Robert Bresson on cinema
* Pickpocket de Robert Bresson (DVD)
What Bresson is really seeking is truth rather than reality itself. Once past the initial shock created by the apparent inexpressiveness of Bresson’s models, one realizes that he hasn’t, in fact, created unrealistic, hollow people bereft of character and personality, but ones that, though strange, are universal in their humanity. One way that he maintains their validity is by emphasizing certain carefully chosen details, objects, and gestures that are powerfully grounded in every-day life (i.e.. the bottle of wine in Diary of a Country Priest and Fontaine’s hands and their role in his escape in A Man Escaped). What is most interesting about these isolated details is their ability to suddenly, mysteriously transcend their simple state and acquire meaning and significance through their placement in relationship with each other and in the context of the narrative. The curé’s fatal illness, though seen in the flesh (vomiting, blood), and rationally explained as stomach cancer, is understood as spiritual suffering: “…I was prisoner of the Holy Agony!” In A Man Escaped, the second time we hear the sound made by the guard’s keys against the railing, it has an immense emotional power, reminding Fontaine and the audience of the brutality and oppression of the prison. Bresson said of A Man Escaped: “I was hoping to make a film about objects which would at the same time have a soul. That is to say, to reach the latter through the former” (Prédal, 85) For Bresson, it is the stylistic arrangement of all these concrete details that gives them meaning and ultimately determines the soul of a character, a situation, or a film.
Thus, the creation of art out of distilled reality, so essential to Bresson’s vision, takes place not in the subject or content of the film, but in the structure of the narrative. Jean-Pierre Oudart discusses Bresson’s modernist approach, where true meaning is not found in the subject of the film, but in the way that cinematic elements and formal structures are themselves used: “it is no longer for the character to SAY it, or for a subjective fiction to PRODUCE it, but for the literal image, as a cinematographic construct, to EXPRESS it” (Prédal, 78). Bresson avoids conventional narrative structure, preferring to replace it through a unique use of framing, editing, image, sound, and music. In his films, these formal elements come together as a highly stylized but expressive language through which he can highlight his central concerns.
Bresson’s films do not correspond to conventional character development; each person seems to be driven by internal desires, isolated in his individual outlook from the worlds of others. Their inner conflicts, the various phases that Bresson’s characters undergo in what he calls “the universal struggle of self-fulfillment” (Bazin, 33), are not outwardly revealed or explained (even though the voice-over and diary — devices which he used extensively — would have easily lent themselves to such first-person explanation). Jean Collet wrote of the extraordinary lack of psychological detail in Bresson’s films:
Robert Bresson does not want us to know his characters. He does not believe in psychological knowledge, he does not reveal characters, he does not trace a coherent, accessible portrait of the beings who fill the screen. Rather, he asserts that any being is inaccessible, that any character is a mystery…”(Reader, 291)
This reflects the way people encounter “the other” in actual experience. According to Bresson, the mystery of the human spirit is incomprehensible, and cinema that pretends to reveal it is not only false, but cheapening. Bresson is not concerned with psychology, but with the “physiology of existence” (Bazin, 58). “The psychologist discovers only what he can explain. I don’t want to explain anything… the trouble with most films is that they explain everything.” (Samuels, 61) In contrast, next to nothing is known of the past or future of Bresson’s characters, except for their precise role in the chosen events. Bresson speaks of “illumination rather than explanation”, and induces his audience to become involved in finding meaning through the process of interpretation. At the beginning of Diary of a Country Priest, the first words we hear after a series of images showing the protagonist’s arrival in the village are: “My parish. My first parish.” This phrase, in its simplicity and ambiguity, and in the context of images and sounds, carries in the imagination of the audience much more meaning than the words do themselves. Instead of telling everything about Lieutenant Fontaine, of his actions in the Resistance, and the details of his capture, Bresson only says that he is in prison and is planning to escape. Even at the end of the film, when he walks away from the prison, we have no idea as to what he plans to do with his freedom — Bresson was interested only in the events that got Fontaine to that point, and felt no responsibility to provide a conclusion that would ‘tie up the loose ends’.