Transcendental and Alone: 'Robert Bresson (Revised)'

Still from Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)

Often called “the filmmaker’s filmmaker”, Robert 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.

Robert Bresson (Revised)

Publisher: Indiana University Press / Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque
Length: 752 pages
Author: James Quandt
Price: $39.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-03

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.”







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.