Pickpocket

1. Breaking the Bresson ice

Accent Film Entertainment is the first Australian company to release the works of Robert Bresson on DVD. The three films are Pickpocket (1959), Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (incorrectly rendered on the packaging and the subtitling of the disk as The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962) and L’Argent (1983). All are DVDs of exceptional quality and provide the opportunity to see films whose availability, to varying degrees, has been very limited. Procès de Jeanne d’Arc may have had festival or other screenings through the French Embassy but, whatever, it has until now eluded me. I saw Pickpocket when it was first screened at a Melbourne Film Festival in the ’60s and it has been shown on SBS Television. L’Argent has also had screenings on SBS. The DVD release puts them into wide public circulation in splendid copies with (mostly) exceptionally good subtitles. The disks have some splendid extras, the like of which are rarely assembled on locally released foreign-language DVDs. The extras may arise because the films have been sourced from MK2 in France and the extras came as part of the deal.

Bresson’s career and reputation was at its first peak when he made Pickpocket and Procès. Between 1943 and 1956, he had made four features, each of which had slowly refined his method of filming, most notably in the way he dealt with his actors. He had slowly come to a position where he required his actors to be, as he called them, “models” seeking to find their “pure essence”.

In his book, Notes on the Cinematographer, Bresson returns again and again to what to what he seeks to obtain from them. Thus we read: “An actor draws from him what is not really there. Illusionist.” (1)Then later:

[…] your models, pitched into the action of your film, will get used to gestures they have repeated twenty times. The words they have learned with their lips will find, without their minds taking part in this, the inflections and the lilt proper to their true natures. A way of recovering the automatism of real life. (The talent of one or several actors or stars no longer comes into it. What matters is how you approach your models and the unknown and the virgin nature you manage to draw from them.) (2)

One of the many virtues of the Pickpocket disc is the inclusion of a shortened version of Babette Mangolte’s wonderful documentary (Les Modelès de ‘Pickpocket’, 2005) in which Mangolte tracks down the three principal actors from Pickpocket and interviews them about their experiences. Martin La Salle is now living in Mexico, having tried to pursue a career as an actor in Europe and America. Marika Green was studying dance at the Paris Opéra and afterwards did make other films, including Emmanuelle (Just Jaeckin, 1974). Pierre Leymarie was a science student when first noticed by Bresson, and went on to have a distinguished academic and research career far from Paris and the film industry. Each of them tells of Bresson’s methods with a clarity that only confirms his mastery and his knowledge of just what he could expect humans to do when faced with his method of shooting each take up to forty times.

Procès de Jeanne d’Arc features a similar extra, an extended interview with Florence Delay, who played Jeanne (as Florence Carrez). She goes back after forty years to the place where the film was shot in the castle at Rouën where the trial took place. The memories come flooding back and the documentary illustrates her recollections quite precisely. The disk also has one interesting extra: an extended studio discussion with an academic who has studied Jeanne d’Arc and is able to give his view of her history. It confirms in almost its entirety the verisimilitude of Bresson’s Jeanne. It also makes the point that Bresson’s ‘text’ is now one of thousands of publications, books and films devoted to her. Some of the professor’s points are illustrated by shots and sequences taken from one of the earliest film versions, a silent film whose authorship is not identified. That film enables us to see both the ‘truth’ and the ‘myth’.

The additional material on L’Argent is scrappier. Basically it consists of some cobbled-together material, mostly from French television, assembled when the film had its premiere at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. In one sense, though, its revelatory watching Bresson uncomfortably sit through some interviews and occasionally get drawn into a short debate, which he mostly uses to clarify a detail. There is nothing included about the source material, Tolstoy’s short story, “Falshivyi kupon” (“The Forged Coupon”, 1904), and there is only a brief reference to the story in Adrian Martin’s interesting essay included on the cover sleeve. While mentioning Tolstoy’s story, Martin gives greater attention to the “Dostoyevskyan elements of crime violence and punishment”, pairing L’Argent with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in Bresson’s work.

For a very detailed analysis of the relationship between the Bresson film and the Tolstoy text, you need to go to Kent Jones’ L’Argent in the BFI Modern Classics series. After summarising the Tolstoy text in one chapter, Jones returns again and again to the points where the two works intersect and in particular where characters from Tolstoy are red-drawn and re-situated. (3)

Both Martin and Jones make much of the final sequence, heralded by the burst of green in the setting that signals the start of the last violent outburst of Yvon (Christian Patey). Until then, the film’s palette has been dominated by grey, steely-blue and beige colours in the apartments, the streets, the shop and the prison. The disc does render these elements with much greater clarity than any copy of the film I have seen and it is a compliment to the efforts of the DVD producers that they have managed to find such pristine material to show off the work of the two directors of photography, Pasqualino De Santis and Emmanuel Machuel.

All three discs carry some heavyweight critical commentary in the form of quite extended (at least in such a context) essays by Martin about each film. Martin doesn’t bother writing for a curious amateur. His essay on Procès includes references to Danièle Huillet’s and Jean-Marie Straub’s Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968) and Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1986), as well as comparisons to a number of other cinema Joans, including those of Otto Preminger, Luc Besson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Jacques Rivette. These are excellent commentaries and much can be gained by reading them both before and after a viewing. They stand in marked contrast to the slop on the back cover of Pickpocket which, after referring to the lead throughout as “Michael”, contains such pearls as “one of the pioneering examples of cinema verite” (!) and “an enormous influence on Hal Hartley and Martin Scorsese” (gee whiz!). I’m not so sure that much is added to the discussion by Martin even obliquely referring to L’Argent as the ultimate art-house slasher film, but I suppose it is of some interest that both Martin and Jones draw a relationship between this film and the American Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986) and (in Jones’ text) The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991).

Finally a quibble. There is one major question with the subtitling of Pickpocket. The last line of the film uses the words “quel drole de chemin”. To translate this only as “what a path” misses the point entirely about the road that Michel has travelled to reach, as the Jean-Baptiste Lully swells on the soundtrack, this moment of profound adoration. Interestingly, the same words are discussed in Babette Mangolte’s documentary and translated in their entirety.

2. Bresson and Bernanos

click to buy “Diary of a Country Priest” at Amazon.comAccent Film Entertainment has obtained its titles from MK2, one of the leading French producers, distributors and exhibitors. In France, MK2 released the three as a boxed set. Beyond this attention, Bresson’s work is starting to be released by other DVD distributors around the world. As usual, there seems to be a randomness about what films are selected for treatment. The two films he made by adapting novels by Georges Bernanos, Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) and Mouchette (1967), have both been recently released but on different sides of the Atlantic.

Diary of a Country Priest has been given the full treatment one expects from Criterion, the US company which is generally regarded as the world leader in DVD publishing. The transfer is of the highest quality and the new subtitling is splendid. The sleeve notes record that, in order to produce a copy of this clarity from a 35mm print, “thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches were removed”. I think in the past I’ve seen many of those thousands of scratches, and many more, in the 16mm print that was the only available copy until the film screened on SBS Movie Classics during the now-lamented David Stratton years. Criterion is obviously proud of the effort it puts in to these productions. There are a couple of dozen people who get a credit on the sleeve for their work.

The sleeve itself contains a long essay by Frederic Bonnaud, a version of which originally appeared in Film Comment. Bonnaud views the film as “the linchpin of Bresson’s career”. An interesting aspect of the essay is Bonnaud’s view of the source material, a novel written in the ’30s by Bernanos. Bonnaud calls the novel “worn-out, uninviting material” and says, in parenthesis, that the novel’s “desperation […] isn’t so far removed from the universe of a Georges Simenon or Henri-Georges Clouzot”. I think that’s intended as a put down. Simenon and Clouzot admirers, not to mention admirers of the Bernanos novel (which I haven’t read), may find the whole comparison a little off-putting.

This is especially so if you take the trouble to watch the DVD and switch on the commentary track which records the thoughts of English critic Peter Cowie. These tracks are quite an artform when done well as here. During the course of it, Cowie gives quite a lot of information about Bresson and his career, and the place this film occupies in that career. Like Bonnaud, it’s clear Cowie thinks of the film as a major point in the Bresson canon. But the key aspect of the commentary is the discussion he undertakes about the Bernanos novel and the film’s adaptation of it. Cowie clearly regards the novel more highly than Bonnaud and, rather like Kent Jones does with his study of L’Argent, anchors much of his commentary in a comparison with the original text.

Cowie even makes a few statements that might not necessarily pass much critical muster. He opens up by saying that:

So many film buffs assume that one has to be an ardent Catholic believer to appreciate his cinema. Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman have suffered from the same preconception except that of course their cinema is marked by Lutheranism rather than Roman Catholicism. Bresson himself was an agnostic.

A sweeping generalisation and assertion thus expressed in a somewhat breathtaking opening salvo. (4)

Bresson’s other Bernanos adaptation, Mouchette, has been released in the UK by Nouveaux Pictures. The only extras the disc contains are a poorly presented picture gallery and a Bresson filmography. Disappointing hardly sums it up when you consider the amount of documentary and other material on the director available from the period during and after the film’s production. The transfer and subtitling are excellent, but one would like more, especially as the film runs a mere 78 minutes. Still, in that 78 minutes, you can find some of the most compassionate moments in Bresson’s films. The misery and sullen resentment of all the world is only redeemed, perhaps, by the devotion of Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) to her dying mother. Her sense of estrangement remains as compelling as when the film first shocked audiences. Bonnaud’s essay on Country Priest refers to Bernanos’ “post-war provincial France formed from the blackest misery and the reddest wine” and this subsequent adaptation, forty years after the novel was written, is much of a piece with that representation of a supposedly idyllic French countryside full of bonhomie and the finest fruits of the land. Misery and drunkenness, family dysfunction, poverty and general nastiness overwhelm the poor misbegotten young woman. It drives her to suicide.

3. Completist Corner

click to buy “Au Hasard Balthazar” at Amazon.co.ukThe first moments of Mouchette, subsequently repeated with a viewing of Au Hasard Balthazar, did produce a largely irrelevant thought. Seeing the names Anatole Dauman and Mag Bodard listed as producers on the opening credits reminds you of the role played by the great French producers in ensuring France’s primacy in world cinema. There’s no point here in listing the films produced over the decades by these two and by Pierre Braunberger. It’s a tradition that has been continued over the years by Georges de Beauregard, Paulo Branco, Margaret Menegoz, MK2’s Marin Karmitz and many others. Without the work of great producers, there is no great national cinema, irrespective of how many brilliant directors there are out there seeking the money. Without those great producers prepared to back a cinema and a director as unique as Bresson, we may not have been seeing these works at all, let alone in the splendidly pristine condition that loving DVD production can effect.

Au Hasard Balthazar has also been released by Nouveaux Pictures in the UK along with Mouchette. They are the twin films of Bresson’s second peak. They have the same look on their packaging and the same mediocre stills galleries as the only extras. As before, the quality of the transfer is excellent and watching Balthazar again it’s easy to recall the astonishing impact the film had in its day. Here was a picture of human violence, callousness and indifference utterly unrivalled. The treatment of Balthazar the donkey is largely paralleled by that meted out to the innocent Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) as she falls under the clutches of those same provincial types that Bonnaud railed against in his earlier quoted essay. Both accept their fate with a stoicism that only increases the sense of anger and unfairness at it all. Balthazar was a product of that short but rather grand moment when several major French directors found financial backing from Swedish producers. The French may have been brave to want to produce Bresson’s films, but the Swedes were very adventurous in putting up the money. Backing Bresson was never a lucrative endeavour. As early as 1944, one of his producers was forced into bankruptcy after investing in Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945).

Les Dames is also back in circulation having been released in the US by Criterion, though without the full-scale production of its other Bresson title. There is no commentary track, or any additional documentary material on the disc. The sleeve notes also make the claim about removing thousands of scratches. Maybe it’s just a standard company boast as the transfer has clearly been made from less-than-perfect material and the end result has nowhere near the clarity and sharpness of Diary of a Country Priest. Notwithstanding, its release fills in a major hole in the availability and knowledge of Bresson’s work and the sleeve notes, essays by François Truffaut and David Thomson, are exemplary. In Truffaut’s case, it’s interesting that he too should seek to trace the film’s literary origins and compare the adaptation that Bresson has made from the play by Jean Girardoux. He also comments at some little length on the dialogue supplied by Jean Cocteau. It’s also to Truffaut we owe the information mentioned above that the producer of the film went broke and didn’t get his finances back in order, or make another film, for six years. Those backing Bresson can pay a high price.

Two other Bresson titles have been released in the US by New Yorker Films. Lancelot du Lac (1974) is an unadorned disc otherwise containing only the French trailer. Bresson aficionados will look at the film first to ascertain whether the transfer reflects the print first released in theatres under Bresson’s supervision. (5) The release prints of the day were dark to a point where the audience often didn’t quite know what it was peering at. It was an affectation that infuriated viewers and made them even more suspicious of Bresson’s work. The DVD is dark and occasionally gloomy but not to the extent my memory recalls. The quality of the transfer is, in my view, excellent.

The other New Yorker title, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped, 1956), has a similarly fine transfer. Its only extra is a quite remarkable trailer made up of shots of the settings of the film, without any persons/actors included. Ghost-like, you have to see the film itself to place the characters into this context and it only makes full sense after you have done so.

There are four remaining Bresson features waiting out there for release on DVD. Hardest to find may well prove be Le Diable Probablement (1977). Its producer, Stéphane Tchalgadjieff, was another who went broke financing a Bresson film (and others by Jacques Rivette). However, the world is ready and waiting for Les Anges du péché (1943), Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971) and Une Femme Douce (1969). Anybody, anywhere?

Click here to order Diary of a Country Priest (Criterion) from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Mouchette (Nouveaux Pictures) from  Amazon.co.uk

Click here to order Au Hasard Balthazar (Nouveaux Pictures) from  Amazon.co.uk

Click here to order Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Criterion) from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Lancelot du Lac (New Yorker Films) from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou le vent souffle où il veut (New Yorker Films) from  Amazon.com

Endnotes

  1. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, translated from Notes sur le cinématographie (Gallimard: Paris, 1975) by Jonathan Griffin (Quartet Encounters: London, 1986), p. 57.
  2. Ibid, pp. 59-60.
  3. Kent Jones, L’Argent (BFI Publishing: London, 1999).
  4. Bresson’s religious inclinations are dealt with rather less airily in Alan Pavelin’s essay on the director which can be found on the Senses of Cinema website in the “Great Directors” section. Pavelin asserts that Bresson’s Catholicism, “which took the form of the predestinarian French strain known as Jansenism”, was “one of three formative influences on Bresson’s life [which)] undoubtedly mark his films”.
  5. A new copy of the film shown on SBS in the past few years had clearly been printed off a master not supervised by Bresson himself. It was lit in a quite sunny way, and all the scenes of blood and decapitation were clear and unambiguous.

About The Author

These days Geoff Gardner blogs away on matters of film interest. He was once the Director of the Melbourne Film Festival and once also a film distributor. His thoughts can be found at http://filmalert101.blogspot.com.au