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.”


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.