In 1985 I was lucky enough to have a very bright group of students. They were bright enough to admire Robert Bresson. During a conversation one of them said ‘why don’t we invite him to visit the NFTS. In response I said I thought he would be very unlikely to come but perhaps we could visit him.
In retrospect I can’t imagine what was I thinking - why would this great but very private man accept to entertain students - and from England too?
But I had made the proposal and enthusiastic students assume you can work miracles - at the very least I would have to get a response from Bresson - even though I could predict that the answer would be no.
I decided to make a modest request - that four students and I come to visit for a few hours for a private conversation somewhere conveniently close to his Paris apartment. I made contact through the good offices of Jonathan Hourigan who had been Bresson’s assistant on L’Argent.
Eventually - when I thought I would never hear and my students had lost faith in me the reply came. Here it is - in his own handwriting dated October 7th 1985. He explains that he had been in the country when my letter arrived.
To my amazement he invited us to visit him in his apartment on three consecutive afternoons later that month. To this day I have no idea why we were so blessed and I have no evidence that other groups of students were ever given such privileged access. On the due day we mounted the stairs to his apartment on the third floor at 49 quai de Bourbon: an Argentinean guy a Greek girl, a Scottish lass, an English lad and me: anxious but eager.
We were ushered into a sparsely furnished room with plain wooden floors and large windows, which let out onto the street close to the Seine. There were six chairs and it was clear how the mise-en-scene was to work. We sat in silence - exchanging only nervous smiles. Eventually Bresson appeared and sat facing us immediately challenging us to ask him whatever we wished.
After a short while conversation began to flow. Bresson wanted to know about the students’ own work and they kept bringing the talk back to his inspiration and methodology.
This dialogue continued over three days for as long as there was enough light from the street to illuminate the interior of the room. Each day when Bresson stood to switch on the light we knew the session was over. By that time the street lamps were casting long and intense shadows on the opposite wall. This gloom was strangely uplifting - confirming that we were sharing a special time and space with Bresson.
From time to time I felt that Bresson was in pain - I know I wanted to feel that rather than to sense impatience or irritation. This was not perhaps kind to him but preferable to me - identifying with the desire of my students to honour him with intelligence and sensitivity rather than crudeness and ignorance.
Yes he confirmed that he believed Mozart to have been the last great composer, Dostoevsky the last great novelist and Cezanne the last great painter. None of this was new to us and indeed we were reminded that it was because Bresson thought Cezanne had exhausted his exploration of painting that he had turned to cinema. So we have a lot to thank Cezanne for.
Aside from such categorical statements the conversation was simply serious and inspirational. We spent the mornings at the Cinematheque in private screenings of Bresson films we hadn’t been able to see back in England. For each session we arrived with our expectations intensified.
Come the last afternoon we had two requests. Tremulously I asked if Bresson would be photographed with the group. No was the emphatic answer that brooked no appeal. I almost decided not to voice the second request, but he was waiting. Could we possibly make copies of any of your scripts? ‘Which ones?’, he replied. Panic as we consulted. In the end three were agreed upon. Two of the students were dispatched to the nearest copying place whilst the other two were detained with me as insurance. I now possess priceless copies with Bresson’s own annotations - no better souvenir can be imagined.
When we returned to England I asked my little band of Bressonians to write down their impressions. After all these years I can’t find them and they are vague in my memory. What I do know is that they mostly recalled how it felt rather than what he said. We knew we had shared a unique experience that would bind us together forever.
Four years later, in October 1989 I am in Moscow, invited to celebrate the 70 birthday of the Russian film School. It is a bright autumnal day, one to encourage Muscovites to take the air. I am walking down the one street in the old town, which has been preserved as it was in the nineteenth century with painted wooden buildings and no motorised traffic. I am walking with my interpreter who has just treated me to the Tretyakov Art Gallery, which houses many beautiful icons and paintings. She has revealed the narrative behind many of these paintings and brought them alive for me.
We are walking towards on of the few reaming cinemas in Moscow that boast a live orchestra, which plays in a sort of minstrels gallery in the beautiful art-deco foyer.
As we walk my companion goes silent. She is watching the people as they pass. ‘Look’ she says, ‘all these dead souls’. I do not want to accept her words. ‘Surely,’ I say, ‘dormant not dead’. ‘No, dead’ she says. We walk on in silence both now peering at the passing parade.
Are visiting the cinema we retrace our steps, both physically and mentally. The faces now haunt me - I feel guilty at condemning their souls. ‘Lost I think, not dead but lost souls’ I murmur. ‘Perhaps’, says Marina, ‘at least then they could be found again’.
If you have seen ‘Le Diable probablement’ you might understand my train of thought. Here we have a portrait of a generation, some students in a time and place, who seem lost. Ironically the few who are not ‘lost’, like the psychoanalyst are actually disconnected from genuine feeling or understanding.
When the film was made in 1977 less than a decade had passed since the student and worker protests of ’68. On the surface that phenomenon represented a mass expression of a desire for change and from the perspective of that generation there was a period of hope amidst the cold war and the nuclear threat.
It was a false dawn and Bresson’s perspective nine years later seems to imply that many souls are lost with nowhere to turn for hope or solace.
Despite the lack of substantial narrative this film has a consistency of tone, which gains in strength from the matching of Bresson’s asceticism to the mood of the protagonists. In particular the rigorously inexpressive ‘performance’ style is entirely sympathetic with a world of lost souls. What really struck me on that Moscow street in 1989 was that the more I looked for life in the faces of the people we passed the more I saw inanimate masks that spoke not just of being lost but of being doomed.
Yet Bresson’s people do articulate. In the most important scene for me, on the bus, the question is asked who or what is to blame for the desperate state of affairs in the world. Eventually someone says ‘the devil probably’, at which point the driver stops the bus and gets off. Nobody follows him. It is as if Bresson is saying either that God has abandoned us or that we have turned our backs on him, and we are on our own, and it is too late to prevent catastrophe. Perhaps the whole human race is committing suicide.
Is there any film in the history of cinema that has become more relevant rather than less thirty years after it first appeared? I can think of only one: Bunuel’s ‘Phantom of the Liberty’ and there random terrorism completes the picture in prophesising our world in the 21st century. Two such different filmmakers but with comparably intense perceptions.
When the four students and I left Bresson for the last time the sense of elation was overwhelming - we felt cleansed and renewed in a way that only an intense spiritual experience can bring. The same feeling comes from watching his films and this one is no exception. We should feel desperately depressed but I always feel uplifted. He creates a catharsis in a way only a genuine artist can and we can only be grateful for the legacy of his work.