No Way to Bresson


in Ideas • Illustrated by Estelle Guillot


At 18 I began to teach myself about sex by watching foreign films. And when I write “sex,” I am at the same time inscribing the word “women.” I was introduced to many intellectual types across the oceans, which heavily contrasted with the vacant Julia Roberts’s and Michelle Pfeiffers’s I could not get too excited about, though I kept an eye out for Susan Sarandon. The real alchemy lay in affixing myself to cultured art, made by men and women metaphorically descended from Leonardo, Vermeer, Dostoevsky, and Cezanne. In addition to Liv Ullmann, Ingmar Bergman relied on Bibi Anderson, Harriet Anderson, and Ingrid Thulin, while Godard began with Anna Karina before coming to Anne Wiazemsky. Antonioni adored Monica Vitti, while many directors shared Jeanne Moreau. I kept returning to Blockbuster Video to rent foreign films in which I could see all of a woman — the skin — because they were presented more matter-of-factly and naturally than the squeamish ’80s sex comedies or the shock value of anxiety-driven Hollywood hits, like Fatal Attraction or The Witches of Eastwick. I went through the few circulating Pasolini films, and though nudity abounded, it was not so joyous for a teenager. Most disappointing was probably the only Robert Bresson film available in the state limits other than A Man EscapedLancelot du Lac; with its King Arthur theme and picture of a scantily clad maiden on the back cover, her beauty being one I would need to see bared, as I atavistically expected some Renaissance Fair-type jamboree. Yet, I kept fast-forwarding through long sequences of talking and walking and shots of people’s or horses’ legs, bummed at wasting three dollars on a Frenchman with no fleshy reveals. Sexuality is surely a wrong-footed way to approach Bresson, but an immense component of it, the gaze, is very much alive in his frames. 

Many years went by until interest in Bresson was forcefully kindled, and I saw them all in a short period — but did I really see them? Record, review, and then outwardly display imbricated spots of its influence? I asked around — I asked a famous film critic, “How does one read Bresson?” I reviewed the second edition of James Quandt’s brick dedicated to essays on Bresson, but just pulled quotes and commented lightly, benignly. This was youth, but also learning. I had to brood more, look at the spectral, funny, and full-of-shit people in New York, quaff some of that cocktail, and feel some strange wounds — then I could return. This is a spiral indicative of the subject himself, a half-estranged personage. And there is nothing to figure out, there is no secret to Bresson — the beginning of this dusky feeling I landed on was painful, but also in some ways welcomed. I gave over my obsession to Eric Rohmer, more approachable and whimsical, who fed me easier; his actors and actresses not turning away but accepting of my incommodious habits and the almost ostentatious genuflection — they gladly instructed me in the finer points of some essence I was bent on discovering. 

Maybe a year ago, I saw Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, which seems to me much maligned as the least of Bresson. No, it holds different riches — and it begins to bend his style into a tighter key. About 13 minutes in, one can espy the quintessence of Bresson. The main character, Jacques, a painter, has been telling a woman he has met on the quay the story of himself, how he goes around looking at women in public and falling in love with his idea of them. Then a short starburst of shot, all in 17 seconds: a sunbaked old brick street in Paris is presented, where a black Rolls-Royce pulls up slowly. The camera is poised on the car, but a passer-by, a woman, appareled in a sweater and belt, captures its attention and it follows her trunk until it stops at the back seat door of the Rolls, where another woman gets out; the stable camera waits and the woman stands up and pauses briefly at waist-height, her torso on display with a wide belt holding two decorative metal disks with tassels. Her male companion comes out and escorts her, while the camera briefly pans them before abruptly stopping on the canted display of the Rolls’s front, the same position the shot opened with. (In the next short shot, the couple walks into a fancy building and Jacques walks past and then returns to their building’s gate to watch them — the woman briefly looks back.) But it’s that 17 seconds of film that holds as sublime. We don’t know why we are watching this car (and it’s probable this is a point of view from Jacques), but in a matter of seconds, we do. From the car, to a woman, to the more cherished woman, and back to the car — the camera barely moves five feet before it moves right back to its starting point — but inside those moments of time are one exquisitely calibrated matrix of consciousness. This is a form of seeing — the fragmentation (and concision) within the shot embroils the viewer in something clandestine, even uncanny. Bresson will build on these sorts of moments in the final films.  

More recently, I returned to his last three films. There’s something sui generis to Lancelot du Lac (and the two final shockwaves he made: The Devil, Probably and L’Argent) — certainly the repetitions, and repetitions through sound. But it’s also in the contrast of night and day and that menacing dark green of the forest — an “acquacous forest” Gilles Deleuze calls it. The world is an evil place and whatever atypical beauty Bresson conjures, it isn’t sunsets and landscapes, though moon-glow reigns briefly — man has always been the murderer, which is a more metaphysical message in Kubrick’s The Shining. Lancelot burned into me via its colors, framing, and soundtrack. But there was still a slight sense that the film was not made for me, even people like me — who are vaguely antipathetic, frustrated, yet always finally going along with the crowd, while maintaining they aren’t — but more for iconoclasts like Eugenio Montale and Fassbinder. Even if timeless, there is a veneer of the ’70s in its photography — it was made in the summer of 1973 — a thinking person’s decade. 

Afterward, I immediately went to the two Deleuze cinema books, even though in some hours they seem two mostly meaningless tomes in our debased and cryptic cultural milieu filled with frauds. Not Deleuze’s writing itself, but the subject — cinema. Few people I know really appreciate cinema — especially if they have their TV set to Sports mode — as many give their attention to the latest hot-shit TV show (or new notable movie available to all by a streaming service) for a very understandable reason: to give them something to talk about with friends or co-workers, since this is what is being widely consumed in a society hellbent on relevance. Cinema has become disregarded as too obtuse and difficult by too much of the pop culture industry, but this was to be expected. So, I settle on my own island as war rages, as families are rent, and more people lose their minds, stocking ammunition and signing up for cults, while persons very close to me begin to die with regularity. If art is my religion, then I’m simply doing what a worshipper might be found to perform — kneeling and then lighting a candle, praying to the words and images that give so much to give me even more: that I and everyone else might make it through this harrowing. Lancelot eluded as it enlivened, but the colorations and lusters came out while I kept fingering it in my mind, while parts of Deleuze shimmered from a not-so-distant point on a low ridge, where he stated that Bresson’s law is fragmentation:  

“Tables and doors are not given whole . . . [rooms] are not presented to us in long shots but successively apprehended from continuity shots which make them a reality which is closed each time, but to infinity . . . it is as if the mind collides with each part as if it were a closed angle, but enjoying a manual freedom in the linking of the parts . . . the linking of neighboring areas can be done in many different ways and depends on new conditions of speed and of movement, on rhythmic values which are opposed to all prior determination.”

The last part amplifies something Bresson often repeated, that he tried to film things as he felt them in that moment, never planning in advance how to photograph them. But in Lancelot (The Devil, Probably and L’Argent as well), the soundtrack overwhelms with its disruptions, repetitions, and free-fall of “voice” and “noise” — mostly animal: the horse’s high whinnies, their galloping on the track and in the forest, and the snippety, fustian call of a bird on branch, then the bagpipes in the joust scene, and the heavy metal clangor and grunts in the sword fights. This might be the most realistic depiction of medieval times or any olden times in film, solely due to the soundtrack, because it is so rich and varied. We are in “it,” in their world, which was a relatively silent one — all those sounds would be grossly amplified in one’s consciousness in those days, just as we hear them (or don’t hear them) now. During winter, for a week, I let the airspace traffic of NYC overwhelm and drive me mad, so much so that I looked at a livestream website for air traffic. But then I let go, and just like the first 16 years in this hell-spot, I successfully blocked it out — a level the knights might have come to in their time, with the horse’s whinnies simply like the sound of one’s breath; present but muted, unbespoke. 

Changing up, I went back to A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, but they were easier on the eyes, maybe owing to the black and white (color is harsh and brutal, and it doesn’t let the imagination thrive), but they didn’t create a “perpetual hole in appearances” as Deleuze wrote of Dreyer, which can easily be applied to Bresson. The further I probed Lancelot the further it migrated away — a sign that it may never be exhausted, like Gertrud, A Woman Under the Influence, The Mirror, or Barry Lyndon. But again — the disjunction with the world. It’s a film a few thousand people have interest in worldwide — no more. Why? Kent Jones pointed out the most important aspect of Bresson, while contrasting his films with the sloppy, hysterical work of Oliver Stone: 

“. . . the most profound difference of all, which serves to illustrate the alienation many young viewers feel from Bresson’s cinema, is in their respective attitudes towards the people who pass before their cameras . . . Bresson forces the faces and bodies of his models into relief within his shallow spaces, thus exposing their continual, unconscious self-revelations to our probing consciousness . . . in the presence of Stone’s phantasmagoric murals as well as so much else in modern cinema, the eye and ear have a tendency to become acquisitive, whereas in the presence of Bresson’s patiently concentrated cinema they must be inquisitive or nothing.”

There is room in Bresson, particularly the four later films, to roost about and concentrate on details, even to wonder why the main actresses in Quatre Nuits, Lancelot, and The Devil all look very similar to each other. Some critics have made noise about his focusing on young people in these latter films, but he always did — The Trial of Joan of Arc, Au Hasard Balthazar, and Mouchete stick out, while the men in Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket are relatively young. The eye and the ear being inquisitive is on the same level as Deleuze’s linking of the fragmentations, something Bresson encourages in interviews: “Life is mysterious, and we should see that on-screen. The effects of things must always be shown before their cause, like in real life. We’re unaware of the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause.” But the “continual unconscious self-revelations” are key — we see Bresson’s actors closer to how we see people in real life. Cassavetes told an actress that “it’s when you’re not saying anything that no one can hurt you” but this is perverted in Bresson. It’s in the space where the actors aren’t saying anything that the audience can (and probably will) get hurt the most. The viewer hungers after those over life-size images (when properly projected), endeavoring to be admitted into a world that live people don’t even let them inside of, even if they might be sexually intimate with them — books get us into the head, but films take us under the skin and into the body, since we can hardly see people in real life at such angles and with such abstruse light hitting or reflecting, and if we might, nowadays, someone is often reaching for a phone to obscure their attention and make us take a backseat to their ego. None of the theatrics of most films are available in Bresson, because in some ways Bresson’s characters, along with Dreyer’s and Cassavetes’s are the most inscrutable in motion pictures — maybe since their creators are the best believers in suggestion. 

Of the final four films, the last two — The Devil, Probably and L’Argent are the most unsettling, and the ones that fittingly mirror our helter-skelter times, where the renegade relationship between money and murder (and suicide) is addressed most morosely (honestly) and best exemplified by Charles’s edict to a psychologist in The Devil: “If my aim was money, and profit, everyone would respect me” — this comes at the end, and Charles will pay someone to kill him later that night. Money is a great auxiliary factor in our debauchery and many scenes contain it, both paper and coin are numerous—and, of course, Charles buys his death in the end. Besides Jacques in Quatre Nuits, the latter Bresson character who gives me the most is Charles in The Devil, where the unconscious self-revelations in him produce clusters of my own that I strive to make conscious — are these the signals I am giving off? No wonder I didn’t get that fellowship or that job years ago. He is given quite a long leash of agency compared to the other young “protagonists” and I could finally filter his largely blank, though unsettling and unconscious, eyes into some casuistry to refract a different, tempered reaction to the youth I witness mostly struggling about me. Youth is a time when people make incredibly far-reaching decisions that are based on very little experience in the world (one can’t even realize the import of this till older) — something complicated by the shoddy state of things and an overwhelming hopelessness in the face of climate change and the horrendous political and big-business childcares that ostensibly run things. Bresson keenly and perspicaciously detailed all of this in 1976, near the dawn of a greater awareness about the effects of industry on the earth, by presenting the endpoint of widespread consumerism on our souls, our relationships — namely asking, how can we even co-exist with all the rampant abuse and misuse of human beings? 

Within Charles’ predicament/countenance is an unhappy nest of beliefs and actions: he believes in little except himself and making love “like a wild beast”; he dismisses the revolutionaries and the establishment, and yet, he saves a “friend” (Valentin, the drug addict), who will later assist him in killing himself. As Bresson surrounds him with a hateful world, similar to ours, it is very easy to imagine why suicide is so rife today among youth — among all ages, truly. Serge Daney wrote of the film’s examining the “inability of human discourse (and of the human voice) to  bear  the violence of the world.” In The Devil, the violence is not only the environmental catastrophes, but the speechifying ones. “Cacophony,” Daney writes, “is the true subject of the film.” All the talk coming from doctors, priests, revolutionaries, or just strangers on a bus is bombast: “cliched, dull, and colorless,” and though Charles covers his ears in the country to not “hear” the cut trees falling, the image is evergreen for the whole, transmitting easily to the present. And it’s painful to watch him in the last minutes of the film on the final walk to Pere-Lachaise, when he momentarily stops in front of an open window and briefly listens to a Mozart piano concerto playing on a TV before trudging on, evidence that he is not fully committed to dying by, essentially, suicide. And in a sly concordance — the idea of having a friend kill him comes from the psychologist, Dr. Mime — the last hope for Charles—who speaks of how the Romans used this plan, just before Charles carries it out.  

How do Bresson’s fragments get further shored against my ruins? Mainly by counterpoint. A bus scene in The Devil, barely three minutes long, stands out, mainly for the suggestion in it. Bresson takes one into the experience of riding a city bus by showing what people on the bus would see: the opening and closing of the front and rear doors, as controlled by the driver, who uses many mirrors to do his or her work; the back of the driver or only his arms or a mirrored reflection; the backs and necks of those sitting in front of us or the torsos of those standing — that impersonality. This is the world, the callous world — we are carted around impersonally on mass transit and strangers can’t help hearing us and sometimes, can’t help interrupting, as a man does to Charles’s and Michel’s modern-day debating of evils, riposting: “It’s the masses who determine events.” The bus driver pricks up his ears since he is paying attention to the conversation, and then fearfully and quickly looks back at the mention of “the devil, probably” leading him to hit something with the bus. He climbs out of the jump seat, locks it off and takes out his notebook, and goes outside. We only see his body from neck to knee, as a passenger might, but we never see what exactly happened, what he hit — Bresson’s camera fixes on the front door, where he exited, and a parade of car horns builds, suggestive of the entropy, the cacophony. These fragmentations add up to something alive and uncanny that has no truck with the beautiful — as Bresson says “It is the impression of a thing and not the thing itself that matters. The real is something we make for ourselves. Everyone has their own. There is the real and there is our version of it.” Bresson lets the audience use their imagination for what might or might not have happened. Further, he adds “In a film, sound and picture progress jointly, overtake each other, slip back, come together again, move forwards jointly again. What interests me, on a screen, is counterpoint.” As the horns from this scene in Paris crescendo and then die out, one can hear heavy river water coursing from some wetland in the country, where Charles and friends will go walking and swimming (the scene will begin with a sign: “no bathing”) — but one still sees the bus door open for a few seconds with the water sound, enfolding the next scene into this one. Counterpoint — but also vision. The society that makes up the callous world is crumbling — the ease or relief of water grows from the clamor of horns, but no…one can’t enjoy the water and the country, because shortly, the police will come, trying to catch and arrest people who disobey. Public property dries up — money drives us to choose profit over peace. Yet we see most public figures as more or less clowns, few demonstrating any admirable qualities. “You confuse the word ‘pessimism’ with the word ‘lucidity,'” Bresson corrects an interviewer in The Road to Bresson, adding “Do you think Greek tragedies were pessimistic?” In drawing out morality from Bresson’s frames I am inviting a storm — one I often admonish — to produce further slippery bearings of the political/didactic in a work of art. But this transference is one of the delicacies open to such suggestion — Bresson’s “scenarios” can verge on the parabolic — and it provides a deeper quarry to mine into my identifications with Charles, and, by extension, all the young adults who are more or less — fucked. 

My sympathy for Charles continued extending, even as Bresson did away with any scenes of the people who cared about Charles reckoning with his death — something that only strengthened it, since I can imagine all the reactions just as they might happen — and the film ends in the darkness of the cemetery after the killing and the screen simply goes black: no end credits, no “fin,” nothing. This should be the most horrible outcome imaginable, with a trace of Dante’s ninth circle of hell, but is it? In an interview about The Devil (L’Argent and Lancelot have similar endings), Bresson said “I want to make people feel the presence of God.” A friend’s email amplifies this: “In Bresson, grace is noticeable because the world of each film is stripped of nearly everything, as are the people in it. So, we catch the intervention of God or the spiritual…on a purely dark gray canvas, any speck of colored paint will stand out.” Yes. Yes — I could not have seen this before, not even a year ago, but the way Bresson films his characters (he wants to “show people in the round, in their convexness”) chimes with bringing out this spectral presence. To see things as God or a god would see them, the filmmaker must reserve judgment, so the audience has more power. To parse Bresson’s words in a further chiasmatic way, I feel the presence of some other spiritual force — maybe Zoaster-like — but it’s not the devil, and this force (Bresson) is empowering the audience to create more than it is used to—to make them more God-like.  

Charles actually has quite a support system — many people want to be around him, and they love or care about him, but it’s not enough — or is it? There is a creeping regret in his last minutes, extending from the scene of listening to Mozart, even if his fate is mostly decided — and it’s especially searing with the last two things he says to his un-answering killer, while he walks ahead of him in the cemetery: “I thought at a time like this I’d have sublime thoughts” is uttered when turned to Valentin and, after a few more steps, unturned, Charles says: “Shall I tell you?” but a split second later the bullet enters his brain, imbricating the tragedy. 

Today, in the fall of 2023, I can only read this in one way: there is so much we want to share, to be intimate about (and Charles is willing to share with a drug addict who has no feelings except to pursue his next fix (to bring it full circle, the film opens with Valentin advising people on how to walk — the blind leading the blind). Charles has saved him before (another irony — Charles saves Valentin and Valentin kills him), but the violence of the world is too much to bear for him, though, of course, Valentin bears it through his addiction. 

The ending of the final three films each says: ‘Think about what has just happened.’ They don’t encourage judgment, just present the evidence, freeing the viewer to take what she will—this kind of emboldening and ennobling (Bresson’s “presence of God”) may stymie the viewer and produce a foreign, not necessarily redacted, experience, something so far afield from how most filmmakers move in didactic, even if they feel they aren’t. This is a tragedy without the usual ungainly recourses to spectator involvement — in Bresson, the spectator’s neck is at knifepoint the whole while, their process of weighing the images of death and suicide in the films will say more about themselves than Bresson certainly could.  

And in that grim, knotty ending, recall how the film begins in darkness, a large lighted boat (probably a passenger ferry) on the Siene, passes through its channel as the credits roll (young people in this film and Quatre Nuits are often watching the river at night) — it is seen through the aperture of an arch. Eventually, the wake’s waves spread over the dark water and rebound against the embankment where the camera is stationed. After this are the newspaper headlines that Charles committed suicide, before we see his story six months prior — but the echo of the waves continues under the new scene of the newsprint. This makes it plausible that the boat opening is, timewise, just after the killing, possibly the same night — and since it is a ferry, it’s not a stretch to think of Charon and the River Styx. More presences, including Charles’s own soul, hanging over the entire film. 

In turns, the outward gaze became inward for me, but in a much more jagged fashion than “this being’s film gave me pause about my life . . .” Rather, Bresson respected my autonomy and treated me as a reasonably educated adult, capable of doing more imaginative work than normal to isolate the fragmentations and bleed from them a certain admixture, an earthy and carnal beauty that is more anabasis than narcotic, something the great director Olivier Assayas keyed into about the filmmaker: “It’s a plain and indisputable fact…in Bresson’s filmmaking: the power of affirmation is such that . . . you forget whether that’s what’s at the core or whether it’s doing nothing but discovering, exploding, what was hidden in the shadows.” “The power of affirmation” is vision (style) — form and content when merged, like when everything not man-made merges with night, at night — and there is as strong a sense of it in Bresson, as we see in Shakespeare, Vermeer, and Dostoevsky. The inward gaze stretched far beyond my life choices. Bresson’s films, his visions, give me life, which is to say the power of imagination, the power to understand the world better, to guide my life, because if I just sat back and enjoyed Bresson but didn’t do anything with it, I’d be fooling myself. We are given fragmentations so we can make our own “real,” as he said — different for everyone, tailored to the justifications and bifurcations or luculence that may loom in our lives.•