Favorite foreign film director: Robert Bresson.

Andrey Tarkovsky, in a ‘Your Favorites’ list, Moscow, Jan.1974; in Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986, Faber, London 1994; p.89

Money, money, money and fear. Fellini is afraid, Antonioni is afraid.

the only one who is afraid of nothing is Bresson.

(Ibid., in 1980; p.256. Dots in original.)

Your film – let people feel the soul and the heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands.

Robert Bresson, addressed to himself, in Notes on the Cinematographer, Quartet P’backs, Eng. Edn. 1996 p.23.

In the world of today, whatever the domain, France can now shine only through exceptional works. Robert Bresson illustrates this rule in the cinema. He is the French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music. Listen to him:

Jean-Luc Godard in Godard on Godard, Viking NY, 1972; Section 18, p.47.

THE BRESSONIAN ‘LOOK’ & ITS MISCONSTRUALS

The following remarks lean heavily on principles aphoristically expressed by Bresson in his Notes On The Cinematographer (1975; Eng.1986; Quartet Paperbacks edn.1996; hereafter N.O.C.). Gathered over many years and addressed by Bresson to himself, these consist chiefly of guides and working formulations pruned of specific referees and contexts, designed to serve as reminders and to encapsulate discoveries made during shooting when further applicable. They are a very exact register of Bresson’s priorities at different periods of his working life; of how his thematic concerns and his methods have changed, as well as of certain constants in his work. The approach to what can be called the art in this work is a highly practical one, from the angle of experiment and trial; the work is ‘in process’ here, an ongoing activity – not a summarizable and finished product. And it is not lacking in recorded errors and warnings.

Extreme complexity. Your films: attempts, trials.

(N.O.C. p.81)

This point of entry into Bresson’s themes and their peculiar stylistic ‘look’ at different times, is then necessarily opposed to that of critics: their summaries and his Notes are at cross-purposes. The bearing on his earlier themes in particular and on how they arose – so often discussed – is quite different, in one or two cases making nonsense of what critics have written about them (the ‘Jansenism’ Bazin thought he discerned, foreverafter parroted by the Schreibers and Schreiers of hackdom). To point out how they did arise and where it would be more fruitful to focus one’s attention in the earlier films, is one of the purposes of the remarks that follow.

But more particularly: to unfreeze the eye’s fixity on the early work,directing it to the fluidity of Bresson’s formal applications and the mutability of his concerns – to change, in a word, which has in Bressonian Secondary Lit. not had the share of attention his Constants have had. The misfocussing of the crits’ thematic gaze has a particularly distortive bearing on the later films, from Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) on.

The degree to which these remarks, aided by Bresson, can shed light on what are everywhere recognized as basic constituents of the Bressonian ‘look’ are a gauge of their positive function. Allowing for mutations and changes-of-emphasis as his career progresses, these constituents can be summarily listed:-

The cool, dispassionate delivery of dialogue, neutral faces, the use of non-actors (‘models’); avoidance of depicting emotional states, like anger (‘paroxysms’), whose symptoms are everybody’s and which fail to individuate; a razorlike paring to minimum essentials; use of standard focal-length lenses and natural space-perspectives; avoidance of harsh contrasts in lighting unless realistically demanded by the setting, especially in closeups; maximal use of modern filmstock’s ability to catch every shade of grey in the hollows and rises, the folds and tautness of a face; a reliance on fragmentation and editing to isolate expressive qualities of faces and objects; an allowance for enigmas and unexplained areas in characters, a refusal to ‘explain’ everything, dependence on viewers’ ability or willingness to infer; increasing use of the evocative qualities of sounds, or their lack; and avoidance – altogether in the late films – of the non-naturalistic use of music, other than in purely formal (preludal or interludal) modes.

Such are the major elements of the Bresson style, recognized quite early on by critics.

The negative function of these remarks, however, is best defined along the blunt edge of that mythologizing criticism which from the beginning has accompanied Bresson’s work like a jangle of tin-cans tied to a wedding car. Especially abrasive and out-of-tune is this mythology’s tendency to rigidify: to read every shift in interests, each new departure in style, in accord with the canonical interpretation of the early work by André Bazin – as if any new departure or themes were an unthinkable heresy! The critical legacy of Bazin beaten down to dogma is a sad spectacle. Sadder still is that which perverts criticism into the groundless faith that an artist’s concerns are fixed once-and-for-all, and fixed early. For the bright but garish colors of this spectacle leave a thick streak behind credulous eyes that falsely tints their receptivity to the later, and especially the late films – to which those daubs cannot be applied without disguising and hopelessly misleading. They bedizene the purity of the open sensorium’s response.

The mind too goes whoring after phrases and citable surnames. One in particular among our near-contemporaries has been tugged-at and milked: the Apostle of Redemption, Mr. Paul Schrader, author of an overpraised thetic monograph titled Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer – an exemplary capsule of everything in which Bresson’s critics have gone astray and which I will use as a convenient flogging-horse. Every critical orbit around a great director contains at least one quotable text which for sheer general stupidity remains unexampled, rising like a gargoyled skyscraper to an embarrassing visibility above all the rest. Up to now I have found nothing to match the awesome idiocy of Schrader’s p.60 statement:

Bresson has a rigid, predictable style which varies little from film to film, subject to subject. The content has little effect on his form.

(T.S.I.F. P’back edn. DaCapo Press NY 1988)

I don’t think I have ever encountered a critical statement further from the truth. “Has little”, “varies little”: a bit, then? How much is ‘little’ in the Transcendentalist’s cosmogony? Little enough to escape committing himself to the lie just quoted? It is all beautifully vague – but things are no better up in the high-60s of this ethereal pagination; cornered (by himself) into giving details, Schrader proves to be just as wide of the mark. But I’ll come to that, as the client said of the brothel’s canned music.

Examples are the focus-pullers of sense; and it is to the senses that I will be appealing, to the examples that I must direct readers and buffs in order to sight what two generations of critics have almost smudged from view with their ham-fingered carbon sheets. And, in the best of cases, to do what Bresson recommended to himself: to discover, and refute for themselves the parroting-sclerosis that would so like to see in Bresson the unmoving mirror of its own senescent rigidities. Any number of moments from the late or early films could be summoned to testify to formal and thematic developments that the crits have missed: the sensualism, the synesthetic effects fusing optical, aural and tactile stimulation, the extraordinary uniqueness and privacy of the responses evoked in viewers whatever the ‘scenario’. Only the more striking and thematically-pertinent ones shall be subpoenaed here.

To appreciate Bresson one must learn to caress details, to indecently fondle filmic details, to run your furtive palm over their pores. With a certain spirituality and a gift for subtle apprehension, there must also be carnality. A reattunement of the cinematic senses may be required; certainly a rescaling in their registers: micromillimeters, milliseconds.

Details might seem laborious to those unprepared to view the films (or VCs on a good monitor). To those who are it will be worth it when it is realized that to start off at the wrong standpoint with Bresson (and to go no further than halfway through his output) is to risk misunderstanding him entirely – the legacy of Bazin’s dissolute epigones. To correct an injustice for even that minority who still appreciate the purity of an art and the art still possible in cinema, may be to undermine from an odd corner the video-game crudity of current narrative film, and its digitally-generated super-spectacles for the super-blind. And anything that does is still a Positive.

What do I start from? From the subject to be expressed? From sensation? Do I start twice?

(Notes on the Cinematographer, p’back English edn.,Quartet Books, 1996.)

THE DOUBLE-PRONGED SWORD

The cinema, from its beginnings, has used an implicitly documentive apparatus – photography, set in motion – to fabricate fantasized worlds, dream-fictions. The tool of record, having gone public, was from the start crossed with devices of fancy, already within some of the more anecdotal shorts of the Lumiere brothers. This hybridizing quality was implanted at birth, and it has haunted the cinema ever since.

Perceived as a matter of use, the medium’s apparent oscillation from one extreme mode (record-of-fact) to the other (record-of-fiction) has more frequently been remarked by critics and film historians than the obvious truth that both kinds are, and remain, two facets of the one constant coin. For they are both, still, records. The documentive property of the tool has remained implicit, despite and throughout its proliferating styles; it inhabits the most extreme of its artifices. The dichotomy was not all that it appeared.

But it, too, was prepared from the start – in the hard division between Newsreel and Nickelodeon; the end in view was deemed to be decisive; the camera forked its all-seeing eye on the sharp edge of Purpose. With conventions and expectancies set up by generic labelling, a bi-pronged sword was born.

The actor is double. The alternate presence of him and of THE OTHER is what the public has been schooled to cherish.

(N.O.C. p.96; caps. in orig.)

Viewers – and critics markedly – became oblivious of the fact that narrative fictions kept right on being documented while, less visibly, “raw documentary” kept on being fabulated and mythified (the smiling heroism of the slaughtered Expeditionary Forces from the Boer to the “Great” War; Buñuel’s Breadless Land – by its soundtrack; will-triumphs and Berlin Olympiads; John Ford’s W.W.2 grand-opera staged ‘live’ in the Pacific Theater; the Party in Spain; the People in post-war Italy; and so on and on .). Needless to say, film professionals were less sanguine about the matter.

To put it bluntly: the Documentary/Fiction dichotomy is not, and never was, rigorous. The distinction is not internal to the medium, since there is nothing intrinsic in a piece of footage that shows it belonging exclusively to either category; nothing in “News On The March” that declares itself at once to be less real than the “March Of Time”; nothing in a Carole Lombard comedy that doesn’t continue to document, most faithfully, the working life of Carole Lombard. Any narrative confection has the capacity to be viewed documentarily; every supposedly ‘raw’ strip of footage remains suspect, interpreted through-and-through. Recognition of the one thing or the other, till now, had always depended on something external: the instituted Genre whose label it carried – with backup, in most cases, from some dubious stylistic hallmarks. Most of us have only lately awoken to this fact of filmic life: ‘Realism’ or ‘Fantasy’ as culturally inherited labels associated with their respective audio-visual styles – with the look of expansive shooting conditions, and that of narrowly-mobile ones.

A CINEMA film reproduces the reality of the actor, at the same time as that of the man he is being.

(N.O.C. p.91; caps. in orig.)

One could even say that these categories (‘Realism’ & other) are entirely a matter of an audience’s point of view. In the same continuous close-up, we see now the role performed, and now the performance of the role. What causes the shift from the one to the other?

Time: that is the minimum requirement. Any change in the cultural context of viewing may provoke such a perceptual shift – but in general, mere hindsight of itself will suffice. The dead weight of a recognized mannerism descends, with its epoch.

CINEMA films are historical documents whose place is in the archives: how a play was acted in 19.. by Mr. X, Miss Y.

(N.O.C. p.6; caps. in orig.)

To repeat: this categorizing is external. Those who spend their working lives translating the viewfinder into exhibition conditions and viewer-apprehensions have always been aware of it. But they have rarely been given the power to act upon it according to their wishes. The general drift has hitherto been away from a conscious use of their mechanism’s basic – and chief – characteristic: to record, to fix a fugitive, accidental but revelatory moment that would otherwise be lost and might not reoccur; and to discover recordables present but invisible to the naked eye or ear.

What no human eye is capable of catching, no pencil, brush, pen of pinning down, your camera catches without knowing what it is, and pins it down with a machine’s scrupulous indifference.

(N.O.C. p.26)

Your camera catches not only physical movements that are inapprehensible by pencil, brush or pen, but also certain states of soul recognizable by indices which it alone can reveal.

(N.O.C. p.97)

The capacity of any continuous shot in any narrative film to be taken as a documentary on how the successful take was acted, shot, lit, costumed, and mixed, has today become a major element in a certain self-conscious style – one swallowing, with each new step, each footprint already made in the sandy subsoil of viewer-memory, to the point where both chronology and character become meaningless. Bresson, far from using this self-documenting capacity as an element for its own sake, still less as a bit of baroque decorative icing, has made it his principal resource – his key for entering the heart of beings and of things, and of their relations. A primary capacity here reverts to its primacy. Journal d’un Curé De Campagne (1950)will always be as much about the man in front of the camera as about the man he is ‘modelling’; it is Claude Laydu as he would be if he had taken orders – if he had been the country priest. That he had this capacity or something akin to it, is what Bresson’s recording tools were able to discover in the man – after Bresson had taken the trouble to discover it himself – and the kind of thing that is only there to be discovered in non-professional models: never ‘actors’. For it is only the man who doesn’t take his every facial tic and gesture as the be-all and end-all of existence and who doesn’t let the surface stand for the whole, who perhaps has a depth to be sounded; but certainly, whose unshared essence may come through his surface. If it is really unshared, it will more than likely be independent of it.

Your camera passes through faces, provided no mimicry (intentional or not intentional) gets in between. Cinematographic films made of inner movements WHICH ARE SEEN.

(N.O.C. p.73; caps. in orig.)

What our eyes and ears require is not the realistic persona but the real person.

(ibid., p.99)

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.

(ibid., p.14)

Your imagination will aim less at events than at feelings, while wanting these to be as DOCUMENTARY as possible.

(ibid., p.15)

It is in this sense that Bresson’s films are ‘documentary’, keeping faith with the cinematographic gene.

Now it is the tragedy of an actor not to be able to forget his surface. While not necessarily lacking depth, the born actor cannot help checking to see how his appearances register its tides and ebbs, when they come. The mirror of self-consciousness is always before him, even when he wishes to forget it. But his training – and the lifelong habit it braces – are stronger than his wish. Almost despite himself, his wary back-focussed eye will lend a histrionic violet tinge, the faintest flush of insincerity, to even his truest and most revealing words. If they come from the heart, you can bet that organ will be somewhere on his sleeve; if they are spontaneous, then so is the mirror that the face of his interlocutor has suddenly become. In short, the dark place of assessments beyond the footlights is never absent from any locality or person he interacts with, and he is doomed to use each face as the mirror of his own.

Do not use the same models in two films. 1) One would not believe in them. 2) They would look at themselves in the first film as one looks at oneself in the mirror, would want people to see them as they wish to be seen, would impose a discipline on themselves, would grow disenchanted as they corrected themselves.

(N.O.C. p.80)

The Model used but once is unburdened by this omniscient glass, as opposed to the Actor. In any case, he can forget his ‘look’ enough for it to revert to its natural and automatic forms, in perfect fusion with his words and setting; above all, with those evanescent moments when the self is glimpsed. In fusion – because unforced. Perfect – because unactable.

Models. Capable of eluding their own vigilance, capable of being divinely ‘themselves’.

(N.O.C. p.67)

That was the test for truth Bresson imposed upon his models and his apparatus. It underlay his method of working with them, of which more will have to be said.

MODELS AND METHODS

Practise the precept: find without seeking.

(N.O.C. p.56)

Corot: “One must not seek, one must wait.”

(ibid. p.66)

Bresson’s method entails a controlling framework for observation, for waiting, within which what arises or transiently comes into view does so spontaneously but never anarchically. It is a means for baiting the kind of thing one wants to trap, without predetermining rigidly what it will be or the exact form it will take. This controlling framework consists of the scenes, some rather functional (but credible) dialogue, and numberless rehearsals, or rather, readings whose sole purpose is to get the words automatic and unself-conscious.

Models. You will be setting not the limits of their power, but those within which they will exercise it.

(N.O.C. p.89)

Mark out clearly the limits within which you seek to let yourself be surprised by your model. Infinite surprises within a finite frame.

(N.O.C. p.96)

An allowance for surprise and for discovery attends this method like a nimble, very nimble, shadow.

Not have the soul of an executant (of my own projects). Find, for each shot, a new pungency over and above what I had imagined. Invention (re-invention) on the spot.

(N.O.C. p.3)

Set up your film while shooting. It forms for itself knots (of force, of security) to which all the rest clings.

(ibid. p.25)

Sudden rise of my film when I improvise, decline when I execute.

(ibid. p.35)

Model. All those things you could not conceive of him before, or even during.

(ibid. p.47)

To place the public opposite beings and things, not as some people place it arbitrarily by acquired habits (clichés), but as you place yourself according to your unforseeable impressions and sensations. Never decide anything in advance.

(ibid. p.83)

And, three decades later, in an interview:

In my previous films, as in L’Argent (1983), I never tried to settle in advance what I would do nor how I would achieve it. There has to be a shock at the moment of doing, there has to be a feeling that the humans and things to be filmed are new, you have to throw surprises on film.

(Interview in Positif 1983, reprinted in Eng., Faber Projections 9, 1999, pp.6/7)

The point is not to foresee too much, but rather to optimise conditions for the emergence of the kind of thing one seeks, and for catching it. The willingness to know one’s models, the willingness to watch and wait, is important to the method; as is a certain alert quickness in recognizing and catching, at its own moment, a human being’s unique but transitory trait.

Unusual approach to bodies. On the watch for the most imperceptible, the most inward movement.
*
Not artful, but agile.

(Consecutive nn. N.O.C. p.35)

Shooting. Agony of making sure not to let slip any part of what I merely glimpse, of what I perhaps do not yet see and shall only later be able to see.

(N.O.C. p.83)

A commitment, in short, on the director’s part to that human being is required, along with the grave responsibility this entails – for the director becomes the custodian of the traits that will go public, as well as some that won’t.

Models. It is to you, not to the public, that they give those things which it, perhaps, would not see (which you glimpse only). A secret and sacred trust.

(N.O.C. p.88)

The description of Bresson’s method must be rounded out by specifying what is perhaps its most crucial factor: the use of non-professional persons (‘Models’) in virtually every part, principal or other. One might guess at their importance in the way that every note with a bearing on methods in the N.O.C. is, in the same breath, a discussion on the use of models (and is often preceded by the head-word ‘Models’). Three decades apart, in the Notes and the late Positif interview (1983), they are spoken of in almost the same terms, and both times together, as one. The Method and its Matter were not thought of as separate.

Choose your models well, so that they lead you where you want to go.

(N.O.C. p.76)

Where did Bresson want to go? Why, behind that forehead, those cheeks.

A model. Enclosed in his mysterious appearance. He has brought home to him all that was outside. He is there, behind that forehead, those cheeks.

(N.O.C. p.14)

Wanting to get to know someone is of interest. What is contained behind that forehead, those cheeks, those eyes?

(Positif interview, Projections 9, p.7)

What “is of interest” remained a constant, from one end of Bresson’s career to the other; and was most explicitly stated in the following note: –

Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that “heart of the heart” which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or by philosophy, or by drama.

(N.O.C. pp.36/37)

The reader of these remarks will recall that this “matter” constituted not the real persona, but “the real man” (or, of course, woman). The interest is centered not on what can be shared (“paroxysms” like anger, ready-made phrases, banal mannerisms) but on what differentiates, at a more than superficial level. It is the ‘vertical’ (deep) axis of human difference, not the ‘horizontal’ (spatial) one that interests Bresson.

Models. Their way of being the people of your film is by being themselves, by remaining what they are. (Even in contradiction with what you had imagined.)

(N.O.C. p.76; italics in orig.)

Model who, in spite of himself and of you, frees the real man from the fictitious man you had imagined.

(N.O.C. p.96; italics in orig.)

The real, the singular differentiating core: this was the Matter the Method was designed to elicit; it was Bresson’s reason for shooting a film. The scenario was a launching pad; it, as well as the result – the Form – served the Matter. When the immovable core encountered the precipitate scenario, it was the latter that would give way. Method and Matter are one. Content and Form are fused.

The atomic core, “the enigma peculiar to each living creature” (N.O.C. p.33), the involuntary disclosure of the model’s substratum past the spiked gates of consciousness and the steel trap-teeth of mannerisms – is a taller order than at first appears. There is no instrument like a pointed Mitchell or Panaflex for paralyzing the spontaneity in a non-professional. “Be yourself!” is an almost contradictory command to give a model – an inducement to an affrighted self-consciousness. Perhaps the greater part of Bresson’s method (often extending from pre-production to the preparatory stage just prior to shooting) was devoted to applying an acid bath to the occluding wall of the model’s too- aware intellect. The “exercises” Bresson put his models through were designed to allow automatic, unthought-out gestures, intonations and facial expressions to elude the processing sieve of self-control: –

Your models, pitched into the action of your film, will get used to gestures they have repeated twenty times. The words they have learned with their lips will find, without their minds taking part in this, the inflections and the lilt proper to their true natures. A way of recovering the automatism of real life. (The talent of one or several actors or stars no longer comes into it. What matters is how you approach your models and the unknown and the virgin nature you manage to draw from them.

(N.O.C. pp.59/60; italics in orig.)

EXERCISES

Put your models through reading exercises, designed to equalize the syllables and to do away with an intentional personal effect. The script made uniform and regular. Expression that can pass unnoticed, obtained by almost imperceptible slowings and quickenings and by the dull and the brilliant in the voice. Timbre and tempi (timbre = stamp).

(N.O.C. p.98; italics in orig.)

Model. Thrown into the physical action, his voice, starting from even syllables, takes on automatically the inflexions and modulations proper to his true nature.

(N.O.C. p.29)

The “even syllables” technique ensures that the models’ “relations with the objects and persons around them will be right, because they will not be thought.” (ibid., p.22)

The exercises guaranteed three things: –

1. That any emotive expressions or gestures that did arise would be involuntary and authentic.

2. That they would come from the deep inner being of the model.

3. That they would be as momentary and discreet as they would be in the model’s, or anyone’s, real life, because they were a real part of the model – and even unknown to him.

Model. Closed, does not enter into communication with the outside world except unawares.

(N.O.C. p.93)

This is practically a description of Martin Lassalle (Pickpocket, 1959).

HUMAN MODELS

The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.

(N.O.C. p.4; caps & italics in orig.)

Against the evident danger that a model might turn out to be a hollow, blank dummy, Bresson cautioned himself: “Involuntarily expressive models (not wilfully inexpressive ones).” (N.O.C. p.71)

Thus the method: a controlled receptivity to what comes, as it comes; clarity about the type and areas of the personality one is fishing in; an agile ability to spot and catch its trait when it occurs; and ensuring in the choice of models that there is a depth to be sounded and a trait to be caught. Much in the result depends on what one is prepared to regard as unique (and everything on how far one will go). The method may be shared, but different directors will do their sounding from different facets.

FUSION

It is clear that Bresson’s method aimed at discovery; the resulting style being what brought it out, framed it in its strongest light: a compressed and purified re-living of a process already undergone in several stages.

The films align themselves with their people’s preoccupations, percepts, rhythms of living, their sense of the familiar or the strange, to a degree rarely encountered in a director’s work. The films seem to be living their persons’ lives with them, sharing and making us share their own priorities and sensory experiences. These vary greatly from film to film; in particular the rhythms, the sense of time passing or passed, is a different experience in each Bresson film. And this is only what we would expect: in each, it is a different person’s experience, a different soul’s state. The method of discovery and its result are coefficient.

The “rigid, predictable style” of Apostle Schrader’s experience “which varies little from film to film, subject to subject”, in fact varies enormously. After the slow, regular cyclical rhythms of the country priest’s cares in his Ambricourt parish, Pickpocket is like a benzedrine shock, in almost continual mobility from one urban ellipsis to another, its metallic available-light look riding with terrific speed across each stage on its protagonist’s progression – including even a two-year interlude of which we see nothing – and yet finding room for the stillness and solitude of the lonely, unalibied moments when he must choose . And what of the prison rhythms, the harsh daily cycle in counterpoint with unseen machine-gun fire (executions) and a mysterious night train in A Man Escaped (1956)? Or the tension in the long middle stretch of continuous action, deep in a rural night, in Mouchette (1967)? The differences aren’t timed: they are felt on one’s skin – as their people would feel them. Which is why the rhythms, the pace of each, never feels wrong. An index to how widely they vary is the well-known inability of viewers to guess at the running-times (without cheating); the length of each film feels so right that it becomes impossible to estimate.

To reiterate: the method is a form of discovery, and the discovery forms the result; it is the content. Form and Content are one thing, and no separation of them, as in Schrader’s remark (quoted in my Introduction), is to be granted the slightest accreditation. What applies in one breath to working-method and model – “Infinite surprises within a finite frame” – applies throughout. Form and Matter fuse.

In discussing Bresson’s themes, we will be discussing his forms. The two were never very distinct in Bresson’s mind, and hardly in his work.

Forms that resemble ideas. Treat them as actual ideas.

(N.O.C. p.30)

What “is of interest” to Bresson has remained a constant in his work, as has the fascination his method vehiculates: the “mystery” to be discovered in a person while shooting, or in the relations between persons and things.

Non-professional actors are a complete mystery, like everyone I meet.

And:

The most fascinating thing in life is curiosity. I want people to want to know, I want them to want to explore the mystery that is life, a mystery not to be imitated, only imagined.

(Positif interview, Projections 9; both quotes p.7)

It was between these two quotes, in 1983, that Bresson reiterated his fascination with what lay “behind” (that forehead, cheeks, eyes).

In this connection, we can elucidate the role of the scenario and the part being modelled by the model in Bresson’s way of going to work – the role of the role. It was a medium for eliciting the interior being of the model – a mold, rather, with which this interior could fuse without forcing. As the remark earlier, on Laydu, should make clear, the ‘part’ was one possible expression of something essential in the model; something divined by Bresson, and which he wanted audiences to divine as well. Not by having this interior, all at once, completely exposed and glaring at them like a snarling x-ray (an impossibility anyway). But by having the viewer explore, imagine, and to some extent re-live Bresson’s own probing impressions of what his model might be made of – “even in contradiction with what you had imagined”; and to try to enter into this hypersensate sharpening of micro-subtleties, with their penumbral trailing-off into mystery and the dark concealments of the self at its deepest levels.

This can only be achieved when the part is there to serve the man: not vice-versa.

Does that have a familiar ring? It was what Hollywood, in the earliest Talkie days (before the Hays Code came into effect in 1933) also used to do: tailor parts around the personalities discovered in ordinary people who came to the casting offices. Tinseltown once used ‘models’ too! But with re-use they rutted in their own deepening tracks, repeating play-safe formulas and settling into the sort of typecasting and genre-routines with which Bresson’s films have nothing to do. No Bresson film resembles any other Bresson film, and none of them look or sound remotely like the lacquered – but dead – product voided by the Industry of the Angels.

Bresson was always prepared to bend the ‘script’ to the discovered realities of his models and settings (“Let it be the feelings that bring about the events,” counsels one note, “Not the other way.” p.28), and he never – or almost never – re-used his models; certainly not in the principal parts. If anything, there was an expansion of the framework within which discoveries and accidents were permitted as his work progressed (“happy accidents”, as he termed them in the Positif interview). A combination of luck and experience affirmed his faith in the chances of Discovery.

The “over-exposed too intelligible features” of a famous star are mentioned in the Notes (p.75). A film that appears to over-explain and saturate the soul or inner psychology of a ‘character’, inevitably makes that character look artificial. In life we are never certain of limits in another’s being, and cannot be. Completeness belongs only to artifice – to the “psychology that only discovers what it can explain” (N.O.C. p.72). It simplifies, ignoring the primary separateness and difference between beings, not to speak of their continuous change. The hints, the penumbral circumambience into which Bresson’s people and their motives fade off and darken into mystery, only strengthen their believability. And that to a degree that repeated viewings will but intensify: for one responds to the model’s, not the role’s, reality; or rather, to the fusion of both, as one would to persons met.

Don’t show all sides of things. A margin of indefiniteness.

(N.O.C. p.94)

The actor’s creative simplification has its own nobility and its reason for existing on the stage. In films it does away with the complexity of the man he is and, with this, the contradictions and obscurities of his true ‘I’.

(N.O.C. p.79)

Bresson’s style, then, is a working-method for letting the Discoverable come to him. What it finds will therefore change over time and thematic areas – the method and what comes to it being, once again, coefficient.

But there is no predetermination of what that will be. From first to last, the “virgin nature” of discoveries stays intact. At least from the working side, there is no place for that tiresomely-reiterated thing: Predestination.

What place does it have, then?

A LITTLE VISIT TO THE BRINK

Bresson had nothing to say in the Notes, and this to say in the 1983 interview: –

Three times out of four, chance governs us. And our will is absorbed by predestination.

(Projections 9 p.10)

– agreeing that a “collision” of predestination and free will was a constant in his work: “Which is how we are.”

The ratio seems a curious one .. a reminder, perhaps, of how little in our lives is willed by us. Yet the predestination that absorbs the one-quarter which is remains a unique predestination, obligated somehow to the singularity of the souls it ‘absorbs’ – governed by a respect for ultimate differences.

Model. His permanence: always the same way of being different.

(N.O.C. p.42, italics in orig.)

Model. Soul, body, both inimitable.

(N.O.C. p.47)

Model. His way of being inward. Unique, inimitable.

(N.O.C. p.49)

What Bresson called “predestination” observed a tapering pattern of uniqueness. It was not something externally imposed upon a person; destiny, strangely, for Bresson, was something that emanated from the person, an inner constituent or inbuilt possibility of his will – and of his choices and deeds. In each, this was unique; it was “what they are made of”.

The real is something we make for ourselves. Everyone has their own.

(Projections 9 , p.8)

Appearing through a screen of what look like nonrelated contingencies and whimsicalities of chance (“The wind blows where it will”, as the subtitle to A Man Escaped puts it), this unique emanation of the model might often appear like the choice of an external and all-controlling force overseeing events: that was one way of making sense of the enigma of singularity. But what ended by absorbing the will came from the will. This is the true role of the uniqueness on which Bresson placed so much importance.

Predestination here begins from the inbuilt limits to which one unique human capacity could stretch; like a genetic blueprint at the core of the will, the acorn in its oak. It is what appears when this inborn pattern crosses, or collides with, that of the subject’s setting and events that befall: the new figure that arises when the unique pattern of a person’s will superimposes the amorphous pattern of chance occurrences in time. In Lancelot du Lac (1974) it appears as an omenic substructure governing the human players who fill out its temporal span of, maximally, one year; appears, because they have filled it out, and only when they have. The apparent design in the figure may be illusory – the moire that results from the inevitable overlap of a subject with his time and place. But the figure, each time, is as singular and unrepeatable as the subject rechanneling the stream of Chance that he will suffer or fight.

But not in half-measures! That is the condition under which a will’s differentiating uniqueness can appear. The man whose will did not fill out his inborn limits did not much interest Bresson. As he said toward the end of the Positif interview, “My characters are taken to the brink of themselves. I cannot do otherwise, or they would seem dead.” (Projections 9 p.12). Indeed, the metro crowds in Pickpocket do seem somewhat that way. That remark was preceded by a comment on his characters: “A desire to live. And a will too.”

So we find Bresson’s people at critical moments of their lives: turning-points where the paths decisively part. Many are on the brink of dying, by their own or by others’ hands; others are at the end of their rope, or at the end of a certain cycle: Pickpocket, Mouchette, Lancelot du Lac, L’Argent. Some combine the two (as the foregoing list perhaps shows). A rounding-off, a terminus; or a new beginning. Each time, a destination and a will that acts.

The Will in effect, that one-fourth, is absorbed by its own work. It expands and leaves its ineffable trace – its memory, mood, or afterglow – behind; as if the soul left a fingerprint over filmic space and time. This print was the portrait, the “state of soul” Bresson wanted to delimn: the radiological image behind the model’s material façade. What is called Predestination was a means to getting this internal portrait.

The appearance of something predestined in someone’s fate, in the often-random collisions of a Singular Will with Chance, was never a theme in itself – but a way for Bresson to make artistic sense and a sharpened structure of the mutual reactions between the accidental and the planned; and of the conflicts between souls and their outcome. It gave them a form. There need be nothing mystical or “transcendental” about this, nothing overtly (or covertly) religious; it is a way of ordering Chance without reducing it to chaos, and art to anarchy. It is the complementary shoe into which Bresson’s method fits.

Now the best way, just possibly, to render the strange affectivity of Chance might be to depict it as if it were Choice.

THE CHOICES OF CHANCE

“Do you believe in fate?” the Minister asks Fontaine at one of their brief exchanges in the prison-yard.

How is the Chance inscribed in discovery made to look like Fate in Bresson’s cinema of the period from Priest to Pickpocket?

In the case of A Man Escaped it is very simple. By its setting in a prison environment where ritual and forced routine are the norm, in which a strongly, even rigidly patterned context is deliberately set up and maintained, it is practically ensured that any grace of fortune will find a focussed target, will fall into one exclusive slot while just as definitively excluding others – as if it couldn’t be any other way. As if, in short, it were blueprinted: designed. “Making”, as Bresson put it, “things work for one and not for another”. It is the high-resolution context that makes Chance look like Choice. That is the first way.

Bresson, speaking from his own experience of a Nazi prison, said that this strange sensation of a “directing hand” was common among prisoners, thanks to their rigidly partitioned existence and to the deliberately-maintained uncertainty concerning each man’s ultimate fate. Any change, any warping in the routine, however minor or fleeting, would be the more strongly felt; any man who got lucky was the more unmistakable. It is, of course, the ideal setting for the risk. A gamble is the chance that definitively succeeds or fails. It is the one human process in which ambiguity is absolutely excluded from the result.

A Man Escaped is filled with gambles from start to finish. The very first shot in the action proper shows the first gamble: the door-handle in the Gestapo car from which Fontaine will try to escape (after a preparatory montage-buildup worthy of Hitchcock). But with this one qualification: they are, most of them, not random strokes of chance. Fontaine initiates each stage of the game – whose stake, finally, becomes his life or death. Do nothing, and death by execution is certain; there is no game. Act, and it’s even odds.

In fact, from the crucial moment of learning his sentence, Fontaine’s is the only directing hand – for it alone makes his death at an appointed time and place only half certain.. Like Devigny, his historical prototype, he chose to fight what looked like fate, the locked door of Destiny – and showed it to be a matter of will, a humanly constructible thing, a mere Maybe. We see his hands literally prising open that door, forcing his destiny to make its decision: the spoons shaped and sharpened into chisels, the mattress wire braided and retensioned around the blanket-ropes, the cast-iron lamp-frames bent into hooks…each succeeding stage a more dangerous risk, each success a more sharply-defined grace.

The gamble, then, the forcing of decisions, is the second way of showing Fortuity transformed into Fate – or vice-versa. For Fate is chance looked at from the other side. ‘Destiny’ is when the dies have landed and frozen into unalterable Fact: hindsight, in short. The retrospection of Devigny’s diary, or the priest’s, or the pickpocket’s, places it for us. Because the dies landed this way, because the wheel stopped at just this number, it looks as if they had been going to. Bresson, while acknowledging with the structural (and rhythmic) backbone of the diary that this has already all happened, nevertheless lets us reexperience the moment when nothing had yet frozen into fact, taking us right to the instant at which everything was to be made or unmade and the ‘fact’ decided. This is the pregnant site of the defining context and the gamble.

Return the past to the present. Magic of the present.

(N.O.C. p.47)

Pickpocket fuses both means, showing the light hand of chance in others’ pockets or loosening their wristwatch bracelets, until a much heavier pair of them lands on its own wrists. The allusions of this film to Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky) have been noted by almost every critic. But how many have detected the subtler ones to a very different Dostoyevsky fiction, that of The Gambler and his games of forcing fortune to the very brink, with all the possible destructiveness this entails – ? (If any have, they haven’t said so). The deeper the abyss and the worse the risk, the greater the gusto with which this novella’s hero forces his destiny’s “directing hand”. The point is that the decision be his, whether utterly damned or vindicated by the result – which will forever and ever be only a provisional one, another loop in an eternal chain he can also choose to leave. But freely, whichever the choice. There is an absolute responsibility and an absolute sovereignity of will.

So it is with Michel, the eponymous Pickpocketof that film. With nothing more than his own chosen solitude and impermeable inner self to sustain him, he exercises at every step an absolute choice, courting a decisive disaster or success of his own making each time he loosens the lining of a stranger’s jacket to perform the crucial ‘lift’, the “work of hands” whose well-known importance to Bresson makes visible, more than anything else, the motion of a human will. “I had made up my mind,” is the refrain of Michel’s journal – but never “This happened to me.” Clearly, this is the ideal context for forcing fate to declare itself: for, or against. The ‘decision’ is irrevocable, to a degree found perhaps nowhere else in Bresson’s oeuvre. It appears immediately and unmistakably: ‘for’ at the Gare du Lyon, ‘against’ at the racetrack.

(According to Michel’s journal, gambling is one of the activities on which he fritters away his takings during his sojourn abroad.)

This must not be understood as if Michel were passing the buck onto some etherealized entity labelled ‘fate’, bearing now takings, now handcuffs. On the contrary: so proud is he of his independence and solitude, so determined to be his own reward or failure in a self-sustaning anonymity, with none to notice, that it is sometimes quite hard to pick him out at first in crowded medium-shots. His painstakingly built-up eminence is a grey one indeed, interlocking seamlessly with the textured greyness of his setting. Of necessity, of course; but also by personal choice: for it is precisely that setting, that anonymous human mass, Michel’s skills mock; he does not need its applause.

To the phrase ‘Choice of Chance’ this specification must be added: the choice is that of the Will made visible, whose motions are the best possible portrait of its subject’s soul. It, and it alone, makes the choice. The Work of Hands is its outward mechanism at the levers of chance, making it perform its work of ‘for’ or ‘against’.

The mere tip of a fingernail – loosening a clip or a buckle – can make visible that inviolable thing, even as it violates others without ever touching them.

For the strange thing about the intense concentration in Pickpocket on the hands (the very image of Michel’s care and of Bresson’s, fusing ‘how’ with ‘what’) is that they never – may never – actually touch the persons into whose clothing they insinuate themselves. It is contact without contact, via a kind of second skin, a feather-light penetration of orificial pockets and linings that is certainly tactile and textual (aided by travelling closeups over lapels or down to unsuspecting wrists buckled to the ticking registers of their own mortality) – but which cannot even afford to make itself heard, let alone felt. ‘Virtual tactility’ in ’90s jargon, mediated by what keeps it at an absolute distance.

Sexual? Only in a sense alien to the Freudist ‘substitute homosexuality’ nonsense parroted by nearly every critic since Kael and Sontag spent their 5-cents-worth of New York reviewers’ breath in paying their tribute to the Viennese God. If thrill there is, it is the electric thrill of the threshold, the suspensive static of being on the brink of extremes from two sides; an abyss of ignominy on one, the silent bliss of success on the other: a thrill that gamblers know, and that Dostoyevsky certainly did. It may in some cases have a sexual character. The suspended or ‘between’ state is only endurable for some if it can be translated, either organically or psychologically, into sexual terms – a kind of sufflation or induced ecstasy. This conversion mechanism is one of the most familiar and least understood defenses of the human organism. Something of its effect is available to us, to the extent that we site ourselves with Michel along the razor-slash of for/against, as the extreme subjectivity of the metro scenes encourages us to do. Just as we share, against our better grain, Verkhovensky’s urgent sense of time running out (“For God’s sake, hurry up and kill yourself!”) in the penultimate chapter of The Possessed.

ON THE 81ST MINUTE OF L’ARGENT

This may be an apposite moment for diverting the textual traffic onto the Russian branch-line, and for stating in what the indisputable importance of Dostoyevsky to Bresson’s work consists. The wearisomely-familiar misconstrual by critics of certain themes (freedom, suicide, the moral relativity of laws and of crimes) and approaches to souls under pressure, as religious and “redemptive”, with emphasis on a “transcendence” of mortal (inborn, Jansenist) sin – all this is a note struck from a bent tuning-fork. It distorts both Dostoyevsky and Bresson, making no sense at all when yoked to A Man Escaped or forcibly glued onto Pickpocket. (The words in quotes should make clear this distorted note’s most recent source: it starts as a mere trickle, gathers force, and ends with an off-key roar of Grand Rapids.)

The real bearing of the Dostoyevsky connection is on Autonomy; on the absoluteness of a human choice and will, to the point where it even becomes perverse and can be turned against oneself – as made very explicit in Notes from the Underground (and implicit throughout The Possessed, and in many other texts). It is perhaps Dostoyevsky’s dearest theme: the trait without which any ‘redemptive’ confession would be meaningless and to him, as to Kant, the basis on which the dignity, and the very value, of human existence rests. It is just as important to Michel the Pickpocket, for reasons The Gambler and Raskolnikov would also recognize. And that other, reincarnated axe-wielder, Yvon in L’Argent: what does it mean to him?

Victory. This is its sound: “I murdered the couple at the hotel, and now I’ve killed a whole family.” – Calmly, to a gendarme. And no mention of money. Yvon has himself chosen the moment of his final arrest: because it is the right moment, as opposed to the previous ones. In effect he condemns and imprisons himself, finally rising above the Money which has held the strings in his life and been the motive force behind everything, his multiple murders included. (That was why, perhaps without realizing it then, he answered the woman’s query about the hotel murders with “It gave me a thrill”, and not with “For the money” – which is what it did look like.) This may be very hard to see at a first, or thoughtless viewing: that the end, and Yvon’s final words in the film, are a victory; a tremendous one.

If there is a message here, it would be: Let me be condemned for what I am and as I am – not for what I am not. Julien Sorel (The Red and the Black) – invoked by Bresson in the post-L’Argent Positif interview – might have said as much, and practically did.

And so might Michel the pickpocket, to Jeanne: Let me be loved for what I am, as I am, first – and only then for what I might become. That is, unconditionally and truly. Which is in fact the case: Jeanne knows nothing of any impending change; she comes to see a Michel with all his warts: a pickpocket. The support she offers and her love elude such labels. Which is why he accepts it in the end – his autonomy intact, and free at last to change. (A few moments earlier, in solitude, he had contemplated suicide.)

This maintains, too, the link with Dostoyevsky up to the end (the little streetwalker’s unconditional attachment to Raskolnikov). If change there is, it must be freely chosen; it is the subject who steers.

It also goes a long way to explaining the recurrent suicides, actual or contemplated, in Bresson’s films. The supreme autonomy in life may be the choice of how long it will be – of when to end it. What all consider a dark mystery is dispelled by an exercise of Will. This may occur in what the subject decides is an intolerable situation: forced to appear what one is not, or unable to exercise autonomy in any other way – left only with the ultimate freedom over time. “Everything is now permitted”: Kirilov the nihilistic painter in The Possessed (and Godard’s La Chinoise, 1967). The theme was Dostoyevsky’s before it was Bresson’s, and it is in this direction that one should look (not to Schrader’s nonsensical “transcendence”) for clarification.

This would account for the haunting parity of the two moments when the respective protagonists of Pickpocket and L’Argent, 24 years apart, find themselves alone just before the end. Both, in fact, are at the end: a span implicit in a process that begins where each man’s film begins has been filled out. To each it appears that he can go no further, and both are wrong.

For Michel, a certain cycle, from one wristwatch to another, has closed: he has gone as far as a skilled petty-thief can go, and now it’s a dead end. It can never be any better. His options have shrunk to the point at the center of that ring – he mistakenly thinks – and he can move no further. That point is his ‘I‘: he will never break out. Independence has been a failure. Alone, under the high ceiling of a holding-cell, its single light starkly hollowing out his cheeks and eyes, and outlining – whitely, strangely – their lower lids, he makes what he sees as his final choice explicit: suicide.

Yvon does not state his. But he does not have to. His own acts of themselves have narrowed his range of choices to the knife-point of nil. There is no money, there is no-one left, and there is nowhere to go. After the murder-weapon has landed with a turbid slap in the stream and the foam has settled down into its darkness, Yvon is seen alone in the middle distance: a face in a blackness which is almost total. He stares in silence – at what (if at anything) it is impossible to see. The stream’s sound is gone; there is no clue to where he is placed: what might be a dim strip of wall at the edge could also be a section of the bridge. Seconds go by – seconds that feel like minutes. You could drown in that inky blackness, or suffocate. There he stands, motionless.

And without a word needing to be said, we recognize that the same option is available, must in fact be one of the things his mind has wordlessly glanced at as we have watched: it is almost palpable in those ten black seconds. As palpable as we know his breath would be if we were standing close to his mouth.

Yet that knife-tip to which his life has tapered still has two edges. Just as there was still an ‘or’ on the other side of the cell-door from Michel’s ‘either’. Yvon’s is the barer, starker decision: there is no-one to sustain him and nothing ahead but a probable lifetime-confinement, with one last official stamp to round it off – the one that reads ‘Never to be released’. And he knows. A last whisky, neat, bolts down, 81 minutes in – and he decides. Why is it a victory?

Because this final act, this speech to a gendarme, is bigger and graver than all the others – for it contains and swallows them all: not one, his multiple-murders included, will ever be seen outside the shadow this one casts back. In fact, his entire (filmic) life is now seen in its retrospective beam: this is its destination, and it is in this sense that one speaks of Predestination. Likewise, of being ‘Redeemed’: covered, like a pawnbroker pledge. This is the life that it is finally and truly his.

Why, it may be asked, this emphasis on autonomy? Kant (in the Critique of Judgment) supplied the clearest rationale: only an action chosen freely by the subject has any moral value, good or bad, because only then is it fully the subject’s. This would not be the case if it occurred under constraint or was conditional upon circumstances, a ‘must’. Indeed, it is only when the subject’s Will is unconditionally his that its action has any moral status at all. Only then is the subject completely answerable for it. It follows that the freedom to act and responsibility for the act are one. And that an ‘inward’ portrait of a person must be a specimen of Will, of choice – a moral portrait. For this portrait to have any validity, the subject must steer. This is the portrait that in their different ways both Dostoyevsky and Bresson wanted to paint.

The blade-edge of decision on which so many of Dostoyevsky’s heroes ruined themselves is something to which the man who made L’Argent would be no stranger.

About The Author

M. C. Zenner is an occasional writer, a voracious reader, and a once-avid viewer who is proud to have no academic qualifications whatever.