A Case Study of Le Diable Probablement

Reassessing the Theory of Transcendental Style, Part 1

by Colin Burnett Volume 8, Issue 3 / March 2004 24 minutes (5793 words)

Yvon presents himself to policemen in a café.  An inquisitive mob gathers outside to get a glimpse of the ‘event.’ As the officers escort Yvon out of the café, the mob remains fixated on the establishment, ‘hoping’ for more, completely ignoring what is taking place directly before them.  Of this ambiguous ending to L’Argent (1983), Keith Reader writes:

It says something about the constitutive incompleteness of Bresson’s work, which leaves, in this case doubtless for ever, its audience looking for (a) ‘more’ that is perhaps less within the work than within themselves. (Reader 152)


If the bystanders figure the [film] audience, their turned and motionless heads suggest not only that they may be wanting something more out of the film, but that they are possibly seeking a way back into it. […]  The turned heads will clearly find no answer, in an unproblematic sense, to questions such as these; but they may be looking for a place from which an answer might be articulated.  Now that it is clear that L’Argent was Bresson’s last film, such a reading of the final shot becomes more inviting than ever, making it less a closure than a perpetual opening […]. (Reader 152)

If one should peruse the English-language scholarship of Robert Bresson’s body of work, one would be hard-pressed to find a simpler, truer statement that accurately conveys the complex nature of this filmmaker’s work and how critics have taken their bearings on it.  Another virtue of this take is that it makes an effort to synthesize Bresson’s final films, Le Diable probablement (1977) (hereafter, Le Diable) and L’Argent, into an understanding of his entire oeuvre.  The great tendency for each new contribution to this academic/critical discourse has been to attempt to resolve a quarrel that Kent Jones terms “peculiarly American” (Jones 9)—which is whether Bresson’s stylistics are that of a ‘transcendentalist’ or a ‘materialist’/ ‘immanent’ artist.  Research shows that this quarrel has planted its roots in British soil as well.  Some (Paul Schrader, Keith Reader, Susan Sontag) gravitate to the former; others (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kent Jones) congregate around the latter; a few even locate themselves somewhere ‘in between’ (James Quandt, Richard Roud).  And this schema does not even cover the full hermeneutical spectrum.  The critical posturing and various interpretive models that this debate has spawned have ‘snowballed’ to such an extent that the films themselves, and more concretely, the views of Robert Bresson have largely been displaced.  As Schrader mentions (yet seems to circumvent) Bresson is one of few filmmakers that has engaged in a detailed process of self-criticism, of critiquing his own films, 1  as is evident in his writings and interviews.  It is the words written by artists on their art that take those interested “into the workshop of bringing-into-being” (Steiner 16).  Yet, in their respective attempts to drain Bresson’s films of evidence to support their own ‘theories,’ the ‘transcendentalists,’ the ‘materialists,’ and the ‘material transcendentalists’ or ‘transcendental materialists’ (loaded, even misleading terms that will soon be unpacked) have drawn attention away from Bresson’s writings on his films.  As a result, focus has been diverted from what I take to be the primary aspect of Bresson’s work, to which Reader seems to allude in the statement cited above and Bresson touches upon in his Notes sur le cinématographe: their openness and sensuality.

Reader’s monograph, simply entitled Robert Bresson, analyzes his entire filmography and confirms that this debate is still alive and well.  In particular, his decision to expose this body of work to a ‘religious’ reading despite the fact that much has been written to oppose such a course shows that the influence of Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film can still be felt in Bresson scholarship, or at the very least, that this interpretive path still seems to be viewed as a sound one.  James Quandt even states in the Introduction to his 1998 compendium of writings on Bresson that Schrader’s text “remains the central work in English on Bresson” (Quandt 10).  The numerous ‘religiously’-motivated works, and their rival ‘materialist’ ones, have contributed their fair share of insights, and yet, they would each “enclose water in a sieve,” which George Steiner situates as the goal of each ‘theory of interpretation’ (Steiner 75).  P. Adams Sitney, in separate articles published in 1975 and 1989, has proposed an interesting alternative: heinvestigates the formal composition of Bresson’s films using a philological approach, which, to cite Steiner again, is characterized for its “open-endedness” (Steiner 175), supporting his examination of Bresson’s formal language and narrative innovations with references to the tradition from which his films ultimately arose (including other French films and the original texts by Bernanos and Dostoyevsky which Bresson adapted), all the while avoiding the interpretive trappings of the materialists and transcendentalists. 2   

The focus of this inquiry will be on Le Diable, which seems almost at every turn to defy the ‘transcendental’ reading expounded most famously by Schrader, and how the materialist/ transcendentalist debate informs a study of the film.  I will argue that: first, the reception of Bresson’s later films among English scholars and critics is, up to the present, shaped by this debate; second, Bresson’s oeuvre has been somewhat forced to mold to the theory of Transcendental Style since study of his films initially boomed in the 60s and 70s; and third, as this theory has come under fire by later critics, new approaches have emerged that are more attuned to the aesthetic qualities of Bresson’s films, to acknowledging his films as filmic texts.  The predominant analyses that have led to the theory’s formulation have been variously re-examined, and even dislocated, for, as this inquiry will seek to demonstrate, as a theory it simply cannot contain or seek to represent a film that is, on the surface at least, as counter-transcendental, even atheistic, and overtly ‘sensual’ as Le Diable.  Yet it will not be our goal to disown these contributions to Bresson scholarship, or to favor a ‘materialist’ reading at their expense, but rather to first show how other models have demonstrated that this theory is necessarily incomplete, and then to briefly outline a few critical attempts to either reconcile both strands of the argument or to move beyond the debate altogether, into the realm of the ‘erotics’ of Bresson’s films.  Several key critical models of Bressonian cinema then will be matched one against another, our goal being to underscore those insights that are most pertinent to a study of Le Diable.   

“Why Le Diable?” it might be asked.  In a word, it’s been selected for the simple reason that it is an instance (not totally isolated, although this point is certainly debatable) in Bresson’s oeuvre of an absolute negation of the ‘Absolute’ at the textual or literal level and therefore essentially above or below, depending on one’s perspective, the very concept of transcendence.  Moreover, the film is an emblem of the potential for open discourse on the director’s body of work, the realization of which, though touched upon by a few critics, has yet to be fully pursued in reception and study of it.   

The terms ‘transcendental,’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘ascetic,’ ‘austere,’ and ‘Jansenist’ have two things in common: they have religious connotations and have been incessantly invoked to characterize Bresson’s film style.  The “_champ lexical_” hinges upon the theological.  While the terms are certainly not interchangeable, I take them to emerge from a common religious sensibility that argues that the filmmakers that can be characterized as such engage intellectual and formalistic approaches in order to “maximize the mystery of existence” (Schrader, Transcendental Style 10), to “induce a certain tranquility in the spectator, a state of spiritual balance” (Sontag, “Spiritual Style” 180) and to invite “reflection” upon the “mystery of action” (Sontag, “Spiritual Style” 181). 

As perhaps the seminal work in this strand of Bresson criticism, Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Filmlays out the argument most intricately.  Devoting its attention uniquely to Bresson’s ‘prison cycle’ of films—Journal d’un curé de campagne (1950), Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), Pickpocket and Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962)—the contention is made that the formal qualities of the films convey the theological concerns of “free will,” “predestination,” “spiritual confinement” and “spiritual release” (59-60).  Bresson, it is argued, is a formalist “in the traditional religious manner,” using form as “the primary method of inducing belief,” making the viewer “an active participant in the creative process” (61).  Furthermore, it is said that Bresson’s filmmaking process consists of a steady paring away, or “dépouillement” (Quandt 3), of the “easy pleasures” and “screens” (such as ‘flabby’ plot elements, the more ostentatious facets of performance and film music, and so on—all instruments for rendering the surface reality of things opaque) of conventional films, of an emphatic immersion into the everyday (through the stark realism of the image) as well as an “overemphasis” of or leap beyond the everyday, through sheer accumulation and ‘doubling’ of image and sound, 3 to create a ‘thicker’ density of presence, “which grows and grows until, at the moment of decisive action, it reveals itself to be a spiritual density” (70).  The moment of decisive action is described as “an incredible event within the ban structure.  The prescriptive rules of everyday fall away; there is a blast of music, an overt symbol, an open call for emotion.  The act demands commitment by the viewer” (79).  It is even referred to as being “miraculous” (80). 

If I may be allowed to offer a brief criticism of Schrader’s theory, while he certainly begins his study by attempting to restrict the applicability of his theory of transcendence to various though unique manifestations of a particular ‘style,’ it seems that he betrays his cause (in Bresson’s case at least) by focusing so hard on the content of the films that he selects.  Schrader seems to take whatever precaution he can to avoid offering ‘just another’ thematic interpretation of Bresson’s films, but does he really succeed?  I would suggest not (not in the way Sontag’s reading of Bresson succeeds at least).  He suggests that the formal and narrative qualities of Pickpocket, for example, shun the viewer’s feelings and then release them in the moment of ‘decisive action,’ “which demands an emotional commitment which the viewer gives instinctively, naturally,” in which the viewer “wants to share” Michel’s love for Jeanne (Schrader 81).  This, apparently, is a key quality of the transcendental ‘style’ in this Bresson film.  I need only point out that the ‘Transcendental Style’ would amount to little without Bresson’s ‘transcendental content,’ and that it naturally follows that Schrader’s theory of Transcendental Style as it applies to Bresson is entirely dependent on thematic issues raised in the ‘prison cycle’ films.  To be fair to Schrader, his version of the term “style” is not the one Sontag employs in her famous essay, “On Style,” as well as in her essay on Bresson, that is, a “style” that is the opposite of “content.”  Nor is it David Bordwell’s careful use of the concept to refer to film-specific techniques and the manner in which they manifest themselves given the technology upon which the medium is based.  These terms, along with “form,” are simply not as rigorously defined and utilized by Schrader as they should be.  Upon greater reflection, this might be the reason why he argues his analysis of Bresson so vehemently, and why his interpretation is so prone to inexactitude and culminates so freely in ‘divine’ closure.  By unwittingly subordinating ‘style’ or ‘form’ to ‘content,’ Schrader reduces the films to his interpretation of their ‘meanings,’ and leaves no room for any alternative approaches.  Schrader’s method seeks to establish a hermeneutical monopoly, demonstrating little concern for Bresson’s intentions and addressing itself only to what he himself ‘makes’ of the films and not to the films themselves.

In the preface to an interview with Bresson first published in Film Comment in 1977, Schrader freely admits that he “cannot (or will not) accept [Bresson’s] interpretation of his films” (Schrader, “Robert Bresson, Possibly” 485).  To rephrase, and perhaps simplify, Schrader believes that he ‘knows’ Bresson’s films better than the director does.  He writes that this interview was like “trying to converse across a widening chasm” (485), which is telling.  In his almost fanatic drive to construct Bresson’s image as “the most important spiritual artist alive,” rendered even more acute by his bizarre confession that he had often “fantasized that, upon meeting, [they] would burst like old friends into eager debate” (485), Schrader seems to have overstepped his role as critic, eschewing rigor (which would entail a serious consideration and incorporation of ‘Bresson on Bresson,’ which can be found in the aforementioned Notes) in favor of what seems to be a prime example of what Sontag called “the revenge of the intellect upon art” (Sontag, “Against Interpretation” 7), or, on somewhat less ironic terms, of criticism that holds creativity to be a redeeming virtue in its own practices. 4   To be fair, Schrader does make industrious use of cited material from Bresson’s Notes and the few interviews that he gave to substantiate some of his assertions.  Several of those citations are worth reproducing and speaking of, at least en passant:

A film is not a spectacle, it is in the first place a style. (Schrader, Transcendental Style 60) 5

I am more occupied with the special language of the cinema than with the subject of my films. (Schrader 61)

The supernatural in film is only the real rendered more precise.  Real things seen close up.(Schrader 62)

There must, at a certain moment, be a transformation; if not, there is no art. (Schrader 82)

In A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à mort) I tried to make the audience feel these extraordinary currents which existed in the German prisons of the Resistance, the presence of something or someone unseen: a hand that directs all. (Schrader 84)

These quotations solidify Bresson as a transcendental formalist, just as Schrader argues, though I would suggest that this is neither all that Bresson has to say on his films and his filmmaking process, nor is it a complete representation.  And one might add that should one be willing to take these citations as absolute and final statements of Bresson on his films, then one must be equally willing to accept that Bresson failed to understand one of his own works, Le Diable.  However, given that Schrader selects a very small scope of samplings from Bresson’s writings, then that suggestion can thankfully be rejected.

Le Diable, if anything, is an explicit rejection of, or an attempt to problematize, stabs at ‘making meaning.’  “Bresson’s ‘contempt for any discourse’,” Reader writes of Le Diable, “has nowhere been plainer” (Reader 138).  The sequence in the film that perhaps best exemplifies this is the one on the bus.  Here, the anonymous passengers, trapped in its confines and in its steady, mechanical rhythm (of stopping and starting, of passengers getting on, requesting for the bus to stop and getting off), attempt to construct a meaningful conversation about ‘who is to blame for all this’ that simply never had a chance.  In fact, all we get are disjointed fragments of speech, “snatches of conversation” (Roud 404) that never shake their ‘separatedness,’ that never add up to anything more.  Richard Roud describes it as follows:

One says “Don’t blame the government, we are governed by the masses—in other words by ourselves.”  Another asks, “Who is really in charge?”  “Obscure forces,” murmurs someone else; another adds “The Devil, probably.”  Suddenly, the bus slams on its brakes and everyone is thrown backward; there is a shot of the driver’s hand on the door-opening button, and we see him getting out of the bus.

….What has happened?  We never find out […].  And the conversations, which aren’t really conversations but alternating monologues, are emblematic of the life of his characters who never seem to be talking to each other but rather at or away from each other […].  Since we have no idea of who or what is responsible, why don’t we just blame it on the devil, and then forget about the whole thing? (Roud 404; italics in source)

This seems to be the resolution of the film’s principal character.  Charles does search—he congregates with friends, although “[t]he skein of love affairs and friendships that might appear to knit the central group together does no such thing” (Reader 133); he watches politically-aware films of ecological horrors, yet is not jarred; he visits a psychoanalyst, but is disgusted at the suggestion that his distaste for society comes from the occasional spankings his father used to give him; he attends meetings held by the ‘new’ Church and the Left—yet nothing excites, nothing motivates, nothing convinces.  Society, it would seem, is characterized by constant scrambling and unending chatter, from which there is no potential for emergence or release—that is, of course, no potential outside suicide.  Interestingly, out of thirteen features, four of Bresson’s principal characters have committed suicide, but Charles’ seems to be of a different tenor than that of Mouchette, let us say.  On the surface at least, Charles’ suicide appears to be utterly ‘biological;’ no ‘spirit’ can be freed from the body of one who has none.  As an emblem, not merely a symptom, of modernity, Charles seeks to stop the searching and ‘to get back to’ a point of biological neutrality.  Transcendence is a red herring, poached by the nihilistic, sub-human myths of modernity.

The film itself is constructed as a series of encounters between Charles and a parade of hippies, drifters, junkies, Christian radicals, a psychoanalyst, and others.  Unlike previous Bresson characters, especially the ones in the ‘prison cycle,’ this one has no craft (such as Pickpocketing), no time-consuming preoccupation (like the drive to pick away at the cell door, to make ropes out of bed-sheets, etc., that preoccupied Fontaine in Un Condamné à mort), no binding passion (like the overbearing devotion to God by Jeanne in Le Procès and the country priest in Journal), nothing to invite his toil—fixations that seem to act as guarantors of grace for Bresson’s earlier characters.  Charles’ is the modern world of interminable discourse; a world of meandering discussion in which speech is indistinguishable from silence or noise and the potential for redemption is severed.  And yet, curiously, the language of this discourse is still at least partially ‘Christian,’ as if Bresson were constantly sending out reminders that contemporary (1970s, that is, post-1968) vacuity consists of more than merely the pain of unrealized potential.  More acutely, it consists of the pain that accompanies the waning of guiding purpose—the pain of purposelessness that humanity is not equipped to remedy and that can only be uttered in the vocabulary of a religious myth that no longer applies and which has been substituted for by the myths of the era of post-Enlightenment, which is to say, anti-myths.

All of these points deal with ideas of the film’s content.  What of its style?  How is this film different visually, aurally, in its narrative structure, from the films of the ‘prison cycle?’  Le Diable does not betray the ‘Bresson’ style that we have come to expect—the restricted use of music; a thin plot that eschews dramatic conventions; elliptical editing; slow, repetitious action; non-, or rather, anti-expressive character rendering by the modèles, or non-professional ‘actors;’ a soundtrack that bears the sign of careful craft, that grants only privileged, directed contrapuntal sounds; and static camerawork that sees action come into the frame, complete itself, and then exit—all these elements are present.  Yet, there is more.  As Roud explains, citing Francois Truffaut, this film is “voluptuous,” “not a quality generally associated with the films of Robert Bresson” (Roud 403).  “Two beautiful girls and two handsome boys,” he argues, animate the film, a necessity given its subject: “wasted beauty, wasted youth” (403).  However, it is my feeling that Roud’s analysis stops too short, for not only does he elect to title his article on Le Diable “The Redemption of Despair” and provide little indication of what that redemption might be, 6 but he also neglects to mention the key quality that adds to the feel of ‘voluptousness:’ the use of color. 

Of Bresson’s final color films, Reader states, quoting Fredric Jameson, that “‘(c)olor … spells the end of filmic and photographic realism and modernism alike’—this because its naturalism […] diverts attention from ‘the strangeness of representationality itself’” (Reader 99).  The insinuation that color automatically brings about the end of modernism may be a bit of a stretch, especially since color photography need not necessarily be ‘naturalistic.’  However, the point is taken that the use of color quite literally complicates matters.  “Close-ups,” Reader adds, “tend to be rarer in (Bresson’s) color than in his monochrome films” (99).  To add to this, Jonathan Rosenbaum asserts that “his uses of color lead to a radical reformulation of what his films are like; […] you’re not always sure what to look at in the shots, which never happens in the black-and-white films” (Rosenbaum 21).  Clearly then, color assigns the image a greater complexity, makes them more full, and Bresson’s movement away from the close-up is an indication that he invests more and more interest in the various environments through which his characters move.  The image, it would seem, is no longer as flat or two-dimensional as in the ‘prison cycle’ films, for it is more sensual, more seductive; it makes the viewer more attuned to what is ‘present’ on the screen rather than what is ‘absent’ beyond it. 

It goes without saying that critics that deal with Bresson’s newer films are the ones making these stylistic observations—whatever flaws they may contain.  As both Rosenbaum and Reader remark, Bresson’s later films are his most contemporary, where he seeks to engage in an acute critique of his time to illustrate the social and spiritual vacuum in the wake of the failed revolution(s) of ‘68.  It seems to follow that if one seeks to confront the modern world with its own excesses, then some ground must be made in constructing the modern world in all its excesses, tangible or otherwise.  Rosenbaum, for example, in “The Last Filmmaker: A Local, Interim Report,” makes the point that all of Bresson’s films display “a fundamental trust—and reliance on—material reality,” that Bresson’s unraveling of the “mystery of human […] personality […] is always concrete and precise” (Rosenbaum 19), that the images in his later films are more “mannerist” and “evocative” (21).  Like Schrader, Rosenbaum then lets the filmmaker describe his own ‘material economy.’  In a 1966 interview with Godard, Bresson states that “the ear is more creative than the eye” (Rosenbaum 19), emphasizing the way in which he seeks to engage the audience sensually. 

Reader also notes Le Diable’s sensuousness, adding that it “is a tragedy played out above all through the body” (Reader 135). 7   Granted, the same might be said of Journal, but whereas that film’s ‘tragedy of the body’ is worked out through the priest’s stomach ailment and the resultant restrictions he must place on the liquids and solids that he consumes, Le Diable’s ‘tragedy of the body’ is quite the opposite.  Charles is a self-professed “wild beast,” without restrictions, moving as he wishes to each “unbridled pleasure” that catches his attention.  His sexual encounters are brief, anonymous, and he admits to the psychoanalyst that he enjoys sex because it gives him “sensations, feelings to cling to.”  This might be said of his other habits—Charles drinks, smokes, shoots himself with narcotics, and ‘even’ eats chocolate.  In his rejection of the intellectual/spiritual fervor and fanaticism that seems to seduce and occupy others, Charles points to sensual excitement as the only ‘other’ modern practice that seems worthy of pursuit. 

Yet, it is not just the narrative that draws the viewer to these ‘material’ details.  The images do as well.  This is one of the first Bresson films, for example, to display full-body nudity.  In one scene, Charles get out of a bath and the viewer then watches him stand before a mirror for in the region of 20 seconds.  Naturally, it would be absurd to suggest that a shot such as this, that is asking one to look at the tones and texture of Charles’ flesh, at the curves of his body, is one that is formally ‘fleshing out’ theological issues like “free will” and “spiritual confinement.”  Reductio ad absurdum this may be, for one could certainly compile a series of similar shots from the ‘prison cycle,’ that is, ones that do not immediately, directly elaborate upon these issues, without toppling Schrader’s theory.  Nevertheless, this simple, and perhaps simplistic, juxtaposition between the aforementioned shot and the theory of Transcendental Style does reveal a noticeable gap between that which Bresson intended in this film and that which he intended with his earlier ones.  A shot of a nude Michel getting out of a bath in Pickpocket would certainly have seemed odd, yet not here.  

Kent Jones best formulates the ‘materialist’ interpretation of Bresson’s stylistics, 8 and while his principal piece on Bresson is devoted uniquely to L’Argent, the points he makes are certainly pertinent in this context.  His argument begins with the simple point that “there is a critical tendency to be overwhelmed, and hence to fixate on a single trait” in the studies of Bresson, and he cites the focus on the filmmaker’s “formal rigor” as an example.  “What makes Bresson’s art feel so eternally new and disorienting?” Jones asks.  In search of an answer, he cites Bresson from a 1983 interview with Michel Ciment:

You have to go with your sensibility.  There is nothing else.  I’ve been called an intellectual, but of course I’m not.  […]  I’ve been called a Jansenist, which is madness.  I’m the opposite.  I’m interested in impressions.  […]  There has to be a shock at the moment of doing, there has to be a feeling that the humans and things to be filmed are new, you have to throw surprises on film.  […]  That is music, rhythm, sensation … Increasingly, what I am after […] is to communicate the impressions I feel. (Jones 15-16)

Underscoring the point, Jones adds that this imperative to ‘add sensation’ is at the core of Bresson’s art and his impact; Bresson draws the viewer in not through “a sense of transcendence” (Jones 16) that makes one an “empathetic identifying participant” (17), but through “a sense of reality existing only through the filter of personal perception” that positions the viewer as a privileged “observer” (17).  Never relinquishing his painter’s sensibility, then, Bresson seeks to imbue each gesture with “the greatest wealth of experience” (18).  Delivering a final blow to the theory of Transcendental Style, Jones writes:

As ‘perfect’ as his films seem, as systematic and as governed by firm beliefs, there is no intellectual or spiritual last stop with Bresson’s art—there is no key, either formal or religious, that will unlock the door to ultimate meaning.  (Jones 19)

By arguing that Bresson’s formal concerns exceed any kind of religious imperative, and stressing the concentration on the intensity of perception in his later films, Jones creates a critical shift away from the qualification of Bresson’s film form as ‘closed’ to its qualification as ‘open.’ 

From the central issues of the transcendentalist/materialist debate, then, I draw the following questions: if Bresson maintains virtually the same ‘style’ in his entire oeuvre (and a big ‘if’ this is!), yet if this style can be ‘grafted’ onto narratives that allow for a protagonist’s transcendence and narratives that deny it, would it be fair to categorize his style as ‘transcendental?’  Does Bresson’s formal ascesis in Un Condamné à mort and Le Diable have the same effect upon the viewer?  If it does, and the result of this style is the ‘inducement of belief,’ as Schrader has suggested, what is the viewer being asked to believe in in Le Diable?  If we pursue this line of questioning, it might eventually be asked: is it correct to assume then that Bresson’s style has always remained the same?  Has Bresson not ceded a Transcendental Style in favor of materialist one, a color one, in his later films that is explicitly more complex, more contemporary and perhaps more cynical? 

“Grammatical postulates and demonstrations of God’s existence,” writes Steiner, “can have validity only inside closed speech systems” (Steiner 57).  I cite this line not to imply that Schrader uses his argument for Bresson’s Transcendental Style as a proof of the existence of God, but to underscore the implications of Schrader’s critical approach, which insists that Bresson’s films incite spiritual encounters that induce belief.  I therefore ask again: what is it that the viewer is induced to believe in?  Schrader never says, but a belief in God is implied I would assume.  By couching his criticism of Bresson in religious terminology and references, and by reducing the director’s style solely to the telos of ‘making believers,’ Schrader limits readings of the films to a necessarily closed structure of interpretation, relegating all other readings to the realm of the blasphemous.  I would argue that Schrader’s closed reading is attributable to his Calvinist leanings, but more essentially, to the tendency in film studies and criticism in the 1970s to engage in the “grand structuralist project to understand human culture as a whole in terms of patterns of meaning” (Nowell-Smith 8).  In an article, entitled “How Films Mean, or, from Aesthetics to Semiotics and Half-way Back Again,” Geoffrey Nowell-Smith states, echoing Reader’s analysis of the final shots inL’Argent cited at the outset, that, “[f]ilms mean because people want them to mean.  Meaning is not something inert, a passive attribute of books, films, computer programs, or other objects.  Rather it is a process whereby people ‘make sense’ of something with which they are confronted” (Nowell-Smith 10).  He concludes: “[f]ilms mean. But they do not just mean” (10).  Nowell-Smith’s radical perspectivism aside, he makes room for aesthetic discourses characterized for their openness and tendency to rebuke finality and complete interpretive closure.  In fact, Le Diable, made in the late 70s, might be looked at as Bresson’s response and attempt to dislodge his critics, who, like Schrader, may have become too comfortable in their ‘theories of meaning.’ 

Part 2


  1. I refer here to Bresson’s book of compiled writings, Notes sur le cinématographe.  Speaking on the aphorisms and maxims in the book, J. M. G. Le Clezio writes in the preface that Bresson’s words “brillent comme des étoiles, nous montrant le simple et difficultueux chemin vers la perfection” (Le Clezio 12), thus showing that this work is, at its base, a critical and critically constructive one.
  2. While it certain holds its own among the other scattershot approaches to Bresson, philological hermeneutics has some internal deficiencies of which we should be mindful.  Practitioners of philology, remarks philosopher Stanley Rosen, often appeal to ‘tact’ or responsibility (or, in the case of Steiner, to trust, love or “cortesia” [147]) in their quest to justify their methods, but these concepts do not adequately protect against “the intrinsic relativism of philology” (Rosen, “Theory and Interpretation” 154).  For more of Rosen’s thoughts on the limits of philology, see pages 164 to 167 of “Theory and Interpretation” particularly.
  3. As Schrader illustrates, Bresson’s favorite ‘doubling’ technique involves creating a dialectic between that which is ‘said’ in the voice-over narration and that which is ‘shown’ in the image (Schrader 71), creating the impression of an aural replay of the visual action.  It is worth noting that Le Diable has not such ‘doubling’ voice-over.  Assuming for the moment that Schrader’s analyses and categories are acceptable, can this fact not be viewed as evidence of a denial of the increased density that creates the possibility for the ‘decisive,’ miraculous act that Schrader also speaks of?
  4. In the interviews he gives to Schrader and Charles Thomas Samuels, Bresson seems to be on the defensive, a fact that perhaps tells us more about the interviewers than Bresson himself.  Both of these interviews are, at specific points, almost uncomfortably aggressive and argumentative, as the critics try to pin their subject and his films down with their respective (and at times, related) interpretations.  Their treatment of Bresson, I do not believe it would be harsh to say, verges on the disrespectful and attest to the semi-fanatical spirit of some of the attempts to reductively pigeonhole his work.
  5. I have italicized these citations to emphasize that they are not Schrader’s, despite the fact that I have indicated their source as ‘Schrader.’  I have done this because I wish to highlight how Schrader used the source material.
  6. He seems to hint that the film is redeeming in the same way that King Lear and Oedipus are—all of these works may be “downers,” but then he asks, “And isn’t that what great art is all about?” (Roud 404).  In short, he suggests that this film is redeeming because it is art, and because it was written with Bresson’s own pen (the film is made from an original script).  One might argue, then, that Roud’s faith in the power of ‘art’ (a term that goes undefined in the article) motivates his reading of the film as much as Schrader’s Calvinism motivates his.  Either way, the point is not clearly stated, and it seems to be a good example of the unreflective propagation of  inapplicable ‘Christian’ terminology (I point to the term “redemption”) and its application to a late Bresson film.
  7. Reader, as aforementioned, accepts a ‘spiritual’ reading of Bresson’s style of filmmaking.  Yet, in his discourse on Le Diable, he makes many observations that would seem to lead elsewhere.  It becomes clear that this film causes Reader a certain amount of difficulty (perhaps given his admittedly ‘Catholic’ leanings), for he states that “[p]erhaps it is the sheer unalleviated quality of its pessimism that can make it a difficult film to respond to emotionally,” though he finds the endings to Mouchette and Lancelot du lac, in their ambiguity, more hopeful, and therefore “more satisfying” (Reader 141). 
  8. Here, naturally, ‘materialist’ as a concept is being stripped of its social-political connotation, for Jones never seeks to imbue Bresson’s films with a Leftist edge, although Rosenbaum’s ‘materialist’ reading does.  The latter not only focuses on the ‘concreteness’ of Bresson’s style, but also suggests that the “prickly” formal qualities of Bresson’s later films echo his first, a sarcastic short, Les affaires publiques, in which Bresson displayed a “raw physicality” that “conveys struggle” (Rosenbaum 23).  Rosenbaum maintains that Bresson’s ultimate motto is not “Tout est grace,” which the priest utters at the end ofJournal, but “Je lutte.”  

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.

Volume 8, Issue 3 / March 2004 Essays   cinematography   film history   film style   french cinema   people_bresson   robert bresson