Le Diable as a Reflection on Film’s ‘incommunicability’

Reassessing the Theory of Transcendental Style, Part 2

by Colin Burnett Volume 8, Issue 3 / March 2004 12 minutes (2829 words)

In a resolution that stemmed from his attempt to make sense of Bresson’s unique formal idiosyncrasies and the conflicting emotions and responses they induce, James Quandt has termed Bresson’s a “cinema of paradox.”  Playfully, Quandt accounts for the shift in the later films to a darkened pessimism aligned with voluptuousness to the following observation: “One might say sobriety invites intoxication” (Quandt 9).  It seems difficult to argue this point, although one might doubt its level of insight.  P. Adams Sitney’s writings on Bresson provide an ‘open’ alternative to the all-encompassing theory of transcendental style that is more rewarding.  Acknowledging Bresson’s films for their ‘paradoxes,’ Sitney does not begin with a cross-cultural category of converging style and then subsequently seek to mold every aspect of Bresson’s films so that they fit into that category.  His alternative combines a loyalty to Bresson’s writings with detailed formal analyses—analyses that describe the films qua films, that is, phenomenologically, rather than interpret and ascribe meaning.  He also moves far beyond the approaches of the ‘materialists,’ like Rosenbaum and Jones, whose insights tend to be scattered, undeveloped, and just as concerned as Schrader with classifying Bresson’s style (Jones’ ‘impressionism’ and Rosenbaum’s ‘politicized materialism’).  Like Jones’ book, his two principle essays on Bresson’s films, “The Rhetoric of Robert Bresson” and “Cinematography vs. the Cinema: Bresson’s Figures,” do not deal directly with Le Diable (although the latter touches upon the film, if only briefly), yet they are certainly insightful in the film’s context and act as models for where discourses on Bresson’s filmography might be taken. 

In “The Rhetoric of Robert Bresson,” Sitney insightfully remarks that, “Bresson criticism demands a philosophical and religious analogue, preferably a parallel text with the same radical formalism and religious orientation” (Sitney, “Rhetoric” 118).  He therefore begins this essay by critiquing the analogues that other critics have chosen (Sontag equates Bresson with Simone Weil; Godard, with Maurice Merleau-Ponty), and then proceeds to draw comparisons between Bresson and those artists with whom Sitney believes he has the greatest affinity: the literary modernists, James Joyce and particularly Virginia Woolf.  “In Bresson as in Woolf,” Sitney writes, “the most extreme formal devices coincide with, are, the essential developments of the narrative” (121), a line of argument developed further by David Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film. 1   Having found a suitable analogue, he then traces the evolution of the filmmaker in terms of his formal and narrative innovations, stressing Bresson’s true skill as a filmmaker: his ability to maintain tension in his narratives, that is, to make his films vibrate with “visual rhetoric,” which “redeems narration from the somnolent logic of storytelling,” “disorients” the viewer, and leaves him/her to “pay more attention to the individual shot” (139).  “Both moment by moment and as a whole work,” Sitney confesses of his encounter with Au hasard Balthazar, “it excites my mind and passions as no other narrative film ever has” (140).  In the end, it is the “cumulative structure” (140), the “piling of molecular events” (141) and the maintenance of the narrative drive through “elliptical conglomerations” that imbue the films with their complexity and gradual sensual fulfillment.
Sitney’s second article on Bresson, “Cinematography vs. the Cinema: Bresson’s Figures,” written some twenty years after the original, is a pinnacle of Bresson scholarship, French or English.  He begins it candidly, admitting that “The Rhetoric of Robert Bresson” was written prior to having read Bresson’s Notes.  Whereas Sitney does not summarily reject his first article, he does say that it was incomplete, thus necessitating a second.

Two notes from Bresson’s writings seem to have obliged Sitney to reconsider his original position: “The ideas, hide them, but so that one can find them.  The most important will be the most hidden” (Sitney, “Figures” 145) and “Cinematography, the art, with images, of representing nothing” (146).  In his search for these hidden ideas, which for him remained absent from his original article, Sitney accentuates “the significance of acts of seeing” (146), ultimately accounting for the manner in which Bresson’s films ‘excite the mind and passions’ of the viewer by analyzing what the filmmaker’s characters ‘see,’ how their initial solipsism is gradually overcome by intense moments of (for lack of better phrasing) ‘non-perspectival’ perspective.  These moments are unveiled to the spectator with “great compression and even erotic power” (159). 

The true strength of this article is that, despite the fact that it focuses uniquely on Mouchette and Pickpocket, the conclusions drawn can be applied to Bresson’s later films.  “The viewer of ‘lecinématographe’,” concludes Sitney, “is invited to read images figuratively, to escape from the nightmarish blindness of the commercial ‘cinema’s’ literalness” (162).  Bresson’s black-and-white films, then, engage the viewer in a process of ‘seeing’ and ‘reading,’ of interacting with the images and ‘communicating’ with them.  Le Diable, I judge, carries on this drive to hide ideas, to represent ‘nothing’ and to ‘escape’ from the sorry literalness of conventional cinema, but this time, it is accomplished through a negation of ‘reading’ and a denial of the conventional assumption that film is a medium that must necessarily ‘communicate.’

Sitney’s open suggestion that a search for analogues to Bresson’s style as the most fruitful way to begin a study of his work seems to be his most penetrating one, offering up Bresson’s films to a responsible free-play of insightful references and intertexts.  It might therefore be beneficial to situate (ever so carefully) Bresson’s body of work, Le Diable most emphatically, in what David Boyd refers to as “the cinema of interpretation,” a rubric that accounts for a given film’s openness and that can be looked at as an alternative to closed interpretations.  As Boyd illustrates, films like Rashomon, Persona, and L’Année dernière à Marienbad are “explicitly, indeed insistently, concerned with interpretation” (Boyd 11).  They are films that “after repeated critical violations, (remain) curiously intact” (13), that deny a point of final interpretive rest, that establish that “the process of re-interpretation necessarily proves either circular or infinitely regressive” (16).  In the end, the most fruitful approach to a film likePersona is to view it as “an allegory of reception” (17), which might also be said of Le Diable.  In addition to these cinematic analogues, I would point to Emile Cioran, the 20th Century Romanian (post-) philosopher, aphorist and cynic, 2 as another key figure whose works share, at the exoteric level, formal and religious (or, in the case of Le Diable, atheistic) interests with the late works of Bresson.  These are merely a few examples and could perhaps be shown to be spurious, yet they demonstrate the wide range and wealth of insight that might emerge from a continued search for analogues.

If Bresson’s earlier films attempted to free the image of its potential opaqueness through a process of eliminating conventional ‘screens,’ then I would argue, taking into account the impenetrable, nebulous, perhaps even unsympathetic qualities of Le Diable’s Charles and the attempts by his peers to gain insight into his obsessions, that the images and narratives of Bresson’s later films demonstrate that he was able to develop his own personal techniques of the opaque in order to problematize interpretation and redirect the viewer’s attention toward the films’ ‘erotics.’ 3   In fact, a stronger claim might be made: that this is a strategy of each of his films.  “Our senses tell us more than our intelligence,” states Bresson in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels (61).  It seems fair to conclude that the most informative approach to the oeuvre of Bresson, one that considers his entire filmography, is one that ponders the evolution of his take on the issue of the ‘communicability’ of the film medium.  It might just be that as Bresson moved into more contemporary topics and settings, as he shifted to the use of color, then not only did his disenchantment with the modern capitalist condition become more acute, but it may be that this disenchantment engulfed his outlook on the medium itself and its ability to communicate fixed meaning.  However, one must consider that, for the moment, there is very little evidence to support the claim that Bresson’s views evolved in this manner or at all over the course of his films.  I therefore offer the following provisional insight: it might be best to view Le Diable as a reflection on film’s ‘incommunicability.’

What must finally be underscored is that this issue of communicability, and the reflexivity that it entails, is first and foremost characteristic of a modernist outlook and experimentation with artistic media.  As the ‘materialist’ criticisms of the theory of transcendental style accumulated throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, what became apparent was Schrader’s isolation of Bresson from the context in which he arose and therefore his tendency to view Bresson as a 20th Century enigma who created himself sui generis.  Schrader’s penchant for viewing Bresson as and equating him with anonymous Byzantine iconographers tempts one to conclude that an inaccurate analogue lies at the heart of the failure of the theory of transcendental style.  Bresson came into his own stylistically as a critic of the so-called ‘_cinéma de qualité_’ of the 50s, of the styles of Charles Spaak, Henri Jeanson, Jean Aurenche, and Pierre Bost, who were heralded as champions of adaptation. 4   As Sitney demonstrates, devices of narrative innovation that extended beyond mere adaptation and ‘filmed theatre’ never ceased to motivate Bresson’s filmmaking.  To deny this is to de-contextualize Bresson and to deny him his place as a valuable modernist film artist.  

But Bresson might have been appealing to a tradition that is decidedly pre-modern, despite its fascination to moderns: the art of concealment.  An important figure who, in the last century, mined this facet of Western society and culture, in the realm of philosophy at least, is Leo Strauss.  At this late stage in this current study it would be silly to embark upon a detailed consideration of his work, so I will leave it at this.  Straussian hermeneutics follows the lead of Maimonides’ “golden apple” image from The Guide of the Perplexed.  Philosopher Stanley Rosen, a student of Strauss, writes of “the image of a golden apple that is covered by a silver filigree with very small interstices” that:

The silver covering is valuable in itself; to those with sufficiently keen eyesight, there is an even more valuable vision contained within the filigree.  There is a second point to be made in this context.  All dramas, and more comprehensively, all works of art, necessarily contain a surface, namely, the explicit action, poetical discourse, or symbolic representation of spiritual states, and a deeper interior consisting equally of the artist’s fuller intentions as well as the responses of the audience.  It is intrinsic to the nature of things that the surface conceals the depths, not because of the insincerity or duplicitousness of the artist, but because depths reveal themselves only through the specificities of surfaces.  (Rosen, “The Golden Apple” 62-3) 5

The work of the ‘transcendentalists’ and the ‘materialists’ has variously (and inconsistently) contributed to knowledge about the specificities of the surfaces of Bresson’s films.  What I have sought to show is that the depths remain always out of reach for both groups.  If Bresson can in fact be placed within the tradition of esotericism or the art of concealment, then we should be very careful in attributing any set of views to him at all, particularly the final words of perhaps his most enduring protagonist, le curé d’Ambricourt: “Tout est grace.” 6

Part 1


Bordwell, David.  “Parametric Narration: The Parameters of Pickpocket.”  Narration in the Fiction Film.  Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985: 298-310.

—-.  “Why Not to Read a Film.”  _Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema._  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991: 249-274.

—-.  “Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory.”  Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies.  Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996: 3-36.

Boyd, David.  “Persona and the Cinema of Interpretation.”  Film Quarterly 37 (Winter ‘83-‘84): 10-18.

Bresson, Robert.  _Notes sur le cinématographe._  Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

—-.  “Rhythm Comes from Within.”  _Rediscovering French Film._  NY: MOMA, 1983: 155.

—-.  “ ‘Une mise-en-scène n’est pas un art:’ Robert Bresson rencontre les étudiants de l’Institution des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (decembre 1955).”  Cahiers du cinéma: Hommage Robert Bresson.  February 2000: 4-9.

Cioran, Emile.  _A Short History of Decay._  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Hanlon, Lindley.  Fragments: Bresson’s Film Style.  Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1986. 

Hayward, Susan.  _French National Cinema._  New York: Routledge, 1993.

Jones, Kent.  _L’Argent._  London: British Film Institute, 1999.

Le Clézio, J. M. G.  “Préface.”  Notes sur le cinématographe.  Robert Bresson.  Paris : Gallimard, 1975: 7-12.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “How Films Mean, or, from Aesthetics to Semiotics and Half-way Back Again.”  Reinventing Film Studies.  Eds. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000: 8-17.

Quandt, James. “Introduction.”  Robert Bresson.  Ed. James Quandt.  Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998: 1-17.

Reader, Keith.  “ ‘D’où cela vient-il?’: Notes on Three Films by Robert Bresson.” Robert Bresson.  Ed. James Quandt. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998: 283-299.

—-.  Robert Bresson.  New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Rosen, Stanley.  “The Golden Apple.”  _Metaphysics in Ordinary Language._  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999: 62-80.

—-.  “Interpretation and the Fusion of Horizons: Remarks on Gadamer.”  _Metaphysics in Ordinary Language._  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999: 182-201.

—-.  “Theory and Interpretation.”  _Hermeneutics as Politics._  2nd ed.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003: 141-174. 

Rosenbaum, Jonathan.  “The Last Filmmaker: A Local, Interim Report.”  _Robert Bresson._  Ed.

James Quandt. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998: 17-27.

Roud, Richard.  “The Devil Probably: The Redemption of Despair.” Robert Bresson.  Ed. James Quandt. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998: 403-407.

Samuels, Charles Thomas.  “Robert Bresson.”  Encountering Directors.  New York: Capricorn Books, 1972: 57-76.

Schrader, Paul.  Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.  New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.

—-.  “Robert Bresson: Possibly.”  Robert Bresson.  Ed. James Quandt. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998: 485-498.

Sitney, P. Adams.  “Cinematography vs. the Cinema: Bresson’s Figures.”  Robert Bresson.  Ed. James Quandt. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998: 145-164.

—-.  “The Rhetoric of Robert Bresson: From Le Journal d’un curé de campagne to Une femme douce.”  Robert Bresson.  Ed. James Quandt. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998: 117-144.

Sloan, Jane.  “Critical Survey.”  Robert Bresson: A Guide to Sources and References.  Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983: 5-34.

Sontag, Susan.  “Against Interpretation.”  Against Interpretation.  Toronto: Doubleday, 1990: 3-14.

—-.  “The Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson.”  Against Interpretation.  Toronto: Doubleday, 1990: 177-195.
Steiner, George.  Real Presences.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. 


  1. See Chapter 12, pages 289-310, an analysis of narrative strategies in Pickpocket.
  2. Emile Cioran’s central work, A Short History of Decay, consists uniquely of short to medium-length aphorisms, pessimistic in outlook and completely devoted to repeating and elaborating upon a few major themes. Its similarity to Bresson’s Notes are telling, as is Cioran’s unwavering commitment to his medium and form. Furthermore, both Bresson and Cioran critiqued the traditions from which they came (in Cioran’s case, humanist philosophy and orthodox Christianity), and the content that composes their work is written in a Christian language that they seemed obliged to use for lack of anything better.
  3. On this point, Boyd would concur, for at the start of his article, “Persona and the Cinema of Interpretation,” he cites Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” which states that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (Boyd 10).
  4. This information taken from “Robert Bresson as a Precursor to the Nouvelle Vague: A Brief Historical Sketch,” an essay that appears elsewhere in this issue of Offscreen.
  5. Intriguingly, a short piece written by Bresson for L’Ecran Français in November 1946 and reprinted in the MOMA’s compendium of writings on French cinema, Rediscovering French Film, bears more than casual resemblance to the ideas of the internal and the external, or, on Straussian terms, the esoteric and the exoteric, to be found in the image of the golden apple. I cite this piece in its entirety as it appears, translated into English, in Rediscovering French Film: “It is the interior that commands. I know that this could seem paradoxical in an art which is all exterior. But I have seen films in which everyone runs, which are slow. And others in which the characters don’t move, which are fast. I have ascertained that the rhythm of the images is powerless to correct any interior slowness. Only the knots which tie and untie in the interior of characters give a film its movement, its real movement. It is this movement which I strive to portray though some thing—or some combination of things—which may not only be dialogue. … The sound film has, above all, invented silence. I find explanatory dialogue marvelous and convenient. But the ideal would be, rather, that the dialogue would accompany the characters, just as a sleigh-bell accompanies a horse, or buzzing accompanies a bee….”(Bresson, “Rhythm Comes from Within” 155; italics in source)
  6. “I never look for Christian meaning,” a slippery Bresson tells Samuels. “If it comes, it comes” (63).

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   film history   film style   french cinema   people_bresson   robert bresson