FACADES AND OPACITY
Jacques the Dreamer is a painter. All his painted figures, firmly outlined in black, have faces of solid color, bright but occlusively matte. We also see a heart-shaped outline filled in with a slab of dark-green, like clouded lawn (borrowed perhaps from his country ramble at the opening). In the night and day scenes, a maximal use of available light and minimal depth-of-field, combined with standard-to-slightly-long focal lengths, produce shallow focus as well as shallow space, turning the background into a flat field, a ‘canvas’, of floating, unshaded colors.
And all around the edges, a grand but clichéed romanticism: in Jacques’ tape-recorded dreams, in Marthe’s nocturnal dress.
Yet the acknowledgment of parody becomes, in retrospect, implicit in the romantic icing: a kind of shame-faced admission. We find it in the Dreamer’s prescient disbelief in Marthe’s professions of love and lasting affection on the fourth (and last) night; in his refusal to become totally involved in her; above all, in his fear, evident throughout, of that old, dark spell — one that Marthe, indeed, attempts to cast on herself via conjuration of a wishful fantasy-future with Jacques at the end.
But it takes a dreamer to recognize another dreamer; and with a dreamer as self-conscious as Jacques, there can be no doubt. So it proves: her fancy vanishes faster than the ripples of a barge when her returned suitor calls to her. For him, wet lip-suction; for Jacques, three ‘affectionate’ pecks on the cheek — and the romantic cloak and Dostoyevskian shawl are gone. Jacques goes back to his absurd recordings and filling-in of faces, none the worse.
So the romantic baggage, the misty backgrounds and the opaque faces of paint, far from being the ambient aura of a hopelessly besotten temperament, can be seen for what they are: nothing more than an acknowledgment of facades as facades, of the human face (and ‘heart’!) as ultimately an opaque material wall; with the concomitant implication that the real action, the changes to happiness or pain, go on elsewhere — a painter’s knowledge. And Four Nights of a Dreamer was made by a painter, one with a synesthetic gift and a subtle sense of humor. This is why the recorded dreams are so wrong, so risibly stale. And why the Dreamer comes through his tests unbroken.
ANOTHER WORLD’S GHOSTS
Rarely have meaning and mise-en-scene interlocked as closely as in this film, or been made to react with such subtlety on each other.
A faint reminiscence of the 19th.Century in Marthe’s night attire has already been noted. If it is permissible to cite a person as part of mise-en-scene, we may add: the mid-Victorian bun into which her black hair is tied at night. And of her face: a feline narrowing at the outer corners of her eyes, and strong cheekbones — features emphasized by her pale skin and a thin mascara outline. A slender but full figure completes the picture: credibly part of maxi-skirt Paris circa 1971, and at the same time a kittenish Slavic maiden — very Bolshoi, a Russian swan who might have pirouetted out of an opened Dostoyevsky novel. (As in a sense all the characters have: the film is based on the Dostoyevsky novella White Nights .)
As in White Nights, the girl is first seen by our hero in the act of attempting (or contemplating) suicide on a bridge. Concealed by one of the heavy girding sections, she is at first nothing more than a mysteriously discarded personal item: a shoe landing in a pool of ashen light. Then another: a piece of jewelry. Finally, her bag, found lying on the parapet. Marthe herself is at first masked by the thick stone, facing outwards. Article by article, worn or carried, the accumulated detritus of the outer person leads, like a spoor, to its owner: an opening extraordinarily reminiscent of that in the Cornell Woolrich novel Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1945) — bridge and all. Or is it that both Woolrich and Bresson had Dostoyevsky in mind? Perfectly possible: that Russian and his century both threw a very long shadow forward, darkening every genre of the popular and unpopular arts.
So ghosts are present, of other days, other modes of living and of feeling — ghosts not so much of the ‘real’, historical Romanticism era as of that era’s self-representations. In short, cultural ghosts, phantoms of things already a matter of pure imagination: ghosts of ghosts. It is a style that is in question. If these second-degree phantoms parody anything, it is a way of looking at the world; an attitude to life.
Under daylight, however, such ghosts don’t ‘take’ well (no doubt why they traditionally disperse at its first sign). The title promises us nights, and that is when two-thirds of the film takes place; when the signs have come on and restaurant windows have applied their rouge. The shallow focal field ensures that headlights, streetlights, neon and riverlights flare out into delicate gossamer spectres that float with the characters, keeping them company like ethereal balloons. The romantic sense of things becomes the very atmosphere of the two, though without ever degenerating into travel-agency Paris. The sudden sharpening of peripheral details, often rather unfunny; the slight edge to what Marthe might do if the suitor doesn’t show; the stealthy track alongside Jacques when she disappears on the nocturnal embankment for a moment (our first view of her still fresh in memory) — all give a nerviness and energy to the action that safeguards against another Paris-by-night of fifties housewives’ dreams (score by Mancini). That Paris, ironically, might please Marthe’s mother very well.
There are also continual reminders of the fragility that feelings and yearnings nocturnally based must pay as their price for existing without an anchor in the business-hours. The brightly-colored corollas accompanying the pair won’t stand daylight: dingy and perishable as moth-wings burned to ashtray dust, at dawn when the neons, laundry-bright the previous dusk, are dull and soiled. “Glass: do not drop”, warns a stencilled sign (in English) on one of boxes Jacques drags into his studio. As if to underscore the point, a close-up later shows Jacques sheathed by the glass of his high window during a rainstorm, trickles apparently running down his face and lending it a malleable, fragile something, helped by the pensively solemn look with which he regards the view (which, like the window edge, is not shown). A Baconian pebble-glass effect without the Baconic extremes, it reminds us of occasions on which real tears have been, or might well be, shed — both serious and not. And perhaps not inappositely: of the truth that a hankering for the unattainable, though a purely imaginary affection, is no less a real hankering, done with a breakable part of the affected being.
OF PARODIES AND PROGRAMS
If one wants to be schematic about it, there are three levels of parody in Four Nights: 1) an obvious layer (the ridiculous gangster film) masking, as by ‘excessive light’, 2) a more subtle one extended over the time it takes to know the narrative figures, and concerning solely them; and lastly, 3) a more ambiguous level, poised on the uncomfortable threshold between two different feelings, held right on the verge of crossing into open risibility — the point at which one is not quite sure if one should titter, snicker, chuckle, cackle, guffaw, howl, etc. Jacques exclaiming “What have you done to me!”; the Brazilian singer on the tour-boat; Jacques’ stares at women totally unknown to him, at the start; his sad auditing of his own voice speaking the absurd ‘dreams’ on the cassette-player (one level of parody listening to another) — are among the examples.
What all three levels have in common is romanticism as their reference, and some of its attendant manifestations.
But this is not to be understood as a straightforward mockery of it — not entirely, at least. Bresson fixes sharply on the shallowness and naivety of its symptoms; but never without reminding us of the holes, and the lives, they are trying to fill. There is a clinging coefficient of sadness attached.
Jacques the Dreamer, for instance, is not merely amusing as a figure caught up in a wildly sticky tale that he wants to avoid getting stuck by. Aware as he is of where the girl’s passion really lies, his own is genuine or is rapidly becoming so. That he is forced to act against it, that it is only with a shrill, tearing wrench (which the girl never hears) that he detatches himself for the inevitable — this is where the sadness in his own story lies: to act against one’s heart in order to protect it. His exclamatory stereotype “What have you done to me!” decides its status along this parting slice. The ambivalence felt in one’s response to that blurt-out is (to quote another stereotype, a crit one) ‘resolved’.
Is that all, for Jacques? No — we have been seeing ‘Marthe’ here and ‘Marthe’ there, posted up wherever Jacques goes: lettered in gold on a jeweller’s plate-glass window in bold Clarendon capitals, complete with black ‘solidifying’ edge; and more disillusioningly, on a dull black barge by daylight, painted in a small but distinct blue sign on its front-starboard side, as it appears from the bridge over which Jacques gapes. Hallucination? No: ‘Marthe Jewellery’ exists (or existed); and the monosyllabic name is perfectly credible on boat or barge. As even non-francophones will realize, ‘Marthe’ is sufficiently common in French for there to be nothing surprising in its appearances; it is bound to come up here and there. In other words, the contrivance of the ‘coincidences’ is deliberate, on a par with the l’amour fou ambience the Dreamer tries to spin out of them. Parody again. But with an oddly familiar ring…
Then there is the deadpan account of his present life that Jacques gives Marthe on their first Night, a straight-faced compendium of terms for ‘alienated’ loneliness (Romanticism in modern urban guise) which makes even the distracted Marthe stare for a moment: nothing more than a slackening of the cheeks, immediately tightened again as she narrows her eyes at him. Yet one feels the smile they would release, if she chose. Instead she says, “Stop trying to make me pity you and listen to what’s happened.” Again, romanticism lands with a thud. Jacques solemnly hears her out; his dark eyes, dark hair, sports-jacket; and something in the set of his head…where have we seen it all before?
The answer is almost laughably simple: everywhere in French cinema since Godard’s Masculin-Feminin(1966). Jacques, in the two just-mentioned scenes, is a virtual amalgam of every romantic-young-man role in the French Nouvelle Vague incarnated by Jean-Pierre Leaud — from Skolimowski’s Le Départ (1967) and Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) to Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain (1974). The facial and physical resemblance is sufficiently striking to be unmistakable (certainly to a French audience). If we allow that early on this ‘role’ itself became a kind of throwback and self-parody, then Jacques-as-Antoine-Doinel is, once more, a second-degree parody — but this time with the entire Nouvelle Vague and the attitude to youth it encouraged as its reference. The sly hint is that this belongs — like so many 1960s attitudes — back in the romantic 1840s of an idealistic, bygone century. For censure? Not necessarily. Those familiar with Bresson’s oeuvre will know better than to jump to hasty conclusions. When we consider what that idealism comprised — in its Hegelianism, its Heine, the young Marx (not to mention their latter-day analogues) — we might well end up asking, Who is judging whom? (The Francophile reader can change those names to Comte, Fourier, Taine: feel free!)
There is point to the ambiguity on which some of the parodies teeter. And not all of them tip over.
The 1840s were also a period of programmes: Young Germany, the February manifestos, the Communist Manifesto. The first, in the event, chiefly affected domestic relations and poetry; and more generally the failure of the 1848 revolutions, while stultifying politics, benefited the arts. From the late 1850s art-manifestos, left and right, began appearing: naturalism, parnassianism, impressionism, symbolism, thisism and thatism. Poetry, novels, painting, sculpture and music were all involved to some degree. But one couldn’t always tell if the programmes arose to ‘explain’ seminal works or if the works contorted themselves to keep to the programmes. Today we know that the seminal works were there first, seeding, among other things, imitations and the programmes to go with them. (These made them look more like original creations, as if a blueprint had been there from the outset and carried out in innocent ignorance of other works and styles: Limitations disguising Imitations.)
Shown baldly, an artist programatically explaining a work always has an absurd appearance. Why? Any number of answers jump up with their hands in the air, straining to answer. Let’s pick a few. Because it looks like an attempt to direct our response to the work. Because the discursive babbler is setting himself some dogmatically rigid guardrails. Because any possibility of discovering or improvising something on the spot is firmly foreclosed. Because no life gets in. Because the light hand of Chance is ignored, at peril (one waits for the bucket to tip, the spider to land). Because the ‘programme’ often seems idiotically at odds with the propensities and inclinations of the medium. Because the work given is not necessarily the work received: one half of the invariable concurrents of any exhibition is being ignored. Because the attempt to dictate the standpoint from which the work is viewed is an impertinence. Because hazard and havoc are the incubi of dogmatists. And some other ‘becauses’ maybe…
All these reasons perhaps coalesce, at the speed-of-instinct, to color the response to the ‘action painter’ and his pompous declaration, in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), that “I paint not the waterfall but the feeling the waterfall gives me.” Or it should: but the scene, idiotically, has been understood as an approving summation by Bresson of action-painting! All of which goes to show, reader, that Balthazar is not the only donkey ridden by the painter.
Samuels: Why did you include in Au Hasard, Balthazar that short scene with the action painter?
Bresson: He sits on a clever donkey; I make him speak nonsense.
S: Do you know how this has been interpreted?
B: That I like action painters?
(Charles Samuels interviewing Robert Bresson, Paris 1970, in Samuels:Encountering Directors 1972.)
This short scene should stand as a warning at the gateway to the lengthy one in which the former École des Beaux-Arts student pays Jacques an unannounced visit. He raps imperiously three times in succession while our hero takes as many screen minutes to hastily conceal his canvasses — variously draping or facing them to the wall. When finally admitted he brusquely helps himself to the studio’s only comfortable chair, and makes no attempt to stop Jacques searching for the drink that he will turn out not to want. Instead, he takes the opportunity to peek intrusively at the paintings Jacques has made such an effort to conceal. When the whisky is finally brought, he says “No — really!” with a traffic-stopping palm. He then delivers a top-speed disquisition on conceptual art that must cease being apolitical and make “immediate connections” at ground-level, illustrating this with some postcard-size reproductions of his work, at which Jacques glances: a meaningless jumble of objets trouves with here and there a slogan, equally generalized and meaningless. Then, presumably satisfied with having tried out the sound of his voice on Jacques, he excuses himself, stalking out with “I’ll come again!” As he starts to clump down the stairs, Jacques, just a shade too late, leans over and yells down: “Promise?” “Yes!”, comes the humorless reply. Clump, clump, clump.
It may not be too fanciful to find here a subtle connection with another painter’s visitor in a different Dostoyevsky work: Peter Verkhovensky in The Possessed (1872). For a man whose work reveals so many links and cross-threads with the people of the Russian’s writings, it would at least be unsafe to dismiss it out of hand. The same dogmatic insistence on a ‘programme’, reducing people to its mere sounding-boards — interchangable and ultimately expendable objects — motivates both visitors. To each, the one being visited is a dummy, a function. Although the ‘idea’ in Quatre Nuits seems less murderous, it is the same nihilistic tunnel-vision at work, looking only at what serves the programme, not at whom the programme may serve. Anyone who insists that the ‘idea’ is immediately to be seen in the captioned mess he will mass-reproduce as common postcards, has stopped bothering about what others really see: they must see what is there. If they don’t, they are either blind or not looking. What Jacques has been doing on his canvasses doesn’t matter. Neither, in The Possessed, do Kirilov’s thoughts, if he will only hurry up and self-incriminatingly kill himself as he promised.
Such were the unguessed-at consequences for a certain sub-section of Paris’s politicized young at the time: ready for organized terrorism, for the Meinhoff-led suicides at Stammheim, left orphaned for a while by the Gang of Four revelations, finally thrown into an everyone’s-corrupt-so-what-does-it-matter nihilism not really to be distinguished from the old Kropotkin-style anarchism — the kind that straps itself to bombs. This may seem like an absurdly far-fetched connection to make from the drolly deadpan scene of the Beaux-Arts student; but absurdity perhaps suits it. A macabre quality has never been too distant from this type of humor, especially in French (or Russian) hands. And in fact, the broader our hindsight grows and the more subsequent history shrinks in the perspective wash, the more prepared we may be to grant that history some of the drollness that goes so well with Bressonian humor — and which Bresson himself might have distilled from it.
All of which deserves a slogan of its own. It is something a good Rochefoucauldian aphorism seems best molded to express, and may be added to the ‘Becauses’ list: —
Those readiest to mouth a doctrine are often the least prepared to be its practitioners.
THROES OF A THUG
I have lingered a bit on the scene just described to make clear the sort of humor Bresson opportunely indulged. It appeared occasionally in his other, apparently more ‘serious’ films as well. (The scare-quotes express an intuition that terms at a higher stage of differentiation than ‘serious’, ‘comic’ etc. are needed for what it does, at its best.) It is of importance because Quatre Nuits is in a lighter vein than the films preceding and following it in Bresson’s oeuvre.
It is not a guffawing, belly-laugh humor; it is of the kind that unspools over a more extended time and whose contours, therefore, are best discerned in retrospect. A humor, then, of a typical and patterned response to the world, of an attitude to others — of character, which can not be immediately apparent or concentrated into one representative moment (except at the crudest level). This is the humor portraying Jacques: his occasionally naive, serious, yet deadpan “It’s-okay-with-me” approach to the people and incidents he encounters. It is partly a protective mask of course, yet not lacking the incidental sly touch of cynicism: this Dreamer at least knows what (and whom) he doesn’t like.
The tone is set from the very start: Jacques hitch-hiking, Jacques taking a country ramble, Jacques staring inadopted fascination at strange women in the street. Jacques determined to respond as one should to country rambles and pretty women, by way of indicating his quite unexceptionable ‘normality’ — which has, of course, the opposite effect: the family he passes on his ramble turn and stare at him. What can Jacques do? Turn cartwheels, whistle (the Internationale!), enjoy what you’re meant to enjoy: they stare. The self-consciousness of an insistent ‘normality’ is a magnet for attention: a very typical result. Ironically, by a further twist, this is in fact a very normal attitude for a young man to wear, especially one living alone. Jacques can’t be more than twenty-three.
Marthe, however, also knows what she doesn’t like. She does not like the movie her mother’s lodger (and her own frustrated suitor) has, in a fit of petty spite, given her mother and her free tickets to see. A long-haired gangster inches round a wall, gets unconvincingly drilled with a carbine and drops, taking far too long about it. Instead of dying, he thrashes about a bit, then reaches with stilted slowness for his inner breast-pocket. A minute goes by. “This is a dirty trick!” hisses Marthe. “Shhh!” Out, finally, comes a snapshot of his blonde sweetheart… Marthe’s patience snaps, and she rises to leave, causing some irritation. As she crosses the screen’s image, a reverse angle reveals a wet tear-stain on her mother’s cheek! Exit Marthe. (The man still hasn’t finished his heaving and dying when the scene cuts.)
This scene has been detailed for two reasons: it is a more concentrated extract of Bressonian humor; and it is keyed to the difference in character between the two protagonists, Marthe being much less discreet about her dislikes. It is also a sample of Bresson’s masterful economy: in that one brief shot of her ‘affected’ mother, Marthe’s relative shortness of temper and her dissatisfaction with her present circumstances get all the explanation required. Our glimpses of their apartment, sub-let to boarders, does the rest. We quickly get the picture: the rigid and financially-straitened respectability in circumstances that have clearly come down from something better, the empty spaces on the bookshelves, the constant worry on the mother’s part about what lodgers will think, her unsubtle effort to push her daughter towards a possible marriage with the present one (a pettish, preoccupied and irritable academic angling for a career-post)…. The whole Parisian lower-middle class dossier is here, expertly delineated by Bresson.
The surprising twist in the story is that Marthe wants him.
Bresson leaves us in no doubt about the man’s vanity and pettiness. He races the old cage-lift down several flights of stairs, halting it with the Emergency/Stop button at each landing, in an effort to make a date with Marthe — or at least get up some conversation. (The race is not a hard one to win.) Rebuffed, he finally yells out: “You could at least talk to me. This isn’t very nice!” “It’s nasty,” he adds in a mutter to himself, as he tramps back up. Living, like Jacques, in solitude, he seems to want Marthe only to satisfy a private need, or on an egoistic whim. Even at the end, when he calls out to her from the embankment, it is first himself that springs as if automatically to his lips: “Have you forgotten me?” When it comes to a choice between Marthe and a career-opportunity now, it is his career that comes first, with the old excuse: “But what’ll we live on?” (just the thing Marthe’s deceased father must once have said). Seeking a settled existence, a harassed bourgeois in the making, a born cuckold, wearer of a pair of inevitable — and very Parisian — horns in some unsighted future, he seems a ridiculous figure for either Dostoyevsky or Bresson to have hinged with such a fairy-tale turn of plot: the Suitor’s promise to return in a year. But risibility was often Dostoyevsky’s middle name; and like the Russian, Bresson saw that the absurdity resulting from transplantation to alien contexts — a thing he himself had done — could produce unexpected fruits. It is a powerful means of removing blinkers, and from a director’s as well as an audience’s eyes. The faculty of observation likes such shakeups; they sharpen it.
They do the same for one’s discriminatory faculties. If it is possible to see all the let-downs and futile regrets of her mother’s generation in the future Marthe is setting up for herself — and, just possibly, one more ‘dirty trick’ of the Suitor’s in appealing to her romantic side with the ‘I’ll return’, and its slight but painful prolongation — it should also be possible to refrain from mockery. Her tears flow rather freely as she recounts her tale to Jacques (‘Exactly like her mother!’ we think). But we can forecast others, differently motivated, at a distant time when her life will be as empty as her mother’s. They will be for this very night, and the other three she spends in the Dreamer’s company: souvenirs of a distant summer, the freedom of the embankments, and open futures all around in myriad paths, take whichever, take more than one! And for the song on that tour-boat trawling its rippled light — for that white squiggle, the unregarded negative of present tears. Present as in now,when she would be in her fifties.
So there is a genuinely sad, as well as humorous, side to Marthe’s tearful story; and to her outburst: “I hate her! And that apartment!” It derives from the near-certainty that “her” and “that” are what she is headed for, in whatever analogous guise. The recent past, exemplified in her mother, is a mirror of the near future. But this is the case only when we peer into it in retrospect. Much of what is said here is likely to be seen only at a second viewing. Not without reason did Bresson repeatedly state in his interviews, that some films give their best only when seen more than once.
For all that, the drily commedic aspect of Quatre Nuits musn’t be underemphasized. Viewer responses to Marthe’s story will show some interesting curves. One is at first a little affected by those lachrymal glands (“Poor kid!”); then we take a look at the Suitor — crankily puffing up the stairs, listening through the wall as Marthe nakedly dances; then, coming back to the embankment, we suddenly do a double-take on her tears: “All for that little boor!” A bit later, we may catch ourselves and think again, as outlined above. The spectacle of each succeeding generation blindly stuffing itself with the same emotional junk-food, the same illusion-preservatives, is dreary, funny, irritating or sad by turns — and much depends on one’s own temperament. An old spectacle, moreover. “Change the names,” as Horace said, “And the story is your own.” There are no easy or uniform responses.
As if to ensure this, Bresson has spaced out Marthe’s narrative with excerpts from the Dreamer’s life: Jacques in the studio, Jacques in the park, Jacques lugging crates, etc. There is also his growing emotional response to Marthe: an exquisite torture. Cunningly disguised, an old theme is reexperienced as new.
CRY BABY CRY
Tears… Are we so sure that her mother hasn’t had them? And when hers flow uncontrollably, is it really for that atrocious movie, or for some memory it has accidentally nudged awake, some long-forgotten mood it has retrieved — as bad movies so often can? We spend the major part of our lives being what belongs in a bad movie. And that furtive prowling, up and down the hallway — pushing Marthe towards the lodger, yet hoping for a marriage traditionally (or mythically) ‘chaste’: spying on them! Pathetic, laughable…yet clear, also, that she hasn’t a thing otherwise to do with her evenings. Could she, at twenty, have seen herself this way? None of us can — because we won’t fix our eyes on mediocrity, boredom, decline. [Quite right: nor should we.] We cannot see what we are headed for through the eyes of the present. And we have no others…
This is a sample of the kind of imaginative work that would go on in a viewer to make a character ‘work’ — at about a tenth of the time it takes to read. The refusal to let his people indulge in artificially ‘explanatory’ gestures served Bresson in this way; it made viewers imaginatively complicit with them, and privatised their responses. Itinvolved. And in so doing, gave those people a more convincing and a longer life. If their impassive faces and the lack of a bleeding heart on each sleeve — the fact that they behave normally, in short — produces ambiguity, then its imaginative resolution will have been our work: just as happens with persons we know in our own lives. (How many people do you know who wear the real article on their sleeves?) We will have left a little trace of ourselves in the experience of the film.
For exactly the same reason, the person in a Bresson film who does come equipped with heartsleeves arouses, or ought to arouse, a sceptical attitude: a very proper one for a ‘comedy’. Up to a point this is still ambiguous: amid people so self-controlled, the possibility cannot but arise that here is an authentic flow of uncontrolled and naked emotion — perhaps. The uncomfortably partitioned base on which our responses to the film waver makes this an ambiguous comedy, or non-comedy as genre specialists would probably say. It is true that, like most Bresson films, Quatre Nuits is ageneric: not quite comedy, nor really a romance. But in this case (the lachrymal goo) it is the humor itself that bears the ambiguity. We think it is of one type, it turns out to be of another; sharper in one way, but also mellower, and resting on a much broader foreground of experience — Bresson’s own.
IN OR AT?
Being wise after the fact is so easy that I have saved the broadest retrospection until nearly the end. It comes as a shock to realize that three decades have passed since Bresson caught those summer evenings by the Pont Neuf. And those throngs: all those faces, somehow unbearably familiar, over their T-shirts and bell-cuffed jeans — now in their fifties! Already the twentieth century takes the place, in our mythology, that the nineteenth had in theirs: it is the last century. And Bresson too is now gone.
To look at, Quatre Nuits might have been released yesterday. Little in its matter and nothing in its manner has dated: so authentic is the reek of its present and so close to us does its ambience still seem, as a testament to the fidelity with which Bresson pointed, rolled, and selected. “Retouch some real with some real,” commands the only repeated note in his Notes on the Cinematographer. More than one critic has affirmed this as the result of retro-viewing a Bresson film — most recently, Olivier Assayas in Film Comment Jul./Aug.1999 (apropos Le Diable Probablement ).
So true is this, that it’s quite hard to believe, as we view, in the antiquity of the generation to which Jacques and Marthe belong. The children of the “children of Coca-Cola and Marx”, raised on the video-games that continue its myths, may find it just as hard. They are well within living memory, the last two summers of that affluent, easy time on whose dusky embankments conspiracy-theories enjoyed such efflorescence, and to which the subsequent oil-crisis, inflation, mass-unemployment, the terrorist explosion, all form such an impassable barrier. The landscaped garden of gestarbeiten, growth, Coca-Cola label designs, the ongoing circus of Viet-Nam, top-forty charts, and low Italian sports-car curves, has dried and died and sunk under new layers — of discarded key-cards, condoms, needles, or lives. It’s as dead as some of its exemplars and premature victims. And if its ghosts can still walk, they can’t bite.
So let’s be wise in hindsight, and say how Bresson’s ‘romantic’ protagonists strike us today. How easy is it to say just where their fifty-year-old selves would be now?
Thirty-something years along the track, it is probably easier to see to what, and by what paths, Marthe is headed than Jacques. Whether higher or lower in the social ‘brackets’, the emotional sum is pretty clear.Regret will be its base; sadness, not untinged by fear and perhaps irritability, will be its recognizable symptoms, moods to which she will become habituated — day by day and hour by hour. (At a lower bracket, there may also be emotional aridity.) Her outbursts to Jacques and her crying-jags, however amusing as they ‘play’, have, like most things seen in hindsight and from an assumed superiority of viewpoint, something unavoidably pathetic about them. One must adjust one’s ‘historical’ standpoint in order not to be unfair, exactly as we do for some of the activism and hopes of that time — or else see our own teacup-storms as posterity will (though without overdoing it: what we find in Marthe is what we’re meant to in some degree). An ideal perspective would be that of a first-generation audience seeing Quatre Nuits more than once. But ideal perspectives, as that very epoch shows, are never to be had at their own moment. Few of us can claim to have seen a Bresson film in ideal circumstances, and several times in those. And only to a few film directors is it granted to view their present work through the eyes of times unborn. This is why Bresson placed most emphasis on elements of his form that beg nothing of the fashions and vagaries of their day. In his work, more than in others’, what can be felt can be authorially relied-upon, as we view, now.
Which brings me back to what I said of the characters at the beginning of this article: funny, with a tinge of the sad. For Marthe, we may add that most pathetic of all is the overwhelming certainty that the image she is likely to carry away from her mother’s detested apartment and keep always, is that when, dancing in her mirror, her reflection appears to stroke the mirror’s edge: certifying it as the edge of a detatchable image, so to speak. This shot carries an extraordinary charge of multivalence in its effect: at one moment looking into the mirror at Marthe, the next looking at the mirror, made suddenly aware of its surface and its frame — and on the other hand lending the hand ‘stroking’ it the immateriality of a phantom, for there is no one visible in front of the mirror (Marthe being some distance from it). At the same time, the reality of the Marthe we see reflected is not to be denied; it is a sensuous, synesthetic reality, giving the frame she ‘touches’ the significance of an archway into a different dimension of space, sound and being, while losing none of its coefficiency of intense feeling. Which perhaps is the key to the scene’s effectiveness, and its remarkably long life in so many viewers’ and critics’ memories: Bresson wanted it to be remembered. In it we behold something timeless: Marthe making a future memory. For memory is the one thing about us that stays outside time.
A WEEKEND AT THE CHATEAU
That could also be said of Jacques. He too is making a memory for himself, of those four nights. But his takes form on his canvasses — contemporaneous, like his recorded ‘dreams’, with his brief riverside acquaintance. His cassette-voice speaks as his wrist turns a gob of paint into an outline, the outline turns into a figure, and the figure turns the canvas into something like a shaft down which his memories and feelings project, aided by the sound. And all the while the canvas remains, very specifically, a flat surface — an artist’s mirror. It is, in fact, just like the screen on which we see it projected: ambiguously a surface and depth, and alike a reflector. A kind of autonomous wizardry that needs no other audience to sustain it and its secrets is all Jacques is left with at the end. Is it enough?
Comparing his ‘forecast’ with Marthe’s — probably yes. It is of a piece with all we have seen of him, as self-conscious and deliberate as his other gestures; part of his nature. A form of private exorcism, sublimation via synesthesia — but of the kind that art lives on. And Jacques lives on his art. His self-sustaining solitude is as natural to his survival as make-up to a whore, tatoos to a trucker, wigs to bald film-stars, whiskers to a rat, philistine pretentiousness to art-critics (the reader may select, or make additions). And the look of the film that begins and ends with him is as natural a reflection of this state as the screen on which we view it.
The very opening titles set the scale: night, headlights sailing towards us out of a blur and into focus, at which they whoosh off, ‘past’ us. The precise focal plane is hard to locate; at one moment it seems to be where the titles are, lending them a protrusive ‘objectivity’; at the next we realize that it can’t be (the titles not being ‘in’ the shot). Observing perspective laws, the rate at which the cars sharpen as they near that transparent plane increases in one continuous curve, whose smooth rise abolishes ‘depth of field’: we don’t even look for it. It is very like slight myopia. Far from feeling flat, this shot carries an extraordinary conviction of spatial depth — partly due to the hiss of the tyres, partly to the continuity with which the focus accelerates into the foreground, and partly also to the optic peculiarity of the flared-out headlights sharpening but not lessening in diameter. Strata of sound, of course, work in concert, observing their own ‘spatial’ laws behind the tyre-hiss. A purposive myopia as the vehicle for multivalent layers of awareness…a flatness whose depth amazes…a combinative synesthesia… These are the signatures of how Jacques looks at the world, and of how we will look at his looking, the focal plane mirroring our own focal range as we fix on the illusion of space reflected from the screen — mirror, barrier, window, all in one.
(Such effects only give their best on the screen, not on the VCs to which most readers are probably condemned — a remark which applies to any other Bresson film.)
To return to where I began, with Jacques the Dreamer and Painter: it would not be easy at all to specify where he might be today. That is inevitable for anyone with an intense inner life, with that “inward quality” Bresson specified as common to all his “models” (non-actors), in his Notes on the Cinematographer (see p.74ff.). Such people are very much — their own people. Therein, perhaps, lies a clue: wherever it is, whatever he is, he would wear it with a certain equable tough-mindedness, a discreet cynicism tinged with self-deprecating irony. With humor, in short. An aware, as opposed to naive, romanticism never did anyone any harm.
It might seem that what I said, just above, about the space of the film is applicable also to time. The attempt to project a future ‘depth’ into the impassably flat present, the screen’s implacable Now — which can stand for the walls of our consciousness — is a very natural inclination, and a game that everybody can play. But comparing the forecasts of fictitious persons in this way is ultimately futile. The tang of reality Bresson’s people give off encourages it — the only point I wished to make — but it is a self-defeating game. The realer they seem, the more we should be wary of unknowable possibilities, the mystery that any real person contains. And of encroaching upon it: the result is likely to look very artificial. In respecting it, we would only be following Bresson’s own lead in not trying to show all sides of his people, and allowing them their enigma; what he called “a margin of indefiniteness”. The future, to be convincing as such, must remain a closed door.
My interpretations of some of the minor characters in Quatre Nuits have not always done them justice (though I tried a little harder with Marthe’s mother). In particular, the Suitor might have been better delineated, and more justice done to the surprisingly tender side revealed in his nature as he makes love to Marthe; not to mention his taste. I have been too ready to do what Jacques does to the figure of the “husband”, the one absent from the chateau, in his final — and most risible — cassette fantasy. I can even admit there may be an unknown (and much better) side to the Postcard Man of the unsolicited visit and studio lecture. But in proceeding as I have, my concern was to render the immediacy of the impressions they give when first encountered on the screen. These portrayals lack the indispensable second viewing and its second thoughts.
What I hope they do not lack is the characteristic most striking about Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur to a viewer who comes to it with preconceptions about the proper name Bresson: humor.