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PostPosted: Fri Jun 17, 2005 3:28 pm 
Kitano kyoushûsei
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Bresson would be proud of your last comment. At the Cannes press conference for L'Argent:

Journalist:
I didn't understand exactly why the wife of Yvon leaves him.

Bresson:
I didn't understand it either. [press laughter]
Nor did the woman. No one did. It's not a question of understanding, but a question of feeling, which is not exactly the same thing.

I can't remember who said it, perhaps it was Bresson, but some director was once asked what the point was with some character, to which the directors asked the interviewer, what is the point of your life (or something like that), to which the interview said, that he didn't knew, and then the director said, the same with my character. I just record them, who they are I don't know (or something like that).


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 2:16 am 
That sounds like it could be Bresson, and even if it isn't it highlights a tendency in his work not necessarily to dispense with ordinary "movie psychology" but to resist "knowing" his characters as other filmmakers claim to know theirs.

His use of Balthazar is exemplary in this case. Moviemakers for Disney create "read-able" animals in their animated and (now abandoned) live-action films through codes of anthropomorphization, codes that Bresson ignores completely or (in a rare but delightful moment of satire) pokes fun at; cf the scene in which Balthazar "counts" for circus patrons.

All of which is the tip of the iceberg re the question of Why Bresson does these things. I am tempted to say that Bresson sees people as we might see animals, minus our temptation to "read" a neat, compact, movie-derived psychology into them. Put another way: Bresson sees humans as we see animals, provided we don't see animals as Disney documentarians do...


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 4:24 pm 
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I think there's a general trend in Bresson's work that increasingly stresses the importance of economy and material. It seems like a more and more bleak and fatalistic view that all nature is material to be traded and used. There's a scene in A Gentle Woman where Dominique Sanda's character visits a Natural Science museum and is struck by the similarity in bone structures between man and animal -- and I think in this very material sense, Bresson saw man and animal as the same. Balthazar's suffering is an effective parallel to that of the other characters in the film because he, like the others, is subject to a morally depraved and spiritually dead world where everything is subject to its economic and material use (the way, say, Mary is traded off with the flip remark "...if you want her you'll have to pay," at Arnold's party).

I watched it again, and I was struck by the lack of spirituality in this film. Particularly after reading Quandt's essay, which brings up several good points about the ineffectiveness of faith in the film. I think it fits much better with films like A Gentle Woman or Lancelot of the Lake more than, say, a film like A Man Escaped (where faith is rewarded and suffering overcome).


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 7:42 pm 
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Despite my atheism (or perhaps because of it) I frankly find Balthazar the most "spiritual" of Bresson's movies. In the sense that the donkey is not tainted with "original sin" (a particularly Judaeo-Christian concept) his passage through the vicissittudes of others' lives, including those who love him, leads to some sort of attainment of sainthood. Anne Wiazemsky's character, like Mouchette or Claude Laydu in Journal, is torn by the pressures of the world and her earlier childhood innocence, and the movie leaves her outside the narrative, finally, to focus on Balthazar, the moments from the Schubert A Major Sonata, death at peace with the sheep and a vision of sublime passing. One of the keys is in the music - the quotes from the second movement, expressions of infinite sadness. For the way things are. Clearly L'Argent is Bressons ultimate reflection on evil - ordinary and overwhelming, just as Un Condane a Mort s'Est Echappe is most affirming, exultant movie.

All this leads me to find Balthazar one of Bresson's three greatest works, along with Pickpocket and Journal. Interestingly both of the latter are obviously concerned with the necessarily corrupting ways of the world (even in Cure those around the priest have accomodated the realities of life while Laydu remians ripped apart and consumed by both his disease and his troubled faith.)

Elsewhere I once made a comparison between Balthazar and Francesco Guillare di Dio. Certainly Both the Bresson and the Rosselini (as well as Europa 51) have a post-Christian view of sainthood (Balthazar, Francis, Bergman in Europa) in which the central characters are ultinmately isolated by society in some way. Of course you have to get over any simplistic reading of Francesco to see this but the ambiguities are there - outside the range of the narrative, but in the feelings, if you will.


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 10:21 pm 

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Bresson sees humans as we see animals, provided we don't see animals as Disney documentarians do...

Bresson was definitely obsessed with the notion of automatism and the fact that so many of our actions are automatic and done without thinking. (I love that he insisted on an "untrained" donkey, just as he did with his nonprofessional models.) But I also think he saw humans as extraordinarily complex, which is why he hated simplifying them into psychological types. But he definitely saw humans and animals in similar ways and was always interested in their relationship. Every time I see the end of L'Argent, (this is not a spoiler) with the dog running up and down the stairs, I think of Balthazar.

I don't know if I personally find Balthazar to be his most "spiritual" film, but I do consider it deeply so, in large part because of the film's intense gaze upon suffering and tenderness expressed with ellipses and mystery. The viewer wants to know why these things happen and is encouraged to speculate and imagine and look within. "Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden." (Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer)

And I would separate Bresson's materialist style from a materialist worldview. I think there is much in L'Argent that would suggest otherwise, and even in interviews Bresson gave during that period, he spoke seriously about his belief in "another world." But Bresson felt that world through the precise physical sounds and textures surrounding him; it's quite a paradox, but I think his films beautifully convey it.


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 10:58 pm 
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I see the need for spirituality and redemption in Bresson's films, but increasingly in his later work, so little of it actually is found. In the earlier films, one could find mystery, or something extraordinary, in tangible things, rituals and processes (as in A Man Escapes). But in the later work, especially in Lancelot du Lac for instance, it seems like there's almost a complete divorce of mystery from the material world.

Maybe my reading is a little too Stoic -- but if Balthazar does attain sainthood, isn't it in a sort of resignation to a world that is ultimately too corrupt for the sacred? I keep thinking of the old women in L'argent, who shelters Yvon and who seems to attain a similar saintliness. When Yvon asks her if she's waiting for a miracle, she responds tersely "Je n'attends rien."


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 19, 2005 2:42 am 

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It seems to me that Bresson was always trying to express his deepest concerns through negation, and this is what we are seeing to a greater degree in his color period. In the Pour le Plaisir doc, he says, "Art lies in suggestion. The great difficulty for filmmakers is precisely not to show things. Ideally, nothing should be shown, but that's impossible."

So I think expressing "the need for spirituality and redemption" for Bresson was in many ways an expression of spirituality and redemption. I don't mean to be reductive, but I do think his increasing economy and materialism that you identify is part of a rigorous formal experiment to address his concerns. I mean, doesn't it seem to follow according to this line of thinking?

****

Stéphane: "Balthazar" gives me the impression of a world without God, a world uninterested in God.

Bresson: Firstly, I don't think that just speaking of God or saying the word "God" indicates his presence. If I use a filmmaker's tools to represent a human being, by which I mean someone with a soul, not just a jiggling puppet, if the human is present so is the divine. Pronouncing the name of God isn't what makes him present.

Stéphane: No,but to my knowledge this is your first film where a character--Marie's father--rejects God.

Bresson: If he rejects God, then God exists, and therefore God is present.

****

Is that isn't affirmation by negation, I don't know what is. :) From Les Anges du peche to Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, his films explicitly included "God talk," but I think as an artist, he felt the need to refine his approach, not remain predictable, and address the subject more obliquely and rooted in teh material world. (Incidentally, that exchange above could also perfectly apply to Lancelot.)

(Spoilers follow)

Could he end Balthazar with his sober death of the donkey? Could he end Mouchette in his previous exultant fashion but in an unorthodox manner, eg. suicide? Could he end The Devil Probably with a suicide that is part murder, sans the choral music? Cuold he end L'Argent with a mass murder? To me, each step seems like a greater formal challenge applied to his consistent theme, not a disinterest in the question.

Interestingly enough, L'Argent does end with confession and surrender, but it's so underplayed that it doesn't come anywhere near counteracting the horrors witnessed moments before. However, it's there and Bresson told Ciment that he was wished he could have focused more on YVon's redemption, but the "rhythm of the film wouldn't allow it." (Again, a formal conundrum.)

Decribing these endings in this manner may sound a little trite, and I don't mean to reduce them in that way--or imply that my reading is necessarily superior; there is no doubt that his later films are severe and shocking. Bresson certainly trusted ambiguity and mystery and I see no reason to put him in a box. But personally, I don't see his late work as lacking in spiritual concerns. One of his films has a theological statement for a title, after all. :)


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 19, 2005 4:28 am 
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Thanks for a great post Doug. That clarifies a lot for me. I read somewhere that Bresson had called himself a “Christian Atheist,â€


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 19, 2005 1:55 pm 

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Those are great questions, and I wouldn't presume to speculate on answers here. :) I think Bresson was most interested in inspiring his viewers to ask such questions more than anything else.

From his 1983 interview with Ciment:

"The most fascinating thing in life is curiosity. I want people to want to know, I want them to want to explore the mystery that is life, a mystery not to be imitated, only imagined."

As far as I know (someone correct me if I'm wrong), Bresson himself never used the phrase "Christian Atheist." Like "Jansenist," it's a label that's really only applicable in a very specific sense. (Bresson had strong affinities with Pascal, a Jansenist, but he never presented himself as a devotee of Jansenism or anything. This is why, as James Quandt points out in his CC essay, Bresson both rejected and embraced the term at various times.) Given Bresson's statements to Schrader (who seems almost comically unable to connect with the filmmaker in his interview for Film Comment in the '70s) and Ciment, I don't think the term "atheist" is very appropriate for Bresson even though "God" is conspicuously hidden or obscured in his later work.

I mean, here is Bresson in 1973:

Q: It's been said that your films "place the world in the light of eternity."

A: I wish I could. I don't know what to say about that. Perhaps they mean I want to make films from a child's eye view. Of course there is a conception of another life because I believe in it. At least one day I believe, the next day I don't, but I believe anyway that there's something more than just living on the earth.

Q: And you believe in some sort of fatality?

A: Yes, that would be a sort of Jansenist conception. To say that God is looking at us and saying "This one is good; this one isn't." But there is the feeling that God is everywhere, and the longer I live, the more I see that in nature, in the country. When I see a tree I see that God exists. I try to catch and to convey the idea that we have a soul and that the soul is in contact with God. That's the first thing I want to get in my films—that we are living souls.


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 19, 2005 4:39 pm 
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Quote:
Bresson himself never used the phrase "Christian Atheist."

I've read this a few place -- a quick Google search will show a number of places attributing the quote to him, although curiously none have said where it came from. I think I've also read it in a book edited by Quandt, which makes me think there's something genuine about it. In any case, its just a label, and probably meaningless when discussing Bresson (who doesn't seem like the type of guy who can be easily labelled, to say the least). It is a curious statement, though. Throw Jansenism in and that's quite a theological knot to untie!


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 19, 2005 5:15 pm 

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I've got the Quandt book, tartarlamb, so I'll look for it. I know it has been attributed to him a lot, but I don't recall ever reading or hearing him say it.

But as you say, labels and Bresson are uneasy bedfellows.


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 19, 2005 7:58 pm 
What is our opinion of the Sontag essay, "Spiritual Style" etc?


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 20, 2005 12:34 pm 

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Without rereading it, I recall liking it a lot--especially for its time in the mid-'60s, when virtually no one was writing about Bresson in English. I like Sontag's distinction between manipulative art and "reflective art," and think it applies to many filmmakers today in contrast to Hollywood's roller coaster mentality. (Remember Kiarostami's ode to movies that put him to sleep on the CC Taste of Cherry?)


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 20, 2005 1:02 pm 
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She also talks of the impact of Brechtian distanciation as utilised by Bresson, to delay and increase eventual emotional effect...

AK uses distanciation also, but points to its Persian origins in the Ta'ziyeh as his particular influence...


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 20, 2005 2:49 pm 

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ellipsis7 wrote:
AK uses distanciation also, but points to its Persian origins in the Ta'ziyeh as his particular influence...

Oh that's really interesting. I was certainly struck by AK's persistent references to neorealism and Bresson in 10 on Ten, too.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 20, 2005 3:17 pm 
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I see Mylene Bresson is listed as the first of two Telecine Supervisors on the BALTHAZAR disc... Now that's hands on!


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 20, 2005 4:09 pm 
Well, Spiritual Style was written in '64. Didn't she start to distance herself from Bresson when he turned to color? Wish I could find the piece or pieces to back this up so it's not second-hand...but PROCES was the last film Bresson made before Spiritual Style, and she seemed to have a hard time with it.

I find bothersome her presumption to set up a criteria for Bresson based against PROCES and as a means for finding shortcomings in same - in part because I think PROCES is really great, also it's something of an idiot cliche for commentators to draw a line of demarcation between when an artist "had it" and when they "lost it."

But as I said, this is second-hand, she may have been orgasmic w/UNE FEMME DOUCE and the subsequent films.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 20, 2005 5:13 pm 
Can I confess something?
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Quote:
From Jonathan Rosenbaum's (lovely) remembrance of Sontag, posted to Synoptique:

Most of my other encounters with Susan over the years were film-related. A characteristic one: watching Louis Feuillade's seven-hour silent serial Tih Minh at the Museum of Modern Art in the late 60s, then joining her and Annette Michelson at a nearby coffee shop, where I invited her to update her Bresson essay to include discussions of Au hazard Balthazar and Mouchette for an anthology I was editing (never published). She explained that she was more interested in what Bresson's earlier films did, which is what she'd already written about, adding that she wasn't too keen to write more about film anyway. And if she were, I asked, who would she want to write about? Vertov, she said, without a moment's hesitation.

Still vague as to what she actually thinks of Bresson's later work. As for myself, I've only seen Pickpocket and Balthazar, but they both expertly work in the "reflective mode" Sontag elucidates.

For those of you better versed, did pre and post Proces films work in different ways, employ different methods?

Sontag's seeming distinction between the pre and post Proces films is given as reason for her waning interest, but if Bresson continues with fine permutations of the reflective mode throughout the rest of his career, one would have to chalk up Sontag's drifting interest to personal viccisitude. (Though in her 1968 essay on Godard, she still called Bresson the finest artist of film, in so many words.)


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 20, 2005 6:03 pm 

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Thanks for posting that. I would say that Bresson's aesthetic evolved in a very fluid manner and would certainly typify his later work as equally "reflective" as Le Procès.

I'd have to reread her essay to speculate on why she may have lost interest; it does suggest personal vicissitude.


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PostPosted: Wed Jun 22, 2005 7:56 pm 
I'll have to track down the essay or essays I think I'm referring to. No point talking about Sontag and late Bresson before doing so.


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PostPosted: Thu Jun 23, 2005 10:59 am 

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FWIW, our review at robert-bresson.com.


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 26, 2005 5:31 pm 
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Why does the Criterion-website mention this movie's country of origin as 'France/The Netherlands'? As a Dutchman I would *love* to add this movie to my nation's bleak cinematic history, but I really cannot find a clear link. :roll:


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 26, 2005 10:51 pm 

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I think this is an error -- it should say "France/Sweden". The film was partly financed by Svensk Filmindustri.


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2005 2:14 am 

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All you Criterion hounds praised Au Hasard Balthazar so much, I bought it blind with Ran the other day... This movie leveled me. Before seeing this film I thought the Fire Within was the most bleak movie I had ever seen... It's a warm bath compared with the emotionality of this work by Bresson... The article in the jacket was weak though...the religiosity of the film was there, but it takes away from what the movie really was about... it's a movie about Marie and Balthazar and their struggles. After the 2 hours of watching them get 'crushed', I ordered a zombie movie just to ease my emotional drainage.


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2005 8:20 pm 
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Yes it is. I wrote a piece elsewhere about the way Bresson uses the slow movement of the Schubert A major Sonata and halts his quotations from it, as an emotional and formal determinant of the movie itself. Only useful if you know the Schubert but I recommend an acquaintance with the music.

The only other movies to come near Balthazar for this expression of despair and resignation are Gremillon's two masterpieces, Remorques and Gueule d'Amour. I dare anyone to watch the final scenes between Rene Lefevre and Gabin in Gueule without breaking down. It is also one of, if not the greatest expressions of homoerotic love in the cinema.


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