Originally published in CTEQ: Annotations on Film included in Metro no. 110, 1997, pp. 75-76. Republished with the permission of the author.

“O wondrous, that we may give what we do not have. O, miracle of our empty hands!”
– The Curaté of Ambricourt (Claude Laydu) in Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest)

I despair of writing a synopsis of a Robert Bresson film and I envy those who can presume to analyse his work in confidence.

“To translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing.” (1)

In the year of its release Diary of a Country Priest was hailed by André Bazin for “its irrefutable aesthetic… [and as] a sublime achievement of pure cinema” (2), carrying to its conclusion the initiative of Melville’s Le Silence de la mer (1949), a radically new relationship between image, diegetic speech and non-diegetic speech.

Diary of Country Priest

The cinema has doubled in its age since then, but not its maturity. From today’s perspective Bazin might want to re-evaluate Bresson’s place in film history (there is more of it now) but would not need to revise his address to the essential’s of Bresson’s art which exemplify “the true vocation of the cinema… not the primacy of the image but the primacy of the object” (3). Bazin wrote this before the publication of Notes on the Cinematographer in which Bresson speaks of the need for not beautiful images but necessary images: “If an image… expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with other images” (4); “In this language of images… the images must exclude the idea of image” (5).

Amédée Ayfre, writing when the New Wave was in flood, sees Bresson as the precursor of this historic break with classical narrative cinema, and enumerates the distinctive qualities of his work:

The superseding of analytical psychology… the extreme importance given to the [verbal] text and its dissonances with the picture; the entirely new evaluation of the different forms of temporality; the recognised value of empty space and absence; a certain hieratic quality in the acting, the rejection of theatrical performances and traditional dramatisation, not to mention the all too well known “distanciation”; all these constitute, even more than the thematic element, a common climate which is that of the true modern cinema. (6)

Regrettably, the “true modern” has remained at the margins of fashion (which is currently postmodern!). Bresson is ahead of our time almost as far as he was of his own. He is still “difficult”.

Diary of Country Priest

Perhaps the performances in his films are more attuned to today’s sensibilities. What Bazin regarded as “poor acting” in this film is a goal which some professional actors now seek and which I have discussed elsewhere as “impressionistic” acting (7), moving from the exterior to the interior – in defiance of, but nonetheless inspired by Bresson’s dictum: “The thing that matters is not what they [his performers] show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” (8)

“Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way.” (9)

The characters in Diary of a Country Priest are not delineated or “explained” by their psychology. This eliminates an entire dimension of classical narrative cinema. Whilst the story loses formal intricacy the characters gain essential presence. They are frequently mistaken about the inner lives/motives of others. In classical cinema such misunderstandings help to drive the narrative; their inclusion is necessitated by their function as agents of the narrative. In Bresson’s film there is no impulse to have characters’ errors corrected; they are simply points of arrival, “stations” (some commentators on this film see the priest’s encounters as analogous to the Stations of the Cross, a pious Catholic ritual, but this is to impose religion upon spirituality).

“One does not create by adding, but by taking away.” (10)

Paul Schrader’s concept of transcendental style may be the most helpful approach to Bresson’s work (11). He borrows from Jacques Maritain the distinctions between “abundant means” and “sparse means” as lifestyle and also as artistic practice (12). “Abundant means” favour the pragmatic, the rational, the material things of life; “sparse means” tend to strip away all but essential resources and techniques. The choice to work with sparse means inclines to asceticism, unburdening “the dead weight of the world” (13), thereby achieving the holy. Like Bazin, Schrader sees the holy in terms of theology rather than the specifically religious. This should not be a problem for atheist spectators of Bresson since the human capacity (is it an impulse?) to be put in touch with forces greater than ourselves is independent of our belief or disbelief in the supernatural (14).

“Production of emotion determined by a resistance of emotion.” (15)

Schrader argues persuasively that abundant means are inherent to the photographic image, thus the sparse means of a transcendental style are more difficult to achieve in cinema than in other arts. He cites the films of Ozu, Bresson and – with some reservations – Dreyer as moving productively from “abundant” to “sparse”, from the profane to the holy. He sees Bresson as the most rigorous in proceeding from the relatively abundant realism of surfaces to the increasingly sparse purification of emotions. However there are moments in Diary of a Country Priest when Bresson may “regress” to expressionism: brief musical passages when Chantal makes her final visit to the priest, when he collapses in the countryside, when he leaves the medical examination, and the pictorial composition of the doctor’s funeral where the background is more active than the foreground as the drapes are taken down and the slamming of the church door echoes the gunshot the priest had heard in the woods.

Diary of Country Priest

“Give more resemblance in order to obtain more difference.” (16)

An apparent paradox in Bresson’s style – the over-determination of the everyday world and simple events, perhaps even more to the ear than to the eye (17), which Susan Sontag calls “doubling” (18) – might be more usefully considered as a kind of irony. But it is an inherent irony rather than the common affective irony. Usually we recognise irony as a process in the reader/spectator produced by textual elements working in a common mode. Bresson’s alternation of action and voiceover to represent the same thing (the priest leans against the door, his voiceover says “I had to lean against the door”) uses different modes of telling. Image and word take radically different paths to imagination and empathy. Images show their signifieds, words pass through the referential circuits of the spectator’s personal storehouse of signifieds. Affective irony operates two paradigms for the same signifier, thereby bringing the signifier into question; inherent irony operates two signifiers for the same paradigm, bringing the paradigm into question.

Affective irony entails the spectator remaining outside the subjectivity of the characters; inherent irony is not perceived as irony but structures the spectator’s perception from within. Bresson also utilises the literary device of anaphora, the artful repetition of terms, present in the text of Bernanos’s novel (especially in the “prisoner of Christ’s agony” scene). This is “doubling” within a mode, not between modes, but it reinforces Bresson’s filmic irony.

“Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence.” (19)

Bresson’s artistic strategy penetrates surfaces to proceed to essences. His “doubling” implies that neither iconic nor verbal representation is sufficient for the reality he seeks. Doubling the information load induces less, not more, confidence in the adequacy of the narrative illusion, and ultimately in the adequacy of the physical world it represents. His intention is not to disrupt the illusion (as reflexive cinema does) but to progressively undermine the spectator’s need for it, until those images which are not beautiful but necessary become no longer necessary. “At the command of an imperious logic there is nothing more the image has to communicate except by disappearing” (20). Transcendence is achieved.

Endnotes

1. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, Quartet Encounters, London, 1975, p. 67.

2. André Bazin, “Journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson”, What is Cinema? Vol. I, trans. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1967, p. 141.

3. Bazin, p. 139.

4. Bresson, p. 10.

5. Bresson, p. 61.

6. Amédée Ayfre, “The Universe of Robert Bresson”, trans. Elizabeth Kingsley-Rowe, The Films of Robert Bresson, ed. Ian Cameron, Studio Vista, London, 1969, p. 24.

7. John Flaus, “Thanks for your heart, Bart” Continuum vol. 5, no. 2, 1992.

8. Bresson, p. 4.

9. Bresson, p. 28.

10. Bresson, p. 87.

11. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1972.

12. Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, Scribner’s, New York, 1962.

13. As quoted in Schrader, p. 154.

14. Perhaps the most succinct film representation of this human impulse is the new Adam reaching for the light in Frankenstein (1931), a scene which is iconically “abundant” and dramatically “sparse”.

15. Bresson, p. 116.

16. Bresson, p. 68.

17. Bresson, p. 51. “The ear does more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.”

18. Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson”, Against Interpretation, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1967, p. 182 ff.

19. Bresson, p. 20.

20. Bresson, p. 140.

About The Author

John Flaus began writing film criticism in 1954, and was sacked the following year when he wrote that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda. He has been writing film reviews intermittently ever since. These days he makes a living as an actor, script editor and occasional lecturer.