by Shmuel Ben-gad

  • SHMUEL BEN-GAD is a librarian at George Washington University and the author of "Robert Bresson: A Bibliography of Works by and about Him, 1981-1993," which appeared in the Bulletin of Bibliography. His article first appeared in the St. John's Review, Winter 1997.

    That a filmmaker can lift us to these levels of contemplation and speculation is proof of the filmmaker's greatness. -- Andrew Sarris

    Learning to see -- habituating the eye to repose, to patience, to letting things come to it; learning to defer judgment, to investigate and comprehend the individual case in all its aspects.

    This is the first preliminary schooling in spirituality.. . . -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Despite awards and critical praise, the films of French minimalist Robert Bresson are screened more rarely in the U.S. than those of many other directors of art films. However, there seems to be something of a Bresson boom of late. In 1994, L'Argent (1983), an adaptation of a Tolstoy short story, became available in subtitled video; that was followed by Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), based on a work by Diderot, and Lancelot du Lac (1974) in 1995; and in 1996 we have seen the similar release of Une Femme Douce (1969). He has made fourteen films in all, among which are two based on works by Dostoevsky and two on works by Georges Bernanos. He first attained his mature style in his fourth film, Diary of a Country Priest (1950), a style which he refined until it reached rarefied heights in L'Argent.

What sets Bresson's work apart from that of virtually every other director is his insistence on filming only "real things." As he himself has written in his Notes sur le Cinématographie (1975), "to create is not to deform or invent persons or things. It is to tie new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are." (Italics are in the original.) His minimalism is really a way of not "deforming" reality but of allowing us to concentrate on the real persons and things he presents to us. Indeed his films are a series of images of remarkable purity. Because he eschews mood music, as well as expressive camera angles and movements, and pares away inessential elements from his compositions and dialogue, he achieves what he calls "insignificant (nonsignificant) images."

Wyndham Lewis can, I think, help us understand what this means. In his book Men Without Art, Lewis defends what he calls an "external" approach to art -- in particular, to literature. He writes that if authors who relate their narratives internally -- that is, by letting readers "into the minds of the characters" (like James Joyce or Henry James) -- were painters, their works would consist of "plastic units. . . suffused with romantic coloration." They would be overcharged with literary symbolism; their psyches would have got the better of their Gestalt -- the result a sentiment, rather than an expressive form." These imagined paintings by James and Joyce are the exact opposite of Bresson's films. In Bresson's minimalistic stylization -- which is nothing if not rigorous form -- there is an intense concentration on essential images but no symbolism, no romanticism, no spectacle. Instead, carefully chosen, spare images follow one upon the other and affect one another. It is precisely through this method that Bresson's rigorous formalism is ultimately moving. He achieves emotional resonance not through expressive "coding: or rendering of images that provide the audience with cues both for interpreting and reaction to the images, but through a cool yet intense presentation of uncluttered compositions of images and natural sounds in a certain order."

Bresson insists on realism in a less subtle way, namely, in his avoidance of acting. He does not use actors, and refers to the people who appear in his films as "models." Through extremely precise direction of speech, movement, and gesture, and also much repetition before shooting scenes, he manages to have his models move and speak in an automatic way -- that is to say, without attempting either to project or suppress emotion. While Bresson recognizes the legitimacy of acting in the theater, he does not approve of it in films, where he regards it as "inventing" or "deforming" persons. According to him, it violates the particularity and purpose of cinema -- the most realistic of the arts -- which is to show realities. Turning to his Notes once again, we read: "What our eyes and ears require is not the realistic personal but the real person." And again, concerning models: "Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)" Acting is the projection of simulacra of emotions that the actor does not feel. It is a simulation meant to make visible and obvious what the character is supposedly thinking and feeling. There is a credibility in Bresson's models: They are like people we meet in life, more or less opaque creatures who speak, move, and gesture. Bresson believes -- and I concur -- that the words he has his models utter and the movements and gestures he has them make in an automatic, nonintentional way, invariably, if subtly, evoke human depths because the models, after all, are human beings. Acting, on the other hand, no matter how naturalistic, actively deforms or invents by putting an overlay or filter over the person, presenting a simplification of a human being and not allowing the camera to capture the actor's human depths. Thus what Bresson sees as the essence of filmic art, the achievement of the creative transformation involved in all art through the interplay of images of real things, is destroyed by the artifice of acting. For Bresson, then, acting is, like mood music and expressive camera work, just one more way of deforming reality or inventing that has to be avoided.

Bresson's filmic universe is one of real, simply presented persons, objects, and sounds (no one uses the soundtrack more effectively than he), and each thing that is observed or heard is granted its own integrity; yet it is also wrapped up in the same mysterious realm as all the other items. It is a part of the genius of Bresson, through his composition of images and ordering of their presentation, that he discovers and captures the subtle strangeness of the mundane. His spare presentation of objects manages to reveal their essences and the mystery attached to them. As a whole, the universe he presents is a quiet, austere, mysterious one with the pervasive mysterious atmosphere evoked by the lack of acting and also of any other clues to, or explanations of, psychology and motivation, as well as by the remarkably unyielding concentration on bodies and objects. His universe seems cold and indifferent and also pregnant with possibilities, dominated by fate and with room for human freedom. It is, in fine, as ambiguous, because as opaque, as the people in his films. In its ambiguity it is both frightening and awe-inspiring. Regarding story-line, unlike Antonioni and the later Godard, Bresson's films have strong plots, although they are presented elliptically. Yet, ultimately, plot is in service of the minimalistic style, not vice versa.

While recognizing full well that Bresson's films are not at all didactic, it seems to me that in them Bresson provides us with a way of seeing, or relating to, the world. Bresson's filmic art in fact is a way of seeing. Whatever his personal belief (and Bresson, a Christian, presumably believes in invisible realities as do, among others, more traditionally minded Jews), in his films he has a profound respect for this "surface," if you will, of reality. That his austere, "external," and minimalistic style creates films of such passion (however restrained) and authentic interiority indicates, it seems to me, the only way for us to understand the world, to try to see it more profoundly. We do this not by avoiding or annihilating or even seeing through the images the world presents to us; we do it, on the contrary, by paying the closest possible attention to those images, by concentrating on seeing them with supreme clarity, and by doing so without any prior assumptions, which tend to cause us to discover only what we already think we know. (In an interview in which he discussed his deliberate decision not to explain, or even hint at, motivations and psychology of characters in his films, Bresson acutely remarked: "The psychologist discovers only what he can explain. I explain nothing.")

Bresson's art has often been called "spiritual," but I am inclined to think of it as highly materialist in that, as I have noted, it is most respectful of material reality. (What I mean may be illustrated by a notable instance in which his adaptation of the plot of his source material coincides with his materialist techniques. In the novel Diary of a Country Priest by Bernanos, the central character has a religious vision while walking alone. Shortly after that he faints and is assisted by a girl from his catechism class. In his film version, Bresson conflates the two incidents so that the vision never occurs. The priest faints and thinks he is having a supernatural visitation, but it turns out to be the girl kindly helping him in his need.) We know what we see. The more intensely and clearly we see, the more deeply we know. What I call Bresson's materialist art, with its emphasis upon unadorned, undramatized images, is very far from a playful postmodern celebration of the superficial that provides striking images and spectacles in order to tease or overwhelm the visual sense. Rather, his precise, ordered presentation of carefully chosen and composed nonsignificant images invites the viewer to what Andrew Sarris calls "contemplation," though not a contemplation of vague, spiritual notions. It is rather, at least at first, of physical realities like faces and hands, doorways, and axes. If anything -- "spiritual" or otherwise -- exists beneath or behind material reality, if physical reality is in fact a surface, then the only possibility of knowing this other reality will be through a profound gaze at this surface. I want to be clear here that I am not claiming, or even trying, to describe or explicate Bresson's own philosophy. It may be that he thinks the only way to indicate supernatural realities in filmic art is through an intensely materialist method, but believes some other ways of perceiving such realities exist in life. Yet I believe that a work of art does have a certain autonomy from its creator and thus I am trying here to understand and explicate what Bresson's films show us as films, not what Bresson the man may believe.

In Bresson's films (and the purer his art has become the more this is true) persons and objects are neither explained nor interpreted; nor is the universe which comprises them. We are presented tales whose meanings are left as unexplained as are the motives of the people in them. As Tom Milne, the fine English film critic, has said of one of Bresson's greatest films, Une Femme Douce, "By the end, in a sense, one is no wiser than before. Was it because the husband loved her too much or too little, because he gave her too little money or too much, because he felt she was too good for him or not good enough? The extraordinary thing about the film is that any or all of these interpretations can be read into it.. . ." (This first of his films in color is based on a Dostoevsky tale which deals with the suicide of a young wife.)

I have said that in my opinion Bresson's films provide us with a way of seeing, of relating to the world, and I have already discussed what I think that way of seeing is -- namely, careful, contemplative attention to the essence of physical realities without prior assumptions. But relating to reality, as shown in Bresson's films, also involves, I think, clearly recognizing the deeply enigmatic nature of what is real. To interpret is to impose meaning rather than to perceive it. I dare say that in Bresson's filmic universe there are no interpretations, only facts; in it, to perceive is to become aware how enigmatic is the universe and the human beings who dwell therein.

In addition to being considered a spiritual director, Bresson is also considered a dark, pessimistic one (and this is not, of course, a contradiction). The obvious reason for this is that conventional happy endings are rare in his films. Yet it seems to me that his rigorous minimalism and materialistic method, which amazingly yield the most credible sense of mystery, are also causes. In an interview Bresson replied to the characterization of his films as pessimistic by saying, "the word 'pessimism' bothers me because it is often used instead of the word 'lucidity.' " Many people are uncomfortable with lucidity. Many wish to interpret the sense of all-encompassing mystery in Bresson's films as intimations of an invisible reality behind the material universe and thus as offering hope. Yet I think it must be recognized even by such viewers that, if indeed there are such hints of the invisible in the films, both the hints and the realities are grand and awesome, not mawkish or easily comforting, and that the way to knowledge of them can be quite terrible. It is a widespread and natural phenomenon for people to seek some escape from materiality and its concomitant, death, and to look for hope in spiritual realities. But, in my opinion, to avoid materiality in this search is to fall into sentimentality at best and lunacy at worst. (It is interesting, at least for me, to recall that in the Jewish religious tradition speculations about redemption are quite varied but that one of them, and it is perhaps the oldest, portrays redemption in rather material terms: Jewish sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.) Bresson's art, it seems to me, is rooted in the material and lucidly recognizes the importance of this "surface" of reality. It recognizes the resulting inescapably enigmatic nature of the universe to human beings. Bresson, an artist of the very highest order in my judgment, does not offer meanings, explanations, or answers but rather lucidity, reality, and profound mystery. Indeed I am bold to say that Bresson's films are not merely the most lucid made, they are, in essence, lucidity itself.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1997, Vol. 47 Issue 2.