Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Robert Bresson | Le Journal d'un cure de champagne, Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette


by Douglas Messerli

Robert Bresson (writer and director), based on a novel by Georges Bernanos Le Journal d’un curé de champagne / 1951, USA 1954
Robert Bresson (writer and director) Pickpocket / 1959, USA 1963
Robert Bresson (writer and director) Au Hasard Balthazar / 1966, USA 1970
Robert Bresson (writer and director) Mouchette, based on a novel by Georges Bernanos / 1967, USA 1970

Robert Bresson’s third film, Le Journal d’un curé de champagne, brought him international attention and awards, including the 1951 Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Like his later film, Mouchette, Diary of a Country Priest was based on a novel by the noted French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, and like that later film, this work is a bleak portrait of French provincial life.

A young priest (Claude Laydu), fresh out of seminary, is assigned to the village of Ambricourt in northern France. Innocent and highly idealistic, the priest feels dissociated from and uncomfortable with his often cynical and crude parishioners. These people are, according to the seasoned priest of nearby Torcy, are a vengeful and mean folk, going so far—as a local schoolgirl, Séraphita tells him—to lace wine with drugs upon the priest’s visit, just to observe him fall into a stupor upon his return home, which, in their gossip, they can portray as drunkenness. The priest, however, has big changes in mind for his community, which, despite the warnings of the Torcy priest and the local count, he attempts to enact, meeting with resistance and ridicule from nearly all. Even his catechism students involve him in their schoolgirl jokes.

His one regular churchgoing wor-shiper, Miss Louise, a nanny at the chateau, unintentionally involves him with the family at the chateau. While the husband eventually dismisses the aspirations of the priest, the young daughter of the house further draws him into the life of her family by reporting that her father and her nanny are having an affair. When the priest finally determines to approach the girl’s mother, he discovers a woman who, long aware of his husband’s infidelities, has determined to forgive them at the expense of her own salvation and happiness.

In a long and fascinating discussion about human will in relation to God’s grace, the priest attempts to reconcile the woman to her savior.

Countess: Love is stronger than death. Your scriptures say so.
Curé d’Ambricourt: We did not invent love. It has its order, its law.
Countess: God is its master.
Curé d’Ambricourt: He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you
would love, don’t place yourself beyond love’s reach.

Miraculously, he succeeds in her returning to her faith, but when she dies that same evening her family and the entire community is even more outraged by his intrusion into this woman’s and other’s lives.

Meanwhile, the priest himself is suffering not only from severe doubts about the power of his faith and his ability to lead this village, but is unable to eat most foods, surviving primarily on bread crusts and the wine into which he has dipped them; in short, he eats only the elements of the sacrament, bread and wine. A trip to a doctor in a neighboring town reveals that he is terminally ill with cancer, and, upon visiting a seminary friend living in that town—a man who, having failed to finish his education, leads a desultory and poverty-stricken life as a writer—the young priest dies after apparently coming to terms with his own failures and recognizing that “All is grace,” that God himself is grace.

Such a plot summary, however, can give one no idea of the power of Bresson’s film, which in scene after scene pits the beautiful, finely-boned, almost monk-like priest (Laydu, a nonprofessional actor, apparently studied the mannerisms of priests and fasted to achieve the wan, fragile look of the priest) against the everyday commonness and earthiness of these village folk. The film begins with an image of young couple in the midst of a lusty kiss, breaking away from each other as the priest enters their terrain. The nearby priest, a hard-headed pragmatist, has few delusions about the people, and it is clear that he has survived only because he has demanded petty obedience to the church’s laws as opposed to sweeping change. The local doctor, Delbende—one of the few men of intelligence of the community—has apparently never heard of Semmelweis and antiseptic techniques. He literally looks and smells of the earth, and returns to the earth by killing himself.

The priest is clearly an aesthete, a man not of action but of symbolic acts and a spiritual language that in contrast to the community he is attempting to serve often appears—as well as to the film’s audience—to come out of nowhere, as if he were speaking in tongues. If nothing else, his highly pitched intensity, revealed in long narrational passages as he is seen writing his diary, seems utterly at odds with the everyday events and behavior of his surroundings.

As in many later films, Bresson focuses on bodily parts, particularly the hands, to help engage the reader in the priest’s sense of displacement. Throughout the film, the priest’s hands seem almost to flutter into motion (with many the sexual connotations that word suggests) while those around him stand stolidly against or stomp into space.

The priest, on the other hand, represented significantly by pen in hand, repeats the words of his journal as if they were a sacred text. Repeatedly he signs the blessing. When the countess throws her locket containing the picture of her dead son into the fire, the young priest quickly reaches into the flames to retrieve it.

Moreover, he speaks of the role hands have in his beliefs, recalling the hands of “the virgin rocking the world’s cradle,” and, as he lifts the countesses’ veil as she lies upon her deathbed, rhapsodizing: “Oh, the miracle of our empty hands!” in his apparent startlement of discovering the effect—having blessed the countess at the end of their conversation—one can achieve, despite his feelings of inadequacy, with a simple touch.

Part of the dilemma of this man’s life is that no one dares to show him love or even encourage his acts. Only once or twice is he blessed by the touch of other’s hands, the most important of these moments being when Séraphita discovers him face down in the mud, and he awakens to the touch of her washing away the blood and mud from his face before pulling him into the safety of a temporary hiding place where we can comfortably sleep off the drug-laced wine he has drunk.
The second such event is when a relative of the count invites him to ride on the back of his motorbike, and with hands intently placed upon the handle bars, takes this man of god on a wild ride, so delighting the priest that we suddenly recall he is after all a young boy who might, had he chosen another path, be thrilled by life.

In the isolated village of Ambricourt there is no one to embrace—not only sexually, of course, since he has taken the vow of chastity—but symbolically or spiritually, the only methods left to him. The emptiness with which he faced is indeed the disease which kills him, a cancer which leaves him equally with an empty stomach. Despite his own dying perception, we can only ponder why he was offered so little earthly grace.

Los Angeles, March 19, 2000

Pickpocket is one of Bresson's greatest films, although US viewers have often described it as being stiffly-acted with scenes that appear to be "phony." In his introduction to the Criterion release of the film, script writer Paul Schrader explains, in part, why this film was so meaningful to him by discussing how Bresson worked against the genre of the crime story, and, in fact, pushed against traditional narrative techniques.

Through his use of "non-actors"—individuals who never before appeared in films who speak lines not as portrayals of "reality" but somewhat flatly and uninflected—through his repetition of the action—often reporting what was about to happen and then showing it again—and through his odd employment of music—stealing it from emotional scenes and bringing it in at seemingly inopportune moments—Bresson works against both narrative and genre; "this is not like a crime movie," Schrader summarizes. The slow movement of the actors, Bresson's "single" or even full-length shots, and the deprivation of emotional expression on the actors' often blank faces, moreover, all work together to create in the viewers a sense of unease that builds up to the final moments when the failure of his life is revealed to the "hero," Michel (Martin LaSalle). In short, if to some viewers the film seems stiff and artificial, it is purposely and effectively so.

What Schrader does not describe however, is the even more disquieting relationship this film has with parts of the body, particularly the hands, which lends to the work an uneasy sensation of voyeurism. Indeed, I will go so far as to describe this film as a series of mimed sex acts, most of them homoerotic.

Obviously, we see only fragments of body parts, and the scenes are always played out with clothed actors. We understand, moreover, the "real" action to be a portrayal of robbery.
The situation is simple. A friend of Michel's, Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), tries to help the out of work man find a job. "You're good with your hands," he tells Michel. But Michel demures, preferring, so it seems, the emptiness of his shiftless life. We later discover that he has gone as far as to steal money from his own mother.

One day, after witnessing a pickpocket at work on a train, Michel cannot resist attempting a similar act. When he accomplishes it—out of pure luck, he confesses—he feels as if "I was walking on air." However, soon after, he is arrested, freed only because the police do not have enough evidence. Like an addict, however, he returns to carry out several other such robberies, that is until he meets up with another man who appears to be following him, and who quickly becomes an accomplice, soon bringing in a third party as well.

It is at that moment, as the accomplice follows him, and Michel turns back to challenge the stranger that we begun to perceive in Bresson's work that any plot is basically laid to rest, as the director shifts instead to almost abstract patterns that are similar to sexual "cruising." Bresson begins, in long repetitious montages, to show us how to steal a billfold, a watch, a purse. In most cases the pickpocket must face the person (most often a male) directly head on, moving as closely to him as possible. The slip of the hand into the pocket (in Bresson's telling it is usually the upper breast pocket or the front coat pocket, seldom the back) must be supple and quick, almost as if one were stealthfully stroking the individual without him knowing it.

Michel's long, thin fingers sensually dart into pockets again and again, or those same fingers gently curl around the wrist as they remove a victim's watch. The passing of these trophies on to the others is as sudden and lascivious, as if they were sharing some sexual charge carried along with the objects they've stripped from the victims.

Indeed, it is the addiction to these encounters, the fixation on the placement of hands upon the bodies of others that makes this the perfect metaphor for the sexual act, and helps to keep the audience queasily attentive. Without quite knowing it, we feel that we are sharing something that should remain private.

In his public life, on the other hand, in his encounters with the detective, with Jacques, and the woman, Jeanne (Marika Green) who cares for his mother, Michel is a cold fish, arguing vaguely for a kind of anarchy in which "supermen" are permitted to behave as they like. Although it's clear he is attracted to Jeanne, he seems uncaring for her destitute situation and nonplussed by Jacques' growing love of her. Michel gains little, moreover from his thievery. He readily gives up most of the money to his mother and would support Jeanne if he could, while living in a hovel, a room that has no reason to exist except for providing him a place to sleep—sometimes for long periods when he becomes exhausted from his acts, just as one might from sex.

On the contrary, in public—at the races, on trains and subways, and in the lobbies of banks where he selects his "clients"—Michel comes alive in his search for something to put into his hands. Unlike the country priest in Bresson's earlier movie, whose hands remain empty, in his attempts express the miracle of life, Michel is seen desperately trying to fill up his hands, reaching out again and again for bodies that he cannot dare touch, only to discover fists full of watches, billfolds, and an occasional purse. As Jeanne correctly tells him "You're not in the real world."

After leaving Paris for a time, practicing his thievery elsewhere, Michel returns to find Jeanne alone with a child. For the first time, Michel begins to see her frailty and beauty, and determines to become honest. Jeanne, always the realist, however, knows the truth: "You have to leave me and never come back," she proclaims.

This time his addiction leads him back to Longchamps, the race track where he was first arrested. As he attempts to steal a bundle of money from a man who works with the police, we see a different encirclement of the wrist, a handcuff placed upon it. In prison—a place where, in fact, Michel has metaphorically been all along—he finally comes to see the emptiness of the things he has taken in favor of true physical contact. Jeanne appears at his cell, and the film ends with her kissing his hands through the prison bars, representing his possible redemption through love.

Los Angeles, February 4, 2000

Perhaps my favorite of Bresson's excellent films is Au Hasard Balthazar of 1966, perhaps because it is one of his richest and yet most forgiving of all this director's films. For the characters of Balthazar, each suffering or causing others to suffer, are also likeable human beings for whom the filmgoer feels, despite their failures.

At the center of this parable-like tale, is the donkey Balthasar, given upon birth to a young girl, Marie (the beautiful Anne Wiazemsky), who lives with her schoolteacher father (Philippe Asselin) and her mother (Nathalie Joyaut) on a farm whose owner also has a son her age, Jacques (Walter Green) and a sickly daughter. The three children, particularly the closely knit Jacques and Marie, lovingly care for and pet the animal, even performing over him a kind of baptism, which hints at the specialness of this beast.

When those childrens' mother dies, the father with his son and daughter move away, leaving the farm to the schoolteacher, who has always wanted to try his hand at farming with modern methods. But as a busy farmer with a now pubescent daughter less attentive to Balthasar, he determines the animal is no longer worth keeping, and sells him to the local baker.

Meanwhile, a small town thug, Gérard (Francois Lafarge) and his gang, have been sneaking into the farm, torturing the donkey while attempting to attract the attention of Marie. By coincidence, the baker hires Gérard to deliver his bread to outlying regions, using Balthasar as the beast of burden.

One day, while out driving, Marie observes the boy and her former donkey, and stops to pet the animal. Gérard enters her car and refuses to leave, followed by a series of pushing and pulling between the two that ends, predictably, with sex. That incident begins a long and abusive relationship between the two that scandalizes her family and enrages the small town.

Marie's father, meanwhile, has been a topic of gossip for the townspeople, mostly out of envy for his success, and when the gossip reaches the ears of the former owner, he demands a reckoning of accounts. Guiltless, Marie's father refuses to produce them, and the farm is taken from him. Jacques returns to try to reconcile the situation, but the father refuses to speak with him.

Because of Gérard's continual abuse of the donkey, the animal ultimately refuses to move, as the boy ties a newspaper around his tail and sets it on fire. The animal runs off in terror, and when Gérard finds him, he unwillingly moves on. By the next day, however, Balthasar refuses to even rise, as the baker prepares to euthanatize him. A local drunk takes him on, using him and another donkey to bear the burden of his menial tasks. He alternates with love and brutality as well, and, at one point, in the middle of a city street, the animal escapes his tormentor.

The next adventure for the poor donkey is at a circus, where he introduced to the other animals. Bresson's beautiful presentation of the animals' eye-to-eye contact, the doleful donkey meeting first a lion, then a polar bear, a monkey, and an elephant. A circus trainer perceives the donkey's intelligence and trains him to become a kind of Clever Hans who counts out major multiplications and divisions of numbers with his hoof. The animal is brilliant until he sees the drunk in the crowd and fearing him, breaks into a braying that ruins the act. Returned to the drunk, the donkey escapes once more, finding his way back to Marie and the farm.

By this time, however, Marie has become so involved with Gérard and his friends, whom Bresson portrays almost as a French equivalent of a gang of hoodlums, that she rarely returns home, her parents caught up in their grieving for her and their idyllic past.

The donkey is sent off to a local recluse, who uses the poor animal to grind wheat, beating the beast whenever it pauses in its endless circle of pain.

Miraculously the town drunk receives an inheritance, and celebrates with the young hoodlums and others at a local bar. Gérard, now drunk and almost in a rage, destroys most of the bar, dancing with another girl and refusing to even touch Marie. Marie, finally determined to escape her friends, shows up at the farm of the recluse, begging to stay in the barn for the night. He refuses, bringing her within the house, where she feeds herself—against his will—while discussing his greed. The evening ends with her offering him sex in return for a bed.

Ultimately, Marie returns home, and her mother insists that Balthazar be brought back to console her in her sorrow. Jacques revisits the family, offering to marry Marie, promising to never remind her of her past. But almost the moment he turns away to confer with her father, Gérard and his gang carry her off, raping her and leaving her naked in a nearby granary. Marie leaves forever, the father left to suffer, and, after a brief visit from the priest, to die.

Marie's mother, completely desolate, is visited by Gérard and his friends, who want to borrow the donkey for the night, but she refuses. He is all she has, she insists, and "Besides, he's a saint." Later they steal the animal, using it to traffic good—chocolates, hosiery, liquor, etc.—across the Swiss border. Authorities cry out "Customs Halt," and begin shooting, the boys running off. The donkey stands alone against the landscape as the camera moves in to reveal that Balthazar is bleeding.

By the morning the animal is on its knees as a herd of sheep move toward him, and surround. By the time the herd has moved on, we see Balthazar lying upon his side, dead.

For all the tears these last scenes bring to our eyes, however, Bresson's tale, we realize, is not as bleak as it sounds. In part, we readily recognize that all of the individuals of the film, cruel or loving, are humans very much like us. At times each of them is beautiful. Even the wrathful Gérard, sing out in a lovely voice in the church and is a stunningly sexual youth. As some critics have pointed out, each of the film's characters, while revealing themselves as potentially caring individuals, seem also to be inflicted with one of the seven deadly sins, a flaw which removes him or her from grace.

The director reveals the complexity of their desires and behavior through images of their legs, eyes, and, once again, most potently, through their hands. From the first images of the children's hands petting Balthazar's body, hands reached out with sugar to feed him, and hands pouring water upon the beast's head, we recognize that it is the empty hand, the open giving hand that signifies love and salvation. But here we simultaneously witness filled hands: hands holding sticks, whips, chairs, and guns, flattened hands that slap, clenched fists that pummel and beat. In one scene we witness Marie upon a bench, with Gérard crouching behind her, offering his hand in love, which she refuses. While a few images later, we see him and his gang hurling their fists against the donkey's hide. It is precisely this duality of experience, the simultaneous existence of long hands laid to rest, against clenched and closed hands of punishment, hurt, and hate, that is clearly Bresson's central image. Almost every figure of the film has within them the potentiality of either greedily grabbing at life or openly excepting experience, and it is their alternate decisions of which position to take that result in love or sorrow.

Los Angeles, June 4, 2011

Robert Bresson’s 1967 film Mouchette (released in the US in March 1970) is one of his most despairing of his oeuvre, but yet is one of his most celebratory of life. Based, like his Diary of a Country Priest, on a novel by Georges Bernanos, Mouchette, almost without plot, is the story of a fourteen-year-old school girl (Nadine Nortier) who lives in a dilapidated farm house with her dying mother, her alcoholic father and brother, and a new-born baby brother, for whose care she is responsible. Unhappy at home, mocked by her school-girl peers, and unable to participate (both financially and spiritually) in any the limited joys available to her, Mouchette, as Bresson himself described her, is “evidence of misery and cruelty. She is found everywhere: wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations.”

Like most of Bresson’s suffering figures, she nonetheless is more than resilient, ignoring and battling her schoolgirl companions and the neighborhood boys in their taunts. In a stunning scene at a weekend carnival, Bresson reveals the possibilities of her life through the movement of Dodg’em cars: at first her car is simply hit by others again and again, but gradually, as she spots and starts to flirt with a handsome boy in another “auto,” she manipulates her car into position to successfully crash into his and others’ cars. Later, as she begins to trail after the young man, she is quickly pulled aside by her ever watchful father and struck in the face.

Bresson films this young woman’s abuse with an almost abstract, “flat” directorial eye, allowing his non-actors (he chose evidently an entirely amateur cast) to reveal their own stories in action, since they are quite clearly a people of few words. Yet the actions in which they engage are anything but uneventful. Luisa, the local bartender is courted by the gamekeeper Mathieu, but is obviously more attracted to the small-time poacher Arsène. Like Mouchette, who occasionally helps out in the bar to earn her family a few more coins, Luisa’s life is one of repetition and boredom, but in her role as the dispenser of what all the men seek—wine and liquor—she is a woman of power, while Mouchette has so little choice over her life that she hardly casts a shadow.

As in his other films, Bresson employs the images of hands in this work—the camera follows Luisa’s hands over and over as she pours out the drinks, lingers over Mouchette’s attempts to soothe and heal her mother and to hold and change the diaper of her baby brother, and mocks her father’s bedtime antics of driving a car—but it is the legs and feet of his characters that dominate: the embarrassing slap of Mouchette’s clogs against the earth as she arrives late to school and the later loss of one of those shoes in a storm; the angry crush of dirt into the carpet of an old woman, who late in the film, demands Mouchette ponder her own death.

What also gives this film such power is the oddity of its few events, particularly the scene beginning with her journey home from school through the woods. In this woods we have already observed a battle—similar to that of Renoir’s Le Règle de jeu— between gamekeeper and poacher, between the pheasants and rabbits inhabiting the place and those who would take their lives. Caught up in this struggle, Mouchette is forced to take cover under a tree during a rainstorm. Meanwhile, Mathieu and Arsène encounter one another, a fight-in-the-brewing for some time. A first Arsène seems conciliatory, willing to give up his trap. But when it is refused, he pushes the other into a stream where they briefly fight. Yet it is a ludicrous battle they perceive, and it ends with them laughing at each other as they share the wine in Arsène’s cask.

By the time Arsène comes across Mouchette, however, he is so drunk that he believes he has killed Mathieu. At first he appears solicitous of the young girl, determined to help her find his missing clog, and to have her help him with an alibi. They briefly take cover in a small hut, but after hearing two rifle shots—shots clearly coming from Mathieu’s gun—Arsène insists that they wipe away all evidence of being there and takes her to his own house.

Again he seems caring of her situation; but suddenly, in one of the strangest of cinematic events, he undergoes an epileptic fit. As she has previously nursed her mother, Mouchette holds his head, wiping away the blood and spittle that issues from the poacher’s mouth. It is as if she can find no other role in her life but that of caregiver; little is ever offered in return. And with Arsène’s revival comes the inevitable. She now fears for her own safety and, somewhat lamely perhaps—given both her need for love and her expectations of the abuse—attempts to fend him off before finally, as he begins the rape, accepting him in an embracing hug. In short, it is the very “strangeness” of these scenes that make them appear to be so inevitable, as if these events were too odd to be anything but the “truth.”

When Mouchette finally returns home, the baby is bawling, her mother near death. She cannot even find a match in the house to warm the milk. In the night la mère dies.

The next morning she is determined to go for the baby’s milk. But this time she encounters, briefly, people who seem willing to help. A grocer offers her coffee and a croissant, but as she attempts to place another croissant into the girl’s pocket, Mouchette backs away—now terrified, evidently, of even human touch. A customer accusatively stares at her as the camera makes apparent what the women observe, the top button of her dress is missing. “Slut,” one of the women hisses.

Checking up on Mathieu, Mouchette is surprised to seem him still living; seeing her there he insists she come into his house to reveal what has occurred during the night. As the gamekeeper and his wife begin to interrogate her, she resists, but ends up by declaring Arsène is now her lover.

An old friend of the family invites her in to present her with a shroud for her mother and some dresses for the girl herself. But Mouchette is indignant. What can those things mean to her now? Why didn’t the woman help out during her mother’s life? The “friend” is, quite obviously, inured to the dead (“I am a friend of the dead”) rather than to those who are alive.

In world such as Mouchette’s, love and life is squandered, creating a vacuum that offers only a mean death. As she once again crosses the woods on her way home, Mouchette pauses, checking out one of new dresses of the “gift”; like all of her other clothes, it too is quickly torn in the brambles. Wrapping herself in it, Mouchette rolls down the hill toward the stream, but her body comes to a standstill as it reaches the bushes at water’s edge. With new determination, with a will that represents her attempt take back her own life, Mouchette repeats the act, rolling in her new “shroud” down the hill once more, this time hitting the mark, her body falling like a stone into the water from where it will never rise.

Has the renowned Roman Catholic director now advocated suicide? some viewers asked upon the film’s release. I cannot speak for Bresson. But in such an immoral world, perhaps even self-murder can be seen as a spiritual act.

Los Angles, February 28, 2000
Copyright (c) 20011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

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