JANSEN, PASCAL AND BRESSON:
Tim, we've been discussing the general thesis of your book
THE FILMGOER'S GUIDE TO GOD and most recently, the persistent influence
of Calvinism and Protestantism on American narrative and cinema.
I'd now like to look more closely at Bresson.
Calvin's notion of the elect: Is that similar to the metaphysics of
Dostoevsky? Or, at least, the Dostoevsky of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,
which seems to have been a major influence on Bresson?
TC – No, I don’t think so.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is the paradigm story and it’s about
someone who is damned, who is converted and then saved. And the same
happens in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV where you get the religious
brother, Alexey and you get the atheist brother, Ivan. Alexey is a
religious novice. Ivan goes mad I seem to recall. In the middle is
Dmitry, who behaves terribly and then has a conversion experience,
like Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. I think it’s very
important in Dostoevsky’s theology to have the possibility of
conversion. But I’ve never understood, in Calvinism, how, if
you’re not one of the saved, you can become one. I think, with
Dostoevsky, he’s talking from his own experience. He’s
damned but he gets back in. But I don’t understand in Calvinism
how they affect that. If it's predestined, how do you do it?
I think that could bring us onto Pascal and A MAN
ESCAPED. One of the most arresting things for me that Bresson said is
in that famous Godard/Delahaye interview: He’s asked if he’s
a Jansenist and he replies “Janséniste, alors, dans le sens de
dépouillement…”, i.e. in the sense of “privation”.
I think he means because he’s austere and not florid, not
flamboyant. He’s a Jansenist in the sense that he has an
austere, stark, subtractive style. If he wants to show someone
opening a door, he shows a hand on the door handle. He doesn’t
show the whole figure, or the whole door.
But immediately following that Bresson says Pascal
is so "important for me". So he’s not really a
Jansenist here. It’s Pascal who’s important for him. Then
he adds “but he’s important for everybody” and you
think, “Yes but how many people have read Pascal?” I
certainly felt that, if I was to get inside Bresson, I really ought
to try to get inside Pascal. Now, I haven’t got as far as I’d
like. I tried reading the PENSEES, a really extraordinary book which
has influenced the tone and content of Bresson’s
NOTES ON THE CINEMATOGRAPHER. But I couldn’t really get inside
its Bressonian quality with regard to a worldview.
However, I did write an article on A MAN ESCAPED
after reading Pascal’s ECRITS SUR GRACE. In that essay, Pascal
argues in favour of the theology of St Augustine. He rejects two
groups, the Molinists — whom no-one’s ever heard of — who were
followers of Cardinal Luis de Molina (1535-1600) and who argued that
God has a conditional will to save all men generally. Pascal didn’t
like this because it excludes God from free will. It makes it sound
like all that humans have to do is to be good and deny evil and
they’re saved, so why bother with God. And at the other extreme
is Calvinism. In creating men and women, God made them by an absolute
will without prediction of their merit. God sent Jesus to redeem
those he wished to save and to give them his grace and salvation. And
God deprives of grace all those he’s resolved to damn. Pascal
calls this ’insupportable’ and he’s absolutely
right. It’s dreadful. You couldn’t possibly go through
the world thinking “I’m going to Hell, and there’s
nothing I can do about it”.
Pascal follows the Augustinian position. Cutting a long story rather
too short, he interprets this as God willing absolutely to save some people
and willing conditionally to damn others; that salvation comes from the will of
God and damnation from the will of man.
So, A MAN ESCAPED is a marvellous story on this
theme. It’s about a man condemned to death – ie. damned –
and through his own will fights his way back to salvation. That seems
a wonderful parable about humans and free will. It makes Fontaine’s
free will absolutely central, but then so is chance, so is the help
of others and so is the grace of God. There are all sorts of factors
working in there. Now, that’s all very well but as someone
asked me about the film, “Yes but who is going to Hell?”
And Pascal did, I think, believe some people were going to Hell. But
Bresson and indeed, the book he made the film from, neither book nor
film contain an explicit condemnation of the Nazis, of the Gestapo,
or of the French collaborators. The villain of the piece is Klaus
Barbie sitting in the Hotel Terminus, saying "You will be shot
on day X”. Yet all we see is his back. He’s totally
anonymous. So Bresson is far more interested in how someone can be
– So, I’m still trying to disentangle Pascal and
TC – Jansenism first. You get the Protestant
Reformation in response to perceived Catholic excesses, then the
Catholic Counter-Reformation, which reflects Catholicism regaining
confidence after this great schism. Then you get this swirl in the
seventeenth century in France, a very intellectually vibrant country,
with Descartes and others and Pascal. You get a
counter-Counter-Reformation, as it were.
Enter Cornelius Jansen, a professor at Louvain
University and briefly, Bishop of Ypres, who died in 1638. His
AUGUSTINUS was published posthumously and in it he writes about the
depth of human sin and the invincibility of divine grace. Enter
Bresson: LE JOURNAL, A MAN ESCAPED and PICKPOCKET are all stories
about deep human sin. Perhaps especially LE JOURNAL. It’s an
absolutely corrupt world, the village, among which the person with
grace — and he brings them all to grace — is the priest.
So, you have Jansen coming up with this theory.
How does that feed through in practical terms? Well, four things.
Apparently, Jansenism put emphasis, first, on practical acts of
charity as opposed to pious exercises. You get that tension between
the Catholic institutions just mouthing things and an alternative
regime, claiming to do it properly and actually to be charitable.
Secondly, there’s a very important element of discipline
concerning the Eucharist. Lapsed Catholics may say “Oh, anyone
can go to communion at anytime and get shriven” and then go
back to what they were doing. The Jansenists were much more rigorous
about this. They said “Look, if you’re going to have
pleasure, if you’re going to do something pleasurable today,
then you can’t go to communion.” They said you must be
much more prepared when you go to communion. So that’s a new,
much more austere approach.
– So I imagine that Bresson would take, not the strict theology
of that but the tone?
TC – Absolutely. We’ll come to that
further but I think that’s absolutely right. Thirdly, a deeper,
personal prayer life. And as I say, Jansenism also contains,
fourthly, an awareness of man’s wretchedness and dependence on
divine grace, which is what AUGUSTINUS is about, as opposed to –
and this is quoted from Krailsheimer’s book on Pascal, which is
very good – “comfortable optimism and reliance on human
means of salvation.” So, they’re being radical in the
church by saying “Look, the religious life is much, much harder
than you’re making it sound. It’s vital that we approach
Well, the Jansenists were in danger of being
excommunicated and in all sorts of trouble with the Catholic
authorities. They enlisted Pascal — somehow they got him on their
side – and he wrote for them a famous polemical work, LES
LETTRES PROVINCIALES. It’s a defence of Jansenism in part but
it’s mostly famous for being an attack on the Jesuits.
I see. So, in fact,
Jansenism and Pascal are very close at some point?
They’re close. But Pascal is much bigger, I think,
intellectually and for Bresson, than Jansenism. He’s a
brilliant mathematician and scientist and a very original thinker.
There is this Jansenist strand in his writing, especially about human
sinfulness but I think he’s also very intrigued by reason and
the operation of grace and the relationship between these two.
Pascal seems a modern thinker in this
understanding of other human functions and reason. Famously he said,
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.” He
understands that reason is important. He couldn’t help that.
He’s a mathematician and mathematics is the reasonable
discipline par excellence. Everything must be logical. Yet he found a
place for what has to be called the irrational.
bring that to L’ARGENT. The narrative in L’ARGENT is
completely logical but the characters in it are doing things, all the
time, that have nothing to do with reason. To Bresson, Pascal is
great in that sense. And let me add as well that Pascal had this
extraordinary sense of man’s cosmic smallness in the universe
and yet his importance at the same time. That feels very modern when
put alongside the existentialist sense that the individual is alone
in the universe.
So I think that Pascal is larger than Jansenism
and it’s why Bresson says he’s important for everybody.
Because I think he likes that larger picture.
It’s not too reductive. And I think that’s why Bresson
responds to Dostoevsky. I think Dostoevsky tried to delve into the
way an individual can do one thing one minute and the very next, do
something quite different. And chance plays a role, as well as free
PESSIMISM AND LUCIDITY:
JH – Let’s
use that as a way into one of the central debates around Bresson and
his films. You come down, on page 69 of your book, firmly on one side
of the debate. You divide the oeuvre at BALTHAZAR, as do many others.
And I think it touches on some of these issues around grace,
redemption and transcendence.
I wondered if you’d talk a little about the divide in Bresson’s
oeuvre and especially about the later films. Many who come from a
theological background find these films less satisfactory, or less
satisfying. Many who are modernist film lovers also find them less
satisfying too. They’re more modest, more austere in some ways.
Although I’d certainly want to make a defence of L’ARGENT
and the other later films.
TC – I have no problem with the later films
as films. I think L’ARGENT is an extraordinary film. Of the
later work, you can pick out four of the films, QUATRE NUITS, FEMME
DOUCE, LE DIABLE and L’ARGENT, all set in Paris, all about
modern youth. There seems to be, suddenly, a coalescence around a
particular milieu, even quite a well-off milieu in comparison to the
earlier films, eg. the Prison Cycle, where Michel in PICKPOCKET seems
to have no money.
Very snappy suit though!
TC – Well, up to a point, Jonathan! The different milieu makes the later films feel different. But it’s
much deeper than that. I wonder if LANCELOT DU LAC couldn’t be
interpreted as a remake of A MAN ESCAPED, turning it on its head. Now
that’s a rather provocative thing to say. But what I mean is
that A MAN ESCAPED is a wonderful, religious film, with a lot of
formal religion in it; a Protestant pastor, a Catholic priest,
inmates quote the Bible at each other, even when they’re not
allowed to speak and you feel, at the end, Fontaine and Jost running
off into the smoke, accompanied by the Mozart, into Heaven. It feels
thoroughly Catholic and religious. Fontaine has worked hard but God
has helped him and he’s attained salvation.
LANCELOT, by contrast, has none of these comforts.
And yet it’s the same theme. The knights come back to Arthur’s
camp, having not found the Grail and it’s all dreadful.
Right at the beginning of the film, the old woman says the person
whose footsteps I hear but do not see will die within the year. And
who turns up? Lancelot. She’s actually telling us that Lancelot
will be dead by the end of the film. We know the end of the film
before the beginning. So, like A MAN ESCAPED, where we’re told
the end in the title, the suspense is in the ‘how’.
Similarly, for Lancelot, the suspense is in how he must die. He’s
the great, courtly knight, so surely he must live. Anyway he comes
back and things go from bad to worse. Arthur says, “What we
must do is practice. And pray”. Which is exactly what Fontaine
had done. He practices. He keeps his hand in all the time. He starts
filing away at the door, not knowing what the next step is. He’s
doing something, careful and methodical. With craft, just like
Bresson’s own filmmaking. And in the end it pays off. The steps
So, Lancelot and the other knights, they practice
their jousting, they keep in trim. And they pray. There is one church
service in the film. But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t come
off. They’re not saved at the end and you wonder well, what is
the redeeming feature of this work? And all I can think of is that
Lancelot behaves in the most knightly fashion. He goes to the
tournament. He wins all of his contests and he tries to behave
chivalrously to Guinevere and yet, actually, he gets slaughtered at
the end, like they all do. The whole world, the whole medieval world
is wiped out, isn’t it?
So it’s got an utterly pessimistic ending
and yet it’s got shared elements with A MAN ESCAPED. But the
really interesting thing is that Bresson had been trying to make
LANCELOT for 20 years, I think. So if it is 20 years, in 1953 he’s
got the LANCELOT project. A year or two later he makes A MAN ESCAPED,
thinking about the same thing. But when he comes, finally, to make
LANCELOT, it comes out quite differently. If he’d made LANCELOT
in 1955, would it have been quite a different story? I think his
mind has moved such a long way.
– That’s a fascinating thought. But Bresson always
objected to this attribution of pessimism. If pressed, he preferred
to talk about lucidity and I think that’s interesting. Then
there’s this parallel argument that Kent Jones, for example,
makes I think. That the films, whether they’re pessimistic or
lucid, they’re so articulate and graceful, in the non-religious
sense, as artefacts, that there’s still something beautiful,
engaged and redemptive about this, even in such a world.
TC – Let’s say, Jonathan, something
about L’ARGENT. I think it’s very important. It only
comes at the end and after all those dreadful things but at the end,
Yvon does go to the police. “Put the handcuffs on me.”
It’s only 30 seconds, isn’t it but it’s still,
surely, meant to be redemptive.
– But less so, perhaps, than when the parallel scene occurs in LES
ANGES DU PECHE?
TC – Yes, there’s no music at that
point is there? It’s striking that in PICKPOCKET there’s
Lully, in JOURNAL there’s the Grunewald score, A MAN ESCAPED
ends famously with Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, in BALTHAZAR there’s
the lovely bells and Schubert and Monteverdi in MOUCHETTE. Bresson
uses music to inject the redemptive element but he then reacts
against that. He becomes subtractive. I’ll take that way. I’ll
take that away because it’s more lucid without it. I’m
not being pessimistic I’m being clearer. There’s still,
just, at the end of his working life, in the last frame of his career
as a filmmaker, he’s still got a redemptive moment. That’s
the first thing.
Secondly, about his style, of course, there’s
this gift for finding young people, particularly.
– Yes, there are rather few old people in his films.
TC – Famously there’s Jean-Claude
Guilbert in BALTHAZAR who then appears, unusually, again in
MOUCHETTE. He’s got rather a good face, a wonderful, painter’s
face. A painter would love that face. Now he’s an older central
character, although, having said that, the Klossowski character in
BALTHAZAR, he looks really unpleasant. He’s the man she sells
her body to, isn’t he? Really creepy and he’s an older
– On L’ARGENT, what do you make of that final shot? Yvon
is arrested, passes through the crowd and yet the crowd seems to
continue to look into the café.
TC – After he’s gone. Did you watch
that being shot?
– No, I was ill, I think, on that day. My guess is that Bresson
said “Right you lot, look that way” and so they did and
then didn’t dare pan to follow Yvon’s departure.
TC – My guess is that that’s the way
– But if a murderer walks out of a café, you’d
expect their eyes to follow him. But not one person does. I wonder,
is evil, if such a thing exists, still in the café?
TC – But isn’t it difficult, dangerous
even, to read too much into that?
– It’s the last shot of his last film. So it carries a
little bit of a burden!
AND “SPRITUAL STYLE”:
– But maybe let’s look at it from a different angle. Thinking
of Bresson, Dreyer and Tarkovsky – Rossellini I know less well
– do you think there’s something more that one might say
about a spiritual style of filmmaking? We’ve talked already
about respect for faces, the unknowability of souls and your sense of
Tarkovsky’s pre-eminence in this area but I wonder if we could
talk a little more?
TC – This is really an interesting question.
One thing I’ve been thinking about this week and wanted to say
is that I think Bresson’s style is spiritual in this sense –
as well as others – and that is that he understands the dynamic
and resonance of Biblical narrative.
You’ll be pleased to hear that I have my
Bible with me. I don’t carry it everywhere! Just as an aside,
the reason why I think Pasolini’s GOSPEL remains the benchmark
film of the Gospels is that he understands the narrative style of the
Gospel. Which is “Jesus did this. The disciples did that. Jesus
did this.” It’s fact after fact. Sentence after sentence.
The presentation of fact after fact after fact. Pasolini joins those
facts together but he doesn’t elaborate or explain, whilst the
whole tradition of modern cinema is to explain everything and it has
to seem to make sense psychologically. Which contradicts what we’ve
said about respect for — and the unknowability of — souls. And
Biblical narrative, it does make sense psychologically but you have
to discover it for yourself. So, famously GENESIS, which Bresson
wanted to make a film of…
– Yes, I wanted to ask you about that because you claim the
great unmade religious film is Dreyer’s…
TC – Yes, I might have to change that
assessment! But you see, look at this, just opening the Bible at
random. The verses begin “Then Jacob”, “And he
looked”, “And Jacob said unto them”, “And
they said”. You see, it’s like L’ARGENT, event
after event. Relentless.
JH – Of
course, you’re absolutely right. I’d never thought of it
quite like that.
TC – The film has this wonderful logic. You
want people to behave differently. You want to say “Stop”
but actually, everything that everyone does in that film makes
psychological sense. You say “Oh yes, I can understand that
that could happen”. And so in part — and BALTHAZAR is
definitely the same — like Biblical narrative, people do something and
then do something else that may seem to contradict what’s gone
before and yet it has credibility. I think Bresson has a spiritual
style in that sense because he understands the complexity of
human nature without explaining it. We’re back to his
imagination; he wants the viewer to do the work.
That’s really why I think he’s
the greatest filmmaker. Because he puts the onus on the viewer to
understand the narrative. And if you understand it, or are prepared
to make that commitment, then you are part of the creative process
and it’s much, much more rewarding. It’s also why you
have to see the films lots of times because you have to learn the
sequence of events and then when you see these sequences of images,
that’s when understanding comes. So I certainly think he’s
spiritual in that sense.
But there must also be something about the way he
films faces, to do with his background as a painter and having a
painter’s sensibility. You know, the marvellous thing about
Italian Renaissance painting is that everyone looks so lovely. And
yet, real. I’m not saying they’re idealised. But they
look lovely. And Bresson respects the beauty of human appearance.
Which is perhaps why he likes younger people because they haven’t
been ravaged by age and time. I think his style is spiritual in that
sense. Michel in PICKPOCKET is one of the most interesting
characters. He’s getting a bit older and he looks quite gaunt
but still beautiful.
– As did Raskolnikov.
TC – As did Raskolnikov. And Schrader is
interesting on this. He tries to link this with the iconographic
tradition. It’s an interesting idea but I’m not sure I’m
entirely persuaded. But then, Jonathan, I’m beginning to get
troubled. Isn’t this 'radiance' true of the star system too? Isn’t
the whole aesthetic of Hollywood lighting intended to bring out the
beauty of its stars? Now I’m sure Bresson would have a fit if
he heard me make such a comparison. They put on all that make up,
then the cameramen light them painstakingly. But ultimately, that’s
what it is. Clint Eastwood in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, he’s got a
very inexpressive face. He’s a good Bressonian in that respect.
He doesn’t go around grimacing much, not that I can recall but
something still radiates from him.
– I think most great Hollywood stars approach a Bressonian
quality in that sense. They’re not meant to do much. John
Wayne, even Richard Gere, they’re not meant to do a lot. A
star’s stock in trade is a magical, elusive stillness. Bogart
didn’t do a lot. It’s an ineffable, interior quality.
Being. And allowing writers, directors and audiences to project
something onto – or find within – a film star. Bette
Davis is maybe a counter-example.
writes in the Notes, ‘Model. “All face”’ but
of course, his faces are never consciously expressive and whilst
Bresson uses any number of close-ups, his close ups of faces are
invariably looser and less intrusive than those of mainstream
TC – And actually, it’s when star actors go
most over the top and show off that I have most sympathy with
Bresson’s problem with actors doing things that get in the way,
rather than reveal.
I can’t resist mentioning something I’ve
just read in an obituary for Virginia Mayo, who’s just died.
Very much Hollywood glamour of the 1940's and 1950's. Apparently she
was described by the Sultan of Morocco as “tangible proof of
the existence of God”!
JH – Touching on Bresson and actors, or ‘models’ do you see something in
terms of his spiritual endeavours that goes on in this area? I’m
thinking of his argument about automatism, taken from Montaigne and
the states of soul unconsciously revealed to camera and tape
recorder. Do you have any sympathy with that approach?
TC – I do. But I’m not sure that I
understand it properly. What I do understand is something I think
Bresson says in one of his interviews. The word “ascetic”
comes from the Greek “askeesis” which means “practice”
or “exercise”. And that’s a very important feature
of religion. Religion is about practice.
So, if you’re a monk, a medieval monk, you
have to go to services seven times a day. Imagine what it’s like.
You get bored. Of course you can drop out mentally but you keep
going. The spiritual life – and this is true of Islam, Buddhism
or Hinduism – is about the progress of the soul. Which means going
through hard labour, regular practice, doing it all the time. And
getting better all the time. And I think Bresson’s practice is
his filmmaking. Keep working to get it right. Keep practising to get
You start with LES ANGES DU PECHE and you end up
with L’ARGENT. It’s a continuous process, undertaken with
continuous practice and through asceticism. And in religion, of
course, this is what comes out. You engage in the ritual all the time
and then, suddenly, a spiritual experience happens. Certain
conditions arise which could only have arisen because you’ve
been there, waiting for them as it were. It’s like if you
support a football team, let’s say Torquay United. You go to
watch them, week in, week out. A passionate supporter — although for
nine-tenths of the time it’s absolutely dreadful, until there’s
some wonderful match where Torquay win 3-2 in the last minute. It’s
the moment of illumination you’ve been waiting for. Well, with
religion it’s a bit like that. I go to the Eucharist each
Sunday. Sometimes it’s boring and other times I get a real
insight, a powerful experience. And that’s just at a very
I do think that, in the monastic life, or the life
of the hermit, you wait for God to happen. And I think Bresson’s
filmmaking is like that. He’s waiting for the special moment
and that’s why, I think, he puts his actors, or models, through
that automatism. What was the Montaigne quotation again?
– “The movements of the soul were born with same
progression as those of the body.” Although Bresson later
expands on this elsewhere I think, “Only… if it’s
TC – So Bresson is waiting for the magic to
happen. And maybe he’s trying to help the magic happen, or is
waiting for it to happen, in each shot. I can see Claude
Laydu in LE JOURNAL as Bresson’s paradigm case. He’s a
wonderful find. Laydu has this wonderful quality to him, in almost every
– I find what you’ve just said incredibly interesting and
insightful. As you know, I’ve spent a long time thinking and
writing about this and even indulging in my own practice, this stuff
around the spiritual documentary aspect of Bresson. And what you’ve
just said is, for me, a revelation. You’ve found a way to make
sense of my feeling that Bresson is all about process, before and
above and beyond product. And your discussion of spiritual practice
has given those intuitions a particular form. Form, which is
psychologically and theologically plausible in Bresson’s case.
So, I’m personally very grateful for those insights. Insights I
find very penetrating and absolutely born of your own spiritual
awareness and focus.
On a more prosaic
level myself and just to calm any Torquay fans out there, who might
otherwise have been on the verge of buying Tim’s book, I’m
a Chelsea fan. And even if we do win many weekends at the moment,
it’s still a frustrating experience and after 30 years of
waiting, this feels briefly like our moment. A brief moment of grace.
We’re probably running slightly out of time now Tim but two
things I’d like to talk about are Bresson’s literary
sources and the unmade films. The unmade films include, of course,
LOYOLA and GENESIS, two very self-consciously spiritually, or
theologically, engaged subjects.
TC – Very much so and let me pursue a
specious train of thought here. Loyola is founder of the Society of
Jesus. We talked of Pascal and Jansenism earlier. The Jansenists were
at loggerheads with the Jesuits. Pascal was a Jansenist. Bresson is a
Pascalian, if not a Jansenist. Therefore, Bresson is in the Jansenist
camp against the Jesuits and yet he wants to make this film about
Loyola, who founded the Jesuit Order. Now, where does he stand on all
– Would he have demonstrated that Loyola was a Jansenist?
TC – No. I think that he’s
looking for a religious life from which to shape a religious narrative, and focuses
on Loyola who is, after all, the author of the Spiritual Exercises. Which would have
appealed to Bresson enormously, I’m sure. Exercises. Religion
is about process. Painful, demanding exercise. Religious experience
is hard to come by but one way you can do it is through exercise; and
the Greek “askeesis”, which I mentioned earlier, can mean
not just “exercise” but also “military exercise”.
As King Arthur says to his knights, “Practice and pray.”
This is Bresson’s classical education coming out, is it not?
– That’s terribly interesting. I’ve just never seen
it like this. You’re underlining conclusions I’ve come to
from a quite different direction but this is absolutely fascinating.
TC – So that’s LOYOLA. But GENESIS, I
think he’d have been intrigued and terribly interested by the
narrative. Is there a treatment or a script?
– Yes, I think so and he came close to raising the finance to
make the film too, I believe. Even after L’ARGENT. And he’d
thought about the appropriate language. But on literary antecedents,
what are your feelings about Dostoevsky and Bernanos?
TC – I’ve been keen personally on Dostoevsky
all my life. AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, I think, was written and then he
heard about Mishkin in THE IDIOT hearing the donkey braying. “Quelle
idée admirable.” But there is a Dostoevskian quality to the
narrative because the donkey is the IDIOT himself, witnessing all
these dreadful things going on around him. And then, of course,
you’ve got FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER and UNE FEMME DOUCE. And
PICKPOCKET. Did he read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT? He must have and then
said to himself, “Well, I won’t make that film exactly”
but PICKPOCKET is a film that came out of that.
Things appeal to him in the story. What is that
appeals in that story? Well, the conversion, or the repentance, in
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Dostoevsky was a very fashionable author in the
twentieth century but what was fashionable was the crime bit. It’s
the psychology of the criminal. And I think some people can’t
be bothered with the hundred pages at the end when he goes into exile
and experiences conversion. There’s a marvellous Soviet version
of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, by Lev Kulidzhanov in 1969 and I think they
jettison it. They stop where he gives himself up to the police
inspector. They don’t bother with the religion. So I think it’s
interesting that Bresson clearly saw that as a key part of the story.
The way the relationship between the police officer and Michel
progressed, he liked that tremendously but also the character of the
girl, Sonya in the novel, Jeanne in the film. I think he liked the
character of the prostitute and he transferred and updated that to
– Interestingly, in L’ARGENT, Kent Jones notes that
Bresson gets rid of much of the religious subject matter and tone of
the Tolstoy original but then it might be that Tolstoy is rather more
cloying and pious.
TC – That would be worth looking into but I
haven’t read the Tolstoy short story. Let’s come on to
Bernanos. Although Bernanos’ JOURNAL may be a bit of an
acquired taste, I think it’s a wonderful book. Partly because
it enlarges the film for me. You can’t help reading it without
seeing the film. It’s one of the most wonderful adaptations of
a novel for the screen. And despite the fact that Bresson throws a
lot out, it is extraordinarily faithful.
When the Curé goes to see the Curé de Torcy, who
tries to knock him into shape, there’s a two-page speech from
Torcy in Bernanos. Bresson’s preserved just one sentence from
that but he’s captured the spirit of it. It’s a wonderful
piece of French polemics, about how people should behave. And so true
to life. This is how God has made us. In the parish you will spend
your day building things up and in the night it will all be blown
away, so the next day you will start again. You get this in the film
as well as the book. The Cure has dreadful nights. He’s awake.
He can’t sleep, he can’t pray. All his dark pessimism
comes out at night. That is so true to life, especially for a parish
priest. Human beings can be so difficult to work with; you wanting to
love them and wanting to save them.
Also, he’s writing about rural France, not the
affluent, bourgeois urban communities but poor people, living in
squalid conditions. That comes out very clearly in MOUCHETTE.
I re-read LA NOUVELLE HISTOIRE DE MOUCHETTE
recently and it’s quite powerful. Bernanos had a thing about
alcohol and drunkenness, which is a very strong metaphor about
people’s minds being corrupted. We’re back to the depths
of man’s wretchedness. Bernanos was a very modern writer in
that sense. There’s no sentimentality. I suspect a lot of
Catholic narrative in the nineteenth century — and into the twentieth
— was sentimental. Pious too. And he wants none of that.
– Bresson is this great, central figure in auteur cinema and
yet, of course, apart from LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT, every single film
had a pre-existing source of some sort.
TC – True. Bresson was a wise auteur. I’m
sure he’d have recognised the importance of these people and
he’s clearly very widely read and interested in literature. Any
great artist, all of that stands behind him or her and Bresson is no
different. So, while PICKPOCKET is a version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,
maybe it’s not what you’d expect.
– No but they do all have these literary antecedents. Not true
of Tarkovsky, for example.
TC – No. Jonathan, is this again something
to do with Bresson’s spiritual style? It’s almost as if
he put all of his originality into his style. Well, that’s not
quite true because he adapts so radically that his stories become
original. BALTHAZAR, I know there’s a source for it but the film is
terribly original and so much his. But he does delegate
responsibility for narrative material. He’s concentrating on
ways to handle narrative, to be expressive. His central concern is
not that of the narrative itself but of the way of exploring and
expressing it in a way that makes it viable on screen.
– In fact, I think he probably struggled to write. I don’t
think he enjoyed writing. So, I think, perhaps he liked to work with
a source. I think that there’s something around that. I think
there’s something in what you say, that he found congenial,
profound sources that he found some connection with and then both,
simultaneously, often remained rather faithful to those sources and
yet, also transformed them and made them entirely serve his ambitious
and very particular purposes.
also accords with my view that the narratives were pretexts for
Bresson but not pretexts that one can dismiss. And so, turning to
such engaging and engaged sources might have proven very fruitful to
him. Pretexts in the sense that you’re saying he was drawn to
exploring ways of handling narrative, exposition, tone and
expressiveness. And in the sense that particularly interests me,
which is that Cinematography aspires to a kind of documentary
approach. A documentary of the model’s soul.
before we finish, I wonder if we could explore one final area. In the
mid-1930’s Bresson made his début with the medium-length
AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES. He was in his mid 30s himself at the time,
so a mature man. Just a few years later, however, in 1943, during the
German Occupation, he made the very different LES ANGES DU PECHE. A
confident, mature, more serious and fully realised film. Forty years
after that, he made his final film, L’ARGENT, which has a
recognisable relationship to LES ANGES DU PECHE. AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES
is quite separate from the later films and so it’s impossible
not to ask what happened during the War that so radically affected
Bresson. Of course, it’s also underlined by his subsequent
fascination with imprisonment, following his own period of
imprisonment as a POW.
also spoken about the emergence of neo-realism at the end of the War
and something else I wanted to ask you about is the influence of
post-war Existentialism on Bresson. I often think about Bresson in
terms of pre-war Modernism and all those creative and intellectual
currents in pre-war Paris. But you write about Existentialism. So I
guess my question – if I’m ever going to form one — is in
two parts. What do you find in this Modernism/Existentialism debate
and what do you see in this maturity/prisoner of war debate?
TC – Pre-LES ANGES DU PECHE, I know little
about Bresson and his life.
– Well, there are some surrealist photographs, the paintings
which seem to have been lost at the time of the War. And then
AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES, which was just relatively recently rediscovered.
TC – It must be the case that the experience
of having been a prisoner of war will have been influential. He’s
released early and comes back to Paris. France under Occupation is
awful. And he makes this film about a convent, ostensibly perhaps so
that he didn’t have to engage with the modern world. He starts
thinking about narrative. He’s made these paintings and these
photographs but they’re static images. And now he starts
thinking about narrative and what narratives he’s drawn to and
in what ways and what he can start to do with narrative.
– And what would it have been like to have made a film in Paris
during the Occupation? Would you have had to make some kind of
accommodation with the occupying power?
TC – Well, I think you
would. The classic way to do that would have been to make a film set
in the past. The best example is the Prévert/Carné film LES VISITEURS
DU SOIR, which is set in medieval France and so, ostensibly, nothing
to do with the modern world. But I believe that French audiences at
the time felt that the film was commenting on their predicament and
even more so, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS although, admittedly, that was
finished after the liberation of France. Again, it is set in the past
but that scene at the end, with the crowds, must have reminded the
audience of the liberation of Paris. And yet, everything goes wrong
for Baptiste. Carné and Prévert make this very pessimistic film about
the joy of carnival and crowds, in which the individual is sad and
So what was the experience of Occupation? Well, of
course, lots of filmmakers just made entertainment films and didn’t
worry too much about other things. You were making a livelihood. If
you wanted to comment seriously, if you wanted to be a Resistance
writer, you had to be a journalist, like Camus. You couldn’t
make films openly about the Resistance. And moving to Italy, where you
faced the same problem, one of the things about Rossellini is that he
made films under the Fascist regime, so are they a collaborator’s
films? The fact that he did make films during the Fascist era is
rather held against him. But the Germans leave and they immediately
start on ROME OPEN CITY, trying to tell Italy and as it turns out,
the whole world, about what life was like under Occupation. I think
it must have been very difficult. If you had a conscience and you
wanted to portray the world as it was, how could you make films? Very
– Was Existentialism born in a moment, if you will, at the end
of the war?
TC – Well, what is
Existentialism? In France, the central character is clearly Sartre
and he’s published LA NAUSEE in 1938 and THE ROADS TO FREEDOM
in 1945. Camus is working as well in France. Elsewhere, there are
Jaspers and Heidegger. Certainly Existentialism, or Existentialist
texts, were in circulation before the discovery, or widespread
knowledge, of the horrors of Auschwitz. But the excesses of the War,
of the concentration camps and of the moral and economic corruption
of collaboration, all underpinned the post-war ascendancy of
Existentialism in France. And Sartre’s short story, LE MUR, is
about people in prison awaiting execution and might be characterised
as an atheist counter-balance to A MAN ESCAPED in that it ends with
a random death. French Existentialism undoubtedly equates with Sartre
Did Bresson’s attraction
to the apparent reasonableness of suicide come in any way
from Existentialism? Camus had published THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS in
1942, whose opening sentence goes, “There is but one truly
serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Life must
have felt devoid of meaning for many Frenchmen during the war and
Bresson, being a thinking Catholic, must have reflected deeply on
death. Was it, in fact, the solution to meaninglessness if it could
be linked in with some act of salvation? It could be a willed route
JH – Tim, the sun
is setting and I’ve taken up your entire afternoon. It’s
been fascinating to discuss the filmmakers we both hold dear and
especially to discuss Bresson’s spiritual style. Your insights
around Bresson’s Biblical approach to exposition and
psychology, his focus on practice in an almost spiritual sense and
your thoughts on the choice of narrative sources have all been
especially valuable. Thank you.