— Note: If you would like to read the First Part of this essay first, go here. —
* * *
THE CYCLIC FOCUSSING SCREEN
The projection of Choice in the events environing a life has not merely a spatial, situational bearing, but also a temporal one. The feed of a will is taken up by circumstances in what Bresson called the Fourth Dimension, and the figure thus created doesn’t appear all at once. Its ineffability is partly the result of becoming visible only in retrospect, like the cloudburst in a bow. This is very like what you find in your own life: the footprint you don’t see until you’ve left it.
In the earlier films, Bresson prepared for this ‘print’ by establishing a routine and very lifelike pattern of cyclical rhythms for his models – their ordinary sequential tempo of existence. Depending on the scale to which Bresson wants to wind up our sense of rhythm, this buildup can be brisk or leisurely, the cycles expansive or compressed. The minutiae of day-to-day living, the handling of objects, and processes, are all of importance here (and have, of course, been duly noted).
A strongly rhythmic and recursive sequence of events creates a texture of existence, a patterned screen of expectancies, against which developments or new departures may register more sharply. Its value bears chiefly on change: it can be intensified or subtilized. It sharpens the changes in a person or the structure of events; but this very acuteness makes subtlety affordable, and a greater fidelity to the beholder’s actual sensing of differences and of details, even very minute ones. Patterns projected over time, by involving recursions, at once involve cycles: hourly, daily, weekly or seasonal ones. Slick and swift, coarse-grained and slow; even within Bresson’s earlier period, these temporal textures differ remarkably from film to film.
For some, close, syncopated textures, hourly changes and rhythms: Pickpocket. For others, daily ones: Mouchette. The church week, broken by a stultifying and frustrating daily round: Journal d’un Curé De Campagne. And a slow seasonal rhythm, winding down into a hopeless futility: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Some even counterpoint an ostensibly slow daily cycle with the elliptical concentrations of suspense and waiting: A Man Escaped (whose turn to be executed?.how far across the inner perimeter is Orsini?.what is that squeaking?.is this boy an informer?). Staccato, allegro, moderato, legato, adagio.
It is when the units of a sequence are closest to being uniform repetitions at each cyclic recurrence, that minute but telling changes will be felt most acutely; that they are, in fact, most unmistakably changes. (On condition, of course, that one’s time-sense is adjusted to each film. What goes for Pickpocket will not do for Balthazar.)
The principle applies spatially and simultaneously as well: it’s when the element in a pattern differs only minimally from its analogues that its difference affects strongest. Being too different, it ceases to belong to the pattern altogether, and is felt to be alien, stuck-on. From that moment, mere foreignness, not difference, is all that is seen. “Different from what?”, one would have to ask. When there is no basis on which two elements can be compared, there is none on which they can be felt to differ – and certainly none from which they can have changed. Sameness must first have been possible.
Give more resemblance in order to obtain more difference. Uniform and unity of life bring out the nature and character of soldiers. Standing at attention, the immobility of them all shows up the individual signs of each. (N.O.C. p.68)
To overload a sequence with marked differences and contrasts right from ‘Go!’ is only to bury the ones that should be meaningful amid a chaos of jungle-camouflage. It also attenuates and blurs the effectiveness of montage; the intercutting, for example, of a significant detail or close-up. This was Bresson’s purpose in taking the time, and risking monotony, in building up a temporal rhythm of existence for his people at the outset. It paid its dividends later; and it allowed the audience to adjust and attune itself – prepared it, as it were, for the breaks.
A Man Escaped is an object-lesson of how this works, because from the start we are in a setting where uniformity is the norm and differences minimized – and because Fontaine’s secret agenda, while playing a subversive counterpoint to it, at first harmonizes perfectly with the prison’s daily cycle. What could be more conventional than the taps on the wall by which prisoners in neighboring cells intercommunicate in code? But then – who can fail to respond apprehensively when, for the first time, the ground-floor neighbor’s answering taps fail to come? Or, when Fontaine has been moved to the upper floor, to his embittered neighbor’s breaking of silence? It is only gradually that fine fault-lines in the harmony appear, like the splinters of raw wood in the cell-door Fontaine has to blacken with the wettened tip of a pencil. All those minor, yet mortally consequential alterations to his cell: the mattress, the missing lamp-frames… and if, by the whim of a rolling eyeball, they should happen to strike a guard?
By the widening of the breach in the routine we gauge the widening of the risk; and by that, the will to live and resist.
In sum: by means of the cyclic rhythm of existence, change 1) can be intensified; 2) may the more acutely, hence subtly, be registered.
It strengthens, sharpens; it makes subtlety affordable.
Along each of these cycles there are strong reference points to aid recognition and to set the recursive limits. In Mouchette, one remembers the mud Mouchette throws at the other schoolgirls. Equally striking are the scenes with her bedridden (and dying) mother. In fact, the heroine’s life seems to fall into two quite separate time-threads: a day and a night one, represented by two cycles which overlap; and it is in these grey areas, bracketing her night-time, that the scenes with her mother – each time visibly worse – occur.
In A Man Escaped, it is the emptying-out of the muckbuckets in the yard, where Fontaine first interacts with the other prisoners en masse – a scene that recurs many times. It is here that knowledge of what he is planning catches like a hook among the others, and begins to differentiate them from him as well as the more subtle variance of attitude among themselves – the chief bearing of recurrence on which is to be found in the looks exchanged, a quality in the almost-invisible glances he starts to get; and in the varying body-attitudes: proximity or growing distance, interested support or a willed and wary indifference.
This is at the subtle end of the scale in recursive usage. The prison-yard gatherings are virtually a piece of choreography – and slow, late-18th.Century dance-with-variations choreography at that, timed by the 8-bar instrumental fragment concluding the Kyrie section of Mozart’s c-minor Mass K.427. Sound, in fact, is a structural component of the cyclical rhythms throughout. Sounds too are recursive, and can be indicators of change. They are used to reinforce, sometimes to link, and also to signal a break or new direction in lives, indicating, from sources not yet seen, imminent changes in settings and concerns.
In A Man Escaped one notes, inescapably, the almost-daily bursts of machine-gun fire, signalling someone’s execution. The importance of their regularity becomes apparent when Fontaine hears the round that follows Orsini’s failed escape-attempt. Here there is a very distinct difference. One half of the stakes and their consequences is being handed to Fontaine: your move.
A lengthy silence, one of the most resonant in cinema, follows; and Fontaine, frozen in his tracks, listens to its sullen passage from his cell. Then, improvising a stepladder with the help of his bucket, he begins unfastening the framework – wrought-iron hooks – of the cell-light housing, breaking the silence with a series of brief, determined clicks. And on the awful silence preceding them this characterization (of sound) leans. If at any one point events start to shine through the watermark of a destiny, it is here.
Not for nothing did Bresson remark (N.O.C. p.89) on the resonance a silence adds to the last thing that precedes it.
There are lesser reminders of what the gauntlet thrown to fate weighs. There is the abrasive rattle of the keys habitually dragged along the bannister railings by the guard – a skeletal tremor on the nerves, signalling parcels or a search. There is the twice-nightly roar of what seems, confusingly, a passing train very close by; which will spring into focus as part of the normal noise of Lyon just beyond the prison walls, when Fontaine opens the skylight. At this point another regular, but more frequent, sound begins to cycle round for Fontaine to decipher: squeaking, which stops and starts almost randomly, in brief flare-ups; which we (and presumably he) at first take to be rats.
Mouchette does not lack equivalents. What seems a continual roaring of long-distance trucks just beyond the mother’s window locates, without any need to ‘establish’ it, the living-quarters as a siding shack on one of the main highways. Their frequency and resonance also locate the time of day or night for us: slowing down in the small hours to the occasional isolated vehicle, and to a long stretch of nothing in the hour before dawn, the ‘hour of the wolf’ at which the mother’s state always reaches its nadir. One notices too the Sunday church-bells fading into the carousel music, as we follow Mouchette after the Mass to which her drunkard father has shoved her. (The higher peeps of its jazzy poor-man’s rondo can still be heard a few minutes later, mixed with the tavern noises.)
What is of particular interest in Mouchette is how the cyclical ‘norm’ of the heroine’s experience is set in a context which accommodates – as its norm – some highly abnormal routines, morally aberrant to the point of self-defeat. The peculiarity here is that the establishment of Mouchette’s day-to-day existence includes some charged details which a considered retrospection can trigger into shocked awareness, and a certain moral outrage at the ‘judgements’ her milieu has passed on her. Includes, in an almost concealed way – for the retrospective jolt is precisely the point, at least for those prepared to reflect on what they watch.
Thus it seems, at first, no more than mundanely meretricious that the legs-and-knickers peepshow given to the motorcycling boys by the schoolgirls, playing on a fence-beam used as a gym bar, should result in them randomly hopping onto the backs of those motorbikes the next time we see them (on the very next schoolday, in fact): a ‘normal’ mating rite, a wordless come-on, the collective tryst of 14-year-olds. (This sort of thing is formalized, for bridesmaids and bucks, in peasant weddings all over southern Europe.)
Nor does it go much against expectation that the smirking grocery slattern gloating over Mouchette’s misfortune (her mother has just died) and concealing it with the ‘kindness’ of a free coffee, should suddenly hiss out “Slut!”, when she sees the mud on the girl’s torn dress. She – whose plastic margarine cartons serve as the parade-ground for a couple of enormous flies.
What does jolt – and outrage – is the back-cast view that can telescope these moments together. Suddenly an almost-unnoticed connection of details in the daily misery of the protagonist jumps into view, like cross-threads of a web catching the sun. The little yokel, hardly older than Mouchette, who exposes himself to her on every available occasion; the grins exchanged by Mouchette and her (anonymous) dodgem-cars pal at the fairground – rewarded with a brutal slap from her drunkard father; the gamekeeper’s ogling and lusting after Louisa the flirt barmaid at the nearby tavern, silently observed by his unprotesting wife while he, clearly, expects no protest – all quite open and above board, as you can see. (An establishing of ‘norms’ which recalls the perverse family in Journal.) Arsene’s unmolested poaching; the father’s unmolested smuggling – cop and gamekeeper continuing to do the rounds of their futile jobs. The ‘legal’ hunting of a rabbit, which the duffel-coated worthies refuse to put out of its misery as it threshes the last of its life out on the ground in front of Mouchette (minimises the danger of lead-poisoning – or the work of cleaning out the shrapnel).
And at the intersection of these contradictory mores and hypocrisies is Mouchette, their vengeless victim – stuck at the center of a no-escape web where she can see and feel them all. These, you see, are normal. She, having nothing, has no one to be hypocritical to. Her very wretchedness is her innocence; in this case literally ‘child-like’. Who’s a slut?
No option of normative assimilation is left that will not tarnish her by the end. For when Right and Norms are only judged by hypocrites – when they are only made in the vanity-mirror of a victorious majority – then none exist that won’t at once turn back-on and pervert themselves. If one cannot persuade oneself of their absolute validity, they do not exist at all. A ‘conditional norm’ is a contradiction in terms.
We needn’t balk, reader, at applying the word: hypocrisy. The one the threads spell out in mile-high letters, all over Mouchette. A trifle old-fashioned, perhaps; but it goes on so snugly, with the contiguity of a tailored glove, that it risks becoming invisible if we bow to the word-coutouriers and hang fire for want of an academic designer-term. If the spikes in the velvet glove hurt, they hurt.
It comes indeed as a shock to find that, judged from an absolute standpoint – our retro-take on the action – there is nothing wrong, and may be something right (in this milieu), about volunteering one’s virginity to an epileptic thief who happens to be very drunk. Qualitatively speaking, there may even be something compassionate and humane in it. Such, with no departure from complete believability, is the jolting conclusion to which Bressonian characters, taken “to the brink” of themselves can wind us up. One can, at any rate, not doubt the structural importance of that scene: at almost the exact center of the film, embedded in addition at the center of a long stretch of continuous action. We can also see it as the answer to a virtual question hovering silently over the heroine at the end: her life will never be any better than it was at its best moments – and how good was that?
The most haunting ‘back-look’ in Mouchette, however, is the one at almost the very end: the impervious back of the young man driving the tractor, no more than a hundred feet from Mouchette, who doesn’t respond to, or doesn’t hear, her call from the sloping bank. Would she have…if he had.?
The shot of the tractor turning and vanishing from view behind a screening bush in the foreground is one we can never resee without feeling on our very skins the horrible minisculity of what can turn a fate: a random breeze, the shadow of a wing, an inopportune car-horn, a timetable, topography, a sneeze… And the impotence to do or to save that this nothing effects in us.
Such shots, not special in themselves, take on their very special coloration from the foreknowledge of what succeeds them. To fully perceive this tint, re-viewing is essential: they bask in a back-thrown shadow, a thing not really sayable in words (I did try though, reader). At the individual and deepest level of response, words, as collective signs, are no longer of any use. Our feelings must find their own registers, perhaps incommunicably; each, re-seeing Mouchette, will recognize the tractor-driver in his own way. Intuition speaks Babelese.
Everything Bresson had to say about the placement of a shot, about “necessary” rather than “beautiful” images, clarifies sharply at moments like this. And there are analogous ones in his other late films. It is increasingly the case that you don’t see the ordinating center, the point of a structure, until its limits have been reached. More exactly: the center doesn’t exist until the threads intersect and circumscribe it. The more concentrated and pared Bresson’s structures become, the more this applies.
This is why I occasionally emphasize the importance of seeing a Bresson film more than once. I do no more than follow a lead Bresson laid down himself: -
A highly compressed film will not yield its best at the first go. People see in it at first what seems like something they have seen before. (There ought to be in Paris one quite small, very well equipped cinema, in which only only one or two films would be shown each year.)
This note appears in the section of the Notes headed ’1960-1974′; i.e. the period when Bresson was entering, or had entered, his recognizably ‘late’ phase.
TRUE MONTAGE AND FALSE
Fragments of the real. The expression is in the relationship between them, in how they are put together, not in mimicry, in the intonations of actors, as in the theatre.
(Positif Interview 1983, Projections 9, p.7)
Bresson was very much a montage man, as you would expect of one who would exclude the theatrics of the Long Take (the ‘scene’) and who valued the pure resources of his chosen medium.
This places him not in the Eisenstein camp – with its idea of “colliding” shots – but in the Hitchcockian one, with its reliance on a concretely built-up sense of unified space and time (however artificial its actual production girders). Everything happens “in the joins”, as Eisenstein indeed said. But in Eisenstein the joins are often visible above anything they vehiculate, with the result that it appears stuck-on, artificial. (Quite appropriately, for the poster-slogan crudity of the puzzle-solutions meant to be arrived at by extra-filmic means. Battleship Potemkin  offends least in this respect, and remained a lifelong favorite of Bresson’s; October  most.)
To Bresson, what belongs in political philosophy or journalism, and could as well or better be expressed by them, would be a waste of cinematic resources. It is what only the cinema can show, and that by involuntary (but prepared-for) accident, that it shows strongest. And so the joins themselves must never be visible:
If an image, looked at by itself, expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with other images. The other images will have no power over it, and it will have no power over the other images. Neither action, nor reaction. It is definitive and unusable in the cinematographer’s system. (A system does not regulate everything. It is a bait for something.)
IN THIS LANGUAGE OF IMAGES, ONE MUST LOSE COMPLETELY THE NOTION OF IMAGE. THE IMAGES MUST EXCLUDE THE IDEA OF IMAGE.
(ibid. p.61; caps. in orig.)
To truly work, the sudden detail, the magnifying close-up, or the cross-cutting must seem to ‘follow from’, be a natural part of the world whose facets they are turning to us – because only then are they believable.
It is perhaps only on this condition that the close-up of the Country Priest by his fireplace, just after burning Chantal’s letter, doesn’t jar and break the sombre tone of the sequence. (He narrates: “I felt I had read suicide in her eyes.”) Seen in isolation it might be bizarre: eyes too big for his thin face, ears a little too large for his head – features emphasized by the front/three-quarter angle; and the plastic gleam of the skin reflecting firelight (in black & white). For just a shade of a moment, his alert face has something of the fox about it – if we have enough time to see it in the frame as a whole (stepping back with our senses, so to speak). A momentary strangeness, a weird imp apparition, as though embodying another genus of being who sees what ours cannot see…then the moment is absorbed back into the continuity of actions, and dismissed: it’s all quite natural! Everything has followed-on ‘inevitably’: the firelight, the curé’s physical placement in the setting, our knowledge that he is a sick man, unable to digest food and semi-starved – everything. (Only a little nearer!)
So naturalistically does it appear, so astutely-maintained is the rhythm throughout, so ‘justified’ the camerawork, that this close-up – and generally, the look of the film in which it appears – has perhaps never been queried or commented. Yet it is only thanks to this embedded ‘natural’ relationship that it has, if noticed, such a powerful effect.
On the ‘naturalism’ of camerawork, Bresson had this to say in the Positif interview:
But you know, I’ve said it before: photography is a lie. Light someone two different ways and you see two different people. In L’Argent my protagonist has three different faces.
(Projections 9 p.11)
He had indeed said it. Any number of notes in the N.O.C. are reminders that the camera doesn’t see what the eye sees, and won’t “understand” what it does see as Bresson, its keeper, understands it. (In the interview just quoted, attention is also drawn to the imbalance between the imperfections of the camera’s record and the exactness of sonic “transcription”: a leitmotif, again, of the Notes. The point was to use, not to suffer, these imperfections in the apparatus.)
The same principle could be expressed by saying – as Hitchcock and others did say – that you can’t be frightened by something you can’t believe. And neither can you be primed by it, prepared and led up to something by it – however ‘realistic’ the fluorescent vomit and geysers of blood contained in that Something. It will remain a comic-strip or video novelty, with no more real power to disturb than a rusty alarm-clock bell.
The most important note bearing on the use of montage in Bresson’s ‘black & white’ period (i.e. the films ending with Mouchette ) is found on p.41 of the Notes:
Model. Over his features thoughts or feelings not materially expressed, rendered visible by intercommunication and interaction of two or several other images.
What differed too minutely to be perceived within the ordinary flow of a continuous take could be retrieved from oblivion by the timely insertion of a close-up, either covering the same take or found separately, but with the analogous modification of the model’s concerted features – a reaction-shot, a ‘look’. What allowed this delicate complex of identity to appear?
Model. His permanence: always the same way of being different.
In other words, the focus was still on the model’s, not the character’s singularity: the best, or rather the only, insurance against artificiality. The character became the model. The moment when his automatic, unthought-out facial expression or gesture suddenly fused, became one, with the rote-like actions of the ‘part’, could be caught if Bresson was “agile” enough to grab it, or unexpectedly perceived later in an unguessed-at context.
Model. Questioned (by the gestures you make him make, the words you make him say). Response (even when it’s only a refusal to respond) to something which often you do not perceive but your camera records. Submitted later to study by you.
(N.O.C. p .21; italics in orig.)
If, on the screen, the mechanism disappears and the phrases you have made them say, the gestures you have made them make, have become one with your models, with your film, with you – then a miracle.
How does the part ‘become’ the model? And how does editing show these twin images finding their range in a real personality on which actions are given a focus?
In Pickpocket, part and model fuse in a manner which forms a strange unity with Bresson’s methods – the very ones by which he habitually chose to extract their single nature.
The separate life Michel’s hands seem to lead in the metro pickpocketing scenes has been much commented upon; it is as if he didn’t merely live, but was led, by his hands without having to look, like the blind. So has his cold, glassy-eyed ‘evasive’ gaze – not usually into the eyes of whoever he is with, but off into the grey fade-out of urban distance: the scene with Jeanne, at the outdoor café on the Sunday outing is the classic instance, enshrined by a much-reproduced production still (which for once does not entirely lie).
In the chain-gang scene, for instance, what role does the subjectivity of the montage play in animating the hands, and why does it seem to some a little askew – an off-center ‘not quite’ subjectivity, too concerned with technique and process? The refusal to engage with others, the separate shots for face and hands, the weirdly elliptical montage throughout, all work in concert to answer this question.
In the first place it must be pointed out that the diabolical prowess of the hands in this scene has not been given to Michel all at once. The brilliant flow of continuity-montage depicting it doesn’t occur until 50 minutes into the film, and is hard-won. It has, in short, to have been acquired. We behold not merely a thief, but a man becoming a thief. Until that wonderful spree there have been clumsy approaches and sidlings-up to people; the elaborate newspaper decoy which doesn’t quite come off, a reliance on exposed handbags and unbuttoned jackets, etc. – initial stations on the road to becoming a master. (He practises the newspaper-ploy on his own jacket in his room; later, under the tutelage of a pro, he graduates to trying out a two-fingered unbuckling of his wristwatch, fastened around a table-leg.)
In the second place, it is evident that Michel has trained himself not to look – that he must not look, either at what his hands seek or into the eyes of his victims. He must be ‘invisible’ in any crowd of which he is a component: nothing to attract attention. Straps must be unfastened and wallets disengaged blind. The only exceptions are deliberate decoys: opening a car-door for a bank customer, ‘preventing’ a man from being run over by gripping the wrist whose watch he will carry away.
We get a hint of this in his very first job at the racetrack: seeming not to see what his hand is up to in the crocodile-skin handbag (there is a race to stare at). But his approach – with a tracking-shot behind him – has been clumsy, causing the woman to turn (is he a ‘frotteur’?) and give him a brief identifying stare. (A similar tracking-shot reminds us of it at the start of the scene immediately following his arrest – in the inspector’s office.) The expertise of his trade comes gradually, seeping into other areas of his life as he habituates himself, infecting not only his gaze with people he knows but also his gestures: note (twice) the swift precision of his thumb sliding the stub of his return-ticket into his jacket’s breast-pocket, the agility with objects and slits, his off-axis sightlines and the general emptiness of his stare when in company. (At least, this is one way to view it. Bresson himself, in the 1983 Positif interview, remarked apropos of no film in particular, “Perhaps it is too symbolic, but I love passers-by who stare into nothingness. Once upon a time, we had everything. Now we have nothing.” (In Projections 9 p.9.)
But in the third place – let’s look closer at that off-center subjectivity in the pickpocketing scenes. Of what kind is it?
Not optical: we see what he is doing, but not where he is looking (which would be meaningless). Yet we see precisely where his mind is looking, the places on which his concentration focuses: lapels, buttons, his accomplice’s hand. The scenes, in short, are felt to be extremely subjective, but it is not a material subjectivity; not a subjectivity of eyelines. This has been clear from the opening. At one point, after spotting the accomplice and racing after the bank-customer he relieves of the withdrawl cash, we see that accomplice – to whom Michel has just passed the takings – on a traffic-island to which Michel is not turned and at whom he dares not look. This is the scene’s only glimpse of him; Michel’s galvanic change of mind and manner (after narrating “I lost courage”) is not explained until this moment. We ‘see’ with Michel – but in a mental space.
In general, we see only that portion of his environment of immediate concern to Michel – not that which he could see if he chose. There are no ‘establishing shots’ in Pickpocket, or in most of Bresson’s earlier films: long-shots setting the scene of the action, or what Bresson (on p.109 of the Notes) contemptuously called “postcardism” and compared to the proscenium optics of the stage. We are ‘with’ Michel, but sharing his psychic and spiritual, not his physical, point of view.
In this way a kind of stillness and solitude clings to Michel at even his busiest moments and in the most crowded settings: the metro, the sidewalk, the cafés and bars, the pinball walkups, Longchamp. Despite its almost continuous mobility and many public settings, the film leaves an impression of a still, quiet center observing a fast periphery while on an itinerary in stark psychic space. Which indeed does justice to Dostoyevsky, while avoiding the circus-lights of Expressionism.
Slow films in which everyone is galloping and gesticulating; swift films in which people hardly stir.
It is this impression of stillness and solitude that Schrader naively transcribes into the following Declaration of Independence from Fact:
Bresson’s static camerawork nullifies the camera’s editorial prerogatives.
(Transcendental Style in Film. p.67)
- and a few lines down, as though Declaring were Establishing, begins a sentence with:
Bresson’s static compositions …
Whose “editorial prerogatives”? As we shall shortly see, Schrader isn’t one to “nullify” these. But camera optics are not the point. The perceived pace of a film does not depend on what Bresson called “representationalism” – on what it happens to be showing.
Pickpocket never strays from believability. Few films, in fact, convey a sense of time and place so vividly, down to even such details as door-jambs, old bannister railings, clothing styles, the pinball paraphernalia of the day, wage-packets, foyers, rundown vestibules, etc.
The very shot set-ups – all at eye-level – are designed to convey with maximum plausibility an edgy anxiety on the peripheries of vision, lending to the street- and hall-scapes something of Michel’s own take on his environment: the closed or semi-closed doors; the striking use of door-jambs, often like an extra frameline down the edge; or the mystery in a hall entrance – a break in the wall around which Michel is about to turn and see, and of which we too are shown only what the same angle of approach would disclose, the first dim foot or two … all the everyday enigmas of occlusion, here selectively extracted and made meaningful with what has become an ordinary state of apprehensiveness in the protagonist. The near-paranoiac alertness in the set-ups is his own; we are being made to share a mental state.
Doors and entrances, thresholds and anterooms generally, and the ways they disclose or conceal: their use by Bresson is an old one, and has lately not gone unremarked.
Doors opening and closing are magnificent,
the way they point to unsolved mysteries.
(Projections 9 pp.8/9)
The camera seems hardly in a very nullifying mood.
A Psychical Space, then, was what the close-up montage and camera setups set out to construct. They also serve to convey the transmutation of a pickpocket into a model, or vice-versa: the ‘seepage’ of the one into the other. The emphasis is on “convey”: how a man becomes a pickpocket is something already implicit in the scenario of the film titled by that occupation. The training of Michel (in part by a ‘real’ pickpocket) and the training of Martin Lassalle (by this same real pickpocket) could be more or less collapsed into one documentary filming. How a model assimilates a role and makes it “automatic” to his own looks and gestures, is answered in this film by its own technique.
What is strange is that the obviousness of this (as technique) seems to have passed most commentators by, as if its very self-evidence were its own camouflage, aided and abetted by Bresson. Certainly no meaning we are able to derive from techniques in the film comes anywhere close to a reflection of its own technique, any more than it does on considering how a man becomes an escapee in A Man Escaped. Why?
The only possible answer would be: involvement. Bresson wanted us involved with what was happening in Michel. The film was to point us in his direction, without pointing at itself. If its methods or style made it a separable artefact, detatched like a surface from what one views through it, then it would shut out the audience it was meant to draw in. Regarding it for its own sake would finally make it opaque. Or worse: an interpretive mirror for self-regarding ‘connoisseurs’. That sort of theatrical self-consciousness and vanity was anathema to the director. So too, the flash Golden-Palm-Eighties version, the air-conditioned ‘Post Modernism’ of self-caressive egos amid the blow-waving fronds of Cannes. (The back-turned index finger, eyes sidling to the nearest mirror, and the high falsetto cry: “Plaudit, amici – plaudit!” Inartistic and sterile to its roots.)
… (Style: all that is not technique.)
Style is not a surface; i.e. it is not immediately and of itself visible. As the two Notes quoted near the start of this section make clear, Bresson’s images did not have, and were not intended to have, any independent interest, any “power or value except through their position and relation.” (N.O.C. p.10)
Throughout the Notes Bresson makes explicit his general strategy of “fragmentation” and “recomposition”. What raw reality might never bring to view, what an unbroken continuum might never declare about itself, can be declared and brought to light by selective elimination or emphasis; by an exploratory transplantation of images that by themselves appear flat and dull. As Bresson put it, of his models, it was the “flattest and dullest parts” that in the final combination were given “the most life” (N.O.C. p.65).
Cutting. Passage of dead images to living images. Everything blossoms afresh.
Your images will release their phosphorus only in aggregating. (An actor wants to be phosphorescent right away.)
To achieve this, the selected detail must not lack credibility, must not seem artificially imposed on the world it magnifies.
Shooting with the same eyes and the same ears today as yesterday. Unity, homogeneity.
Cutting. Phosphorus that wells up suddenly from your models, floats around them and binds them to the objects (blue of Cézanne, grey of
The detail to be emphasized (the close-up) and those from which it is selected must belong to the same world, must form a unity. The crucial close-up must not stub its toe against the mobile context of what precedes and follows it. Whatever its actual source, it must be seen as a change that comes out of the medium-shot it is still (if invisibly) part of. The illusion of a preserved continuity with time and space is necessary: no jags. Only if we believe that it belongs to the same world – the same people at the same moment in the same place – will its power to convince, to affect us, and to withstand multiple re-viewings, survive unharmed. This applies whether the detail is a look, a movement of hands, or an object; or any of these combined.
This is why, in most of the earlier films, Bresson preferred eye-level shots with shallow depth-of-field, the same kind of even lighting on faces and objects, and where possible, no movements (of camera or models) during speech.
Apply myself to insignificant (non-significant) images.
Flatten my images (as if ironing them), without attenuating them.
(Consecutive notes N.O.C. p.11)
By minimizing the number of factors to be matched in ‘continuity’, Bresson minimized the risks of the “stubbed toe” in the film’s world. It also concentrated attention where he wanted it to be. It increased flexibility in the cutting tempo – rhythm – and provided an ideal ground for sharpened subtlety: minuter changes could be made visible.
There is nothing inexpressive in all this. Yet that is just how it strikes Schrader, in the words immediately following those (already cited) on the camera’s “editorial prerogatives”:
When each shot is handled in essentially the same nonexpressive manner.
(Note the subjunctive: an assumption clicking into the syntactic groove of a demonstrated certainty.) For the reasons just shown, each shot had to be handled in this “nonexpressive” way. But of course, this is not uniformly or rigidly the case; it depends on model and context, and on the kind of rhythm desired. There is restless movement in the long dialogue between priest and countess (and later, he and Chantal) in Journal. With every right: the priest feels his powers of divining other souls tested. (He also happens, at the start of the scene with the countess, to be in great pain – almost losing consciousness at one point.)
Throughout these remarks on Montage the importance of the look, following Bresson’s own lead, has been emphasized.
To set up a film is to bind persons to each other and to objects by looks.
Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks. (The reason why we get the color of a person’s eyes wrong?)
Until the very end, this is precisely what the hero of Pickpocket does not see. His eyes meet not Jeanne’s look, but only her material features – by acquired habit checking only the direction of her gaze. Which is why the impact of the change at the end is so strong, almost inexplicable.
The importance to Bresson of the look, of “the ejaculatory force of the eye”, is too famous to need much quoting. What must be pointed out here is that this power of a facial close-up is not evident in isolation. Seen detatched from its mobile context, it is often simply not there. Still less is it to be seen in a frozen frame enlargement or production-still. The inability of the latter to convey anything of the power and effect of the scenes from which they are taken is, in fact, notorious. Yet it is just such detatched and context-less photographs that Schrader uses in his book, and on which his ‘thesis’ is based.
Not even entire stills: that of Michel from Pickpocket reproduced on p.101 (the Sunday outdoor-café scene) is masked and enlarged to show only the protagonist in a grainy, high-contrast and totally artificial close-up. The printing camera’s “editorial prerogatives” have certainly not been nullified: by no means. In losing Jeanne’s half of the image – which shows Michel’s glazed stare not meeting her look – we lose the whole point of the still: perhaps the one production-still in the entire oeuvre that, as aforesaid, does not mislead. If reproduced entire, that is. In exercising “prerogatives”, Schrader, with the companion-image, has imposed his own montage while altering the sense of the model’s face – but never mind, the ‘thesis’ is saved. Which is what?
Well, in the visual properties of stills reproduced in halftone at four or five generations from the originals, Schrader sees a resemblance to the mosaics and paintings of Byzantine church-iconography, with its thick outlines and frontal ‘centered’ faces. (In the masked still, Michel’s face is indeed made to appear centered, as well as enlarged to nice, neat passport dimensions.) In fact, the black, toneless features in these highly selective images have even led him, at one point, to adulterate his Byzantium with a western stained-glass effect via, of all people, Georges Roualt! But no matter: this looks like that. So that, like an ill-fitting glove, will be forced onto the facts behind the stills and their invisible (lost) context. Each mug-shot in the halftone mosaics will wear the transfigurative “hierophanies” of an outmoded, if exotic, rite. Clearly, the only “phosphorus” Schrader’s images are meant to release is the kind meant to aggregate in auroral luminescences – like those of mantelpiece halos that only glow in the dark.
Do they glow anywhere in Bresson’s work? In Journal, for instance? Not even in a forced figurative sense. The “grace” that the young priest may bring to others – and, in the end, to himself – is quietude of soul, a kind of acceptance of what it is, as it is, in each case. Nothing in the film (or in the Bernanos novel on which the scenario is based) entitles us to say more. And thus, for Bresson:
Montaigne: The movements of the soul were born with the same progression as those of the body.
(Quoted in N.O.C. pp.34/35)
The priest will not be spared the body’s full complement: the pains, the blood and the vomit of a gut being literally eaten away from inside (by cancer). On these terms only, and only up to the threshold of his death, the priest may find the grace reserved for unlucky men like him: the all or nothing kind. No half-measures: to accept that his short life had been for nothing (while welcoming a ‘Beyond’) would be too unbearable, as well as dishonest. Life is not a thing that can be taken in half-measures; life is also the agony of departing from life: to want a bit is to want all. This is what the priest chooses with his last words. The bodily agony too, having drawn something in Seraphita that is, and will remain, immune to her wretched surroundings, has been a kind of grace. To the end, extremities of one kind bring out extremities (depths) of another. “All is grace.”
What does Schrader make of the body side of this equation? Typically, it will have to be his comment on a still that tells us. Rather, two stills: those on facing-pages 102/103 of T.S.I.F.:
An agonized, lonely full figure set against an empty environment, his head hung to the left, wrapped in body-obscuring robes, and about to succumb to the spiritual weight he must bear.
The patient reader will be pleased to learn that the image on the left (which this comment captions) is a full-page repro of an “ascension mosaic at St.Sophia” (Istanbul), and the one allotted to the bottom third of the right is from the scene leading up to the priest fainting at night, in Journal. Less pleasing is the discovery that Schrader’s comment is meant to apply indiscriminately to both. Less pleasing still: his mixing up the right with the left.
On the other hand, his discovery that robes obscure the body is neither pleasing nor displeasing: it merely fills up space.
Torn from its context, the Journal-still gives no hint of the stumbling rhythm in the priest’s tilted gait – forced on him by the crippling pain of his advanced illness; nor of his actual expression in the scene, nor of the encrusted vomit around his mouth that Seraphita’s kerosene lamp will later glare on. No: it and its full-page companion are considered solely as stills, i.e. as icons, which must carry the entire meaning in their own right. And not even from a point of view within the scenes they depict, but from a detached viewer’s position – as that tell-tale “to the left” shows. (Our left; Laydu’s right.) Nothing better reveals Schrader’s inability or refusal to become involved in the world created by the film.
This comment applies to all the stills in the Bresson part of Schrader’s book. Only an already faulty memory, further skewed by a habit of considering only stills, could allow the weightlessness of a “spiritual weight” to throw the priest’s posture, while ignoring his pains. (In Bresson’s oeuvre, spirit never appears unembodied by a very physical weight.) But the thesis is saved: of this weightless, vapid “holy agony”, all the characters are prisoners. Here, by a convoluted and fantastical psychological process, hypothesized for every viewer without reference to a single concrete detail of what transpires on the screen in situ and in motion (on p.81), appears the transformative “transcendence”: writ by the viewer on a second screen ethereally placed between him and the actual one, and reflecting the meaning Bresson intended him to find all along by purely cerebral means. Here we may breathe the spray-perfume of midwestern congregations, the nostalgic densities of childhood when one was a grade-school classroom maestro.
DIVINATION – how can one not associate that name with the two sublime machines I use for my work? Camera and tape recorder carry me far away from the intelligence which complicates everything.
(N.O.C. p.129; caps. in orig.: the final note)
From what Schrader considers the demonstrated resemblance of this (still) to that (icon), from the circumambient glow of hieroscopic vapor, a membraneous linkage of three antipathetic personalities and bodies of work is meant to form. And all for the sake of a thesis whose bald crudity defies belief.
How Bresson felt about being the centerpiece of this heteromorphous triptych can be guessed from some of his remarks on Dreyer, his right-hand neighbor. On the subject of images, however, he had already, and many times, made himself clear. Lest the scrambled reception of Paul Schrader continue to spawn misunderstandings of the sort that trailed Bresson around over the years like the hunchback-shadow of a high sun, let’s finish with images by attending to one last ‘director’s protest’:
Your film’s beauty will not be in the images (postcardism) but in the ineffable that they will disengage.
“Postcardism”. The term is a hair’s-breadth from the ‘Lobbycards’ beloved of pop-film fans mired in the ‘collectible’ jetsam of their own preadolescence – the time of pink fifties dusks bringing the neon-hoardings of movie houses to life in places like Michigan towns, and triggering the fantasies later to issue forth in the grand ejaculatory rapids of arrested growth grandiloquized into a Style.
THE ASCETIC SENSOR
An ‘economy of means’? One has heard the magic word “ascetic” so often in connection with Bresson’s style – and so dutifully parroted by the Bressonian Apostle Paul – that one might be misled into assuming that his films sport a poverty-row look. The point of the present remark is that they do not: anything but. For when Bresson wants to open up the contained power of his resources, he does so with the greatest of ease, almost throwing away some of the ‘costliest’ (or most time-consuming) effects. Not insisted-upon, not underlined with thick musical strokes or tom-tom techno, they give an impression of being so inevitable a part of the life depicted, that the sense of leashed power might on reflection be reinforced.
What is more to be expected of armor than the tinny crepitation of a hidden brigade’s arrows – death’s rainy tinkle, in Lancelot du Lac (1974)? Or the dreadful work that a swung sword might do, that literally double-edged weapon of an outworn knighthood? Nothing on earth. The effects feel right, they belong, to the point where their everyday presence can be breathtaking – precisely because everyday is what they were. And the Bressonian reminder of that stark fact can jolt the unprepared. It is as if the director thought himself back into the very age when severed tendons or a horse’s pierced and blood-suffused eye were a normal enough presence to be dismissed to the peripheries of the sensorium’s frame – with their corollary extension to a limitless field beyond, in the beholder’s mind (a consequence first noted, to my knowledge, of the 1930s Renoir films by André Bazin). How many of us could live in a world where death visible to everybody was not the exception?
Admittedly, effects on such a scale (and such legendary pageants) are rare in Bresson’s oeuvre. But they can alert us to their presence in other parts of it – often in far more subtle form. It goes without saying that they are always a part of the settings, always ‘legitimized’. But also: that the viewer’s senses must be wide awake and unafraid of themselves. (By no means as short an order as you might think: how many even today are capable of simply observing sensually, let alone of enjoying the sensual?)
Rather than economy of means one may more pertinently refer to the use of uniquely filmic resources, kept independent of stage conjuring-tricks and the graphic arts; a limiting (but not ‘minimalist’) framework for an area to be sounded to its depths – exactly the sort of controlling framework recommended by Bresson for his models. If the apparatus must seek help now and then from the optical printer, it will firmly be prevented from becoming addicted to it. If there is a superimposition, it will more likely than not be one we could have seen ourselves in the given setting, and arise simply from camera-placement.
One of the simplest, and yet most disturbing, instances I know is the scene of Yvon’s final interview with his wife Elise in prison, 35 minutes into L’Argent – and specifically, the camera set-up on her. There is the high, thick glass partition perforated with speech-holes over her face, as she tells Yvon in effect that this is goodbye. The holes over her face waver slightly, then – she is calm – grow still: four of them, two just out of the inner canthus of each eye. The lower rims of both catch and trace a spectral glint of the hard white lighting overhead, dipping as if ready to fall like gelid tears – hard little pearls, frozen in mid-roll. Which indeed, they have. Her glazed calm suddenly has a meaning, sinister or pathetic depending on how one reads it afterwards.
Here is an interior to be read from a surface – but, eerily enough, not hers. It is only by focussing past the surface and on her face, by seeing that glass and her face as one surface, that the peculiar sense of this shot can be perceived. And even then as a delayed-action shock, and not by everybody. Certainly not by any members of the film-criticism fraternity, at least to my knowledge. For they are sensorially quite dead: blind, deaf, paralytically numb, and impotent. If they were not, they wouldn’t be film-critics; still less, be allowed to publish their agony abroad.
But if that’s poverty-row, the cinema should have more of it. A dense but controlled richness is the impression such techniques (and such an eye!) will leave on us. To the extent, that is, that we come unequipped with the filter-pack of subtractive secondary literature to plunder the spectrum.
The foregoing example is ideally tailored to illustrate the uselessness of production-stills. For the widely printed one from this scene is from a different angle, showing not what we see in the film, but a meshwork of perforations over Elise’s face. It conveys no sense of the shot’s effect as viewed.
One cannot help thinking that the deleterious effect of judging from stills or faulty viewing memories is the root of the widespread misconception of “static” camerawork – ignoring the existence of many quite elaborate camera movements in the fifties films (and more in Journal than anywhere else). I offer the following instance not to refute Schrader’s clever observation that stills don’t move, but to illustrate a feature of Bresson’s use of the fancier devices at his disposal: they are meant to pass unnoticed. The devices that bring about an effect are all but disguised; one must surrender solely to the effect.
I have in mind the rotating track around the axis of a flower-vase, large in the foreground, while behind, the window of the Count’s house keeps the priest framed as his approach describes a wide arc – the vase keeping its central position, and oblique angling of window and wall kept minimal. The priest’s position in the window seems hardly to change throughout. The time-consuming alignment and synchronization of the separate movements is ‘thrown away’ in a 10-second transitional shot that goes, or seems to have gone, unnoticed by all and sundry – because the concentration is on the young priest. And in the shot, the priest seems hardly to move; he seems, if anything, to float (his feet are not visible).
Nor does Michel, emerging from the racetrack in sunlight after his first ‘job’ in Pickpocket, jerk back and forth in the frame as the camera pans with him for almost a full 180 degrees while he comes into medium close-up and recedes, covering some distance before he glances behind… And in the backward facing-track on him walking along the sidewalk outside his flophouse at night, his size and orientation in the frame likewise don’t change for a good 30-second stretch. The concentration is on the man at the invisible side of his shoulder, just behind: the ‘pro’ pickpocket, mistaken by Michel at first for a police agent – a presence, for those few seconds, we can almost feel as a bristling of electric closeness. For all that has been said about it, this shot might as well not exist.
So much for the myth of Bresson’s ‘static’ camera.
Harder to dispose of is the myth claiming real or metaphorical prisons to be his quintessential thematic concern, and an infallible authorial hallmark. It has some basis in the early films. However true it is that Bresson at an early phase of his work was interested in prisons (and returned to one at the end), he was not exclusively or obsessively so. Nor was the concentration in them exclusively one on souls, but just as much on processes; those of routine – certainly the case in L’Argent – as much as of escape. The point is that if Bresson did choose to examine an imprisoned soul on some occasions, even half a dozen occasions, there was no need to imprison him in turn within a thematic dogma – and forcibly wrench some of the late films into the straitjacket of the ‘metaphorical prison’.
But it is best to say that this ‘prison’ phase was the best, because the most decisive field on which to test his intuitions about Cinematography. Here there can be no faking; resources are of necessity pared down, alone in a cell with a face and a pair of hands; the answer will be conclusive and fast forthcoming. Also, most visible in the results; a vindication of all that Bresson had thought and tried-out – matching process against process, as it were: an irresistible challenge. And how can we ignore the time that would be saved if he were answered at the outset, after only one or two tries – as must be the case for either vindication or failure in such a defining and decisive area? For if Bresson’s methods failed, he need not waste any more of it.
Someone who can work with the minimum can work with the most. One who can with the most cannot, inevitably, with the minimum.
A sigh, a silence, a word, a sentence, a din, a hand, the whole of your model, his face, in repose, in movement, in profile, full face, an immense view, a restricted space…Each thing exactly in its place: your only resources.
Models mechanized externally, internally free. On their faces nothing wilful. ‘The constant, the eternal beneath the accidental.‘
(N.O.C. p.46; italics in orig.)
Bresson’s concern with inner, non-accidental, non-contingent truths gives a quality of timelessness – or more exactly, atemporality – to his more striking work. That certain moments and feelings will always recur, in whatever circumstances and dressed in whatever contemporary garb, is what provides a structural stillness and release from the headlong rush of dates and fashions on which the films, nevertheless, are passengers. Through the calendar’s immovable mesh, past the imprisoning grid of days, something in a face and a hand still reaches out to us – something “phosphorescent”: a light against which timekeepers are not proof.
Reject historical films whose effect would be ‘theatre’ or ‘masquerade’. (In my Trial of Joan of Arc I have tried to avoid ‘theatre’ and ‘masquerade’, but to arrive at a non-historical truth by using historical words.)
What non-historical truth? Presumably what subsists and doesn’t change in human interaction and conflicts: the infinite in the spatial, the eternal in the temporal. One could extract from The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) many political analogues to our own times. Psychological ones too. It would be beside the point; Bresson was after different game.
What is at issue – not ‘stake’, reader, not here – in Joan of Arc is a meeting of two incommensurate value-systems, two opposed ways of responding to the world of the spiritual and the psychic – two different ways, in effect, of seeing the world; so that there is a disjointing in the picture, a jag in the linear continuities that ought to be smoothly uniting the human emblemata of both ‘systems’. Both seem to speak at cross-purposes; no common scale for evaluating their worlds exists – but that of the inquisitors has the numbers, has ‘legitimacy’ on its side. Thus the awful solitude of one who tells her story to those who neither can nor would understand her, in a space the jigsaw-pieces fit but have somehow got wrong.
That is why Bresson showed the interrogators and Joan in separate shots throughout, and fairly tight shots at that: no picturesque gothic archways, no costumed crowds. Just question and answer, ping-ponging back and forth. For we are not really in the 15th.Century; we are in the trial’s record, its documents, which continue to exist in no particular time. It is almost literally, then, a text that Bresson filmed. Which is why the busy quills of the transcribers, and their scratching (the very sound of articulated letters and lines turning into Fact in all its shackling readability) is so often seen – and heard – close up. The Trial of Joan of Arc is a film of close-ups and medium-close-ups, a film of the desperate and enigmatic emission of words; a film of separateness. “.by using historical words.”
The hopeless oscillation of question-answer-question is like a figuring of confinement: bouncing off each other in a rigid reciprocality where neither party is able to move. As indeed, they can not – for the parties are both text, and the text is fixed. The past, from the moment it becomes fact, is its own prisoner.
Another film of ‘text’, Pickpocket opens with a close shot of one of the grid-lined pages of Michel’s journal, and closes with the steel grid of his cell through which, for the first time without subterfuge, he links his lips and hands with the skin of another. The ‘writing’ here is a writing of light, transcribing the hands into separate contours which fuse into one as they clasp: the black squiggles at the start transformed into white.
CINEMATOGRAPHY IS A WRITING WITH IMAGES IN MOVEMENT AND WITH SOUNDS.
(N.O.C. p.5; caps. in orig.)
Cinematography: new way of writing, therefore of feeling.
In retrospect, the shot leading up to this transfiguration will always remain for me one of the most haunting in cinema: the cell-mesh in the foreground, and the direct stare of those glassy, impenetrable eyes, intermittently masked by a line of metal as they approach – ready to emit their “spark” yet retaining, at some level, their inalienable secret. Razor-limned,the face burns in through the unravelling focal planes of grey air against a cold penal-bureau blur of wall, with its lower (dark) and upper (light) strip.
Lancelot du Lac (1974) is, of course, set in the no-time of Arthurian myth: that much is patent in the story. But the extraordinary attention to minute details, and the almost carnal stench given off by certain scenes, might at first mislead us into thinking that Bresson was aiming at a realistic depiction of life in the middle-ages, of the kind twice attempted by Ingmar Bergman in the 1950s – or at least of the period from which the myth arose. Look again.
The armor shown in Lancelot du Lac is that in use from the 15th.Century to the mid.-16th., i.e, that of its last phase: articulated metal plates covering the whole body, from the helm and its jutting visor to the greaves, and made of tempered Augsburg (or Nuremberg) steel. But the myth it portrays is from the decline of Celtic Britain, i.e. the end of the 7th.Century at the very latest, and probably before. Armor for the whole body was then unkown; at most there was mail for the chest and upper torso, and a helmet.
To elude the claims of ‘history’ – a meaningless authentication in this case anyway – Bresson did what was already implicit in Malory, collapsing into one the end of a particular knighthood order and the end of knighthood as such.
Bresson reinforces the anachronism with some anomalous mythography. Note Lancelot’s remark to the Queen when they first tryst after his return from the abortive Sangraal quest: “Everything is finished for us in Brittany.” Recall too that his very first appearance in the film is prefaced by the hermit-woman’s prophecy: “He whose footsteps precede him shall die before a year.”
Lancelot’s footsteps do indeed precede him; we hear the sound before we see its source. Greaved, gauntleted and vizored, he is his own augury, a thud of plated steel on the umbrial turf encountering, for the first of his two times, the little hermitage at Escaliot and examining it, wordlessly and briefly. And invisibly: not till after he enters Arthur’s walls, and the horses of those returning have been installed, do we at last see his face.
The old Bretagne legend of Death marking (or announcing himself to) his victims with a warning that he will return for them in a year (plus a day, in some versions) seems, clearly enough, to be the background of this opening – with Lancelot’s “Brittany” remark connecting unmistakably. Perhaps this was a mere starting-point for Bresson (we don’t learn by the end how much time has passed), meant to give the atemporal structure an acceptably familiar face – for all Europe knows this legend in one guise or another.
But, while being its source, Lancelot has not heard the omen, nor the hermit-woman’s words. Not yet: that will come later, after the tournament at Escaliot, when he pays a second visit and is a little short of blood. For the time being we know, as he doesn’t, that he has been marked for death in the dark forests of Celtic England. And that the basic premises of folk-tales and myths – their ‘givens’ – are always fulfilled. Death, having been called, is certain. And the closer it gets, the more its Whens and Wheres cease to be important.
No doubt this was the side of the legend that appealed to Bresson (and was his reason for dismissing the question of time at the end). One of the eternal things, death comes to each, each time, in a way that makes the time unimportant.
And how can we ignore the blotter-calligraphy of the priest, 22 minutes into Journal? A mere reversal, mirror-writing – yet for us as unreadable as the glyphics of an unknown world, contiguous with our own yet filed in a timeless slot, a pocket of invisibility, an extentless threshold to another dimension of life.
To TRANSLATE the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing.
(N.O.C. p.67; caps. in orig.)
Translating a sensation into the terms of another sense or of several others, while experiencing them simultaneously – this is synesthesia. When sound can be translated into touch, and touch into visual phenomena, a powerfully separative means of affecting response is handed the film-maker.
Bresson made use of the synesthetic possibility in some of his late films with two aims in view: it strengthens the involvement with internal, mostly wordless, states of characters; it separates and privatises that involvement.
With Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur (1971) synesthesia enters the repertory of Bressonian devices.
Consider Jacques the Dreamer in the sunlit park, observing the girl facing him from a nearby bench, straddling her companion’s lap: he notes her fingernail, stroking and tickling the neck of the boy she’s frenching while coolly and drowsily eyeing Jacques over his shoulder; sending him this viso-tactile message, as it were. Her eyeline is the binding string between the two senses which fuse into a hard-on for the Dreamer, who now – gripping his erect mike – tries to create an auditory analogue contemporaneous with the scene, that he can play back and re-summon in private. Except that he can’t find a suitable one, just pidgeons clucking and cooing! (Later he will wipe, going over, their noise.) Mere simultaneity doesn’t suffice in hind-hearing, however authentic and whatever the ironic suitability of clucking to the pair. But the point is made: to the extent that we share it, it is the synesthetic state that gets us into Jacques – that, and the teaser’s eyes.
A fusion – not a mere aggregate – of two or more senses into a single new totality of sensation takes place internally; it is not simply given on the screen. The totality is a trick of the brain – of neuromatics – and to the extent that we involve ourselves, we experience it from the inside. That extent would measure Bresson’s success at involving us. By this most pleasurable trick he has our imagination by the balls.
Dig into your sensation. Look at what there is within. Don’t analyse it with words. Translate it into sister images, equivalent sounds. The clearer it is, the more your style affirms itself. (Style: all that is not technique.)
The exchanges that are produced between images and images, sounds and sounds, images and sounds, give the people and objects in your films their cinematographic life and, by a subtle phenomenon, unify your composition.
When, to the permutations between the senses, degrees of arousal in each are added, the number of possible combinations becomes practically infinite, adjustable to each spectator’s level. In separating and individuating response, they of necessity engage with the intuitive depths of an audience; the viewer will experience the effect in a private – strictly private – way.
For this to work, one must imagine the fingernail on one’s own neck, momentarily exporting oneself to Jacques’ point of view. I have already indicated the third sensation contributing to the synthesized one that results. (We will not assay here the glossal or gustatory possibilities.)
For the viewer’s involvement with an inner state, a corresponding inner state must be secured. It is hardly possible to conceive a superficial involvement with something deep or complex in another; the very word ‘involvement’ (a spiralling-in) excludes that.
At the end of L’Argent, I tried to capture the force in the air just before a storm. It is not something you can describe in words.
(Positif Interview, in Projections 9 p.4)
One recalls the fruit-picking scene: the cold, bright shudder suddenly moving across the foliage and translating its forward trajectory into the tremors of the woman’s shawl, the whipping back of Yvon’s hair. One recalls too Tarkovsky’s fondness for ‘translating’ wordless sensations, like the gap in time that dawns with a (possibly dreamt) disappearance, so precisely conveyed by the shrinking evidence of steam left by the visitor’s glass on a table. Or even more strikingly, his own version of wind ‘sculpting’ the taiga grass as it almost visibly streaks across the strata of a vast distance, billowing like a giant roller just beneath the plain as it comes towards us: both from The Mirror (1974). (This synthetic ‘forward rush’ has a further Bressonian analogue, in the tavern-crowd’s awareness of a crisis, visibly growing towards the foreground and picking up a solitary drinker at a table, who rises in alarm, newspaper in hand – the ‘force’ at the end of L’Argent.)
A slightly less complex example of the way sensory fusion works, from Quatre Nuits (a film filled with its effects): Marthe dancing to some svelte music in front of her mirror – slowly, gracefully, and quite naked. One shot shows her framed mirror image as she improvises rippling arm-movements, while her left hand makes slow stroking gestures, up and down with the open palm. The shot is angled so that her image in the mirror appears to stroke its edge: her palm running along its frame. She keeps such precise time, however, that the plaintive and textured musical tones – pitched with a slight glissand from medium-to-low – seem to be doing it. And the overhead light in her room, of course, has been cupping its palm on her shoulder, polishing her muscles, sliding along her forearm and hand, wrapping its sheen around mammarial and abdominal convexities…and in general having a lovely time.
The effect, once caught, immediately translates itself to our own nerve-ends: the optical textures of a mirror-frame and a hand, the rhythmic evolutions of skin-shine over pores whose visibility it mediates… The unacknowledgable question occurs, of what it would be like to be a frame at this moment, of what Marthe’s palm feels like – ? Or, say, if she herself were within stroking-distance.?
“In the NUDE”, says p.125 of the Notes, capitalizing on the gesture, “all that is not beautiful is obscene.” In Marthe, cherished reader, nothing is obscene.
Notions that occur to a viewer at the speed-of-wordless-thought are perishable. The involvement they inaugurate is not.
One could go on multiplying examples, to use a hand-me-down crit formula, from this filmful of sensory delights: the sharp, thin spotlight beams of the tour-boat with the tinkles of its guitar tickling the arched cavity of a bridge, Brazilian talons caressing its span, then breaking and flaking on the porous stone of its vault, while Jacques and Marthe watch and hear it dimming as it goes, from the rampart. Oh one could, reader, one could: we know our multiplication-table. But it must be remarked here, that the junction point of the senses to be activated is touch, to which or from which they must be ‘translated’ if any activation is to occur. To touch they coalesce, from touch they divide. Synesthesia and telesthesia both depend on it, as psychology has long recognized.
An illusion? But what is such an avowed ‘realist’ doing with these mirror-tricks! The tricks are available to anyone whose senses are wide awake, in or out of the cinema, and they require no conjurer’s mechanisms. They would always be felt if you could give that extra turn to the sensory screw, and see also the light that you see by.
An illusion – of course. And of that, Bresson, in reference to Quatre Nuits, had this to say to Positif in 1983:
In Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur, I like the theme: ‘Love is illusion, so let’s get on with it! That’s hardly pessimistic.’
(Projections 9 p.10)
No, it isn’t. Nor very unrealistic. Which shows that the fathers of Neo-Realism and their heirs (whether Red or Black) have no monopoly on the stuff: realism, properly taken, can be a thing of joy, a thing to amaze and delight. It needn’t, and never had to, be the funerary gloom of statuary, buildings, and principles in terminal decay, joined to a redemptive emetic of secularized sainthood among ‘the people’. It never had to be this kind of exhausted boredom – the organ-toned, the narrow and the grey, where our tears are merely the result of stifled yawns, our dissolving bowels that of stale popcorn. You might vainly say this, in vindication of Bresson or any other mis-reputed director, to those who weigh by jern-inflated speech balloons and drop-names. And still more vainly to those – like Schrader – whose minds are wrought of obsolescent faiths precariously staked in the attendant mud of their institutionalized values; whose vision is tunneled and straited by the gates that jacket our western museums and decaying burial grounds.
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The third and final part of this essay is now posted – Bresson Third Part.