Journal d’un curé de campagne: DVD Review

Criterion's 2nd Robert Bresson Release

by Colin Burnett Volume 8, Issue 4 / April 2004 21 minutes (5144 words)

A happening on many fronts, Criterion’s resuscitation of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951) makes an impeccable, high-profile version of the film more widely available than ever and provides one with the opportunity to see the fruits of the labor that went into this production. Now the home viewer, cinephile, and specialist alike can dwell as never before upon the film’s carefully crafted sounds and images, the latter of which will pre-occupy us here.

The story behind the making of Journal d’un curé de campagne reveals a great deal about a lot of things, and certainly more than Frédéric Bonnaud’s otherwise helpful essay that accompanies this DVD release accounts for, including how much the director seems to owe to cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel for this film and for what would later become known as the ‘Bresson aesthetic.’ For those who think this to be a radical claim aimed at unseating Bresson as a legitimate auteur, I offer the reminder, setting aside the contentious nature of the politique des auteurs itself, that our director believes that “style” is “tout ce qui n’est pas la technique“ (Bresson, p. 61). His anti-Bordwellian take on style makes it so that discussions of our kind, into Bordwellian film style or mere ‘technique,’ do not challenge the integrity of the artist himself. So much by way of a foray into auteurism.

“The cameraman with the white gloves,” who works with Bresson roughly from 1950 to 1962 and shoots four films for the director, including Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962), makes his most innovative and lasting contributions to Bresson’s style in the making of Journal d’un curé de campagne. It is on this film that Bresson develops, with his cinematographer’s vital assistance, several key photographic techniques without which, I dare say, one would be left wondering how different a filmmaker Bresson would have become.

Told in what remains an odd mixture of present and past tense, the story of Journal d’un curé de campagne is of a priest (Claude Laydu) who recounts his arrival at his first parish and the ripples he makes in the stagnant waters of the small village in which he is to practice, Ambricourt. Right from the top, the priest is greeted coldly, not only by a parishioner who demands that his wife receive proper burial without his having to pay for it, but even prior to that by two of his main adversaries, the count, whose resources and support the priest will need in order to effectuate change, and Mlle. Louise, the count’s double dealing mistress and his daughter’s tutor. Bresson composes this welcome, the film’s first true scene after the initial diary entry, in a wonderfully disjointed shot-countershot series, in which the priest appears to see the count and his mistress embracing and then (apparently) looking at him, but which ultimately leaves one wondering if both sets of characters saw each other at all. Suggested here is the conflict to come, that the priest on the one hand and the count and Louise on the other see each other but will have difficulty ‘seeing’ where the other is coming from. What’s also odd about the manner in which Bresson elects to present the film’s exposition is that we see virtually none of the priest’s initial efforts to make change; we only hear about it in his series of brief conversations with the count and his superior, the priest of Torcy. Not only does this give the impression that the priest’s efforts will inevitably end in futility, but that his presence in the void of Ambricourt will be interpreted by him as a test of faith as he tries desperately to swim up stream against the currents of complacency and sterility.

An early sign of hope for the priest is the young Séraphita, a peasant girl who, like many other of the village’s youngsters, is preparing for Holy Communion. But not unlike his attempts to reach out to the count and his family, the priest’s efforts to take Séraphita under his wing are met with contempt in the form of a cold stare by the girl’s mother when he returns her dropped book bag and by Séraphita herself, whose mature yet peculiar glances and devious maneuverings haunt the priest. None of the parishioners appreciate his ‘meddling,’ particular Louise, who appears at first to be somewhat sympathetic to his undertakings, but as the cryptic stare that she throws his way at the start of the film foretells, she is anything but, eventually writing him an anonymous hate letter telling him in no uncertain terms to pack up and leave immediately.

Chantal, the count’s prickly and vengeful daughter, whose main pastime is spying on others and taking advantage of those in whom she sees weakness—the priest included—, of an age somewhere in between Séraphita and Louise, is the priest’s most regular sparring partner, confronting him four times over the course of the narrative, with the second being the most significant. Set in the church itself, this confrontation begins as the priest urges Chantal toward the sparsely lit confessional only for her to refuse to kneel. The shots of the girl’s head floating about in and almost receding into absolute darkness are among the film’s most widely recognizable. Calling for justice and aware that, in a few days, she’ll be sent away, the girl professes her hatred for her mother and her lack of respect for her father. To her utter amazement, the priest predicts correctly that she plans to commit suicide, prompting her to ask him “are you the devil?” and to run out of the church, leaving behind a suicide note she had written to her father.

The priest’s dealings with the village’s women, themselves at various stages of life, give the exchanges an extremely faint trace of eroticism and grant the film its driving, albeit muted, tension, but nowhere is this most apparent than with the countess, a wounded animal whose combination of arrogance, sternness and anguish prove to be the priest’s greatest challenge. If Ambricourt is an abyss of impiety, then the countess’ sitting room is the deepest trench.

What the priest slowly unearths for us is the village’s deeper pain, running down from its sorry treatment of the young, or as we see in the figure of the countess, from spiritual disenchantment in the face of a world, of a God, that seems to justify the punishment of the innocent. Played with an inspired mix of intimidation and vulnerability by first and last time actress-modèle Marie-Monique Arkell, the countess appears on screen only twice, yet her encounters with the priest form the film’s dramatic core. Mourning the death of her young boy, her irreverence is unique among the villagers; it stems not from apathy but from a passionate questioning of God’s intentions and of the very notion of original sin. But my words here intellectualize—the rhythms themselves, in the staging, shot composition and editing of their second encounter, reveal much about the rising and falling tides of spiritual commitment and protest.

Peter Cowie’s at times authoritative audio commentary contributes greatly to one’s understanding of this segment. Though it seems at first as though she will dominate this meeting just as she did the first by peppering the priest with questions and dismissive comments until the priest starts feeling weak and relents, here the priest eventually manages to find a second wind. We join the scene in medias res —a familiar Bresson tactic—and notice almost immediately that the countess has taken it upon herself, as a method of control and therefore self-defense to be sure, to be something of a stage-manager. She throws instructions the priest’s way, to sit, to shut up, and so on, all the while pacing about and hovering over her seemingly frail opponent. Bresson composes the first part of this scene almost always with the two actors in the frame, with the countess standing and the priest sitting. Then when the priest stands and prepares to leave, Bresson moves into a shot-countershot editing scheme, separating the two characters from each other. It is at this stage that a turning point occurs in the scene as the priest finally gains her attention by suggesting that she may remain eternally separated from her boy due to the coldness of her heart. The scene then moves into its third stage. Seeing that the priest is weak, the countess instructs him to sit; she remains standing. Once again the two actors are in the same frame. Returning to shot-countershot now, she makes an appeal to love—asserts that love will keep her with her boy in this world and the next. The priest, responding that God is love and insisting that she resign herself to Him, slowly chips away at her hard exterior and finally convinces her that she, right now, is face-to-face with God. Silence comes over the countess. At last, she sits. In the fourth and final part, not without offering some resistance (including her pitching of a medallion containing a picture of her dead son into the fire), the countess asks the priest for instruction, and then, composed once again in a two-shot and with the countess now kneeling, for his forgiveness; he stands above her and assumes the role of stage-manager occupied by her not moments ago.

(Easily one of the most rich and layered scenes in all of Bresson, I have only, with Peter Cowie’s assistance, scratched the surface here, but space constraint urges us on. In passing I direct the viewer’s attention to two other subtle aspects of this segment: listen to the timing of the sounds emanating from the gardener’s rake and pay close attention to what Laydu and Arkell do with their hands as the scene unfolds.)

Because he is a sickly man, taken by a stomach ailment that forces him to eat and drink only bread and wine (we discover later on, not surprisingly, that he has stomach cancer) and that at times leaves him barely able to ride his bicycle, the priest seems to be the most unlikely candidate to take on the set of obstacles that the villagers throw before him, and as time goes on, the challenges begin to overwhelm his health—and his faith. Throughout these ordeals, he, slightly socially inept and detested, consults only three figures: the ostracized medical Dr. Delbende, who examines the priest as if he were already a corpse and in so doing reveals the source of his dependence upon the drink—“celui qu’on a bu pour vous, bien avant vous ne veniez au monde;” the plump old priest of Torcy, who instructs him to eat healthier, drink better wine, pray more, and to concern himself not with being a “tornado” and prying into the villagers’ affairs but with creating “order;” and that most elusive of guides, God. As he becomes increasingly entangled in the sordid affairs of the parish, the priest finds himself literally unable to pray and therefore cut off from his ultimate escort; the reasons for this are never made explicit. The deaths of Delbende and the countess, and the blame that he faces for this last death thanks to Chantal’s interference, along with his physical and spiritual deterioration and his taxing encounters with the countess and her daughter—all this compounds to such a degree that he becomes besieged by a sense of solitude, undoubtedly unaware that his diary is both his most loyal companion and a disguised form of prayer.

Regaining some measure of strength and, I sense, knowing that he would never return (despite what he tells Chantal), the priest decides to leave Ambricourt to consult a doctor at Lille. The ride the priest takes on the back of a motor cycle belonging to Chantal’s handsome cousin on his way to the train station, appearing in the wake of his torturous experience in Ambricourt and before the depiction of his final hours, is one of the most touching expressions in film of the simple joys that life can yield at the most unexpected of moments. The satisfaction the viewer gets when seeing the priest in a state of pure joy, by virtue of an intensity that bears no sign of contrivance, certainly lasts longer and resonates deeper than its duration in screen time (or my description of it, for that matter) could suggest.

I have elected for a consciously interpretive summary interspersed with commentary and not a detailed blow-by-blow or factual account of the film’s plot elements (such as can be found in Joseph Cunneen’s Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film in order to suggest to first-time viewers a few salient points of entry into this admittedly demanding text. The difficulty that a Bresson film poses to criticism is that plot summaries of any kind are already a serious compromise, for Journal reminds the reviewer over and over again at major and minor moments of plot development and the stylistic ‘events’ that drive them along that when it comes to composing an overview of the narrative, writing is as blunt and graceless as a sledgehammer. Bresson’s stylistic strategies, if they can be taken apart from the whole, suggest that, as the product of an ‘active’ rather than a ‘passive’ power, a discursive summary of this film is evidence not of one’s understanding but of one’s desire to make understanding. I would argue that, in Journal at least, Bresson consciously complicates the conventional techniques and intuitive assumptions common to contemporary critical inquiry and hermeneutics, not to mention the common DVD review. For this reason, and in accord with my conviction that the depths of Bresson’s art are contained in the surfaces, I encourage interpreters to pay closer attention to what they acquire from the film, to what they see and hear more than what they ‘make’ of the narrative. After all, the one can only truly come after serious reflection about the other. Research into Burel’s contribution to the film’s final look starts us on our way.

The director clearly wanted to make of Journal a special film—one with narrative and technical innovations—because, as Burel reminisces, the director was actually testing cinematographers for the job. He had tested several others before requesting Burel, who at the time was working for Union Générale Cinématographique (U.G.C.), the company producing the film. Being “an old dog” “with a hundred films behind [him],” Burel was stunned that he had to test at all (Nogueira, p. 514). What is important to understand is that, at the time, Burel, at almost 50 years of age, was considered a giant in French cinematography, having worked on films by Jacques Feyder, Maurice Tourneur, Marcel L’Herbier, Rex Ingram, Julien Duvivier, and, most famously, Abel Gance, for whom he shot portions of Napoléon (1927), among others. When he first met with Bresson in Paris (I assume some time in late 1949 or early 1950), the director asked him to view Carol Reed’s new film The Third Man (1949), shot by Robert Krasker, indicating to him that “isn’t isn’t what I want, but it is something like it.” Burel recalls reacting badly to the film: “I thought it was awful—I don’t like that kind of photography.” Demeaning the film’s “high contrast style,” with “no half-tones and no detail,” he, being in the position of a savior and therefore able to “dictate conditions,” told Bresson to look elsewhere (Nogueira, p. 515). Despite having turned the project down, though, Burel did accept to do a few tests for the director during his stay in Paris.

The night of their first meeting Burel read the script. The next day, Bresson asked him about the techniques he was going to use for the tests. It is worth citing Burel at length here:

[…] when Bresson asked me what kind of lens I was going to use, I said I was thinking of 50mm. It doesn’t give you much depth, which he evidently didn’t want anyway, and it concentrates the action. I also told him I would use relatively powerful diffusers which were made specifically for me and which were in effect cylindrical additional lenses. We shot various tests using 50 and 75mm lenses. But the man who was acting as my assistant wasn’t used to these diffusers and he must have changed them while changing lenses, getting them on back to front. When I saw the rushes I was appalled; it wasn’t diffused, it was out of focus. At which point Bresson came rushing up excitedly saying, “That’s it! You’ve got it, my dear Burel. That’s exactly what I want for my film.” So much for The Third Man and the high contrast stuff! (Nogueira, p. 515)

Bresson immediately asked him to sign on but Burel still refused. While he certainly enjoyed diffused effects and despised high definition, he “wasn’t going to make a film that was to be entirely out of focus” (Nogueira, p. 515). In what was perhaps one of the few moments in which Bresson was willing to compromise with our cinematographer, the director agreed to bend and allow Burel to work as he liked as long as he produced material that was in some way similar to those original rushes.

If Burel’s account is trustworthy, then the 12-year relationship between he and Bresson was a rocky one to say the least. Nevertheless, Burel did get his way here. He shot Journal with a 50mm lens, using his patented diffusers and a very light gauze to generate the softness of image that Bresson requested. In exchange, our cinematographer required that the film contain no “luminous contrasts,” that it have an “insubstantial” or “immaterial” feel to it, “without any suggestion of shadows”—a personal preference that perhaps shapes the look of Bresson’s future films. Seizing the opportunity to take advantage of the director’s relatively “generous budget” and long shooting schedule (perhaps the only one of Bresson’s career), Burel suggested, in order to create this low-contrast look, that they shoot without the sun, “doing the exact opposite of what everybody else usually does and shooting indoors whenever the sun did come out.” Much of the film was shot before dawn, which apparently required a lot of testing and therefore a lot of wasted footage. The tests for Journal, recounts Burel, were “counted not in feet but in miles.” (Nogueira, p. 516)

The production company became understandably concerned about their investment and sent a technical advisor to oversee the affair. When Burel, who had not signed a contract to work on the film, threatened to walk away, U.G.C. backed off and allowed the film to be completed as such. In conditions which saw “nobody agree[ing] about anything” and in which the footage had to be altered by the laboratory during development in order to correct the contrast (post-flashing?), Journal d’un curé de campagne was made (Nogueira, p. 518). Not only did they receive individual Grand Prix awards at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 for their work on the film, but Bresson and Burel designed a visual style that, in its manipulation of various diffusion techniques and its use of the 50mm lens, came to be immediately recognizable by critics as that of a Bresson film. Perhaps more importantly, Bresson’s willingness (or need) to compromise with his cinematographer on this film helped him develop, first, images that contrast starkly with those of The Third Man yet that distinguish themselves immediately and, second, a moderate photographic means of creating a low contrast image that did not involve resorting to the use of images that were totally out of focus—something that audiences and critics would have had even less tolerance for than the already muted Bresson image that we have become accustomed to.

Criterion’s transfer, so the booklet reads, was struck from a “35mm fine-grain master positive,” and not a “35mm duplicate negative” as in the case of its transfer of Les Dames du bois de Boulogne. I leave it to technical masters to dispute the pros and cons of these choices and point out, vaguely to be sure, that Journal comes to us in far superior shape than her older sister. The immaculate image offered by Criterion allows us—finally—to expose the film’s photography to sharp scrutiny in the privacy of our own homes, build upon Burel’s account of his work, and suggest ways in which this work pollinates the narrative line.

At many decisive moments the black and white image feels ‘thick’ expressly because there is not a hint of sharp contrasts or hard edges. The space depicted is not fragmented into sharply defined geometrical shapes as one finds in The Third Man but rather appears with an almost uniform, or flattened, relief. That said, Burel’s photography walks a fine line without entirely fudging over details within the shots or falling over into haziness or dreaminess. And while the actors seem to belong to, or be grounded in, their material environment by virtue of the effects of low-contrast photography and the blurred outlines it creates between figures and objects, the style of the image never cedes to full-blown expressionism in the sense of displaying an external manifestation of internal states of mind, although it does come beguilingly close. It’s a common strategy of Burel in this film, for instance, to light the priest’s face with a stronger, more direct source, the effect usually being to bring his face out from the background and to create a contrast between it and his predominantly dark, Death-like attire. Those who tend to make a case for this film’s relatively ‘expressionistic’ traits, however, usually call upon a few iconic compositions, namely those that see the priest making his way around the village and countryside in low and extremely low illumination.

It’s quite telling, however, that these oft-cited ‘expressionist’ intrusions are few and far between and at transition points in the narrative, usually playing the rather secondary role of the descriptive insert. Stated differently, they are fleeting and, because they carry little narrative weight on their own, are hardly permitted to blossom, kept in check by the narrow range of options that an otherwise disciplined Burel is working within and by the manner in which his ‘raw materials’ are chiseled by Bresson into something more in the editing room.

All this is simply to say that not all the images are entirely low-contrast, but let’s put it another way. Burel rarely if ever allows extreme juxtapositions of brightly lit parts of a shot with those that have no lighting whatever. Even the shot in the confessional of Chantal’s head, brightly lit and bobbing about in the dark, is composed in a carefully constructed degradation in tones so that white does not meet black flush.

There is some evidence as I alluded to earlier that Burel may have at times shot with too little light thus necessitating the use of post-flashing techniques to ‘save’ the images and bring out details. Post-flashing is a technique that Bresson cinematographers often use in order to bring balance to images containing deep shadows, bringing out details in the shadows, flattening the image and providing a more even dispersal of information over the entire shot. One shot that bears unquestionable sign of flashing is an exterior of the priest’s living quarters. The grays perceptible at the top center and top left could scarcely have been generated with lighting and smoke alone. The deep black along the right side of the frame, moreover, is evidence that only part of the frame was exposed to light in the lab, with the rest left to retain its original dimness. Quite noticeably, this technique, which only really comes into its own in the 70s, most notably with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) (Lipnick, 328). is at an experimental stage when used on Journal.

Not only does Burel use gauzes and low light to mute the image, but he works with a low f-stop setting, keeping only a short range of objects in focus. And because of his diffusers and gauzes, those objects themselves appear to be swathed in a sort of cloudiness. What this allows Burel to do is to execute extremely subtle rack focuses, such as the one in the countess’ sitting room as she looks back at the photos of her son on a mantelpiece.

The diffusers and gauzes themselves produce certain barely perceptible side-effects. At times they seem to create a ‘doubling’ of objects, generating visual ‘feedback’ that was obviously deemed acceptable by Bresson and Burel in order to create the images they wanted. Note the presence in this case of the doubled image of the priest and Torcy and how the bright sky bleeds over into the cow in the background.

Despite this, Burel does manage to cull these techniques into some beautiful imagery, and nowhere is this most apparent than in the memorial scene set in the countess’ bedroom. The devices that Burel places before the lens transform this segment and give it a presence that would otherwise be lacking. On this occasion, the manner in which the brightest lights in the room, the candles, ‘bleed’ is particularly effective, as is the way in which Burel brings the priest’s face to the fore with a more powerful light source while not entirely effacing the largely immobile background figures who decorate the shot.

One could go on about Burel’s work here, including his creative use of direct light sources to accentuate the effects of the priest’s kerosene lamp:

and the careful manner in which he calls upon the forward tracking shot to highlight moments of character revelation and isolation alike.

But we will leave it at this. Burel’s cinematography intrigues the eye without seducing it, creating photographic effects that, on their own, carry the sign of careful craft but that are not burdened by the stigma of artificiality, ostentation or theatricality. He hints at deeper significance without necessarily committing to anything in particular or for a sustained period, composing images that create interest but that are subtle enough not to draw too much attention to themselves or to encourage celebration for their own sake, which is exactly what makes them a challenge to describe and which, not accounting for critics’ mania over Bresson himself, is perhaps why very few have ever consistently sung Burel’s praise for his work on this film in anything exceeded a sentence or two here and there.

These findings might be pushed in a whole other direction, to which I now briefly hint. Maimonides’ Introduction to the first part of Guide of the Perplexed suggests a method of interpretation that serves a work of the likes of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne well. It refers to the image of a golden apple covered by a silver filigree that is itself punctured with small openings. “[A] saying uttered with a view to two meanings is like an apple of gold overlaid with silver-filigree work having very small holes,” writes the 12th Century Jewish Rabbi, physician and philosopher, quoting a Sage from Proverbs 25.11:

Now see how this dictum describes a well-constructed parable. For he says in a saying that has two meanings—he means an external and an internal one—the external meaning ought to be as beautiful as silver, while its internal meaning ought to be more beautiful than the external one […] When looked at from a distance or with imperfect attention, it is deemed to be an apple of silver; but when a keen-sighted observer looks at it with full attention, its interior becomes clear to him and he knows that it is gold (Maimonides, p. 11-12).

In the last century, this image was picked up by Leo Strauss (and his followers) and used to characterize the exoteric (external) and esoteric (internal) teachings to be found in Plato’s dialogues. It is my conviction that Bresson’s films, while working in a non-discursive artistic medium, also contain a ‘surface’ and underlying ‘depths,’ with a possible point of access to these depths being the fact that Bresson rarely wrote original scripts, thus to some extent distancing himself from the material. Setting this aside, the question remains as to whether it is possible to see in the depths of a film a ‘teaching’ as coherent as one would find in a poem, written parable or dialogue. I have my doubts, for as a collaborative medium that works in images and sound, even a filmmaker as focused as Bresson could hardly control every single aspect without an element of chance entering into the final text and potentially unsettling a series of carefully hidden meanings. Besides, if there is one film artist who aspired to make movies that were not at the service of a ‘thesis’ it is our man Bresson (Bresson, p. 48). Bearing this in mind, is the golden apple image not of value to the study of the work of a director who, in his Notes sur le cinématographe, writes, “[l_]es idées, les cacher, mais de manière qu’on les trouve. La plus importante sera la plus cachée_.” (Bresson, p. 45). Bresson is a director who works in, and has his collaborators work toward establishing, rhythms, and while I certainly cannot offer the key to those rhythms here, I have restricted myself to the already challenging task of trying to discuss the necessary point of entry into these rhythms and to developing a language for describing the most external membrane of the silver filigree of Journal d’un cure de campagne: its visual style.

Bresson’s cinématographie stands in Journal as an explicit repudiation of what might be called, in Bressonian terms, cinema’s insincere, and in this way artificial, frankness. By combining various elements including photography to form a visual rhetoric of opacity or concealment, Bresson indirectly suggests the enigma of cinema itself as a medium that compounds truth and lie into 24 frames per second.

Bibliography

Bresson, Robert. Notes sur le cinématographe (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Cunneen, Joseph. Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003).

Nogueira, Rui. “Burel & Bresson,” Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998).

Lipnick, Edward. “Creative Post-Flashing for ‘The Long Goodbye,’” American Cinematographer March 1973.

Maimonides, Moses. Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).

Colin Burnett, who holds an MA in Film Studies from Concordia University, is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current areas of research include Robert Bresson’s cinematographers, laboratory practice in American cinema of the 20s, and minimalist film style. He has published in Senses of Cinema, Synoptique, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies and has writings in forthcoming editions of Film Quarterly and Studies in French Cinema. Along with Dudley Andrew, he is also editing a special edition of Post Script devoted to the film and photography writing of Susan Sontag.

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