Robert Bresson Season fall 2012, at Star and Shadow – an overview
Film screened: Les Dames de Bois de Boulogne (1945) , Au Hazard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), L’Argent (1983)
In the hand of Bresson mediums are the message
Viewing retrospectively a series of films by Bresson (RB) in the conditions for which they were intended, in a cinema and on a large screen, is a privileged opportunity to overview and penetrate more deeply into the mainsprings of his filmic demiurge.
The films exhibited at the Star and Shadow included movies from the beginning and end of his directing career, and two from the mid period of his output.
The first film shown at the Star and Shadow was RB’s second film, Les Dames de Bois de Boulogne. I think it is a disaster, but seen in light of his subsequent output it was a disaster from which he learnt and which revealed for him the only path that he could take: To thy own self be true.
‘Dames…’ is a film that has nothing to do with RB’s primary desire as director. “Dames…’ looks like a hard learnt lesson as to what happens when an artist betrays himself for the sake of the usual mess of la-la potage: image – recognition – flattery = death of self. You get to work with cultural greats like Cocteau, beautiful actresses like Maria Casares you become one of us and presumably get paid but you pay a price: the destruction of spirit. For some that’s a reasonable compact: but not for RB.
RB determined to live and work FROM THIS POINT on his own terms. ‘Dames…’ is Cocteau’s script; it is Cocteau’s film. It is Cocteau’s transposed revisitation of an old mythic theme, the revenge of the Queen on the Night (death) on the Life impulse. Costumed with sets and acting tuned into high opera this is Cocteau’s world of phantasmic yearnings finding form in film. It bears no relation to the concerns of RB: the earth and its substrate, the human situation and the conditions of life, which RB grounds not in Cocteau’s parallel worlds, but in the everyday, in rural or urban settings, amongst those who struggle to survive and whose daily decisions always have to have an element of primal calculation.
It is the expressive style of his actors that governs the affects RB educes in his movies. I think that the performances RB elicits from his actors make them into mediums through which the audience are able to see the situations that the films present. BR’s actors are signs pointing the audience to social relations; BR’s actors are not signifiers for the viewers empathic relations. Of course this does not mean that a viewer cannot have an empathy with Mouchette or Balthazar; only that such empathy is not grounded in the image but in the viewer.
BR’s actors do not mimic or imitate or use gestures and other physical expressive responses that excite the emotions. RB asks his actors to acknowledge and give recognition to the situations in which the scenario locates them. The actors are mediums, channels for the conduction of the implications of situations and ensuing events; they are conductors through whom the audience experiences what is happening. RB believes that responses lie in the viewer’s domain of understanding. In RB’s films, the viewer is not given a ride to vicarious emotional involvement, a shortcut to affective indulgence.
The stoic and disciplined use of this acting technique, in which the actors do not put out, is characteristic feature of Balthazar Mouchette and L’Argent. In relation to the cognitive and emotional in the films there are only our meanings, the understanding we chose to read. This is exemplified of course in the character of Balthazar the donkey. In the film he is a link between the different orders of human experience, a sort of foil to Marie’s course through life in the same village. Balthazar as a link is a construct through whom we can understand: cruelty, betrayal, sadness, desperation, neglect. But BR also points to perhaps strangely, a certain lyricism in life and in death. In the final scene of Balthazar the donkey finds death in the mountains lieing down to meet die in what we can understand as a sort of bucolic peace. This scene works because by this time, as with Mouchette who also dies a choreographed lyrical death, we understand that both Balthazar and Mouchette are constructs with who in the course of the film we the viewers, have had to form our own particular relation.
Of course RB’s situational acting, perhaps hard to accept even at the time that the films were made, is even the more so now. Some of the audience coming out of the films immediately commented on the ‘bad acting.’ Which is of course not the point, but also there were viewers who had seen beyond the acting into the layers that RB lays down in his films for the viewer to penetrate through his mediums.
My feeling on viewing Balthasar Mouchette and L’Argent is that Bresson was not much interested in narratives, so much as with situations and conditions. The conditions he was concerned with were those of human commerce in its broadest sense. Our being in the world which forms our relations.
His settings revolve about the material interchange which charactises life: shops, bars, smugglers, small time dealers, tenants and landlords all are forced into intercourse with each other. Exchange intercession sex drink work tending buying selling robbing thieving smugglings illness are conditions within which situations arise. Within these situations, events occur which have their own ‘life’ a ‘life’ powerful enough to overtake the characters. And in this commerce between people it is the hand to which the attention of RB is drawn. The hand, that busy dealing appendage, that when ‘events’ take over, has a mind of its own.
In RB films it is his hand at work and it is always the hand we see. The hand that grasps grabs caresses soothes holds pushes beats laments. The hand takes on its own imperative. The connection made by hand action repeats as a key motif through RB’s work. The hands at the ATM, the teacher’s hands on the keys of the piano, the hands that set lures, the hands that whip. When the hand leads ‘life’ becomes strangely connected. Through the hand the situations engender events that defy the logic of normal relations. The logic is not narrative in a psychological sense, it is the connective movement of the hand which shapes destiny. The burglar who on entering a house sees an axe and decides on impulse to wait for the householders to return and kill them. Just a connection. That is the dynamic RB engages.
What stops RB’s films being without hope, and generally if you look qt the sequence of situations and events there is a feeling that the characters are sliding into helpless and hopelessness, is simply the acting style. Balthazar, Marie, Mouchette, Yvon are connective devices through whom the audience is linked to their being in the world. Without emotional expression (OK Mouchette does cry, but why does she cry?) it is we who are confronted with the condition of the world and the hope if we look for it is only to be found within us, the viewer as a seer. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org