Sunday, June 26, 2011

Henry King | Tol'able David

by Douglas Messerli

Edmund Golding and Henry King (screenplay, based on a story by Joseph Hergesheimer), Henry King (director) Tol’able David / 1921

Part of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “Summer of Silents,” Henry King’s silent film Tol’able David was shown on the evening of June 20th at The Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

This film was originally scheduled as a D.W. Griffith production, but his involvement with Orphans of the Storm shifted his interest in the project, and actor Richard Barthelmess smartly bought the rights to the Joseph Hergesheimer story for $7,500, hiring Edmund Golding to write an adapation in which could star. Barthelmess also signed with Inspiration Pictures to produce the film. Although the new studio was owned by Charles H. Duell, it was run by the seasoned director, Henry King, born in Virginia, who, sensitive to the poor West Virginia families who the story represented, decided not only to take on the film but to rewrite Golding’s script. Choosing his new discovery, Gladys Hulette, to play the role of Esther Hatburn, King also brought musical comedy veteran Ernest Torrence onboard to play, oddly enough, the villain Luke Hatburn.

Filming in Crab Bottom, Virginia (now near Blue Grass), King stayed in the very hotel room where Hergesheimer wrote the story, and the local color of the area brought a sense of realism to the film that is seldom seen in silent productions of the era.

The story begins as an idyll of sorts, with the citizens the mythic West Virginia town living in a kind of peaceful Eden. The film is focused upon the Kinemon family, the slightly sickly father, Hunter (Edmund Gurney), the loving and hard-working mother (Marion Abbott), the eldest son, Allen (Warner Richmond), his wife Rose (Patterson Dial), and the youthfully beautiful mother’s boy, David. They live in near-perfect harmony with the wealthy landowner, for whom they farm, John Galt (Lawrence Eddinger) and their neighbors, Neighbor Hatburn (the photogenic Forrest Robinson) and his sweet daughter, Esther, who is the same age and obviously attracted to David.

Allen works also for Galt, driving a hack into town each day to pick up travelers, taking them to the next post where he picks up and returns with the mail. David would surely love to follow in the footsteps of his brother, and, at of the age where he is still a child but nearing adulthood, is, accordingly, the least satisfied member of the family. Although he does what children did throughout early 20th century rural American—swim in the local stream, play a harmonica, fish, ogle at his neighbor Esther, and secretly smoke a pipe while dreaming much of his days away—he is slightly dissatisfied with his role in it all, and therein lies the heart of King’s story, helping to make it something far greater than the simple “David and Goliath” soap opera that it pretends to be.

David, as his parents fondly describe him, is “tol’able,” meaning something they can tolerate, a passable, good boy who will eventually become an important figure, like his brother, in their community. But tol’able, in Southern dialect, also suggests something else—as in phrases such as “I cal'late the man who lost that blue bandanna wasn't a tol'able piece away when that knot was tied," and “He lef 'me a tol'able sum.”—suggesting something more that passable, perhaps even “significant” or “meaningful,” which is what David aspires to be. Like Frankie in Carson McCullers’ A Member of the Wedding and numerous other childhood tales, he is in that awkward age, torn between innocence and growing awareness of the world around him. Focusing on the dark-eyed Barthelmess, King transforms Tol’able David from a simple family feud or revenge tale, to a moving story of coming of age.

King immediately establishes the fact that David, in his innocence, is basically an obedient and law-abiding boy instead of a backwoods wild child as others might have portrayed him. His kindness and quietness, moreover, reflects back upon the family and his upbringing, and helps to make these rural folk more sympathetic, particularly in the later scenes where revenge is sought. Yet this boy-man gets into trouble several times, primarily because of his dog, Rocket. The first incidence is entirely comic, as the dog steals David’s pants from where he has left them beside the stream. His mad race after the dog to retrieve them results in an encounter with Esther, which thoroughly embarrasses him, helping to establish his youthful innocence against the more-knowing and slightly mocking Esther. If anything proved David was still a boy, it is this scene.

But the other times that Rocket runs afoul are far more dangerous. By this time their neighbor Hatburn has been visited by and his farm taken over by his three Hatburn cousins, an evil group of father and two near-idiot sons, who have escaped from prison with nothing but further evil in their heads. Luke, particularly, would rather destroy than see anything peacefully survive. King described the character to his actor, Torrence, by suggesting that he was the kind of man who would kill a cat simply to enjoy its suffering. Torrence was surprised, accordingly, when no cat appeared in the script; ad-libbing, King ordered up a cat, at which, when he first encounters it, the actor is ready to throw a large rock until he is distracted.

The later appearance of the dog, chasing the cat, draws David into the Hatburn yard, whereupon he is seriously threatened by the men, whose existence, presumably, he reports to his family. A few days later, the dog, riding on the hack with Allen, again chases the Hatburn cat, this time to be meaninglessly killed by Luke. Allen’s observance of the act, results in his threat to the Hatburns to return, a threat which, in reaction to, brings Luke to attack Allen as well, rendering him, as the word placards describe it, “helpless for life.”

Allen’s wife has just had a baby, and the tragedy is palpable and she sits nursing the baby beside Allen's bed. The whole family is consumed with grief, and as Hunter takes down his gun to seek revenge, he has a stroke, collapsing into death. Wildly, David takes down the gun from the wall, determined to battle the Hatburns alone, until his mother, dragging him down into the mud, makes it clear that he needs to stay home since he is now the only “man” of the house. While certainly melodramatic in tone, King turns this whole series of events into a moving tragedy.

The shocking news of David's new role creates perhaps more tension in the young teen than the feeling that he is still a boy. Without income the family must now move into town, to a small hovel, where they live on next to nothing. When David is eventually offered a job in Galt’s store, the young man gladly takes on the responsibility, but he is still unforgiving of the Hatburns, refusing to even speak to the innocent Esther.

The beautiful scene at the school dance, with Esther attempting to waltz with an ungainly young peer while David stands outside, staring in with longing, while he gradually moves into dance all by himself, is one of the most lovely of the film. Escaping the party, Esther encounters David, and they fall in love once more, this time consuming it with shy kisses, after which, when her father appears, David darts behind a tree.

When, the following day, the new hack driver arrives to work drunk, Galt is forced to allow David to take over the rig, David joyfully taking on the responsibility he has so long sought. But, as we all suspect, this will also mean an encounter with the evil Hatburns, still holed up in the Hatburn cabin. David easily delivers the travelers to their destination, but as he returns with the mail, the bag falls from the hack at a small ford just in front of the Hatburn farm.

Discovered by Luke, the bag is dragged it into the house with evil anticipation. When David discovers the mail missing, he retraces his tracks, only to realize where it has fallen, and is forced to face the Hatburn gang without even a gun.

It is in these last few scenes that King truly shows his cinematic mastery. As David confronts the Hatfields, Esther runs from the house, Luke running after. When she falls, he stands momentarily over her contemplating rape, just as David battles with and shoots the elder Hatburn with his own gun before facing off with the younger son.

Had King kept the camera on this endless struggle between good and evil, his film might have become not only unbelievable, but incredibly boring. How long can we watch an enactment of a fight? But the director cuts away again, this time to the store where David’s mother has joined others eagerly awaiting the mail’s delivery and the achievement she perceives it will define to the community. Among the awaiting citizens is the old Hatburn father, who has come to town to plead that the sheriff do something about his cousins, upon which he is told “the jail won’t hold them.”

Cutting again to the Hatburn farm, where Luke has been forced to release Esther in order to face off with David, the camera prepares for the final David and Goliath showdown; but again King follows in another direction, as Esther runs the entire way into town to report events, breathlessly announcing that David has been killed by the Hatburns. The citizens, finally fed up with the actions of the gang, join together in preparation to take justice into their own hands.

The final moments of the battle are brilliantly played out behind camera range, as finally that door of the rugged cabin is thrown open with David, seriously hurt, emerging, clearly the victor of the struggle within.

Against all odds, he crawls into the hack, mailbag in hand, and drives into town just at the moment its citizens are about to leave, closing the film with an image of movement in two directions, coming and going, signifying the unity of their new found hero, finally a grown man, with the formerly passive community in which he abides.

For years after, this tension between passivity and aggression will be at the center of American Westerns and other films of rural life.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2011

Mike Nichols | Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Douglas Messerli

Ernest Lehman (screenplay, based on the play by Edward Albee), Mike Nichols (director) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? / 1966

I could not have known on that evening of June 1966, when I first attended Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that film history was changing, caused in part by this film and Michelangelo Antonioni's work of the same year, Blow-Up. The former "special assistant" to Lyndon Johnson, Jack Valenti, had just been encouraged by Universal Studio head Lew Wasserman to resign his White House post and become head of The Motion Picture Association of America, a position Valenti held for 38 years. Warner Brothers was about to release Who's Afraid of Virigina Woolf ?and MGM was preparing to release Blow-Up in the US, both of them considering the possibility of sending the films out to theaters without ratings in fear of what Valenti called "the draconian piece of censorship" of the Hayes Code. In response Valenti and his staff eventually established the MPAA rating code that rid the system of X-rating, replacing it with NC-17, for adults only.

Nor could I have known that other directors such as John Frankenheimer, had been considered before the choice of Mike Nichols, and actors Bette Davis and Henry Fonda had been put forth for the roles of George and Martha. It might have been enjoyable watching Davis imitate herself in the film's early line "What a dump," as the couple returns to their house (Davis first spoke the line in her film Beyond the Forest), but it is almost unimaginable that Fonda would have been able to deliver the venom-laced sentences and witty repartees of the character George.

Fortunately, writer and producer Lehman chose Nichols as the director, who then brought in Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Richard Burton. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler was also a brilliant choice, as were the other members of the cast, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, the latter of whom seems perfect for the role, even though she later played similar characters in nearly every film in which she appeared.

The wicked twosome of the Burtons could not be better for Albee's George and Martha, whose lives are determined by their nightly verbal games. Albee himself has defined his major characters as people who use "language to wound and to amuse." And the author admits the film version is fairly close to his play.

Both play and film have virtually no story to tell, since the only thing that really "happens" is that after a college campus party a young couple, Nick and Honey—he recently hired on the faculty—take up the invitation to stop by for drinks. George is in the History Department, while Nick is a biologist. Martha's father is the President of the college.

The rest of the action is a thing of language, or, as George puts it, a "walking of what is left of our wits." The foursome, already somewhat drunk from the campus affair, continue their drinking as they play a series of emotional games, including "getting the guests" and "humping the host."

The emotional level of Martha's and George's argumentative wit is so high that Honey becomes sick and the audience itself, by film's end, is nearly drained. Yet for all the vitriolic rhetoric and hateful lies they use to manipulate and control both one another and their guests, the two are clearly also in love, a couple who painfully spar in a language that helps to keep them together and be alive. With no child, no real future and little left of any past, they keep their relationship vital by living in a linguistic world of the imagination not unlike that of the central characters of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. And, as in that play, the language can cut and destroy just as surely as if it were a shard of glass—or a gun, a play version of which late in the film George brandishes.

We all may know some heterosexual couples who battle in this way, even if not as wittily. My own parents, deeply in love with one another, suffered numerous such evenings, although none so intense and operatic. But it is also clear that the closeted gay worlds of these playwrights in a time when gay men often gathered to play out just such mean and witty parlor games, must have been a strong influence for both Albee and Williams. The Boys in the Band is perhaps the most flamboyant example of this phenomenon, some of which I experienced first-hand in my earliest years of gay life.

Yet, as Albee has argued, and I have argued for Williams, these are not gay plays posing as pictures of married life. The couples may be somewhat campy constructions, but they are heterosexual, and their battles are those of husbands and wives, the latter of whom focus strongly on the desire for children, Honey having undergone a false pregnancy, with Martha creating an imaginary twenty-one-year old son, whom George verbally kills off in the last scenes.

Both Nick and George seem to have lost their virility: Nick is unsuccessful, evidently, when he attempts to mount Martha, and George is defined early on as a wimp by his wife. The women on the other hand, are quite forceful and vibrant: although she is unable to keep up with the others' drinking, Honey's weird dance of the seven veils (she has only one) reveals her sexual prowess, and Martha throughout the film has the constitution and earthiness of an ox. Taylor's call to the two men on the lawn, with her bleatingly simple shout of "Hey! Hey!" is one of the most memorable scenes of the film, deflating all the clever convolutions of the tongue that have proceeded it. Both Honey and Martha are clearly disappointed with their sexual lot.

The punning song of the party, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was sung by faculty wives and amused them highly. As Harold Lamport observed in his Saturday Review piece on the play, the song suggests a fear of intellectual women whom Virginia Woolf represented.

As sung by the faculty wives, the refrain seems dual and ambivalent: we
faculty wives—witness our light-hearted song-and-dance—are really not
so intellectual as Virginia Woolf and we are a little jealous and afraid of
the intellectual type whom our husbands may prefer: and, less clearly,
speaking for our men, though intellectuals (mostly), they are often in-
secure as males in the presence of the intellectually outstanding woman
and they are afraid of the Virginia Woolf in us....

Lamport may be right, but Woolf also represents to these women, strongly heterosexual beings, a life they fear, with lesbianism and a descent into depression resulting in suicide. It is finally that possibility, it seems to me, that Martha envisions—a world of isolation and even death—that ends the play, as she responds to George's repeat of the question: "" The truth of her existence cannot entirely be hidden, even by all their dreadful "fun and games."

Los Angeles, June 11, 2011

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kaige Chen | Ba wang bie ji (Farewell My Concubine)

by Douglas Messerli

Bik-Wa Lei and Wei Lu (writers), Pik Wah Li (as Lillian Lee, screenplay and novel), Kaige Chen (director) Ba wang bie ji (Farewell My Concubine) / 1993

Although Kaige Chen’s 1993 film, Farewell My Concubine won the Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or (tying with Jane Campion’s The Piano), and received generally favorable press in the US, some film commentators, even today, dismiss the work as overlong, psychologically vague, and as not having a story that can match the epic structure of the whole.

To me this seems to be a kind of blindness that arises out of a miscomprehension of Chinese cultural values and story-telling procedures. A film historian such as David Thomson, for example, may be literally correct in saying that “the characters are not truly revealed,” but that presupposes that the characters of this work have fully developed psychological beings, while the writers have gone out of their way to indicate that the students of the Beijing Opera had all psychological identity driven from them in their childhood and youth. The whole method of these opera performances, moreover, is about type and form rather than individuation and psychologically-motivated action. As master Yuan (You Ge) makes it clear after seeing a performance starring the two central figures of this work—Cheny Dieyi, nicknamed Douzi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou, nicknamed Shitou (Fengyi Zhang)—the proper way to perform the General’s role as he leaves his concubine, is to take seven steps away, not three as Duan Xiaolou has done. It is a work of tradition, in which there is no room for experiment.

The entire film, in fact, is a statement about the loss of identity, both gender and cultural. The individual is driven out of the unfortunate children studying with Master Guan (Qi Lü) with insistent violence in the form of beatings, whippings and forms of torture more severe even than those Charles Dickens might have cooked up. When Douzi’s prostitute mother first attempts to get her son into the opera school, she is immediately turned down when it is discovered that Douzi has a extra digit on one of his hands. Unable to keep the child in the brothel, she has no choice but to take up and cleaver and cut off one the child’s offending finger. It is the first of several acts that seems to reify the major platitude of the culture: “You can’t fight fate.”

Once Douzi has been permitted to join the company, he is beaten endlessly, primarily because he refuses to define himself as a girl—the operatic role his superiors have determined is best for this feminine-looking boy. The child stubbornly and emphatically refuses to say, “By nature I am a girl,” but ultimately has no choice as the tortures escalate, making him fear even for his life. He is forced to literally become a woman in order to survive, required to change his gender. After his first successful performance of the role, he is taken away to be raped.

It is no surprise, accordingly, that as he grows into adulthood, his relationship with Shitou is not only that of concubine to the other's General, but is that of a tortured lover to his/her best friend, who both have been advised to “Stick together until you die.”

Parallel to these personal dilemmas is the broader cultural picture, in which identity is determined time and again by the political scene. First, it is the war with Japan that requires any citizen of China to shun anything Japanese, disallowing Douzi and Shitou to even perform for the enemy. When Shitou is arrested by the Japanese, Douzi has no choice, so he feels, but to attempt to save him by performing at the Japanese general’s home. He/she saves Shitou, but his friend is outraged that he has given into the Japanese demands; and throughout the rest of his life, as the country's perpetual revolutions alter the political scene, Douzi will continually be branded a traitor.

So too does Shitou betray him by marrying, almost on a whim, a local prostitute, and creating a wedge between their performative and personal lives. Shitou may be able to separate the two, but as a man living in China performing as a woman and daily living as a homosexual, the beautiful Douzi cannot readily make that separation. He has, after all, been reconstructed by the culture long before the scenes in the film when Madame Mao’s Cultural Revolution attempts to do the same to every Chinese citizen.

Li Gong’s performance of that prostitute, Juxian—who, as one of the company members whispers, is a true “dragon lady”—is one of the great joys of this film, as she, little by little, binds her husband to her, eventually even forcing him to give up his career as an opera performer. Yet Douzi, in most respects, is her equal, a haughty and regal manipulator, a nasty and campy wit whose very glance (as he remains throughout much of the film in costume, with eyes radically made up demonstrate the concubines’ exaggerated sense of survival and power) withers those around him/her. Inevitably, the two, battling over Shitou, are drawn together as outside political forces overwhelm even the former opera member, and threaten to make Shitou also into another being. At one point, as we watch Douzi voyeuristically peering in their home as the couple make love, we come to understand just how he is wound up in the couple’s life, fascinated as he is by this powerful woman who has stolen his friend.

For his part, Shitou continues to care for and help his former partner, going so far as to spend hours with Douzi to help in his horrific attempts to overcome opium addiction. But as the Cultural Revolution threatens its severe punishments, Shitou again betrays, this time, both of his lovers, Juxian and Douzi, by revealing her past as a prostitute and Douzi’s involvement with the Japanese. The betrayal is truly unforgiveable, and both the “females” are quite explicably devastated by his acts. Although we do not know specifically how this has effected them, we can gather its force by the final scenes of Chen Kaige’s masterpiece.

The film begins and ends with a final performance of Farewell My Concubine, in which, in an act of both revenge and redemption, Douzi uses a real sword to kill his character at the end of the opera, thus ending his own bondage to a world that has stolen the being that he might have become, while answering his life-long question “Why does the concubine have to die?”

Los Angeles, June 9, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

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.