Diary of a Country Priest

It’s strange how Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951), a film considered by many to be so spiritual, is so thoroughly immersed in the physical. But Catholicism – and the film is steeped in it – is full of paradoxes: loving one’s enemies; believing in one God with three incarnations; needing to die to gain eternal life. Bresson at an early point of his career – using the Georges Bernanos novel – seems to be telling us that to present matters indefinite (the spirit, or soul) you need for material matters definite (the body, the world it lives in); more, to break free of the world of the physical you must first take a firmer hold on said world – for traction, if you like.

The film’s first image is of the eponymous diary. You see the texture of the journal’s thick paper cover; behind that, a blotter splotched with ink; behind that, a page full of scribbling. The act of writing – scratching ink on rough paper, carefully blotting it, just as carefully closing the cover to keep the contents safe – will become a repeated motif, emphasizing the act of physically capturing and putting down on sheets of flattened pulp one’s thoughts and ideas and emotions. Capturing and rendering on paper, so to speak, such elements of the soul as one can record.

Opening sequence: the diarist (the Curé d’Ambricourt, played by Claude Laydu) tries to justify to himself the existence of the diary with the excuse that nothing he writes down is important. This tells us that the priest has a diary, full of “unimportant” facts, and that he’s not above rationalizing aspects of himself about which he may feel uneasy. If this diary is, as we eventually realize, a fleeting peek into the priest’s soul, then this first bit of information presents a rather base aspect of that soul.

More physical manifestations: a road sign saying “Ambricourt” (we see the sign before the town itself); the priest (our first glimpse of his face, his writing hand we are already familiar with) wiping his brow in the heat; a man kissing a woman. Strangely, the relationship suggested by these last two shots – that the priest may or may not have seen the two lovers kiss – is not made explicit. One of Bresson’s tactics is to use images that indicate physical reality (seasonal heat, human passion) linked together by an ellipse, a gap the viewer is left to try and connect.

The priest describes his health; it’s a constant theme throughout the film, his state of physical wellbeing. He can’t eat; he avoids meat and vegetables; he can only take bread soaked in sweetened wine, dried for several days, and that only to stave off hunger. The monologue tells us of the priest’s self-absorption; it also tells of his need to deny himself earthly pleasures, with maybe wine as his only indulgence.

A farmer drops by, old Fabregars (Léon Arvel). They talk of the priest granting him use of drapes for free, and here the drapes, which exist only in their conversation, are nevertheless given a vivid presence by the old man’s chance remark: “rags held together by patches”. The old man is not seen again, but we have learned more: that he is a miser, that the priest isn’t on friendly terms with the parishioners – he defers to them, but doesn’t have their good will. L’Adjoint (Martial Morange), a “right-hand man” – the town’s deputy mayor, apparently – visits and, while the two talk about switching on the priest’s electricity, the priest toys with the idea of revealing his awareness that the “Family Night” held once a week at the deputy’s cabaret is really a socially approved (if not openly discussed) occasion for the boys to get the girls drunk. Yet another revelation: the priest is sometimes tempted to abuse his privileged knowledge of the town’s dirty linen.

Bresson develops the priest’s personality by showing various elements (his diet, his deference, his delight in an untold secret), the town’s attitude to the priest (and vice versa) by showing vignettes (Fabregars’ visit, the cabaret owner’s). When Bresson introduces the earthier Curé de Torcy (André Guibert, pseudonym of Dr Adrien Borel, a psychiatrist), it’s for contrast – Torcy’s solidity against Ambricourt’s fragility, Torcy’s phlegmatic worldview against Ambricourt’s neurotic angst. Film scholar Peter Cowie, who does the commentary on the film on DVD, notes how differences emerge even in the acting style, with Guibert’s more classical performance pressing hard against Laydu’s stubbornly “Bressonian” one – the former trying, unsuccessfully I think, to shove the latter aside. One might say Torcy is materiality (chunky materiality) incarnate, Ambricourt (skinner, more ethereal) his polar opposite: when the two are together, the tension has an Abbot and Costello quality; you want to smile at the obviousness.

We meet Séraphita (Martine Lemaire), a child and favourite of the priest who is eerily aware of his attraction to her. Asking why she’s so good at catechism she replies, “It’s because you have beautiful eyes”, before running out with the other girls. (The reference to his eyes are interesting, because eyes are commonly considered “windows to the soul”, tangible frames through which we are supposed to glimpse something intangible.) We are introduced to Mlle Louise (Nicole Maurey), a governess given charge of some nobleman’s daughter – or rather, re-introduced. We see her kneeling at the pew, face covered by her hands; the hands move aside and we recognize the woman being kissed earlier in the film. She confesses to the priest that her charge, whose name is Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), is abusing her, and holds nothing but contempt for her.

We meet Le Comte (Jean Riveyre), again after a series of preparatory details: the priest writes in his diary of the coming meeting; opens (with much screeching) a gate frozen by rust; is observed by a girl – our first glimpse of Chantal – from a distance; is finally seen talking to the Count himself, whom we immediately recognize as the man kissing Mlle Louise (now we know why Chantal dislikes her governess). We see the Count and the priest first through a window pane (an image – priest under glass – to be repeated many times); the gist of the interview is suggested by the priest’s (rather tactless) first line, that the Count’s land is barren, his barn empty (the implication being that they can be used in more productive ways – say, for parish activities). Later, the Count visits the priest, presenting him with a gift of dead rabbits (rabbits the priest heard being shot at earlier). They talk, the camera cutting back and forth between count and priest; when the priest brings up the problem of Chantal and Louise, Bresson cuts to the scene’s first two-shot, of both the Count and the priest, to punctuate the moment, presumably, and to better capture the count’s expression. Again, Bresson is fitting another piece of the puzzle into place; again, the question arises of whether the priest saw them kissing: if he did not, his thick-headedness is understandable (he writes in his diary of being puzzled by the Count’s strong reaction); if he did, his character is more insidious than we first thought, the diary entry maliciously sarcastic (But is it, really? The way the priest reads his entries, one’s interpretation can go either way.)

The priest comes back for a second interview but his reception is (understandably) icier: he’s made to wait and the Count never appears. Instead, the priest catches sight of La Comtesse (Marie-Monique Arkell (1)), introduced via a glimpse through a doorway. They talk; he feels faint – a stomach pain. The Countess, in a bravura shot all the more startling because Bresson emphasizes it not at all, has the priest walking out the door as the camera (retreating before him) slips through one of the door’s little glass panes – yet another shot suggesting that the priest is under glass (ironic because, if you look carefully, the frame through which the camera’s lens passes is actually empty).

The priest of Torcy recommends the sick priest to Docteur Delbende ([Antoine] Balpêtré); Delbende notes that the three of them – the priest, the priest of Torcy and the doctor – are three of a kind, “the kind that holds on” (another irony, considering what ultimately happens to the doctor). He sees right away that the priest has “not had enough to eat” and that it’s “too late”. He refers to the priest’s alcoholic consumption – not so much what he himself has drunk, but what was “drunk for him”, an allusion to heredity, or even (as Peter Cowie notes) the Catholic concept of “original sin”.

A lengthy interlude takes place in the priest’s little cell, with rain pouring outside (at least we assume it’s raining: we hear the splatter and thunder, see a streaming windowpane). The priest in interior monologue informs us that he cannot pray; he notes that the need for prayer is itself prayer, but his need goes beyond mere duty, like the need for air (a, one might note, urgent physical need). In three successive shots, interleaved with images of words being written into the diary (few other films so thoroughly and sensuously visualize the act of writing), we see him at his desk; lying in bed; getting up from the bed to sit at the desk – actions that cannot help but remind us of a man in a prison cell (Bresson intensifies the claustrophobia by having the camera stay tight on him). He tells us that the everyday world is no longer behind him, that before him is a blank wall – in a way he’s describing his room. Lying down, he says he surrenders, but there’s no hope of overcoming the obstacle; in fact, there is no obstacle; his assertion may mean there’s nothing physical against which his mind can find purchase and struggle. Bresson cuts to a shot of the priest walking out of his room, to pause and conclude: “God has left me.” He leaves his physical prison easily enough, but not the one in his mind.

The priest’s dilemma is in marked contrast to that of the hero in Bresson’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent soufflé où il veut (A Man Escaped, 1956), who faced formidable physical challenges but whose spirit never stayed fettered, or was discouraged, beaten. If Un condamné à mort shows us the ultimate fallibility of physical barriers and material limitations, Journal d’un curé de campagne shows us the exact opposite: how a cage can be invincible when its bars are formed by one’s mind.

The next scene: the priest is walking his bicycle (oddly, we rarely if ever see him actually ride it). He hears a shot (again, an event introduced through a detail). Later, he receives word that Dr Delbende is dead, has possibly shot himself. The priest, as it turns out, is not the only one having fits of despair; the doctor, having noted that he and the priest are “of a kind”, has taken matters a step further and broken out of his prison once and for all.

Diary of a Country Priest

Possibly at this point, if not earlier, we realize that isolation is a major theme in the film. The priest is a loner, a newcomer to the insular little town, cut off and unwanted (but not so cut off – thanks, apparently, to the confessional – that he isn’t aware of a few secrets). Bresson underlines his aloneness by having him constantly observed through panes of glass, like a fish in a bowl; he goes on to show us that the priest mostly connects either with people of his own kind (the priest of Torcy, Dr Delbende (as the doctor himself noted), or with people who have a similar propensity to loneliness: the Count and Countess; the frighteningly intelligent Séraphita (who, despite having been school friends, seems to stand apart from her fellow townsfolk). Bresson reinforces this sense of everyone distanced from everyone else by repeatedly showing one person needing to make some effort to contact another, the process marked by a series of details or actions one must go past or perform prior to meeting the person himself (the priest’s preparations, for example, to meet the Count).

After the doctor’s funeral, we see Chantal with the priest; she has just finished speaking with him, and insists he act on some promise he has made (Bresson introduces not just objects or persons but entire situations in increments, with full understanding to occur at a time of his choosing). Later we see the priest talking to Chantal, who stands in the confessional, her face floating in shadows (isolated, alone) as he listens to her. We learn more about Louise’s affair with the Count and, more important, how Chantal feels about it; the priest, hazarding a stab in the dark, demands that she give up her “letter”. Startled, Chantal hands him a paper, which he burns.

Interlude: the camera looks at the priest as he gazes out of his tiny window (there’s a little joke involved in this shot, I think, as if the camera were tired of being cooped up with such dreary company and would rather peer at him from outside).

The film’s most famous scene begins, again, with a gate’s shriek (a running gag, if you like, where the aristocracy protests the repeated invasion of a member of the bourgeoisie) and the sound of a rake scratching the soil. The Countess receives the priest in her parlour and he tells her his suspicions about Chantal: that she plans to commit suicide. The Countess chides him for his presumption, asks if he fears death. The priest goes right to the point: he fears his death, yes, but fears her death more. The Countess stands to close a window; the conversation is “for our ears only” (Bresson has the Countess punctuate changes in tone and import with carefully choreographed gestures).

They talk; the priest tells her that God will break her; she replies that God already took away the son she loved; He could do nothing else. The priest, sensing a crack, works on her unspoken assumption that in death she and her child will be reunited. We see the Countess before the mirror, pointedly avoiding its – her – stare even when facing it; Bresson with this shot implies that the priest has the Countess literally backed into a wall (the mirror a mute and terrible witness), refusing to look at herself. At one point, the Countess asks why he is making her admit she hates God; the priest (camera rushing towards his face in one of the most thrilling shots in all of cinema) in a flash of realization declares, “You don’t hate him now.” The Countess steps away from the mirror (away from self-scrutiny) and seats herself on a chair (upon a means of physical support and comfort); she is defeated; she surrenders. What follows is an exchange of warmth and intimacy beyond even that of a man and his wife, two souls in full understanding of each other. The priest, perhaps for the first time in his life, is not alone.

The Countess confesses she thought of claiming her son and standing in one spot to defy God, asking the priest if this was a monstrous sentiment. The priest says, “No”, he’s felt the same way himself sometimes and thinks of Dr Delbende, whom he imagines is looking at him. He says he’s afraid to look into the doctor’s eyes; one wonders why. Because the doctor was able to do what he or the Countess failed to do? Because Dr Delbende was able to defy God, put himself beyond His reach (in Catholic theology, suicide – the ultimate expression of the sin of despair – is the one unforgivable sin), for all eternity?

Bresson cuts to a shot of Chantal looking in through the window, listening. Peter Cowie considers the shot a flaw, as it dissipates the intensity of the scene; possibly, but the shot is also consistent with Bresson’s motif of constantly having the priest observed under glass, even in this most private moment (soon to be made public thanks to Chantal). The garden rake, which begins scratching again the moment the priest closes his eyes, is like the aural equivalent of a stomach’s inner lining being scraped raw.

When the priest arrives home, he receives a letter from the Countess that reads like a mash note, filled with words warmer and more passionate than any other spoken in the film. The priest notes that he has given her a peace he himself did not feel, and wonders: how is it possible that he could dispense gifts with an empty hand? It’s a central question, I think, with any number of answers (to a Christian it’s proof of God’s miraculous power; to an atheist proof of the priest’s fraudulent nature). Bresson leaves the question hanging.

Or does he? The priest guesses the existence of Chantal’s letter and probes weaknesses in the Countess’ seemingly formidable façade – God’s will at work, or a demonstration of the truism about the splinter in others’ eyes, the plank in one’s own? Thinking back to what we know of Chantal’s character, what we hear and see from the Countess, the priest’s insights seem less miraculous; remember, too, that one of the pleasures of storytelling are revelations that seem obvious and inevitable in retrospect. But if Bresson the storyteller seems to be proposing rational explanations for the priest’s achievements, Bresson the filmmaker suggests otherwise by shooting and framing the priest as if he were being watched (under glass, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out), with choice excerpts from his diary for accompaniment. After about an hour of our constantly observing his actions and hearing his innermost thoughts – or, for that matter, after viewing him and listening to him for the length of the picture – we are no closer to understanding the man’s inner agony than he is. We feel for him (we know, more than with most other incarcerated characters, the circumstances of his confinement), we empathize with him to some extent – there are times when it’s difficult not to – but there is a core to the man that remains a mystery (we know whowhatwhenwherehow, but not quite why). If, in short, the priest can read those two others, why can’t we read him as transparently? Not, perhaps, the kind of evidence that might hold up in a court of law, but enough, I submit, to throw the whole argument in some doubt.

Interlude imagery of the camera peering into the priest’s window, this time with snow falling. Besides a prison cell, the room also resembles a zoo cage, one that houses an especially exotic and neurotically demanding ape.

With the Countess’ death, the Priest notes: “Her ordeal is over, mine begins.” We see him writing on the pages, crossing them, tearing them to strips. One is teased enough to want to ask: What was in those pages? The priest says, “I was tempted to”, and stops. What was tempting him? Sexual desire? Despair? Yet another mystery Bresson leaves hanging.

The priests of Ambricourt and Torcy meet in what looks like a manger, the priest of Torcy giving advice. The priest of Torcy plays a favourite conceit; he likes to picture people he knows as characters in the Bible – to find their place and role within the book. He asks the priest of Ambricourt to find his place. Ambricourt responds with tears; he has always pictured himself at Golgotha, at Christ’s moment of ultimate loneliness, when his disciples are sleeping and God himself seemingly absent and Christ asking in utter despair, “Couldn’t you have stayed up with me?” Later, Torcy makes a surprise appearance at Ambricourt’s parish, and Ambricourt knocks over a bottle of wine; it dribbles black juice. Torcy chides his diet, saying, “What you need is a roast.” Again, the disconnect between their respective thoughts brings out unexpected comic moments: while Torcy is advising him not to “let imagination run away with you”, Ambricourt is picturing them across some highway, waving farewell.

Diary of a Country Priest

Cut to the priest, alone, sipping coffee. His mop of curly hair, his inclined neck and sweaty brow (wiped by a napkin), his hands on slender wrists recall a dowager taking her tea. Making his way from one house to the next, he passes a tree with trunk bent at a painful angle (again and again Bresson finds visual and aural metaphors for the priest’s gut agony) and collapses. He gets up; the camera follows his upraised face, the sea of frozen mud behind gleaming like petrified ocean waves, on his way to Golgotha at last. When he says he finally sees the one “to whom I must bend my knee”, the image fades to black; appropriately enough, he tells us that that “one” is a child that shows no radiance.

The priest wakes to Séraphita (was she the child he saw?) tending him. She informs him that he has vomited what looks like blackberry juice (reminding us of the black juice the priest had spilled earlier). She warns him that she has been spreading terrible lies about him, implying with her confession that her ultimate loyalty is to him, not the townspeople with whom she has colluded to blacken his name. As with the Countess, they have connected, but it’s an imperfect connection, not through grace or understanding but through common loneliness.

The priest is packing to leave for the city and see a doctor when Chantal visits. They hear a motorcycle rush past outside; Chantal tells him it’s her cousin, Olivier (Jean Danet) – again, a detail introducing a possible new character. She reveals herself to him as a wanton sinner, willing to do anything, risk anything, for the thrill of it, to prove her pride and courage. A shot of their respective faces says it all: their ages are not far apart physically, but their words and gestures reveal an abyss of difference: he knows that pride and courage don’t really matter.

As the priest walks to the train station, a motorcycle stops; it’s Olivier, offering a ride. The priest accepts; for the first time in the film, perhaps his entire life, he’s enjoying himself, being with someone who isn’t lonely, and the feeling is liberating, exhilarating. They talk; the conversation has a faint homoerotic flavour: “We could have done this again”, Olivier notes with evident regret. He speaks of his time at the Foreign Legion, telling the priest of the soldier’s concept of justice, different from the church’s in that it’s a “sacrificial altar” where one may pay a high price; the train whistle (again a select detail substituting for the whole) shrieks at the idea, horrified; the priest’s new friend – the only one who seems truly normal – has with little fuss or bother assumed the visage of the angel of death.

As expected from Bresson, we don’t learn of the doctor’s prognosis till later, but the priest’s stricken face as he leaves the clinic tells us the story. Everyone from the priest of Torcy to the doctor has advised him to eat more, to substitute roasts for liquor; as it turns out, he never had a choice – he was literally too sick to eat anything other than bread-soaked wine.

Which gives rise to a question, one that turns out to be central to the film: Does it diminish his spirituality to discover that there’s a pathological – a physical – basis? Does it disillusion one to learn that his starvation diet, his fainting spells and dizziness, possibly his sense that he’s alone and struggling with a painful burden were caused by some tumour growing in his belly? Or does it instead affirm everything, with the tumour (remember that some scientists believe cancer has psychosomatic origins) a physical manifestation of his holy suffering? Has the physical been probing and pushing aside soil all this time to sprout some fleetingly delicate yet brave spirit, or did the spirit (or mind, if you like) sink roots that have thickened and swelled, and eventually elected to kill him?

The priest goes to a friend, a former priest turned socialist intellectual, and stays with him. Alone in his friend’s apartment, we see him at a desk, writing. He drops paper and pen; tries picking them up, hands trembling; the camera follows as he stands and walks to a far corner to look out a small window (the room is a slightly larger version of his old cell, the gesture of looking out a window one he’s done many times – one many a prisoner has done during his term in prison); the camera follows as he returns to his chair, looking at some point above and behind the camera’s right. Moving in close, the camera peers into his face; it is difficult to read, but in his expression (and I allow that this may be my reading alone) is a hint of acceptance – the only time we see that emotion on his constantly monitored face. That scene, arguably the most beautiful and complex in all of Bresson (which would make it one of the most beautiful and complex in all of cinema), comes closest, I think, to penetrating the mystery of the man we call the priest of Ambricourt. With physical objects such as desk, pen, paper, window and chair, with actor and camera following a careful choreography and a distinct lack of spoken words, Bresson fashions a length of celluloid of almost unbearable emotional power – a man’s final moments, captured and distilled in a single shot.

Bresson cuts to a letter being opened by the priest of Torcy. Ambricourt’s socialist friend writes of the man’s death, that he was found in a faint (possibly the camera had been looking at him until just before the moment of his collapse); and that he woke up asking for last rites. His friend conscientiously if regretfully informed him that he couldn’t perform this, not being a priest (and presumably not wanting to resume his priestly duties). The friend’s refusal affirms our isolation, our loneliness, to which the priest responds with his last words: “What does it matter? All is grace.” The priest, like the doctor and the Countess before him, is free at last.

Endnotes

  1. Usually Rachel Bérendt.