Back from vacation…Bresson

For those who have been wondering about my recent absence, I went to a music festival with some friends last week and was surprised to discover I didn’t have Internet access for a few days. Stay tuned for several updates…

After I arrived back home yesterday, I learned of Terrence Rafferty’s piece on Robert Bresson in Sunday’s New York Times, an article that fails to generate much enthusiasm for Bresson’s work and perpetuates ho-hum and presumptious ideas about the filmmaker’s “darkening” tone and “loss of faith” in his later films. Whenever interviewers asked Bresson about his increasing lack of redemptive endings and suggested a change in his worldview, he always seemed genuinely mystified by their suggestion, and he was right to do so in at least one sense: if the grace glimpsed in his work was always present and dependable, it would cease to be noteworthy. Grace and the lack of grace go hand in hand; one doesn’t preclude the other.

Rafferty quotes Paul Schrader, whose writing on Bresson also tends to suffer from a tendency to force the filmmaker into certain philosophical straightjackets:

Schrader: But in your last three films, the colour films, Une femme douce, Four Nights of a Dreamer, and Lancelot, I feel a new direction in your films which I don’t fully understand and . . .

Bresson: Because they are in color?

Schrader: No. My supposition is that in the earlier films there was an effort to create, if not saints, the possibility of saintliness in a world without God, to use Camus’ phrase, and I sense that in the most recent films that you are trying to create a kind of saintliness in a world without theology.

Bresson: You can’t say that about Lancelot.

Schrader: I feel that from Diary of a Country Priest to Balthazar, you were working off a given theology, and now you are forging new terrain. I can understand creating a saint without God, but I can’t understand creating a saint without theology. Does this make any sense to you?

Bresson: No, no, because the more life is what it is–ordinary, simple–without pronouncing the word “God,” the more I see the presence of God in that. I don’t know how to quite explain that. I don’t want to shoot something in which God would be too transparent. So you see, my first films are a bit naive, too simple. It is very hard to make a film, so I did it with great simplicity. The further I go on in work, the more I see difficulty in my work, the more careful I am to do something without too much ideology. Because if it is at the beginning, it wouldn’t be at the end. I want to make people who see the film feel the presence of God in ordinary life, like Une femme douce in front of death. . . . But there is the presence of something which I call God, but I don’t want to show it too much. I prefer to make people feel it.

Schrader: Do you sense this change?

Bresson: The change in my work? Of course. I said that in the first film it was too obvious. I don’t want it to be.

Schrader: Maybe that’s what I mean when I say that in your later films, I don’t feel a sense of theology.

Bresson: Not in Lancelot?

Schrader: You seem to be creating your own theology rather than work off a previous theology.

Bresson: I see another way to answer your question. Ideology is the moral. I don’t want to be ideological. I want to be true, I want to have a certain way of being on top of life, and I don’t want to show you anything especially. I want to make people feel life as I do: that life is life, and in everything, the most ordinary, the most material, I see ideology.

–May 17, 1976