Journal d’un curé de campagne R. Bresson (1951; Fr) Claude Laydu
Seen at Film Forum NYC Ticket price .50
Film blanc: grace as a circuit of amplification
At the end of Bresson’s film the witness to the curé’s death reports that just before he died the curé clasped the hand of the witness and cried out “ What does it matter? All is grace.” An utterance that brings Journal d’un curé de campagne (Journal) to a close and suggests a vision of the union of body and soul. If you have been ‘in’ the movie it is shattering moment, a striking moment that demands an attempt to understand the forces set in play by the movie and what they might mean. It requires thought. This is difficult.
Here are some thoughts.
In its primary structure Journal is based on the strong oppositional paradox of body and spirit. Much of the curé’s writing (though not all) concerns his sick body. The physical condition of the body is mediated through his thought. In contrast the appearance of the cure’s body in particular his face, shines out with the intensity of his spirit: face photographed so that he radiates a white burnt-in intensity. The inner state of the cure is mediated through his body. The mediated through thought. It is this oppositional structure that drives the film and makes it difficult to approach intellectually. It is understandable intuitively. At the end with his final statement of reconciliation in relation to ‘grace’ I was left speechless, trying to order the turmoil of my thoughts.
Viewed from this scratch end of the 21st century ‘Journal’ is an alien world, a filmscape without Desire. In today’s filmscapes such a thing is rare almost inconceivable.
In relation to Desire, the curé seems to me to be a sort of ‘priest clown’. In the same way that the clown’s whitened face glows out in the circus spotlight, so the lighting set ups give the curé a similar allure. The nature of the clown that is pertinent to the identity of the curé is his primal innocence. The core quality of the clown’s innocence is lack of Desire a want of extrinsic motivation in relation to others. The clown doesn’t manipulate, or scheme or preach. All the cloen does is show what he is, reveal his identity and accept his destiny. The clown is pure being. As we see the curé move through the world we realise that his destiny is not linked to systems of belief or social apparatus: his destiny like that of the true clown belongs to himself. Only he can find and accept what is to come. If others are touched transformed or made to laugh along the way, then so be it. But that was never the point. I think this is different from fatalism; destiny has to be consciously embraced.
The opening shot of ‘Journal’ shows the newly appointed priest of Ambricourt starting his diary and declaring in voice over, his intention of keeping a record of his thoughts as he goes about his work. A daily confessional. The filmic form Bresson adopts for the ‘Journal’ the world as if in a pure optical or sound situation: the images and sounds exist almost as separate entities mirroring the body spirit opposition which is embedded in the structure of the film.
‘Journal’ is a film about what cannot be seen. Bresson shows the physical context of the film: the village, locations events and situations. Everything else has to be surmised, the significant movements take place in another realm: the trials of the body the workings of the spirit. We have some access to the unseen through the curé’s diary: his struggle with his failing body, his doubt and lack of worth. But the curé’s reading of his diary is in many ways oblique; or where it is clear leaves open the issue of interpretation and of integration of what has been said with what has been seen. ‘Journal’ is full of sounds, the indicators of worlds that lie just beyond what is visible: hunters, dogs, gardeners, who announce their presence. Grace and spirit haunt the screen in the image of the priest, their unseen presence felt but often met with spite. Everywhere in Journal the curé meets with fences gates and doors, people who avert their eyes, symbolic obstacles that seem to resist his presence, his showing of himself. The cure is unlike the other country priests whose role is to gently police the community, demand conformity to dogma but practice and preach a relatively uncensorious forgiving faith and bless the people with reassuring homilies. The cure is an intense experience: given to prayer, initially torn by doubt and racked by illness, finally, at death, overwhelmed by inner psychic certainty.
Journal is not about systems. It is about the destiny of an individual who is filled with a force that overflows out of him. This force within the curé does not emanate either from the Catholic Church or its teaching. The Church may have provided an expressive form for some of the curé’s outer psychic emanations; but the power that drove him came from a deeper inner light. That Bresson’s subject is a catholic curé is an accidental: he might be a protestant pastor or even a heroic soviet proselytizer.
I think that what streams forth from curé’s presence is an inner intensity that is powered by his connection to an immanent absolute purity. This he calls ‘God’. There are other names. Whether he is wrestling with doubt about his connection to the Absolute or in union with it, the effect is to distance him from other mortals except those in a similar extreme though perhaps temporary state of receptivity, such as the Contessa..
The dialogue between the curé and the Countess focusing on her hatred for God is central to the film’s moral core. Her final acceptance of the death of her son followed by her sudden death are Bresson’s statement of a moral imperative, and perhaps one of the reasons he chose to film Bernanos’ novel . There are no cheap solutions to the problem of our separation from the absolute. In principle, no miracles. What is of the earth will not save us, it will probably mock us. The world of the flesh and the spirit, the world of hate and love, are separate spheres each operating according to their own light, their own logic. The two worlds never meet in the outcome of events. Where they do meet it is through the medium of the individual who at the point of contact experiences a shattering of individuality which never leaves them even when the experience is subject to the processes of doubt and questioning.
Journal was shot by French cinematographer LH Burel. Burel was Gance’s cinematographer on Napoleon (1929) and went on to work with Bresson on another three films. Burel films the image of the curé so that his face appears almost transfigured, his face burns out an intense inner light. Yet although Burel must have used an assortment of filters and high key lighting set-ups, the film seems to have few strong shadows. Visually the film is shot using the lighting set ups to create light as an affirmation of being, and to avoid the caste of shadow with their metaphorical symbolism of encroaching darkness. A symbolism that is traditional high key lighting genres such as film noir. But this is film blanc.
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