Transcendental and Alone: ‘Robert Bresson (Revised)’

A priest, a prisoner, a pickpocket, a donkey… and Joan of Arc. These are just some of the main characters in the films of Robert Bresson, arguably — honestly, for me, inarguably — the most original director in cinema history.

Often called “the filmmaker’s filmmaker”, Bresson is that rare bird, an artist whose work in his chosen medium bears almost no trace of influence from others in that same medium. It’s usually more fruitful to relate Bresson’s films to other arts than cinema, such as painting (Bresson began as a “Cezanneian” painter) or music, mediums that have more historically attended to form, the most important factor in Bresson’s aesthetic: “Form is everything,” he told an interviewer.

Robert Bresson (Revised), edited by James Quandt, is an updated edition of an already hugely impressive volume of essays, interviews and appreciations by some of cinema’s finest scholars and critics. Just a shortlist: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, P. Adams Sitney, Raymond Durgnat, Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Kent Jones. Yes, that’s a shortlist. There are also interviews with Bresson by Paul Schrader and Jean-Luc Godard, poems by Robert Creeley and Patti Smith, and testimonials of indebtedness by filmmakers like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta 1999, The Kid with a Bike 2011) and Michael Haneke (Funny Games 1997/2007). This, then, really is inarguably the critical study of Robert Bresson.

Perhaps the term most associated with the director is “transcendental”, from Susan Sontag’s seminal “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” to one-third of Paul Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film. Though Sontag’s essay is of foundational interest, my personal favorite of the spiritual-leaning bunch is Raymond Durgnat’s “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson.” Durgnat, the legendary writer of among other books Films and Feelings (1967), is wise, shrewd and oftentimes humorous, an atypical attitude in Bresson criticism. Mining and, in some ways, undermining Bresson’s supposed “Jansenism” (described succinctly as “(a) the total depravity of fallen man, and (b) double predestination (God created us knowing we would choose sin and be damned…”), Durgnat wrestles with the “negative vision” of this self-professed “Christian atheist”:

“Not only ‘Christian atheist,’ but many other religious labels, accommodate enough ambiguity to bedevil (that’s the word!) debate. And to confound my long-cherished yearning, to tease out from Bresson’s films some clearer idea, if not of his beliefs exactly (for art more often explores experiences than beliefs), then some doctrinal tendencies [sic], or issues that preoccupied (or tempted?) him…”

Even Durgnat’s parenthetical remarks are illuminating:

“Bresson’s style — both ‘realistic’ and ‘artificial’ — has its ‘poetic,’ its mental atmosphere. It’s a ‘cloud of connotations,’ not unlike a belief-system (with all its sensed incoherencies). It’s apprehended, not just emotively (lyricism), nor as a ‘purely subjective entity’ (like, say, God = Superego), nor as a series of propositions (philosophy), but as ‘a corner of nature… seen through a temperament.’ In other words, ‘the workings of the world, as grasped through a frame of mind.’”

Bresson being above all a formalist, formalist critic Kristin Thompson’s “The Sheen of Armour, the Whinnies of Horses: Sparse Parametric Style in Lancelot du Lac” is particularly rewarding. Bresson’s Arthurian knights-in-dull-armor movie, one of his most visually and aurally alluring, captures the awkward, clunky metallic sound and presence of the epoch like no other film of its kind.

Actually, there is no other film of its kind. Thompson (one-half of the Bordwell and Thompson team behind the now-standard textbook Film Art) breaks down and analyzes in detail “how Bresson takes visual and aural motifs of a familiar sort and weaves them into parallel narrative and abstract patterns.” Through still-image illustration and diagrammed analysis, she dissects the film’s rhythmic structure and “graphic play” in which, for example, we might find “a Mondrian-like composition dropped into the middle of a narrative film.”

Satisfying enough in its first edition, the revised book is more varied and more complete in its treatment of all of Bresson’s films. Material on the later films that was lacking from the first edition is now amply provided through such excellent essays as Serge Daney’s “The Organ and the Vacuum Cleaner” (on The Devil, Probably 1977), James Quandt’s “‘All Things Conceal a Mystery’…” (dealing partly with the same film), Shigehiko Hasumi’s elegant “Led by the Scarlet Pleats: Bresson’s L’Argent” (1983, Bresson’s last film) and Kent Jones’s “A Stranger’s Posture: Notes on Bresson’s Late Films.”

Also new to the mix is an “electronic symposium” featuring an impressive handful of film scholars and critics, among them Quandt, Rosenbaum, Jones and French “native” Nicole Brenez. This roundtable email makes for some of the book’s richest reading, as each writer responds to, builds on, takes off from the others in semi-intimate, semi-conversational, high-critical mode:

“Jones: Regarding [Paul] Schrader, I have to disagree: he has a powerful existentialist bent.

Rosenbaum: If you’re correct about this, Kent, some elaboration would be helpful. A large part of my problem with Schrader’s ‘transcendental’ readings of Bresson… relates to political issues about being in the world rather than trying to ‘transcend’ that world via grace, violence, or some combination of the two…

Jones: Jonathan, are you talking about Schrader’s relation to transcendence or to existentialism?…”

What Robert Bresson (Revised) proves is that, despite all the high regard, critical approbation and professed influence, there remains no one quite like Bresson, a forlorn fact the director himself anticipated early on. “Do you feel alone?” an interviewer once asked him. “I feel very alone,” answered Bresson, “but I derive no pleasure from that feeling.”

RATING 10 / 10