critics and scholars..
The second aspect of Bresson’s negotiation involves the appropriation of the notion of the avant-garde. After the spectacular box-office failure of early works such as Les Affaires publiques (Public Affairs, 1934) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Ladies of the Park, 1945), Bresson, as Burnett explains, realised that he faced a mountain of institutional challenges, prompting him to join Objectif 49, a postwar ciné-club that included renowned members such as Bazin, Alexandre Astruc, and others. As Burnett explains Bresson’s motive in joining Objectif 49, he draws a helpful comparison between the film industries of the post-war era and the sixties. During the sixties, the active role of producers such as Pierre Braunberger allowed many nouvelle vague filmmakers to engage in film experiments without the burden of financial concerns (p. 58). Unfortunately, no such producers were willing to speak on behalf of artists like Bresson during the post-war era, and Bresson, left with no choice, had to intervene in the cultural sphere not only for the re-evaluation of his misunderstood earlier works but also for the cultivation of a film culture that fostered a “popular” avant-garde, an undoubtedly oxymoronic notion. Importantly, Bresson and his colleagues from the Objectif 49 formulated the notion of the avant-garde in unique terms. Taking up Bazin’s rather controversial claim that the experiments of earlier filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel, Germaine Dulac, and others were failures, a form of “dead end” intellectualism, the “popular” avant-garde of Bresson and his colleagues decided to at least maintain the element of narrative in order to restore film’s power to touch the popular imagination through storytelling.6 Again, contradiction becomes apparent within Bazin’s thoughts on the popular avant-garde and the role of the critic: “Why would a popular avant-garde for a mass audience require a class of elite, learned critics?” (p. 74) Whether Bresson registered such contradictions inherent within the Objectif 49’s conception of the avant-garde is unclear. If one were to follow Burnett’s argument, then Bresson, regardless of such contradictions, made a deliberate decision to join the Objectif 49 in order to reform the institutions of French cinema so that films maudits (accursed, misunderstood, and obscure films), including his own, could be made.
One of the most illuminating parts of the book is Burnett’s reading of Bresson’s early visual works in the first chapter of the book. Burnett cites nine extant lithographs and photographs produced by Bresson, and he urges critics to closely examine the early non-filmic visual works in order to reveal their connections with Bresson’s films. Unfortunately, Burnett does not provide visual figures for all works. Only two of them are reproduced in the book, both of which Bresson produced for Gibbs, a company that specialized in hygiene products and employed surrealist artists for publicity. One is a lithograph depicting a man waiting to be shaved in front of a mirror and the other, dubbed by some as the Lunar Landscape, is a Surrealist photograph of numerous toothbrushes planted on what appears to be the surface of the moon under a disk with the label savon dentrifice (dental soap). When taken together, all these visual works, Burnett argues, demonstrate signs of a developing style bressonien – simple composition, the use of space outside the frame for suggestive narrative, and a fragmented framing of the human figure. The reader may not agree with the details of Burnett’s readings of the visual works. For example, Burnett sees the lithograph as a demonstration of control that produces a “streamlined and even rather witty sales pitch.” (p. 43) Nonetheless, Burnett’s uncovering of these earlier works is an achievement in itself. His uncovering of the works allows us to see previously unknown social connections between Bresson and a vibrant artistic community.
In the second section of the book, Burnett directs our attention towards the formal qualities of Bresson’s works—the dépouillement of the image, the dialectic between image and sound, and reflected lighting. Perhaps it is unavoidable that Burnett, who clearly has enormous respect for Bresson, at times resorts to vague descriptions throughout the book. For instance, Burnett describes a conversation scene in Les Anges du péché (Angels of Sin, 1943) in the following manner: “Bresson here seeks authenticity by relying on a hybrid of stylized and restrained performance styles.” (p. 172) In another passage, Burnett expresses his admiration for Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1952) in a similarly vague praise: “Perhaps the genius of Journal d’un curé de campagne’s craft ultimately rests somewhere in between, not in choosing the heart (‘warm’ internal or spiritual feeling) over the mind (‘cold’ informal structure), but in creating forms that are delicately embedded in the tender movements of the spirit.” (p. 222) But ultimately, Burnett’s attentive analyses of Bresson’s films render such vague descriptions a minor detraction.
At the heart of Burnett’s study is his analysis of Bresson’s use of rhythm in the second section of the book. In his discussion of rhythm, Burnett claims that Bresson cinematically appropriated the various concepts of rhythm circulating in France. Burnett calls this circulation of the concept a “rhythmic drift,” moving across various disciplines such as psychology, music, and anthropology.7 The “rhythmic drift” formed a dynamic relationship with film discourse in France: “In postwar France, ‘rhythm’ seeped into the vernacular as a fundamental aspect of human perception and understanding, aesthetic or otherwise, and this, as I will argue, shaped and was shaped by critical and theoretical discourses within film discourse.” (p. 195) One would imagine that a whole chapter or a book could be devoted to such a historical and theoretical analysis. But rather than dedicating himself to a lengthy discussion of rhythm and the notion’s history, Burnett, keeping in spirit with the rest of the book, focuses on how the inner dynamics of Bresson’s films illustrates the various notions of rhythm operating within post-war intellectual discourse. These various notions of rhythm consist of the “musical” (theorized by Paul Fraisse and Jean Mitry), the “panaesthetic” (Rene Dumesnil), and, last but not least, the “vitalistic” (Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Pierre Chartier). The last, “vitalistic rhythm,” is particularly important for understanding Bresson’s works as it focuses on “durational relations between scenes of life,” engaging the viewer in a well-regulated flow of moments of intensive magnitude (p. 203). For Bresson, cinema, in its highest form, is not a crude recording of reality. Rather, it attempts to capture the invisible flow of time, the “omnipotence of rhythm” in our lives, that nonetheless exert a profound influence on human experience. (p. 206)
Burnett’s claims in the last chapter are insightful, but his analysis of Bresson’s cinematic translation of these rhythms is not entirely satisfactory. Burnett organises his reading of Bresson’s films into two parts: global plot structure, and local clusters of sounds and images (via Roger Leenhardt). On the level of the plot, Burnett analyses how Bresson creates “rhythms of plot” through color design (L’Argent, 1983), oscillating rhythms of remembrance (Une femme douce, 1969), and patterns of “ritual” (Au hasard Balthazar, 1965). Overall, Burnett’s close analysis of specific scenes is insightful in helping us understand Bresson’s craftsmanship, but certain sections, for instance his borrowing of Marcel Mauss’ concept of the “ritual” in his analysis of Au hasard Balthazar, seems forced. As readers may recall, Balthazar, the eponymous donkey in the film, reunites with Marie, the female protagonist, at several junctures in the film, as its title emphasizes, by chance. To call this chance reuniting, an inexplicable act of divinity that Bresson often uses in his films, a recurring “ritual” due to the reuniting act’s repetitive nature seems far-fetched, not least because the term, as Mauss employed it, indicates deliberate human transactions and carries economic implications. Burnett’s close analysis becomes much more convincing when he pays attention to Bresson’s use of sound and speech, which acted as “a response to the Dionysian rhythms his culture increasingly embraced.” (p. 220)8 The raking sound in Jounal d’un cure de campagne and the orchestrated sound of urban life in Le Diable probablement (The Devil, Probably, 1977) construct distinctive rhythms that not only free the audience from the visual confines of cinema but also refuse to offer easy symbolic meanings to the audience.
Despite their significance, single studies of directors still represent a relatively minor endeavor in film studies. Burnett acknowledges this in his book at the outset: “When questions of connectivity, interactivity, hybridity, collective agency, negotiation, and various forms of cultural engagement and interface animate much of our discourse, what can the study of a director long admired for following his own aesthetic path add to the conversation?” (p. 1) Indeed, the neglected state of specialising on studying individual artists, which seems less ambitious than larger theoretical questions at stake within the discipline, seems to be a particular disciplinary phenomenon. After all, one does not find it unusual for an academic in art history, literary, and music departments to spend his or her lifetime studying, for instance, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Bach. Is it because, as much as I dread to put it so bluntly, cinema lacks artists of such stature? Embarrassed by such an accusation, the defiant cinéphile will reject such a claim by citing a canonical list of eminent auteurs: Mizoguchi, Bergman, Hitchcock, and, of course, Bresson. However, the tragic reality is that the notion of the auteur is lost on the public. The good old days are gone, bemoan the critics and cinéphiles. Neoliberal capitalism’s emphasis on speed and profit threatens to swamp not only the film industry but the entire realm of arts. The ever-impending doom of the arts continually haunts us. In reaction, film academics venerate the auteurs of bygone eras, many explicitly claiming that today’s auteurs do not match the greatness of their predecessors. While I acknowledge that I belong to those sets of cinéphiles who prefer watching an “old” film to a more recent one, I remain critical of the tendency to venerate a canonical set of auteurs in comparison with today’s filmmakers, a perennial vice in which film studies is complicit.9 Cinema is changing under our feet. More urgent tasks, such as making sense of a shifting media environment, require our attention. Bathing in a pool of endless nostalgia has always been outdated.
In the end, we also have to raise the following questions: what is the legacy of Bressonian aesthetics for contemporary cinema? More importantly, what is the relevance of the notion of the auteur for today’s cinema? Bresson’s emphasis on stripping away the theatricality of performance – mise en scène becoming mise en ordre – and his emphasis on durée have clear resonance for today when two seemingly extreme poles of cinema – the work of auteurs like Hong Sang-soo, and commercial films utilising video-game aesthetics – veer away from emphasizing mise en scène in search of new paths. As for the relevance of the notion of the auteur, it is important to remind ourselves that the term became part of the vernacular through the vigorous efforts of past filmmakers who politically spoke out against le cinéma de papa. The sense of political urgency inherent within the term auteur will be important if cinema is to become a serious art form that challenges the reifying effects of neoliberal capitalism. As Seung-hoon Jeong and Jeremi Szaniawski incisively point out in their recent writing on the auteur, today’s technological and societal shifts can not be ignored or reversed – however much corporate capitalists may camouflage the shifts, and however much directors, nostalgic of the old aesthetics of film, may want to cling onto the 35mm strip.10 Historically informed studies on past auteurs are not mere pedagogical tool for scholars and guides for today’s artists in their effort to emulate the old masters, a fetishistic gesture infinitely repeated by today’s filmmakers. Rather, they are a key ingredient to a vibrant ciné-culture that can speak for cinema as a critical art that grapples with today’s complex realities. The cinema of the auteur must persist. Various actors – critics, scholars, cinéphiles, and producers – will come into play. As Burnett beautifully puts it, a single auteur cannot invent auteur cinema. (p. 58)
Colin Burnett, The Invention of Robert Bresson: The Auteur and His Market (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).
- See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fa84HOBlUXA ↩
- This is not an unfamiliar notion in other fields, particularly cultural anthropology. Theodore Bestor, an anthropologist of food, also stressed the usefulness of looking at space through the term “marketplace” (distinct from “market,” a term with economic connotations) which encompasses a “localized set of social institutions, transactions, social actors, organizations, products, trade practices, and cultural meanings motivated by a wide variety of factors.” Theodore Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 20. ↩
- The term “brief” comes from Baxandall. ↩
- Stephen Greenblatt, “The Circulation of Social Energy”, in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 1-20. ↩
- Burnett, in fact, closes his study by expressing concern about the state of Bresson’s personal archive. ↩
- Burnett acknowledges that it is a rather simple, perhaps even “simplistic,” claim for Bazin to wholly dismiss the film avant-garde of the 1920s (p. 73-74). ↩
- In line with his larger argument that Bresson was an active participant in the cultural market of France, Burnett claims that Bresson was familiar with various notions of rhythm circulating at the time. One need only look at Bresson’s writing to buy into the premise of seeing Bresson as a market-participant: “It isn’t necessary to prove that Bresson knew the work of these specific theorists and critics to demonstrate that the distinctions that animated their writings were alive in his thinking (…) His language alone reveals it.” (p. 204) For Burnett, Bresson’s frequent use of musical analogies, his emphasis on rhythm as a central characteristic of cinema, and his criticism of cinema as a mere tool of mimesis implicitly reflects his familiarity with contemporary thought. ↩
- Burnett, p. 220. Burnett characterises Dionysian rhythm as “nonmetric, intuitively composed, embodied, and therefore nonmusical in the strict sense.” (p. 204) Bresson’s inventive use of cinematic rhythm was the product of his role as an active participant in the larger cultural discourse in France: “Evolving notions about rhythm and widely appreciated developments in philosophy, aesthetics, psychology, and other intellectual spheres were being translated into the terms of film practice, theory, and reception.” (p. 232-33) ↩
- During my early undergraduate years in the U.S., a young film professor would launch into a heated argument against Quentin Tarantino’s aesthetic of pastiche. Later in another class, another professor would make disapproving insinuations against Sofia Coppola. The scholars have spoken: these filmmakers are not worth your time. As much as I appreciate passionate criticism, hearing half-formulated personal disapproval of individual artists in a classroom setting leaves a bad aftertaste. ↩
- Seung-hoon Jeong and Jeremi Szaniawski, “Introduction”, The Global Auteur: The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 1-19. The editors emphasise the importance of examining the “auteur” in today’s neoliberal capitalist society: “The role of the auteur is not only fraught, thankless, and in the shadow of its glorious predecessors: it may be more crucial and relevant than ever.” (p. 16) ↩