At the Movies
The devil is in the detail, they say, and this is certainly the case with the films of Robert Bresson. And if the devil is there, God can’t be far away. Or can he? These are very curious details, bits of the real but not part of any attempt at realism, pieces of a puzzle that may not even exist. Feet, legs, hands, sand, straw, mud, laceless old shoes; dulled or hallucinating faces staring past the camera at some lost version of infinity; countless shots of the backs of persons walking away from us, or figures whose heads are out of the frame most of the time; sound effects that threaten to take over the whole movie; an old tweed suit that moves us far more than the fake blood on a man’s face; passing cars that are more interesting than a couple going through the motions of an embrace in the foreground; acting that is not so much unprofessional as non-existent, a mere reciting of lines from a too perfectly written book. All of this adds up to a world and a style that raise the same question over and over: how can what is so stubbornly, meticulously unconvincing as any sort of imitation of life be so interesting?
Bresson was born in 1901 and died in 1999; he made his last movie, L’Argent, in 1983. Artificial Eye has now released three of his films on DVD: what probably remains his best-known work, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, literally ‘A man sentenced to death has escaped,’ and two late films, Lancelot du Lac (1974) and Le Diable, probablement (1977). None of these films has the intensity or the authority of the extraordinary Pickpocket (1959), but they are all recognisably made by the same director.
The devil is in the dialogue as well as the detail. When a group of knights returns from a failed quest to find the missing Lancelot, they say: ‘No sign of Lancelot, but the forest was the devil.’ All they mean, it seems, is that a fierce storm overtook them there and is about to reach Arthur’s camp. But that is not all Bresson means. The forest is the devil, home at the beginning of the movie to all kinds of hacking of human bodies and other knightly violence, headless trunks or trunkless heads spouting fountains of blood, and witness at the end to the demise of Arthur’s world, figured by an unforgettable sequence of riderless horses racing one by one through the trees, and by a pile of dead men in useless armour, the metal that has clanked like kettles throughout the film now silent at last.
But how did the devil get his purchase on this world, and where is God? Arthur’s knights have failed to find the Grail, and Percival has vanished. ‘It is not the Grail, it is God you want,’ Guinevere shrewdly says to Lancelot, ‘but God is not an object you can bring back with you.’ In Bresson’s movies the interesting characters tend to be virtuous criminals or criminally virtuous, and Lancelot comes close to being the second, having been the first before the film starts. Is the non-Platonic love between him and Guinevere the secret flaw in Arthur’s reign, or is it a faith and a troth that transcends all civil and courtly rules? Lancelot’s hesitation, his perfect loyalty in one respect to the Arthur he is betraying in another, is the devil’s opportunity.
The film is an extraordinary mixture of terrible faux-medieval music (by Philippe Sarde), fabulous photography (by Pasqualino de Santis) and actors alternating between the pretence that they have psyches and the abandonment of everything except getting their lines straight. An irreverent viewer is going to think of Monty Python every five minutes. And yet. The sheer anguished seriousness of the work, the sense that human beings might well be reduced to the bare essence of their distress, and that a camera could catch them in this condition, do offer one answer to my question. These people are interesting because they are unconvincing in mimetic terms: any attempt at richness of character would hopelessly compromise their poverty of spirit, which is all they have. Even the touch of ludicrousness helps; it is part of their penitence.
The same method works less well in Le Diable, probablement, in part because its contemporary setting is more of a liability, but mainly because the characters, borrowed it seems from a Godard movie (no reason why the master can’t imitate the disciple after a while), are completely without the charm or interest of Godard’s figures. It is absurd to ask for charm in a Bresson movie, but not absurd to ask for a photographed human presence of the kind we get in Pickpocket or Un condamné. Bresson wrote repeatedly of wanting to use the people in his films as ‘models’ rather than actors, creatures who were ‘taken from life’ rather than taken to represent life. But the actors in Le Diable, probablement are taken from a repertoire of cliché. A cluster of disaffected young people from the 1970s act like someone’s notion of disaffected young people from the 1970s: that is, they are schematically apathetic and on their way to being hopelessly dated well before the decade is out. What ought to redeem them is the lucidity of their thought, and maybe it does. But mainly, it seems to me, Bresson is doing straight what Godard does ironically; not necessarily a bad idea, but not very productive this time around.
The power of the movie lies in its relentless images of how we are trashing the planet, destroying forests and wildlife and oceans – you may want to close your eyes when you get to the shot of a baby seal being killed with a pick-axe – and in certain obsessively filmed sequences where the details not only rule but become something like a pathology. Our sulky hero and his more cheerful friend board a Paris bus, and the camera fixes its attention on the panel of buttons which open and close the doors, on the slot for taking money, on a wing-mirror: nothing, it seems, could be more interesting. Certainly not the dialogue, in which the passengers join in the friends’ conversation about the meaning of life and the mysterious force that co-ordinates our actions. The title of the movie appears here as one speculative answer: it’s the devil, probably. Then there is a sound of metal meeting metal, the bus has crashed into something. The driver gets out to investigate but we don’t see him anymore and we don’t see what he sees. Mechanisms and mirror and amateur theology, that’s all there is. A certain irony does creep in here, since it’s entirely possible that the mysterious force that made the driver run into whatever he has run into is connected with the fact that he was too involved in listening to a conversation about mysterious forces.
The other fine scene in the film also involves details – the stone floor of a church, sleeping bags, a Monteverdi motet on the soundtrack – but the suggestion now is that details are never enough; just beyond the frame there is always another set of details that may alter our whole sense of the world. Two young men lie there in the church listening to the music. Have they found a quiet corner during a concert or a rehearsal? Did they know the Monteverdi was going to be laid on for them? One of them busies himself robbing collection boxes. The music stops, and is followed by a sound we can’t identify till we get a picture clue. It is the scratchy noise of the needle of a record-player having reached the end of one side of a still turning LP. There was no choir, or at least not in the church. The young men brought the LP and the record-player with them.
Many critics have noted that Le Diable, probablement reverses the plot, such as it is, of Un condamné. The self-condemned young man does not escape but goes to his death by assisted suicide. Fontaine, the hero of Un condamné, is a French Resistance fighter arrested by the Germans in Lyon in 1943. We see him try to escape in the opening sequences of the movie; and see him rapidly caught again. For the rest of the time – that is, for all but the last ten minutes of the film, when he and a comrade hoist themselves over the prison walls and into the city – he is planning his escape, working on it, waiting for it: making a spoon into a chisel, prying the planks in his door loose, making ropes out of bedclothes and wire. The details here are themselves mirrors of the man’s patience, his determination to get out if he can, and Bresson has replaced suspense – Fontaine is always in danger of being taken out and shot, but no one ever searches his cell, and all our attention is trained on the slowness and difficulty of his task, not its risk – with an implicit reflection on the significance of human action which resembles the travesty of such thinking in the bus scene in Le Diable, probablement. Of course Fontaine could fail to escape, almost anything could give him away, his plan could collapse at any moment – at one point he almost succumbs to his hesitation. But this is why any organisation of suspense would be trivial. Fontaine escapes both through his own hard work and because God or luck is on his side. This second element is evoked in the second part of the film’s title: Le Vent souffle où il veut, ‘The wind blows where it will.’ The phrase appears in the film in a conversation not about escape but about whether a man can be reborn, in this particular instance about whether a betrayed man can make a fresh start in life, whether there is anything worth escaping for or to. The biblical context is Christ’s remark to Nicodemus that we hear the sound of the wind but know nothing about its coming and going, because ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth.’ In Bresson’s interpretation this means the wind is grace if it’s on our side, a possibility which even for an atheist might just slip in somewhere between luck and God. Fontaine’s actual escape is doubled by the permanent possibility of its failure, the other story; just as the young man in Le Diable, probablement, right up to the moment of his death, could stumble on a reason for living. This perspective beyond the frame, the other detail, is the reason Bresson’s films, for all their austerity and desolation, are, as he said, not ‘despairing’.