“Lancelot du Lac” was a project which Robert Bresson first intended to realize in the early 1950s right after “Diary of a Coutry Priest” (1952), but for more than twenty years his search for funding seemed as much in vain as his protagonist’s search for the Holy Grail. One can easily assume that religious preoccupations and questions of faith likely dominated the earliest drafts which got rejected, and Bresson had it much easier financing his rather contemporary film about French prisoners of war known as “A Man Escaped” (1956). The stylistic and thematic priorities of his body of work changed significantly throughout the years, and Bresson himself regarded “The Trial of Joan of Arc” (1962) as the turning point in terms of artistic expression and personal signature.
From that film on his main interests also began to shift away from crisis of faith towards a rather nihilist and meticulous examination of societal disintegration. But it’s noticeable that even “Au hazard Balthazar” (1966) which marks the beginning of this new orientation heavily relies on Christian metaphors while alluding to The Seven Sins or The Passion of Christ. It’s thus not surprising that a so-called Christian atheism would also reshape his Lancelot-project which Bresson never lost out of sight. Another significant factor that determined his 1974 film “Lancelot du Lac” has been the stylistic rigor of framing and editing techniques based on the idea to move an audience through rhythm, concentration and unity.
Bresson further developed an elliptical narrative and the pars pro toto shots which he had already accentuated in “A Gentle Woman” (1969). But these stylistic trademarks never have a fixed meaning in Bresson’s oevre despite apparent similarities; it will therefore be of relevane to take a closer look at the functionality of particular framing and editing sequences lateron.
“Now, though Lancelot had behaved chastely by the counsel of the holy man to whom he had confessed when he was in the quest for the Holy Grail, and though he had apparently renounced Queen Guenevere, as the tale has related before, as soon as he had come to court, not one month passed before he was smitten and inflamed as much as he had ever been at any time, so that he fell back into sin with the queen just as he had done earlier.” (La Mort le Roi Artu, c. 1237)
The Vulgate Cycle or Prose Lancelot which appeared in the 13th century was one of the earliest sources in which the character Lancelot got directly linked to King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, and it also referred to his adulterous love affair with the King’s wife Guinevere which would ultimately become one of the central aspects of Bresson’s film. According to the myth it was actually Gawain’s brother Agravain who discovered the affair and informed King Arthur, but in “Lancelot du Lac” it becomes Arthur’s bastard son Mordred who uncovers the affair out of jealousy. Bresson altered the story in order to create an increasing conflict between opposing camps that culminates in an overall destructive and nihilist ending.
The conflict between spiritual and carnal desire which precedes the destruction is subtly expressed through textual devices and framing techniques. When Lancelot first appears in the film after the failed quest for the Grail, the words he utters are: “I’ve lost way.” He is lead to the castle where Gawain exclaims: “The first is the last!”, an indirect link that Arthur’s foremost knight is the one whose moral downfall will lead to fatal consequences. During the subsequent meeting between Arthur and Lancelot in which the former mentions the queen, the camera focuses on the foreheads of horses, not just to highlight the knight’s “animalistic” desire, but also to link to the destruction his adultery causes: The same horse will later appear with an arrow shot though its forehead.
The first meeting between Lancelot and Guinevere is marked by spatial separations while the Holy Grail itself is still a present topic of their conversation. Both are depicted in separate shots while Lancelot confesses his love and there is only a slight physical contact between their hands. Lancelot’s reservation face to face with his former lover is explained through the (alleged) dream which he tells Guinevere: “One night I sought refuge in a ruined chapel; a voice challenged me. I can still hear that voice accusing me of deceit and treachery.” Bresson here remains faithful of the literary source according to which Lancelot was not allowed to receive the Grail as an adulterer. But his cathartic vow to God which makes him want to end the relation is rejected by Guinevere who refers to his vow of love. The last shot of that sequence shows Lancelot left alone and at odds with himself. But further on his carnal desire will be dominating his spiritual craving.
Bresson’s selective framing also becomes apparent in the subsequent scene between Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and Mordred. While Lancelot and Gawain are depicted in a two shot, both Gawain and Mordred are intercut in opposing singular shots. The Round Table appears throughout the scene only in fragments, a telling device which alludes to the disintegration of Merlin’s vision of cohesion. It’s also relevant to note that according to the original sources Merlin had told Arthur about the adultery long before it happened, but knowingly ignored it, which might be a possible explanation for his later reaction when confronted by Mordred.
The second encounter between Lancelot and Guinevere differentiates from the former due to the camera movements and a two shot, the framing now suggests a more intimate closeness between the lovers. In one of the following scenes Lancelot prays to God while the cross in front of him remains out of focus even when he moves towards it, the spiritual search becomes insignificant while God’s grace/the Grail is still out of reach.
Sexual desire, haughtiness and destructive urges are instead going to determine the subsequent actions. The third encounter is thus defined by various two shots and physical contact between the two lovers, Lancelot also takes off his armor. The culminating fourth encounter which is to be the sexual act itself is preceded by the sensual scenes of Guinevere bathing naked, but what Freud calls the id gets ultimately replaced by Lancelot’s super-ego which tells him to partake in the tournament which he first decided to abandon in order to be with Guinevere. His decision might equally be based on feelings of guilt and pride, and as can be noticed lateron the delayed sexual pleasure ultimately leads to destructive urges which Lancelot unloads when aggressively opposing his King’s orders in order to fulfill his desire.
The tournament itself can be regarded as the film’s centerpiece, it’s likely the most accomplished stylistic creation which can be found in Bresson’s entire oevre, a powerful example of framing and sound editing. Bresson himself mentioned that “the tournament sequence was staged for the ear”, and he thus concentrated on narrowly framed shots of galloping horses, lances, flutes and flags in order to reduce visual tracks which might deviate from the physical clashes between knights and instead provide an aural convergence. The complete absence of establishing shots and bird’s eye views thus literally throws the viewer into the arena.
The sequence can also be regarded as a rehearsal for the final clash at the end of the film which disintegration and selfishness among the knights already foreshadowed. The character of Gawain can be regarded as exceptional though, and he is in fact the only unselfish character who can be found in Bresson’s later films. His indispensable loyalty mekes him seem like a relict in “Lancelot du Lac”, and it’s quite telling that he ultimately gets killed by the man whom he constantly defended.
Towards the end Lancelot and Mordred become the impulsive forces which unrelentingly advance a total destruction of the Round Table. There are no further attempts for reconciliation, and the frustrations of all participants which originated in the failed search for the Grail and were without avail set off ultimately culminate in an act of violence (not unlike in Bresson final work “L’Argent”).
But other than displaying another graphic battle scene as seen in the opening sequence of “Lancelot du Lac”, Bresson instead decides to illustrate the scene in an elliptical manner. A galloping horse provides the viewer with a glimpse of the battlefield, where King Arthur and Lancelot can be identified. Twenty years earlier Bresson might have still let Lancelot’s son continue the quest for the Grail as it was described in the literary sources, but in 1974 the search for divine grace instead ended in an inglorious slaughter in the forest.
So that’s a damn fine scene-by-scene analysis. I’d also like to provide this context below since it’s an open encounter with religious / sexual prudence and for the utmost reason that Bresson’s Guinevere might be the most eloquently depicted Guinevere from any on-screen material ever filmed (and will be filmed).
The irony here is that whilst most of the Lancelot protagonists seem to be devoutly proud, Bresson himself is a brisk antagonist of the origins of belief (and thus, the sexuality’s path is that of a pilgrim’s: slow, unscrupulous moves by the stillness of the frames)
“O pray you, noble lady, weep no more;
But let my words, the words of one so small,
Who knowing nothing knows but to obey,
And if I do not there is penance given —
Comfort your sorrows; for they do not flow
From evil done; right sure am I of that,
Who see your tender grace and stateliness.
But weigh your sorrows with our lord the King’s,
And weighing find them less; for gone is he
To wage grim war against Sir Lancelot there,
Round that strong castle where he holds the Queen;
And Modred whom he left in charge of all,
The traitor — Ah sweet lady, the King’s grief
For his own self, and his own Queen, and realm,
Must needs be thrice as great as any of ours.”
That excerpt from Tennyson’s Guinevere poem from the Idylls of the King is quite in measure to Bresson’s own vision of the myth. Quite so I’d say because it suits the mischievousness of the Medieval Times Bresson wants to portray.
My second favorite Bresson although I don’t like ranking films.
“Lancelot du Lac” went througha great many changes on its long journey to realization. When I was writing my book “Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000” spent many hours going through George Cukor’s papers, housed at the Motion Picture Academy Library. Among the folders I found “Correspondance with Robert Bresson.” Well that stoped me dead in my tracks as I couldn’t Imagine two more different filmmakers. As it turns out Cukor had seen “Diary of a Country Priest” when it premiered in France and told a friend of Bresson’s that if he needed any help he;d be glad to lend a hand aiding it’s U.S. release. So bresson write right back and thanked Cukor for the offer. Cukor then set about getting in touch with all the elading art house releasign companies of the day and got the film opened. That was the early 50’s. Then suuddenly in the early 60’s Bresson write Cukor again and asked his help with “Lancelot.” Bresson had decided that the ideal players for Lancelot and guinever would be
(wait for it!)
Burt Lancaster and Natalie Wood.
Yes the auteur who said he would never work with professional actors again after “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne” wanted these two superstars. Bresson had adored Wood in “West Side Story” and loved Lancaster for a great many things.
Cukor wrote back and said as luck would have it he was having lunch with Natalie Wood tht week. He told Bresson to be parient because Hollywood actors have to be wooed.
Next in the file was a lette from Cukor to Wood telling her what a great opportunity this would be for her.
Well as we all know it didn’t work out — but wouldn’t that have been something?
What the finished film does have is the breathtakingly beautiful Humbert Balsam as Gawain — who in the script that Bresson came to write and film became the film’s central figure.
The grand finale in which the Knights of The Round Table are reduced to a pile of armour is stunning.
I must say I’d like to see this film again. It was so unusual. What I remember most about it was a feeling that Bresson was treating the actors as pawn pieces, i.e. the focus was not on their acting, they were standing in for something else, his gaze seemed almost over their heads somewhere. And the other thing I remember is long sequences when you saw nothing but the movement of people’s feet, horses’ hooves, and the sound of that, over and over. Puzzling, but also piqued my curiosity.
Really interesting analysis here. I’d still like to see the film again, however, to see if I can “get this” intuitively.
You can (re)watch it here, Odilonvert.
Thanks Apursansar – I’m going to do just that!
Bresson isn’t interested in acting. He called his players “Models.”
Superb thread. This is the sort of thing that makes mubi the site to be on (faults and all). Yes the tournament is a tour de force. And the second still chosen by Apursansar here is a beautiful pure image. From what David says over intended casting it seems Bresson was nearly swayed by an unexpected romanticism, or maybe the style and outcome would have been the same, the more surprising and effective for Hollywood-reared audiences with certain expectations of big stars.
p.s i see what you mean Dimitris about great minds think alike (Tennyson quotes), or is it fools seldom differ?
@David — yeah I heard about that — so interesting! He really uses film exactly the way he wants, doesn’t he? A rebel.
It’s interesting that you point out the animals. I was particularly fond of the whinnying of the horses throughout the film. This was an interesting film visually but sound seemed to be a major strength as well.
Is this use of sound this common in his films, or is it just this one?
Sound indeed plays an important role in all of Bresson’s later films, here are two striking scenes which exemplify the way he makes use of it:
Excellent comments on Lancelot du Lac here, which I enjoyed reading even more than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s own review pointed out by Jerry Johnson on another thread. I think Apursansar gives us a very good overview of the film and Bresson’s intentions.
Great story on the Cukor and Bresson connection, David. Yes, this film would only have been improved by the addition of two people who could really act up a storm – Burt Lancaster and Natalie Wood – imo. However, this would have contradicted Bresson’s own stripped-down aesthetic. Too often, he took the whole style and feel of the Italian neo-realist approach to heart in his later films, but he didn’t seem to see this could also weaken his films from a dramatic standpoint. If you have too many people standing around a set that can’t act, it can just seem a bit too ‘studied’. Instead of a dramatic approach to the characters, we get beautiful faces and rather empty (to my mind) gestures.
Even though I now can understand Bresson’s framing, I still don’t get all those shots of people’s feet and horses hooves. Btw – I realize the cinematographer is not a midget. Some interesting responses to my tongue-in-cheek comments about this on the voting thread – ha!
His later aesthetic – alluded to by Apursansar – I personally find a bit too self-serving and, yes, nihilistic. It is nowhere more evident than in this very film. I want a little more than an observed and studied distancing effect from my filmmakers. All that close observation and amazing sense of the feel of the characters we find in his earlier films, like Diary of a Country Priest or A Man Escaped, I find often lacking in his later works. Perhaps his own sense of nihilism just got in the way of his own observations. He became a prisoner to his aesthetic, perhaps.
Just shows that all this boils down to what we personally like and dislike in films. But I now think I have a better conception of Bresson’s own methods after reading this thread.
If you have too many people standing around a set that can’t act, it can just seem a bit too ‘studied’. Instead of a dramatic approach to the characters, we get beautiful faces and rather empty (to my mind) gestures.
Bresson is the only director whose films (for me) get better with each subsequent viewing. This is because he has distilled every bit of artifice from his models’ performances (by making them redo take after take until there’s nothing left), so that all we’re left with is the one thing that can’t be obliterated: the honesty of the human Bresson has cast.
The first time I watched Lancelot, I didn’t like it much. I was distracted by the mechanical movements and empty expressions. But ten viewings later, I’m enraptured by the pure grace of the movement and bared souls of the models.
So my advice is to watch it over and over again until you see what Bresson was trying to uncover. He doesn’t want to distance you- he wants to bring you closer. This is why I object to the characterization of Bresson as a minimalist. His films are so layered as to be almost impenetrable upon first viewing.
btw- great writeup, Apur.
I appreciate your comments, Jerry. I know also that you have put this film on your own favorite films list, so I mean no disrespect toward the film or your own viewpoint, or anyone else who likes the film. Interesting that it took more than one viewing for you to appreciate the film, as it did me for the Ruiz. Perhaps I am missing something. I really will try at a different point to re-watch and reflect. I guess this film did not immediately grab me like, say, Diary, but that might just be because I need to engage Bresson’s own changing aesthetic.
@Jerry — that’s exactly why I want to see this film again. BTW, I’ve thought the same thing about Antonioni, although the style of his films struck me as a little more accessible than some of Bresson’s. I appreciate his style a lot more now than I did, but in this case it wasn’t because of repeated viewings, but because in my opinion, it’s just that I’ve lived a bit longer since the last time I saw his work. I think the fact that Lancelot du Lac is still memorable for the reasons I’ve mentioned means I need to see it again.
“So my advice is to watch it over and over again until you see what Bresson was trying to uncover. He doesn’t want to distance you- he wants to bring you closer.”
Yes. I second that.
Lancelot doesn’t deserve ten viewings. Sorry.
^^Well, let me qualify that. You’d have to be a total devotee of Bresson’s philosophy toward aesthetics. Otherwise, it doesn’t deserve ten viewings.
I knew I was going to love Lancelot du Lac from the very first moments. Again I find the style very deliberate and tactile. The feeling of the sword going into the knight, the way the blood would gush from the helmets. It all seemed more real and tactile than any of this crazy kind of mad hand held camera style of Gladiator and all the crap nowadays that people refere to as being ultra realistic.
All of the rhythms of the sounds and imagery. The shot of different people from the same angles doing the same moments over and over was very hypnotic.
Apursansar, I’m not quite sure if I had heard of this Christian atheism term you used in your post. I looked it up but it seems like it has several different meanings. I’ve seen Passion of the Christ so I guess I sort of know what you mean, but I’m wondering if this is just an influenced you are assuming, or did Bresson ever declare himself to be such a Christian athiest? It seems like such a strange concept to me! But one thing that I find fascinating about Bresson is that while you and many people on this site talk about this kind of change from his earlier films to his later films to a kind of more nihilism and pessimism, I’m not necessarily seeing it. Maybe because his films present themselves so matter of fact that you can read into them quite a bit of what you want yourself. Maybe in this way they are actually similar to the contemplative cinema that has also been mentioned during this cup.
Ultimately, I find Bressons’ explanations of his aesthetic philosophy much more interesting than his films themselves. Of course, many of films are still great. But he;s also like a master sophist, who can lend so much reflection on his films because he explained his artistic intent. I’m not certain where his body of work would rank though if he hadn’t explicated his own films so well. I guess what i’m saying is that I do see a certain glaring gap between what he said he achieved in his works as opposed to what is actually captured on celluloid. An actor (or model, pfft, whatever) looking blank can be given whatever explanation one wants to ascribe to it.
I pretty much agree with everyone that’s said “view Bressons films more than once”.
You can read “notes on the cinematographer” untill your eyes dry up … and speak to other Bresson lovers for hours … But nothing engages you with Bressons kind of cinema better than repeated viewing (especially with his later work).
Everytime I re-watch a Bresson film I feel I understand him more and more.
I seem to get the same with Paradzhanov and Ozu too
In fact Bresson described himself as a “Christian atheist” which is a rejection of the insult to reason which Catholicism demands of him while at the same time maintaining a general faith. But Blue is right that Bresson had an ability to express his artistic concerns in a well-worded and enlightening manner, so I’m going to post one of my favorite interviews with him that should answer a couple of questions about his stylistic and thematic development:
Interview with Robert Bresson
By Charles Thomas Samuels
Paris, September 2, 1970
Bresson’s living room, where this interview took place, is almost too appropriate for the most uncompromisingly austere director in film history: white walls, tan curtains and upholstery, worn wooden floors, and one spot of color coming from a frayed patterned rug that must have been reticent oven in its heyday but was now positively attenuated in contradicting the general pallor. In his mid-sixties, Bresson shows few signs of age (a slight suggestion of arthritis in the hands) but many of vigor and even of modishness (he wears his white hair long and dresses in American-style sports clothes). His most imposing features are icy blue eyes that flash with impatience, even when he smiles, at the apparent bidding of some inner voice that seems always to be in competition with the voice of his interlocutor. At one moment he drums his fingers nervously on his chair; at another, he seems totally absorbed in the conversation. All shifts are reflected in his eyes, which never leave your face, no matter how distracted he may seem. Our conversation took up an entire afternoon during the period when Bresson was shooting Four Nights of a Dreamer through the night, waking up around midday, and devoting his afternoons to preparation. Despite this grueling schedule and the rustiness of his English (a language, as he apologized, that he rarely used but adopted for my comfort), Bresson proved responsive and articulate. As the length of the interview shows, there were no lulls in the conversation.
SAMUELS: You’ve said you don’t want to be called a metteur en scene but rather a metteur en ordre. Does this mean that you think the essence of film is editing rather than staging?
BRESSON: For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument – the camera – things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real.
S: That puts you in the tradition of the silent, film, which could not rely on dialogue and therefore created its effects through editing. Do you agree that you are more like a silent than a sound film director?
B: The silent directors usually employed actors. When the cinema became vocal, actors were also used, because at that time they were thought the only ones able to speak. A rather difficult part of my work is to make my nonactors speak normally. I don’t want to eliminate dialogue (as in silent films), but my dialogue must be very special – not like the speeches heard in a theater. Voice, for me, is something very important, and I couldn’t do without it. Now, when I choose someone to appear in one of my films, I select him by means of the telephone, before I see him. Because in general when you meet a person, your eyes and ears work together rather badly. The voice tells more about anyone than his physical presence.
S: But in your films all the people speak with a single, a Bressonian voice.
B: No. I think that in other films actors speak as if they were onstage. As a result, the audience is used to theatrical inflections. That makes my nonactors appear unique, and thus, they seem to be speaking in a single new way. I want the essence of my films to be not the words my people say or even the gestures they perform, but what these words and gestures provoke in them. What I tell them to do or say must bring to light something they had not realized they contained. The camera catches it; neither they nor I really know it before it happens. The unknown.
S: If it is true that your goal is the mystery you drew out of your nonactors, can anyone besides you and them fully appreciate the result?
B: I hope so. There are so many things our eyes don’t see. But the camera sees everything. We are too clever, and our cleverness plays us false. We should trust mainly our feelings and those senses that never lie to us. Our intelligence disturbs our proper vision of things.
S: You say you discover your mysteries in the process of shooting…
B: Yes. Because what I’ve just told you was not something I had planned for. Amazingly, however, I discovered it during my first moments behind the camera. My first film was made with professional actors, and when we had our first rehearsal I said, “If you go on acting and speaking like this, I am leaving.”
S: On your second film, you had many quarrels with Maria Casares. But, you know, I think her performance in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
B: A friend told me that in Julien Green’s South she had to appear on the stage saying, “It’s raining”; in French, il pleut. Despite the simplicity of these words, her tragedian’s temperament made her shout emphatically: “I… l … pl… eut!” Because Les Dames was not a tragedy, she was worried at the beginning. To get courage, she used to drink a little glass of cognac before acting. When I chanced to discover this, I asked her to take a sedative instead, which she willingly did. Then things started to go better.
S: Your major characteristic as an editor is ellipsis. Do you leave more and more out in each version of a given scene, or do you instinctively elide things while shooting?
B: I always shoot on the dangerous line between showing too much and not showing enough. I try to work as if I were on a tightrope with a precipice at either side.
S: What I want to know, however, is whether you consciously eliminate things during editing or instinctively eliminate things as you go along. Put this another way: Did you eliminate as much in your earlier films?
B: I have always been the same. I don’t create ellipsis; it is there from the beginning. One day I said, “Cinema is the art of showing nothing.” I want to express things with a minimum of means, showing nothing that is not absolutely essential.
S: Doesn’t that make your films too difficult? I’m not even thinking of the average viewer. Doesn’t your extremely elliptical manner baffle even the educated viewer? Can anyone get all the things you merely sketch in?
B: Many do.
S: Aren’t you worried about being too rarefied?
B: No. Here is the problem: The public is educated to a certain kind of film. Therefore, when they see what you call my elliptical films, they are disturbed. Bad critics say I am inhuman and cold. Why? Because they are used to acting; since they find none in my films, they say I am empty.
S: Let me ask you about your actors now. Jules Roy wrote an article about A Man Escaped in which he said that you never paid attention to your associates, that you were always locked into yourself, and that whenever you faced simple and difficult means toward a given end, you always chose the difficult.
B: Things are always difficult. And I lock myself into myself because often it seems that some of the others are against me. I find that when I don’t concentrate, I make mistakes.
S: I noticed when I saw you shooting Four Nights of a Dreamer on the Pont Neuf that you were walking around, ignoring everyone, and continuously peering at the shooting area between two fingers. I also noticed that you make use of accidents. For example, a passerby walked behind your actors while they were performing, yet you did not instruct the cameraman to stop shooting.
B: It’s possible.
S: You would use such an accident, wouldn’t you?
B: Yes. In Pickpocket I deliberately shot the long sequence at the railroad station duringrush hour so as to be able to capture all the accidental occurrences. I courted the reality of the crowd through the impediments they placed before my camera.
S: It is said that you shoot every scene many times. How do the actors respond?
B: Sometimes they react badly, so I stop; sometimes the third shot is the best, sometimes the first. Sometimes the shot I think the best is the worst; sometimes the shot that seems worst when I film I later learn is exactly what I wanted. I require from a shot something I am not fully conscious of when photographing. When we are editing, I tell my editor to search for what I remember as having been the most successful take, and as he is running the film through the machine, I discover that what I had not sought is in fact what I had always wanted. I must add that lately I don’t shoot so many takes.
S: A common criticism of Pickpocket is that Martin Lassalle fails because he isn’t enough of an actor.
B: No, I think he is marvelous. Extraordinarily, he identified exactly with the hero of the film: somehow a little lost in the world but very sensitive and clever, with an incredible manual talent. As a result, he became nearly as good a pickpocket as the professional I employed to teach him. The only difficulty I had with him is that he had a Uruguayan accent, which we succeeded in correcting.
S: According to one of your interviews, in A Man Escaped you helped Leterrier to give a good performance through mechanical means. What were they?
B: By “mechanical” I mean, as I said before, words and gestures. Because I tell my actors to speak and move mechanically. For I am using these gestures and words – which they do not interpret – to draw out of them what I want to appear on screen.
S: For you, the nonactor is raw material – like paint.
B: But precious raw material.
S: You’ve said you don’t even let him see the rushes.
B: That is true, and for the same reason I never use the same person twice, because the second time he would try deliberately to give me what he thought I wanted. I don’t even permit the husband of a nonactress to see rushes because he would evaluate her performance and then she would try to improve it. Anyway, mechanics are essential. Our gestures, nine times out of ten, are automatic. The ways you are crossing your legs and holding your head are not voluntary gestures. Montaigne has a marvelous chapter on hands in which he says that hands go where their owner does not send them. I don’t want my nonactors to think of what they do. Years ago, without realizing any program, I told my nonactors, “Don’t think of what you are saying or doing,” and that moment was the beginning of my style.
S: This is very interesting. You seem to be talking about what is now known as body language. Scientists are now writing books about the meaning of involuntary gestures.
B: Even as early as Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne I told the actors to think about anything they wanted except their performances. Only then did I hear in their voices that inflection (so unlike theatrical inflection]: the inflection of a real human voice. In three-quarters of a person’s activities, his mind does not participate, and that is what I am trying to capture.
S: You once said you choose your actors only after talking to them for a long time.
B: It used to be true, but it isn’t anymore. Perhaps I have grown lazy. And imprudently, as I told you, I sometimes choose my nonactors as a result of a phone call. A voice calls me up and says, “I hear you are looking for a girl to star in your film,” I listen to that voice, and I say to myself, “The role is hers.” That’s the way I chose Dominique Sanda for Une Femme douce.
S: Do you work this way now because you are so sure of yourself that you can get what you want out of anyone?
B: Yes, I am sure of myself, but, you know , a human being has so many contradictions and oddities that I can never be entirely sure that I’ve chosen the right person.
S: You have often expressed contempt for psychology. Yet you keep talking about the mystery of personality in ways that sound psychological. What’s the difference between what you want to understand and what the psychologist wants to understand?
B: The psychologist discovers only what he can explain. I explain nothing.
S: You are a person with no preconceptions.
B: None at all.
S: Whereas psychology is a closed system, whose premises dictate its method. Therefore, it discovers evidence in support of a preexisting theory of human behavior.
B: If I succeed at all, I suppose some of what I show on the screen will be psychologically valid, even though I am not quite aware of it. But of course, I don’t always succeed. In any case, I never want to explain anything. The trouble with most films is that they explain everything.
S: That’s why one can go back to your films.
B: If there is something good in a film, one must see it at least twice. A film doesn’t give its best the first time.
S: I think that many of your ideas are a consequence of your Christianity. Am I right in saying that you pursue mystery without worrying that the audience will be baffled because you believe that we all partake of one essential soul?
B: Of course. Of course.
S: So that every viewer is fundamentally the same viewer.
B: Of course. What I am very pretentiously trying to capture is this essential soul, as you call it.
S: Do you believe that there is anybody that does not partake in this essential soul for example, is an atheist outside your audience?
B:No, he is not. Besides, there are no real atheists.
S: What attracted you to Bernanos?
B: I was attracted by the same thing, on a different scale, that attracts me in Dostoyevsky. Both writers are searching for the soul. In fact, I don’t share Bernanos’ faith and style. But in every book of his there are sparks, remarkable insights, that are very peculiar and that you do not find in other writers. In Diary of a Country Priest there are many such sparks.
S: Most of your films are adaptations. Why did you create both story and script for Pickpocket and Au hasard, Balthazar ?
B: In the latter case, I can answer the question simply. One day I saw very clearly a donkey as the center of a film, but the next day that image faded away. I had to wait a long time for it to return, but I always wanted to make this film. You may recall that in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot Prince Myshldn says he recovered his good spirits by seeing a donkey in the marketplace. Pickpocket is another matter. I have always liked manual dexterity and, when young, made balancing toys, juggled, etc. I’ve never understood intellectuals who put dexterity aside.
S: Everything you say points to your belief that the human mind isn’t enough.
B: Our senses tell us more than our intelligence.
S: Isn’t it ironic that you are known as an intellectual director? I have always thought you profoundly emotional.
B: Most of what is said about me is wrong and is repeated eternally. Once somebody said that I worked as an assistant director to Rene Clair, which is not true, and that I studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – also not true – but this kind of error appears in nearly every account of my career. Of course, the worst mistakes concern my ideas and my way of working.
S: You’ve said that your films are sometimes solutions to technical problems. For example, you made The Trial of Joan of Arc to see if one could make a film that was only questions and answers.
B: I like exercise for its own sake. That is why I regard my films as attempts rather than accomplishments. People always ask me about the motivation of my characters, never about the arrangement of shots.
S: You seem more interested in putting shots together than in moving the camera.
B: No. My camera is never stationary; it simply doesn’t move around in a blatant manner. It is too easy, when you want, for instance, to describe a room, to pan across it – or to show you are in church by tilting upward in a spiraling fashion. All that is artificial; our eye doesn’t proceed like that.
S: You told Godard that you prefer as often as possible to replace image by sound. Why?
B: Because the ear is profound, whereas the eye is frivolous, too easily satisfied. The ear is active, imaginative, whereas the eye is passive. When you hear a noise at night, instantly you imagine its cause. The sound of a train whistle conjures up the whole station. The eye can perceive only what is presented to it.
S: Would you prefer working in a medium where you could eliminate images?
B: No, I want both image and sound.
S: You just want to give the latter predominance?
S: How do you prepare your sound tracks?
B: There are two kinds of sound in my films: sounds which occur during shooting and those I add later. What I add is more important, because I treat these sounds as if they were actors. For example, when you go into the street and hear a hundred cars passing, what you think you hear is not what you hear, because if you recorded it by means of a magnetophone, you would find that the sound was a mere jumble. So when I have to record the sound of cars, I go to the country and record every single car in pure silence. Then I mix all these sounds in a way that creates not what I hear in the street, but what I think I hear.
S: In this way you can reflect the mind of the character. For example, in A Man Escaped the amplified sounds of keys and trams etc. reflect the supersensitive hearing of a man in prison.
B: Yes. In that film freedom is represented by the sounds of life outside.
S: In view of your emphasis on sound, why do you avoid music?
B: Because music takes you into another realm. I am always astonished when I see a film in which after the characters are finished speaking the music begins. You know, this sort of music saves many films, but if you want your film to be true, you must avoid it. I confess that I too made mistakes with music in my early films. But now I use music, as in Mouchette, only at the end, because I want to take the audience out of the film into another realm; that is the reason for Monteverdi’s Magnificat.
S: Why did you suddenly move to color in Une Femme douce?
B: Because suddenly I had money for it.
S: Did the new technique produce any special problems?
B: Yes. Since the first rule of art is unity, color threatens you because its effects are too various. However, if you can control and unify the color, you produce more powerful shots in it than are possible in black and white. In Une Femme douce I started with the color of Dominique Sanda’s skin and harmonized everything to it.
S: The sight of her nude flesh is one of the most important in the film.
B: I am also using nudity in Four Nights of a Dreamer. I am not at all against nudity so long as the body is beautiful; only when the body is ugly is its nudity obscene. It is like kissing. I can’t bear to see people kissing on the screen. Can you?
S: That’s why you sometimes have your characters kiss each other’s hands?
B: Yes. Perhaps.
S: It happens in Au hasard, Balthazar. I wanted to ask a question about that. In those many beautiful shots in which Marie embraces the head of the donkey, were you thinking of the common figure that appears in Renaissance tapestries of the Virgin and the unicorn?
B: No. The resemblance is accidental.
S: You’ve said that the whole universe is Christian and that no story is more Christian than any other. What do you think is the Christian element in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne?
B: I never look for a Christian meaning. If it comes, it comes.
S: But this is the only one of your films that seems wholly secular.
B: I never thought about it much, but I suppose you are right.
S: Did you and Cocteau agree completely when you were working on the script?
B: You know, Cocteau did very little. I initially wrote all the dialogue myself, retaining as much of Diderot as I could, but inventing the story of the two women whom Helene uses. Their behavior and what happens to them in my film aren’t in Diderot. What I needed Cocteau for was to help me blend Diderot’s dialogue with my own. This he did magnificently in ten minutes, out of friendship for me. And since he was Cocteau and I was not known as a writer, I asked him to take credit for the dialogue.
S: Actually, as is well known, your adaptation of Diderot changes the spirit of the tale completely. Diderot’s story is comic and emphasizes class distinctions. Why did you want to film this if you didn’t intend to film it as written?
B: It was my second film, and I needed an adaptation because producers are more difficult about original scripts. I admired the story of Madame de la Pommeraye from Jacques le fataliste because it was well constructed and dramatic, not comic as you seem to think. I merely used his basic situation and much of his dialogue, adding characters, scenes, and so forth to make a film about things that did interest me.
S: Why did you change the period and bring the story up to date?
B: Because I think that costume drama violates the essence of cinema, which is immediacy. The period I was able to change because feelings – unlike clothes – don’t change from century to century.
S: You say always that you’re a demon for truth, yet this film is obviously stylized.
B: But style goes very well with truth.
S: I find symbolism in this film. Was it deliberate? For example, when Jean comes to ask Helene to arrange a meeting with Agnes, Helene stands in front of the fireplace suppressing her jealousy, but we see it reflected in the raging fire at her side.
B: I don’t remember if I meant it that way. I never look for symbolism.
S: Take another instance. Helene is frequently seen in front of mirrors, suggesting what is true: that there are two Helenes, the self she pretends and the one she really is.
B: That wasn’t deliberate, but you teach me now what I ought to have done or what I did without realizing it. Because you see, luckily, everything important is instinctive. One mustn’t plan every detail in advance. I agree with Valery: One works to surprise oneself.
S: There are many more fades in Diary of a Country Priest than in Les Dames du Bais de Baulogne. Are you deliberate about the number and kind of transitions? In Une Femme douce there are no fades at all.
B: Because more and more I try to be quick. Moreover, to produce a fade in a color film, you have to superimpose one negative over another, and that destroys the quality of the shot. As I have always said, a film is not its shots, but the way they have been joined. As a general once told me, a battle occurs very often at the point where two maps touch.
S: You often said that you don’t like spectacle. However, Diary of a Country Priest is spectacular. For example: Chantal’s white face hovering in the blackness of the confessional or the priest passing beside that magnificent tree. If you remade the film now, would you eliminate such shots?
B: Absolutely. Those things attracted me at the time. One needs much more experience than I had to eliminate such nonessentials. The most important shots for me in that film were those in which you see the priest writing in the diary. At those moments one sees the contact between his soul and, if you like, the world of matter, as he pronounces the very words that he is writing down.
S: On other occasions, when he is speaking but not writing, you obtain marvelous effects. For example, we see him dipping bread into wine as he says, “I am able to take some bread with wine because I am feeling better.” But his face shows that he is dying. As a result, we see how humble he is, how unaware of his own suffering.
B: Let me tell you something. What you saw in that shot you invented. The less the nonactor does, the more he suggests. The combination of the wine and the bread and the nonactor’s face (with a minimum of gesture) suggests that he is going to die. He does not have to say so. If he acted “I am going to die,” it would be awful.
S: You said I “invented” it. I didn’t invent it.
B: No, you felt it.
S: Don’t you see, “invent” is the wrong word?
B: A book, a painting, or a piece of music – none of these things has an absolute value. The value is what the viewer, the reader, the listener bring to it.
S: There is a difference between value and meaning. We can disagree about the value of a film and still agree on what it means.
B: There are people who when seeing Diary of a Country Priest feel nothing.
S: But that’s their fault. That’s not the fault of the film. There is a German proverb: “If a jackass stares into a mirror, a philosopher can’t look back.”
B: Unfortunately, the public is used to easy films. More and more this is true.
S: Then you are suffering from lack of comrades. If there were more directors making suggestive films like yours, the public would be able to understand better.
B: I have always said that the world of cinema ought to be organized like the world of painting during the Renaissance, so that apprentices might learn their craft. Today a man assists now this, now that director, and learns nothing.
S: In Diary of a Country Priest for the first time -
B: You are right; this is the first film in which I started to understand what I was doing.
S: I had in mind something more specific that one also sees in Une Femme douce, but above all in Pickpocket. Before a character enters a place or after he exits from it, the camera holds on the set.
B: Where? What do you mean?
S: In Diary of a Country Priest he rides his bicycle to the house of the Bishop of Torcey. He enters the house, and you hold outside the house. It happens repeatedly in Pickpocket.
B: I don’t remember.
S: I’ll give a more recent example. In Une Femme douce the couple comes into the house, and the camera remains on the door. Then they walk upstairs, and the camera holds on the landing. We see the door to their apartment before they open it and after they close it etc. You weren’t conscious of this?
B: Of course, I was conscious, but I never remember what I have done later. Let me tell you something about doors. Critics say, " Bresson is impossible: He shows fifty doors opening and closing"; but you must understand that the door of the apartment is where all the drama occurs. The door either says, “I am going away or I am coming to you.” When I made Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, I was also accused of showing too many doors. And Cocteau said I was criticized for being too precise. “In other films you see a door because it just happens to be there,” he said, , “whereas in your films it is there on purpose. For that reason each door is seen, whereas in other films the door is scarcely noticed.”
S: You say that you first discovered yourself in Diary of a Country Priest. Was part of that discovery the use of commentary?
B: Perhaps. But you know, I shouldn’t have used commentary in my next film, A Man Escaped. Since it was virtually a silent film and since it required some rhythm, I depended on commentary.
S: I want to ask some questions about A Man Escaped, which, by the way, seems to me your greatest film. Incidentally, does that judgment upset you?
B: I don’t know how to make such comparisons. But there may be something in what you say. When I finished it, I had no idea about its value. Yet I had, for the first time in my life, an impulse to write down everything I felt about the art of filmmaking, and for that reason A Man Escaped is precious to me.
S: You have been working on this book for a long time. When will it be published?
B: I haven’t worked at it much. I have no time to finish it. It is principally a gathering of notes on little pieces of paper, on cigarette wrappers; things I wrote down while shooting or on some other occasion.
S: A Man Escaped shares with The Trial of Joan of Arc an implication of French nationalism. Did you want that?
B: No, the prisoner could have been a young American or a Vietnamese. I was interested only in the mind of someone who wishes to escape without outside help.
S: The problem is more serious in The Trial of Joan of Arc, in which you use certain historical facts and ignore others. For example, in one tradition, the soldier who offered Joan a crucifix at the stake was British. But you don’t show that. Moreover, you make the British characters particularly stupid.
B: Not stupid but rather brutal. Indeed, the English bishop is intelligent and refined.
S: Your films are the fastest films made, but people say that you are slow.
B: Because my characters don’t jump about and scream.
S: The most serious criticism that can be made against you is that you are too fast. For example, I can’t imagine anyone catching everything in Au hasard, Balthazar. Consider the inquisition of Gerard at the police station. I have seen the film twice, and I still can’t understand what happens in that scene.
B:I only wanted to show that a crime had occurred and that the boy was questioned by the police. The scene shows the stupidity and vanity of the boy and of his comrades. The police captain says, “In prison for stupidity!” It is also important because in the next scene the boy tries to make Arsene think that Arsene, who is a tramp, is also the murderer that the police are looking for.
S: To return to A Man Escaped: Though you create very well the experience of being in prison, you never show the brutality. For example, you don’t show Fontaine being beaten. You only show him afterward. Why?
B: Because it would be false to show the beating since the audience knows that the actor isn’t really being beaten, and such falsity would stop the film. Moreover, this is what it was like when I was a prisoner of the Germans. Once I heard someone being whipped through a door, and then I heard the body fall. That was ten times worse than if I had seen the whipping. When you see Fontaine with his bloody face being brought back to the cell, you are forced to imagine the awfulness of the beating – which makes it very powerful Furthermore, if I showed him being taken from his cell, being beaten, then being returned, it would take much too long.
S: There is another wonderful effect of concentration in this scene: Fontaine says, “After three days I was able to move again,” although only a few seconds of film time have passed. This suggests how quickly he restores himself and how much courage he has.
B: That is very important. His will to go on establishes a rhythm of inexorability that touches the public. When men go to war, military music is necessary, because music has a rhythm and rhythm implants ideas.
S: Whenever we see the window in Fontaine’s cell, it glows like a jewel. Was that a special effect?
B: No, but I do remember that I worked with my cinematographer to obtain just the right degree of light from both window and door.
S: There is one thing in the film that seems uncharacteristic in its patness. When Fontaine is sentenced, the scene takes place at the Hotel Terminus….
B: Every city in France had such a hotel where the Gestapo stayed during the occupation.
S: You didn’t desire the pun?
B: Of course not. Everything in this film is absolutely factual. I had no trouble inventing details and was familiar with the history of the place. All of the characters’ actions take place exactly where they occurred in real life.
S: You search for mystery in your films. It seems to me that here you really attain it because although the title tells us that he will escape, the film is very suspenseful.
B: The important thing is not “if” but “how.” Here is another mystery: Although every detail of the film came from the report of Andre Devigny, I invented the dialogue with the young boy who is finally brought to Fontaine’s cell. When I read it to Devigny, I was very worried about his reaction. Do you know what he said? “How true!” This shows that truth can be different from reality, because in the actual event, as Devigny told me, he behaved as if the boy were a woman he needed to seduce in order to make good his escape. In my film, on the other hand, I show Fontaine dominating the boy. You know, I wanted to call the film “Help Yourself,” and that’s why I showed Devigny as dominating in the last scenes. Help yourself and God will help you.
S: There are other great moments in the film. For example, when Fontaine tells the old man in the next cell that his own attempt to escape is being made for the old man, too, or the moments when a community is achieved by means of men tapping on the walls. I could go on. This film is your greatest, I think, not because it is technically superior to the others but because it is richer in content.
B: Mouchette is rich, too!
S: I would place Mouchette with A Man Escaped among your greatest films.
B: But it seems to me there is a little too much spectacle in Mouchette.
S: You added a lot to the Bernanos novel in Mouchette. Conversely, Pickpocket, which is an original, appears to be inspired by Crime and Punishment. For the viewer aware of this parallel, there is a problem in Pickpocket. In Crime and Punishment, whether justifiably or not, Raskolnikov thinks of his crime as benefiting humanity and thus earns a measure of sympathy. Your hero has no excuse for the crime and thus seems a little pretentious in his desire to be taken as a superior being.
B: Yes, but he is aware that pickpocketing is very difficult and dangerous. He is taken with the thrill of that. He is pretentious perhaps, like Raskolnikov, but on quite a lesser scale. Like Raskolnikov, he hates organized society. And I am sure you know that Dostoyevsky took the idea of his novel from Max Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, though that is perhaps not the actual title of the book. The French version, at any rate, which is called L’Unique et so propriete, contains sentences like these: “What am I legitimately allowed to do? All that I am able to” and “My rights, so far as I’m concerned, extend as far as I can extend my arm.” These are a good encouragement to pickpocketing, especially the latter sentence.
S: What I am trying to explore with you is the emotional problem for the spectator.
B: I never think of the spectator.
S: But you can see that your hero might appear unsympathetic.
B: He is unsympathetic. Why not?
S: I am also puzzled, in view of your uninterest in psychology, at the heavy psychological emphasis in this film. Let me explain. As we see the hero stealing, we don’t know his motive, but toward the end of the film we find out that he previously stole from his mother. We then realize his psychological motivation; he stole from his mother, felt guilty about that, was ashamed to confess to her, and, therefore, commits crimes so as to be punished and fulfill his need for penitence.
B: Perhaps, but only a psychiatrist would explain it like that. As Dostoyevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea because it increases the mystery ; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you desire to find out the reason.
S: But this doesn’t answer my question. Here, in the first of your films from an original story, you, who profess to dislike psychology, are at your most psychological. Why?
B: You think it’s psychological? I didn’t mean it to be. I simply showed a man picking pockets until he was arrested. I included the fact that he stole from his mother simply to provide evidence the police needed in order to be put on his track.
S: In other words, you didn’t put it in as explanation but rather as plot device?
B: Yes. It is only to make the chief of police certain that Martin is a thief. What interested me is the power this gave the inspector, because the inspector liked to torture him – as in that long scene, where the hero doesn’t know how much the inspector knows. In fact, I originally wanted to call the film “Incertitude.”
S: There is something else I rather doubt you wanted in the film. The hero of your film is a criminal in two ways: He is a thief, and he denies God.
B: On the contrary, I make him aware of the presence of God for three minutes. Few people can say they were aware of God even that long. This line of dialogue is very personal; it shows that although influenced by Dostoyevsky, I made my story benefit from my own experiences. At his mother’s funeral, a singer sings the Dies Irae in exactly the same simple way another singer sang it at my mother’s funeral in the Cathedral of Nantes, where, apart from ten nuns, my wife and I attended the service alone. Somehow this Dies Irae made a strange impression on me; I could have said then, like my pickpocket, “I felt God during three minutes.”
S: This raises another question. You are famous for maintaining your privacy. I didn’t even know you were married, and it was a great surprise when your wife came to the door. Isn’t Pickpocket a game of hide-and-seek since, according to you, it reflects so much of your personal experience, although if you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known it?
B: I hate publicity. One should be known for what he does, not for what he is. Nowadays a painter paints a bad painting, but he talks about it until it becomes famous. He paints for five minutes and talks about it on television for five years.
S: That reminds me of Godard. He makes bad films, but he defends them so interestingly.
B: His films are interesting. He upsets the official cinema, which cares only for profits. He taught films how to use disorder.
S: Don’t you think his purpose is more important than the individual results – which aren’t very good?
B: When he uses professional actors, I don’t like his films, but when he doesn’t, he makes the best that can be seen.
S: On this matter of your zeal for truth: There are moments in Pickpocket which seem to me to be true only to your peculiar style. For example, in the opening scene where the hero steals the purse, the people at the racetrack are preternaturally calm. I can’t believe that people watch a race so impassively.
B: But not every part of a racetrack crowd reacts in the same way. There are always certain people who watch impassively. I didn’t want him to commit his theft when people were shouting; I wanted it to happen in silence, so that one could hear the crescendo of the horses’ galloping.
S: But such a scene, even among sympathetic viewers, raises the question of whether we are seeing truth in your films or the reflection of a very deliberate and personal style. I ask myself that question occasionally in Pickpocket and almost always in The Trial of Joan of Arc.
B: If that happens, it is my fault. My style is natural to me. You see, I want to make things so concentrated and so unified that the spectator feels as if he has seen one single moment. I control all speech and gesture so as to produce an object that is indivisible. Because I believe that one moves an audience only through rhythm, concentration, and unity.
S: When I watched The Trial of Joan of Arc, however, I found myself interested – moved, if you will – not by the dialogue and characters but by your subtle method of crosscutting: the way, for example, you indicate that Joan has scored a point by keeping the camera on her when Cauchon is responding. Aiding this, of course, was the great familiarity of the trial itself.
B: It’s a pity you didn’t hear it in your own language.
S: Even so, my French is good enough so that I got most of it.
B: But, you know, her words are very subtle.
S: Even so, they seemed to me less subtle than your editing, which began to replace the words as my object of interest.
B: Look, I am even surprised that you were able to sit through the film. Its effect depends so much on subtlety of dialogue, which is said so rapidly, that if you were sufficiently caught by the rhythms to like the film even when you couldn’t fully follow the dialogue, I’m very pleased.
S: Yes, but I think that interest in the editing rhythms conflicts with interest in the dialogue – that is, interest in technique replaces interest in content. I think here your interest in technique is subverting the story. In any case, you once said what impressed you most about Joan was her youth. Since she is a famous figure of rebellion, were you thinking of any analogies between her and contemporary youth?
B: Not exactly, but I wanted to make her seem as similar to young girls now as I could, which is why she is dressed as she is.
S: I have always been put off Joan by her fanaticism. I mean, what if a fanatic believes in something you find terrible?
B: I understand this feeling, but I don’t share it. Joan of Arc was not a fanatic. She wanted to save her country. For me, she is the most extraordinary person who ever lived. I made the film to see what would happen when I had a young girl say the words Joan actually said.
S: I wondered about that. This story is so familiar, so often told. How did you think you were correcting your predecessors?
B: The legend, which the public is used to, of a poor and ignorant little shepherdess commanding the army and saving her king and Prance is known now to be false. Besides, we have her exact words and those of her questioners at the trial I wanted to be very simple and only insist, without prejudice, on what she said.
S: What does she mean to you?
B: Renaissance painters frequently depict the world with a level above it, on which sit God and the angels. Joan lived her whole life with one foot on earth and the other on that higher level. And the typical drama of her trial, with everyone against her! The French were as bad as the English, but they were hypocrites, which is why I don’t show Cauchon as a total villain.
S: We talked before about your speed. There are signs in Au hasard, Balthazar of excess speed. You once said, for example, that you wanted Arsene to be gentle when sober so that the audience could feel Balthazar’s bafflement at the total change wrought in his master by a simple bottle. But you never show us enough of the gentle Arsene to make the contrast felt.
B: I don’t remember, but you quote me accurately. I had two ideas in this film. First, to see an analogy between the different stages of the life of a donkey and the life of a human being; second, to see the donkey suffering for all human vices. Drunkenness is, of course, one vice.
S: Something new enters your films in Balthazar.
S: Something else, too. Until now, all your films take place, as it were, without spatial or temporal particularity. Here, for the first time, contemporary mores are unmistakable: the blousons noirs, jazz, etc. Was this conscious and deliberate?
S: It just happened? Yet it happens again in Mouchette and in Une Femme douce. For example, in each film jazz enters with such volume and cacophony that it becomes hateful. Am I not correct, then, in sensing, beginning with Balthazar, your hatred for the modern world?
B: Perhaps not hatred, but rather distrust for some kinds of modern society. I am starting to write a script about the forces that dominate modern man.
S: What causes this recent interest of yours in contemporary life?
B: This interest is not recent. Since my balms have become simpler and simpler, I want to attach myself to some material that is resistant and that will make my work tougher.
S: Do you think it is a reflection of your time of life: the impulse to judge the age?
B: No. I don’t judge; I only show, Or rather, I show how the world makes me feel now.
S: You say that Balthazar must pass among the vices of man. But Gerard, because of the very accuracy with which he is portrayed as a contemporary juvenile delinquent, seems to me to be too banal to represent vice.
B: Since six years have passed, he may seem banal. In any case, he is imbecility and violence, which go well together, the one producing the other.
S: Some of the editing in Balthazar is brilliant, like the montage of the donkey’s work life. Why however, did you superimpose the subtitle “the years pass” in that scene? It isn’t necessary.
B: You know, I’m also using titles in my new film – “first night,” “second night,” “story of Jacques,” “story of Marthe,” etc.- not to amuse myself but to make the distinctions among the various parts of the film sharper.
S: That’s okay, because it will emphasize the fact that you are shooting a four-part story. But the title to which I refer is the only title in Balthazar, and it only makes clear what is already clear from the editing.
B: You are quite right. You see, you teach me many things about my films.
S: One thing I want to criticize in this film -
B: One thing more!
S: One thing more. Certain objectionable coincidences. Let me give you an example. After the violent scene in which Gerard beats Arsene while the other boys watch, Marie just happens to come by on the motorcycle when the beating is finished, which permits a scene between her and Gerard that makes an obvious point about her susceptibility to evil Even more serious is Arsene’s death scene. I understand that it is meant to be ironic, but when Arsene falls off the donkey at the precise moment that, having just won a fortune, he says good-bye to this country in which he has suffered so, it is too pat.
B: It is, as you said, the irony of life. Like bad things, good things never happen at the right time.
S: That is another sign of life’s mysteriousness?
B: Yes. But you didn’t like this scene?
S: I’ll tell you why.
B: But Arsene is a drunkard, so it is quite natural that he would fall of the donkey. Moreover, the others pushed him. They place him on the donkey and kick it so that it goes too fast and he falls off.
S: If I had shot this, I would have allowed thirty seconds more of him riding.
B: Yes: in a state of happiness. You are right.
S: Because, you see, the cuts from the kick, to him saying good-bye, to the road market, to him falling off the donkey are too quick and make the sequence seem contrived, so that the irony seems rather the result of your artificial manipulation.
B: What you don’t know is that I work with very little money, and when I shot that scene in the south at night in the mountains, I couldn’t reshoot anything. I even lacked the time to imagine that anything might be reshot. I begin by improvising, but when I see that money is running out, I shoot whatever stage we have arrived at. But your criticism is exactly right, as I now see. I should have made him gallop happily before the fall so that it would be more shocking. Perhaps. Perhaps. I’m not sure.
S: Your working conditions make repeated takes difficult.
B: Yes. I never approach what I want to do. Many things that I see and want to include in my films I am prevented from including by lack of funds. But too much money can also be a handicap.
S: Why did you include in Au hasard, Balthazar that short scene with the action painter?
B: He sits on a clever donkey; I make him speak nonsense.
S: Do you know how this has been interpreted?
B: That I like action painters?
S: Yes. Not only that, but that he symbolizes your method as a director because he says that his paintings catch the essence of a thought. But that is obviously wrong.
B: Originally, I had three other people talk in that scene, but I cut them out while editing because the scene was too long.
S: Another question: In the scene where Arsene comes to the circus at which Balthazar is performing, I think Balthazar is moving away from Arsene, but critics have said that he is moving toward him. Who is right?
B: He is going away.
S: He must be; he’s frightened.
B: He’s frightened because he sees the bottle; he expects that Arsene will beat him. It’s obvious.
S: Do you know that everyone I’ve discussed this with says the opposite. Some critics have even written that Balthazar moves toward Arsene in a gesture of Christian forgiveness. When people cannot see what they see, what do you do?
B: What can I do?
S: Every day you become more difficult for your audience. So, you only shrug! You’re a hard man.
B: No, I am simply someone who likes exercise. You know that “ascetic” comes from the Greek word for practice of exercise. You know where the title of the film comes from? In the south in Les Beaux there is an aristocratic family that pretends to be the descendants of the Magus Balthazar, and so on their crest they wrote “Au Hasard Balthazar.” I found it by accident, and the whole story of Balthazar is his chance involvement in the lives of others, so I decided to use this title, which, besides, has a very beautiful rhyme.
S: But to get back to this question of coincidence: Just before she seems to be going off to be married, Marie feels she must visit Gerard one last time. Why does she feel she must see him?
B: Because although she is a lost girl, she still has something straight left in her character. She wants to exorcise Gerard from her life; because she wants to make her life better, it is made worse.
S: But once again the thematic meaning is clearer than the personal motivation. If only we saw thirty seconds more of her expression so that we could see the force of her compulsion to return to Gerard. It is all done simply and beautifully: Out of shame, she kisses her fiance’s hand before leaving him.
B: But your thirty seconds of expression would mean that the nonactor acts!
S: I want to move from Balthazar to Mouchette, which is very easy because they resemble each other more than any other two of your films. Indeed, the latter seems a new version of the former. Do you agree?
B: Perhaps it is because this was the first time that I shot two films in successive years.
S: Mouchette is like the donkey: stubborn, sordid, long-suffering.
B: Both are victims.
S: One difference between Bernanos’ novel and your film is that Bernanos explains Mouchette’s motives….
B: All the time! But how can he know what goes on in a little girl’s mind!
S: Oddly enough, though, I understand her suicide more in the film than in the novel.
B: Because his explanation is wrong, like his description of her suicide; you don’t jump in the water the way you put your head on a pillow. When I was reading the novel, I thought at once that she had to die as she does in the film.
S: So heartbreakingly, for it is a game, the only game she ever plays in the film.
B: You know death is like a magic trick: In a flash, the person vanishes. That is why I don’t show her falling in the water. We see her rolling down the bank, there is a cut, and she is gone; we know she is dead only from the sound and the circles growing in the water.
S: Obviously, you must show Mouchette’s suicide because that is the conclusion of Bernanos’ novel, but as a Christian how do you feel about it? You seem to celebrate suicide – the blast of the Magnificat at her death – but isn’t this heretical?
B: Yes, but I confess that more and more suicide loses its sinfulness to me. Killing oneself can be courageous; not killing oneself, because you wish to lose nothing, even the worst that life has to offer, can also be courageous. Since I live near the Seine, I have seen many people jump into the river in front of my windows. It’s remarkable that more don’t do it. There are so many reasons for suicide, good and bad. I believe that the church has become less rigorous against it. Sometimes it is inevitable, and not always because of madness. To be aware of a certain emptiness can make life impossible.
S: On the surface it seems that Mouchette kills herself because life is so terrible, but I think the real reason is that she is so ashamed of herself for what has happened to her. Do you agree?
B: There are so many motives, which is why this film isn’t too bad. I explain nothing, and you can understand it any way you like. Still, you must feel that no single explanation will suffice. One is the wall placed before her by other people after the rape. She can’t live in the village; she can’t live in the house. Then too, she has been abused by a man whom she started to love.
S: Not only does she love him. but she forgives him his crime. She blames herself.
B: You must have noticed that in the film there is not one word about what her experience means.
S: Why did you include the prologue in which the mother is in church lamenting her tuberculosis?
B: To introduce this sick woman early so that I can pick her up later without having to make elaborate preparations. Later we see what her illness has done to her faith.
S: Here and in Balthazar one senses a new fascination with pain.
B: Perhaps because I feel that pain must be acknowledged no less than happiness.
S: The opening of Mouchette seems to me the greatest in your films…
B: When I was young , I hunted small animals in exactly this way . It is not exactly a symbol, but it provides the right atmosphere.
S: It introduces Mouchette.
B: But not like a symbol! It shows the sort of world in which she lives. If you like, she is caught, just as the partridges are caught, in a trap.
S: I love also the amusement park sequence, which is so poignant, since it shows Mouchette having her one moment of pleasure by being hit in bump cars. Even pleasure involves being hit for her. But I was curious why you shot it as you did, with the stationary camera that misses some of the action.
B: Only a stationary camera permits you to show real movement – there is no other way.
S: The constricted framing is marvelous; it keeps us from feeling released. It prepares us for that horrible slap with which the father, inevitably, concludes Mouchette’s one moment of enjoyment.
B: Perhaps; at least at the time I had no sense that my shot was mistaken.
S: Why does that unidentified woman give Mouchette the money to take the ride?
B: Why not? Life is very often like that. It is the same in A Man Escaped, when the man, whom Fontaine doesn’t really know, knocks at the door of his cell. Can you imagine if I had to explain: “My little girl, you are so poor, I will let you take this ride”?
S: Why do you start Une Femme douce with a floating scarf?
B: To avoid the cliche of showing her falling to the pavement. And that is worse than a cliche. Since I try never to show anything that is impossible and since, of course, Dominique Sanda does not actually hit the ground, I used the scarf to indicate what was happening. Furthermore, when she is putting the scarf on her shoulders, because you have seen it floating in the air at the beginning, it tells you she is going to commit suicide.
S: It’s also emotionally effective; this beautifully floating scarf and then the blood. Did you intend that?
B: Of course.
S: Several people have called the film necrophiliac in its constant focusing on the corpse.
B: I want to understand death, and I hate flashbacks. There are no flashbacks in the film: it is all the live husband now confronting his dead wife. Walking around the corpse, he says, “I had only desired her body,” and there it is: dead. People saw the film as a series of flashbacks, but it is all life in the face of death.
S: This film has a background of car sounds, and there is that harsh cut to the modern sculpture when they go to the Museum of Modern Art. Does this too reflect your suspicion of the modern world?
B: On the contrary, I think that sculpture is pretty.
S: Why does the wife like it?
Image caption: The Proposal occurs at a zoo, so that Bresson can shoot toward the actors through a cage.
B: Probably to spite her husband. He likes the old, she the new. She is much cleverer than he, which is the opposite of Dostoyevsky, in which the girl is an innocent stupid waif.
S: Doesn’t she marry him to try to escape her past?
B: Many girls marry to escape their homes, but I didn’t even try to explain her action to myself. I only wanted to show that marriage wasn’t enough to her, that it disappointed her. As Goethe says, marriage has something awkward about it.
S: Isn’t the problem in the marriage her fault, too? In some sense, she shows the prison of original sin. She reads in a book, at the end, that birds all repeat the song of their parents, and her dressing gown has a bird pattern on it. She says she comes from a sinister home, and she can never throw off its influence. Aren’t you showing that she wants to but cannot get rid of her bad upbringing?
B: No. I only made her say that she wants marriage to be more than marriage.
S: Another interesting relationship in the film is that between the husband and the maid. Isn’t the maid a kind of confessor for the husband?
S: The horror of the film is that they kill each other. She saves him from liking only money; he saves her from a difficult life. As a result, they destroy each other.
B: It seemed to me that many people couldn’t understand her true motive for killing herself. There are many motives here, too, but principally it is obvious she will never know whether or not her husband saw her attempt to kill him.
S: And the more he loves and forgives her, the more difficult he makes things for her. His love kills her.
B: Yes. Yes. One often hurts most the person one loves most.
S: I think you do have a scene in the film which is a clue to your meaning: when the husband and wife discuss Mephistopheles’ speech in Faust.
B: I like these words of Mephistopheles. They are in Dostoyevsky’s story.
S: This is the first of your films containing allusions to other works: Faust, Hamlet, etc.
B: Hamlet I included because I hate such theatrical shouting. I have myself seen itperformed by a French company that omitted Hamlet’s advice to the players because it contradicted their style.
S: But I think there is a mistake here. When she goes back to the apartment and reads Hamlet’s speech….
B: I included this to show that she is utterly unconcerned with her husband’s feelings and only wishes to annoy him.
S: But doesn’t the whole business about Hamlet stop your film to provide an essay about your theory of acting?
B: No, I don’t think so. Perhaps it is too long, but I simply couldn’t cut it.
S: It’s not that it’s boring, but I begin to be puzzled about its function.
B: It prepares the following scene, as I told you.
S: Why do they always see races and machines on television?
B: The auto race excites them sexually in the scene after the wedding, and the noise of the airplanes goes with his anxious awaiting of her at night.
S: The wife is a terrible person in a way.
B: Of course, the title is ironic.
S: Her suicide is a hostile act, dooming him to an eternity of grief unmitigated by understanding.
S: There is one other group of directors that shares your feeling about professional actors: the Italian neorealists. Do you feel any affinity for them?
B: I don’t know their films well, But although they use nonactors, I understand they sometimes dub their voices with professionals. That is wrong, because the voice sums a person up as nothing else can.
S: Why do so many of your actors walk about with their eyes cast downward?
B: They are looking at the chalk marks.
S: You’ve made several films from works of fiction . Do you think it’s possible for a film to be faithful to its source?
B: Yes. For example, in Diary of a Country Priest I wasn’t faithful to the style of Bernanos, and I omitted details which I disliked. But I was faithful to the spirit of the book and to what it inspired in me as I read it. Of course, I included as many things as I could from my own experience.
S: Why did you give up painting?
B: For reasons of health. The doctor made me stop because it was making me too nervous.
S: How were you enabled to break into films?
B: I first made a short film which I called Affaires Publiques. After that, for six or seven years, no one would give me a job. In 1939, I was a prisoner of war, but I succeeded in coming back to France after a year. Since there were few people in Paris when I returned and since the film industry was just starting up again, I was able to find work. Pathe signed a contract with me, but they threatened to break it. I needed to use Giraudoux as a collaborator on Les Anges du peche; without him, I wouldn’t have received money to make the film. Nevertheless, even with Giraudoux, I had to find another producer.
S: Cocteau helped you, too, didn’t he?
B: Yes, but Cocteau was my choice.
S: What influence does your being a painter have on your films?
B: Painting freed me from the desire to make paintings with each frame and freed me from the need to worry about beautiful photography. It helped me make every shot a necessary shot.
S: Why was there such a long gap between your first two films?
B: I couldn’t find any money. Two or three contracts were signed, but all were broken.
S: How did you occupy yourself in those days?
B: With waiting in producers’ offices and with teaching myself to write. You see, I believe that I cannot make my own films if I have collaborators on the script.
Bresson: “a situation, that of the knights returning to Arthur’s castle without The Grail. The Grail, that’s to say the absolute, God.”
So . . . Lancelot du lac is what happens after going on a quest for God and coming back empty handed.
I agree that Paradzanov and Ozu’s films get better with each viewing. I think what sets them apart from Bresson is that their works operated on a more intuitive level as well as the theoretical one, so custodians like myself can actually relate to them. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily meat that Ozu and Paradjanov were better filmmakers, but they weren’t as intent on alienating as many viewers as possible to make some grandiose theoretical point.
So yes, in a sentence, maybe I’m too dumb to appreciate Lancelot.
Does the difference start with a grandiose theoretical point, though, or is the theory derived from an attempt to formalize a difference in the way Bresson saw people?
Well, maybe it was an evolution?. I personally love love love Bresson’s middle period. But it seems to me as if he really became fixed in his theories towards the end of his career. Had he stopped with Four Nights of a Dreamer, he’d probably be my second favorite filmmaker after Tarkovsky. But I never could engage myself with his last 3 films…
Well, let me qualify that. You’d have to be a total devotee of Bresson’s philosophy toward aesthetics. Otherwise, it doesn’t deserve ten viewings.
Which makes you more of a devotee to me than Bresson.
That goes without saying, JJ.
-maybe it was an evolution?-
Or an exhausting of possibilities, perhaps?