The Invention of Robert Bresson is a book to take as seriously as its subject demands. Guided by a natural sensitivity to the films – something shared by many – Colin Burnett pursued uncommon historical research, which is something shared by few. And he did so with sufficient methodological self-consciousness to let his Bresson stand out. So many sophisticated studies have come out in English this century that he must have felt paralysed. Overviews by Joseph Cunneen and Keith Reader, as good as they may be, were dwarfed by Tony Pipolo’s almost reverential 420 page treatment of the films and their sources. Targeted theses about Bresson’s deep value by Raymond Watkins and Brian Price stand in my bookcase beside recent reprints of James Quandt’s indispensable anthology of articles and Paul Schrader’s classic Transcendental Cinema, all these bookended by new editions of Bresson’s Notes and his interviews, though these, like the Watkins volume, came out after Burnett had sent his manuscript to the press. What more need be said, Burnett must have asked himself? Even were he burning to tell us what he thinks of the films, he realised that another interpretation of this master seems superfluous, especially today when interpretation of artworks has waning appeal. And so Burnett has given us not another reading of a master, but something he believes, and makes us believe, is more valuable. In a salubrious displacement of his evident cinephilia, Burnett moved to situate the elusive Bresson by letting his films be taken not as entirely personal expressions of private obsessions, so much as propositions or offerings in an artistic arena that has been surprisingly eager to receive them, to tussle with them, sometimes to interpret them. This interplay between cultural history and interpretation need not domesticate an artist as obtuse as Bresson. When done well, as here, the works respond to what he calls a “brief” or unfilled mission; that is, they are chiseled answers to questions vaguely posed in the community, often partially addressed by other artworks.
My enthusiasm for Burnett’s project starts with its epigraph from a lesser known volume by art historian Michael Baxandall. I have been promoting Baxandall’s approach since Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French film.1 There, under his influence and that of Paul Ricoeur, I argued for an idea of culture as an arena where artists encounter – and then counter – situations tendered by the marketplace, with the culture answering back in its own fashion via criticism, the box-office, the offer of new projects, etc. Confronted by a certain impasse in scholarship regarding film art, both Burnett and I independently have found a similar path, blazed by Baxandall and to a lesser extent Ernst Gombrich, both of whom were adept at staging the dialogue between artworks and the ideas inhabiting specific arenas. The industry of art and ideas that made cinema the 20th century’s most vibrant form of expression is clarified with the vocabulary Baxandall developed for Painting and Experience in 15th c. Italy, because cinema’s relation to its culture is commensurable with painting’s place in the Renaissance.2 Burnett might have focused on Baxandall’s eye-opening discussion of Picasso and his relation to the art dealer Kahnweiler in Patterns of Intention, a book Burnett has read closely.3 For Picasso, as an individualist wanting to break with the modernist sub-culture he clearly belonged to, stands as a reasonable model for Bresson. Baxandall had to adjust his concepts to deal with the recursive logic of modernism; Burnett applies him a bit too simply, though effectively nonetheless. In Mists of Regret I coined a term, optique, that aims to surround the issues Burnett rightly keeps in view regarding Bresson: just what were the stylistic possibilities in the 1930s, in the 1940s, and so on? They weren’t limitless as romantic critics would have it; yet they weren’t entirely dictated by the local situation. Instead they formed a gradually shifting horizon in sight of which Bresson operated. Burnett could have used a similar concept to make his view even more flexible and usable. Baxandall’s notion of the “brief” comes close to this, particularly when he combines it with Bruno Latour’s “actor-network.”4
Chapter One situates Bresson in the French avant-garde, and does so in relation to Brian Price’s iconoclastic 2011 book, which turned the director into a fully-fledged, even radical, surrealist. Both scholars must characterise Bresson’s artistic personality on the basis of very few works, and even fewer traces of his personal life and relations. Burnett traces Bresson’s temperament by considering everything he could turn up: one short film, eight photographs, a number of lithographs and four or five working situations (enterprises brought into focus through Jean Aurenche, Coco Chanel, and British surrealist Charles Penrose). Flipping through such sketches, Burnett begins to bring a maturing personality to life; but there aren’t enough of these to fully animate the picture. Perhaps Bresson didn’t know where he was headed in the years before he was (or was not?) mobilised into the army? Why did he produce so little? Maybe he wasn’t always searching for his style, calculating where and how to make his mark. After the failure of his short, Les Affaires publiques, in 1935, how did he spend his time until 1940? Burnett finds him working, thanks to Aurenche, on two scripts, one fairly important, Courier Sud (1936); but that’s hardly enough to occupy him day after day for over a thousand days. It is difficult to imagine Bresson being fallow, or depressed, or simply unsure of his next career move, but that is certainly a possibility. In sum, as effective as Burnett is in building a persona out of the evidence, more information needs to be turned up. Sally Shafto has tempted us with a dozen pages of “The Secret Life of Robert Bresson.”5 We can hope for more.
When he takes one step back from personal biographical facts, Burnett provides a picture of the broader movements and large personalities Bresson could not help but encounter and be affected by. At times he reaches far so as to mention glorious names who “likely” came into contact with Bresson, Louis Aragon is mentioned “as a friend”, on the basis of Bresson’s having alluded to this in an undated interview made decades after the period in question. Aragon, of course, went from surrealist prophet to leader of the French Communist Party’s cultural wing in the 1930s. But nothing links Bresson to any of the many political groups of the 1930s. If Bresson had been Aragon’s friend, what became of that friendship and why didn’t Aragon, who documented so much, ever mention him? Still, this link indicates that Bresson thought of himself as having grown up in an avant-garde orbit.
Burnett may push his evidence to the bursting point, but each piece of it is reliable. He is an admirably questioning and self-questioning scholar. Jean Aurenche for instance, provides him with his most ample material up to 1934, yet Aurenche is an uncertain memoirist, whimsically rewriting anecdotes to please himself. Burnett took care to selectively fact-check before determining that for the period under consideration Aurenche may be trusted.6 He exercises an impressive scholarly instinct by exploring what appear to be tangential details as they crop up in his account. For instance, he thoroughly delves into the “Gibbs” company for whom Bresson designed some ads, and there he discovers a network of avant-garde artists that can be linked to modern consumer culture through advertising. Similarly, the history of a small but chic art-deco theater, the “Raspail 216,” adds body to Burnett’s claim that early on Bresson realised the importance of a vertically integrated, if tiny, organisation able to give him control in an industry where one’s work is generally taken over by outside interests. The “Raspail 216” failed, as did Bresson’s production company that was linked to it. This was the depression, after all, the era of Picture Palaces, not niche art houses for avant-garde and offbeat films.
Burnett taught me a lot about French cinema in the thirties, a period I thought I knew well. His sources indicate his mania as a cultural historian following out clues. Through just a very few citings – and sightings – he manages to plausibly embed his obscure, nearly invisible hero within a milieu, making him appear as a contributing member. However, that milieu is harder to grasp than Burnett would let on. As Aragon’s abrupt turn from the avant-garde to Stalinism makes clear, French culture was so fractured that “surrealism” is too loose and large a term to characterise a “culture.” At the time surrealism referred to a specific group loathed by neighboring rival groups (i.e. Le Grand Jeu, Documents etc). And even among the surrealists, a figure like Cocteau could hardly be called central. Bunuel and Breton hated him, finding him far too ingratiating and popular. True, the Comtesse de Noailles managed to support many factions, bringing squabbling artists to visit her villa; so there was contact among them, to be sure; but it is difficult to identify where Bresson was positioned, despite his acquaintance with Cocteau. Burnett goes so far as to make his apprenticeship under the art-deco photographer Sougez appear to be continuous with avant-gardism. However, in a chapter dealing with French photography of the period, Steven Ungar and I oppose Sougez to experimentalists like André Kertezs and Brassai who relished shocking images of underclass neighborhoods.7 Sougez was an art deco photographer of the beau monde and of a Paris confidently modernising itself. Perhaps Coco Chanel serves to link avant-garde design to the beau monde, carrying Bresson along with her, but her patronage, if that’s what it was, is hardly enough to put Bresson “Under the Aegis of Surrealism,” as this chapter is titled.
Even if it could never be detailed enough in a book of this size, Burnett’s attention to the cultural network enables the fullest picture we have of Bresson’s debut in filmmaking. Exceptionally helpful is his evocation of pianist-composer Jean Wiener whose panache contributed to more than the music in Les Affaires publiques. He gave Bresson confidence that the film was up to date, jazzy. Further precision might have been attained had Burnett compared Bresson to other filmmakers trying to make their way at this moment, for there were many of these. The obvious parallel between Bresson and Jean Vigo might challenge Burnett’s thesis. For just like Bresson, but far more deliberately, Vigo was tied to the surrealists and was intent to work his way into cinema. Like Bresson, Vigo started with short pieces, Then in 1934 the two young men shared actor Gilles Margaritis, the “Camelot” in L’Atalante, as Burnett mentions in his notes, who plays the chauffeur in Les Affaires publiques. What did this acrobat and mime bring to these two projects as he moved from one to the other? Vigo was also greatly indebted to a wonderful composer, the incomparable Maurice Jaubert. Vigo too had the support of top critics (Élie Faure wrote a piece on his behalf). He too was a filmmaker maudit, to be celebrated at the festival Bresson participated in fifteen years hence in Biarritz. The parallels are striking. It helps to compare the strides and direction of someone we know a great deal about to the secluded Bresson. Vigo seems to have been much more forceful and determined, even brazen, than the apparently less confident Bresson. These two dazzling filmmakers can be linked, but Burnett’s cultural network has room for but a single auteur, perhaps because he has always seemed so singular.
A second comparison would be Jacques Becker, who tied himself to Renoir in the 30s and slowly gained independence enough to start a feature film in 1939-40. Burnett mentions that Becker knew Bresson well enough to suggest Claude Laydu to play the priest in Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951), but he could have taken their friendship back to the drôle de guerre, for in the summer of 1939 these men were extremely friendly and saw each other on vacation.8 Burnett can’t be held accountable for every shred of information about Bresson’s acquaintances, but since they are the two most important filmmakers to get their start during the Occupation and since they participated equally in the postwar narrative avant-garde, it is worth comparing their careers. In short, a number of talented filmmakers traversed the 1930s and yet only Bresson became Bresson. Colin Burnett lets us feel the temperature of the water in which all had to swim, but we don’t yet know clearly enough what kinds of strokes let Bresson make it to the other side of the camera during the Occupation when he clearly had gained the trust of a certain coterie in the cinematographic culture. Might it have been his interest in Catholicism that landed Bresson his early films, perhaps with the aid of the important colleagues with whom he worked (Jean Giraudoux, Père Bruckberger, Cocteau)? Burnett has shown us how to look for such tendencies, though we may never have the material to substantiate what occurred.
In Chapter Two, Burnett extends his method to the post-war period when Bresson went from a promising but fairly submerged figure to one lionised both by an expanding cinephile culture and by the intelligentsia at large. Diary of a Country Priest lifted him above other directors of his era. Of course he needed to work himself into a position to have an impact with this work, and he did so with his two first features. Curiously Burnett doesn’t give us much information at all concerning the steps he took to direct his Les Anges du péché (Angels of Sin) in 1943. He did consult Denise Tual’s wonderfully gossipy autobiography among other French sources, but he accepts that with the current dearth of archival material, it is better to watch Bresson’s career as it emerged later in the decade. Still, he could have provided a bit more about Bresson’s second feature, Les Dames du bois de Boulogne (1945). The archives of the Cinémathèque Francaise contain all the records of its distribution. Yes, it was a disappointment at the box office, but it actually had quite a long career, playing throughout Europe and North Africa, right to the end of the decade. Although most critics, including André Bazin on his initial viewing, faulted its visual style and Cocteau’s dialogue for their forbidding coldness, Les Dames du bois de Boulogne received tremendous support from Alexandre Astruc and Becker, who claimed it a revolutionary work. Roger Leenhardt likewise took it seriously, nudging Bazin to revise his opinion. So the group that soon consolidated into Objectif 49 (which included Bresson and Cocteau) had already gathered around the director’s second film, and would feature it as a prime example of le film maudit at their festival in Biarritz in the Summer of 1949.
Burnett’s second chapter is less revelatory than his first; for the story of Biarritz is by now relatively well-known, and Bresson’s place at the festival, though important, was not particularly prominent.9 Burnett newly illuminates this period, however, by focusing on key terms (“nouvelle avant-garde,” “adaptation” and “classicism”) that were in vogue, audibly so at Biarritz and at the Objectif 49 screenings. These concepts prepared the way for the glorious birth of Le Journal d’un curé de campagne in 1950. One term from the period that Burnett might have added is écriture, since it consolidates much of what Astruc was getting at in his “Caméra-Stylo” essay. Bazin actually preceded Astruc by a few months in arguing for a literary use of cinematic writing; and Roland Barthes’s quite crucial article titled “Le degré zéro de l’écriture” came out a bit earlier still, and in Combat where Burnett shows Astruc to have been a critic.
The network Burnett lays out in this second chapter which he titles “The Rise of the Accursed,” nourished not just Bresson and Becker, but many other 1940s filmmakers too in just the way Baxandall believes occurs in the art world. And so, alongside Chapter 1 on the prewar era, it forms a diptych displaying the French cultural terrain. Part II takes up the effects of this terrain on the growth of a fantastic and exotic species: the mature films of Robert Bresson. Again, I believe that his auteur in the foreground would have stood out in three dimensions against the cultural ground had he sketched in other varietals. Le Silence de la mer (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949) is mentioned only when cited by another critic, yet it surely deserves to be discussed as a precedent to Bresson’s Journal, for it too comes from a beloved literary work filmed abstemiously with an incessant narration spoken voice-over. A couple years after Le Journal, Astruc made his debut in the same vein, with Le Rideau cramoisi (The Crimson Curtain, 1953) As long as Burnett felt justified (rightly) in moving freely throughout the decade of the 1950s to show the fertility of ideas embodied in Le Journal, he might have discussed additional films that also embed these ideas. Rouch’s Moi, un noir (1958), at a limit, does something similar to Le Journal in its deployment of an onscreen character’s running narration; it too obeys a strict, though very different kind of realism, though it does not derive from a literary work. But René Clément’s Monsieur Ripois does come from a novel popular at the moment. This 1954 Cannes winner plays directly into Burnett’s view, being close enough to Le Journal to measure the changing aesthetic climate that warmed the Parisian breeding ground where popular avant-garde ventures sprouted from a new type of literary hybrid.
But a book can only be so long and Burnett, sensing that the overall backdrop has been painted in sufficient detail, tightens his focus in Part II. It opens with “Purifying Cinema,” a substantial chapter that explores the particular network of film criticism within which Le Journal d’un curé de campagne was born and thrived, including a truly excellent section detailing the way the project finally was accepted by the Bernanos Estate. Aurenche, hero of Burnett’s story in the 1930s, is now an enemy whose middle-brow ideas about film and literature will be scoffed at (by Bernanos himself, then by Truffaut) to the eventual advantage of Bresson. Minutely researched, this section finally lets us see how the most advanced ideas of the era inhabit Bresson’s project, which after an initially modest reception, would be wildly acclaimed. Exfoliating the best of these copious reviews, Burnett reveals the sophistication not just of Bresson, whose film rises even higher in one’s estimation, but of the vibrant debates concerning the powers of film, literature, and their conjunction in ambitious adaptations. Bazin’s magisterial essay on the film, which his translator Hugh Gray touted as “the most perfectly wrought piece of film criticism” ever written,10 now seems dependent on other views, many of them incisive, which it superseded, like a featured soloist whose voice rises above the chorus.11
Latent within the confrontation of this novel with this film is the anomaly of the stark personality difference between novelist and filmmaker. Leenhardt would no doubt put Bernanos in the same camp with Rabelais, Balzac and Jean Renoir (which he termed “La France grasse,” larger than life figures, heavy eaters, omnivorous and very productive) whereas Bresson belongs to “La France maigre,” alongside abstemious thinkers like Racine and Valéry who carefully work away at well-cut gems.12 Burnett relies on Janick Arbois to negotiate these differences in authorial temperament, though the mystery remains. How could two masterpieces, bearing the same title, be produced by such distinct sensibilities? He was not aware that Arbois was the very Catholic wife of Jean-Pierre Chartier (aka Jean-Louis Tallenay), who wrote a key essay, “First Person Filmmaking.” Hence Arbois’ position makes perfect sense. The couple worked closely with Henri Agel, a prominent, rather pious critic with ambition and a large following (Serge Daney credits him with launching his own career).13 Bazin kept a bit to the side of this collective, though he wrote for Chartier’s weekly Radio-Cinéma-Télévision. The story, in short, involves literary theory and Catholicism as well as film culture. Burnett was right to give Albert Béguin’s article on Le Journal pride of place since Béguin was undoubtedly the finest Catholic literary scholar of that time, and terribly influential. He was Bernanos’ literary executor and editor in chief of Esprit where Bazin had met Claude-Edmonde Magny, who was the source of his most important ideas on style in literature and film. Burnett’s discussion of first-person narration actually opens with Magny as seen through another woman, Colette Audry, an underappreciated force at the time and very close to Simone de Beauvoir. Female intellectuals are crucial to this moment of “purifying cinema.”
Of the three chapters in Part II, “Purifying Cinema” is by far the most convincing and pertinent, since it comes out of, and contributes to, the close cultural study of Part I. Burnett’s quest to embed the auteur in his era then takes a different direction, a bit less satisfying to me. Did Bresson stop having exchanges with key people in his generation after 1950? By then famous, he could afford to be reclusive and still be “connected” to producers and others he needed. Burnett even admits in his afterword that the two moments he has examined (1930s Surrealism and Objectif 49) were “fleeting.” This either means that an auteur is formed by early “brief encounters”, only then to go off on his own (perhaps with his own équipe), or it means that we have no good way to characterise Bresson’s relations to his culture in ordinary times. Those “ordinary times” after 1951 constitute the period in which he made his final ten films, yet the closest cultural connection Burnett makes in this section links Une Femme douce to May ’68, a connection actually made most enterprisingly by Brian Price whom Burnett rightly congratulates. Burnett’s final two chapters are after something even more difficult to establish than cultural life; they hope to pinpoint Bresson’s “non-spectacular” visual style and his search for significant rhythmic forms. It’s true that these two registers are shown to have been supported by published discussions (a debate on realism in the first instance and a forum in France about rhythm in the second instance). But even when he adds to this what he has learned from Bresson’s interactions with his crew, are we still in the realm of the cultural marketplace or have we moved over to speculative aesthetics?
While the final two chapters contribute only modestly to the cultural mission that Burnett succinctly re-emphasises in his excellent “Afterword,” they definitely analyse several Bresson films in detail, demonstrating a lusty appetite and aptitude for close stylistic study. Ranging among works from 1943 to 1969, he characterises Bresson’s personal obsessions and methods, not worrying if they responded to the concerns of the Fourth and Fifth Republics. This brings him closer than he might like to the kind of auteurist study he believes himself to have overcome. To be fair, in Chapter 4, “Theorizing the Image,” he is careful to situate Bresson within postwar options regarding realism, suggesting that the director was listening intently to the noisy Bazin/Sadoul debate while distancing himself from standard ideas of acting, sets, and lighting. But for the most part Burnett works through the films chronologically, as he shows the director to evolve into someone so sure of himself that he could pronounce his gnomic Notes sur le cinématographe. Burnett’s attention now drifts away from critics and cultural figures and toward Bresson’s assistants, set designers, cameramen, makeup artists, etc. who were his constant interlocutors. Their backgrounds and work with other directors help Burnett bring the Bresson “look” (and the Bresson “sound”) into particularly sharp focus. In a flourish at the chapter’s conclusion, Burnett quickly steers his characterisation of the elements of Bresson’s “simplified style” back to his preoccupation with the art market, ascribing Bresson’s quest for a new realism to the era’s “realist” tenor, and then subsuming it under his larger concern with cinema as a “nontheatrical, purely relational and rhythmic art.”
The final chapter on rhythm is more free-floating and harder at first to fold into the book’s full project. Despite ten pages that lay out the recondite French discourse on rhythm through an informative survey of the literature, Burnett has trouble demonstrating this to be as essential to the cultural market as he claims. Perhaps under the sway of Henri Bergson, French critics of all the arts have been sensitive to rhythm’s extreme pertinence. Philosopher Henri Lefevre, sound theorist and composer Pierre Schaeffer, literary scholar Julia Kristeva, and many others are cited alongside a number of workaday postwar film critics trying to make a case for cinema’s appeal. (I rejoiced to read Burnett’s appreciation of Jean Mitry’s ideas in this regard). Few of these writers were in dialogue with one another, however; hence, one cannot sense a “debate on rhythm” matching the tangible “debate on realism.” But Bresson was attuned to the issue itself, and responded to available notions of rhythm. As Burnett lays out, Bressonian views can be felt in the “plot rhythms” that pace all his films, in the sequencing of colors in his 1983 L’Argent, in the structural use of sound effects in Le Journal (his best example). Examining rhythm enlivens the films and brings us closer to the texture of Bressson’s craft by drawing attention to the way time operates in this art. Still, this chapter does not cohere as well as the others, the separate examples retarding the momentum of the argument.
Was Bresson’s career self-consciously directed as an intervention into the art market which he calculated could be most forcefully made through the abstracting yet physical pursuit of a cinema of rhythmic relations? This claim is stronger than the piecemeal evidence Burnett comes up with. But his search for the evidence is dogged enough to convince the reader to look more closely than ever at Bresson’s films. And what could be more important than that? Burnett stamps his work with the exclamation point of a truly memorable “Afterword.” There he succinctly restates his goal to bring the shadowy, reclusive Robert Bresson into the public sphere as “a social actor”, letting “a ‘cinematic’ Bresson emerge.” (p. 239) You might start with the “Afterword” if you need to be prodded to read another book on Bresson. I didn’t need a prod. Like the filmmaker it explores, the intensity and ingenuity of Colin Burnett’s project is apparent from first to last. His call for more extensive research into Bresson’s artistic collaborators and his plea that the Bresson archive be opened are not just the common mantras of a film historian. He knows – he has shown – that cultural history and film criticism should be inseparable because films are made and watched within a marketplace of ideas, of other films, and of intangible values. The films, I would say, make those values tangible. Let’s hold onto them above all. Colin Burnett grasps this.
Colin Burnett, The Invention of Robert Bresson: the Auteur and his Market (Indiana University Press, 2017)
- Dudley Andrew, “Epilogue,” in Mists of Regret, Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). ↩
- Michael Baxandall’s full title is instructive: Painting and Experience in 15th c. Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972). ↩
- Michael Baxandall, “Intentional Visual Interest: Picasso’s Portrait of Kahnweiler,” in Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explantion of Pictures (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985). ↩
- These terms populate the “Introduction” to The Invention of Robert Bresson. ↩
- Sally Shafto, “Modernism and Postmodernism in the Streets of Paris in the Summer of 1959: Bresson’s Pickpocket and Godard’s Breathless,” Prodigal 3 (Winter 2017): 63-98. ↩
- The Invention of Robert Bresson, p. 59, n. 3. Burnett was probably put on his guard by reading Aurenche, La Suite à l’écran (Lyon: Actes Sud, 1993), in which, on pp 195-196, he claims to prefer the delicious anecdote to faithful memory. ↩
- Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar, “Humanism and Fashion in Parisian Photography,” in Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture (Harvard, 2005), pp. 244-252. Sougez is then discussed on pp. 262-266. ↩
- Dudley Andrew, “Jacques Becker and his Partners in ‘La Ronde’ of French 50s Cinema,” The New Review of Film and Television Studies 4 (2017). ↩
- Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb, Objectif 49: Cocteau et la nouvelle avant-garde (Paris: Seghers 2014). ↩
- Hugh Gray, “Introduction” to André Bazin, What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 7. ↩
- Although his study does not deal with Bresson, Laurent Le Forestier accumulated the discourse-community within which Bazin’s ideas incubated. See his La Transformation Bazin (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017. ↩
- Roger Leenhardt, Chroniques de cinéma (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986), p. 83. Originally in Intermède 1 (July 1946). ↩
- Serge Daney, Postcards from the Cinema, trans. Paul Grant (Oxford: Berg, 2007), p. 19 ↩