By Christopher Sharrett.
The terms “ascetic” and “austere” are too-common adjectives applied to the films of Robert Bresson. It is reasonable to apply them, but for me “constricted,” “severe,” and “repressed” serve better. Many of Bresson’s films, especially in his late phase, are utterly drained of eroticism; critics have debated whether or not Bresson’s Catholic (Jansenist?) origins should be seen as useful to understanding his work. Some “materialist” critics, who see Bresson as the modernist (formally) that he certainly is, view his religion, which may or may not have been suspended at some point in his career, as irrelevant. Others, like Tony Pipolo in his exhaustive study Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, argue that Catholicism is absolutely essential to an appreciation of Bresson, whether we like it or not. The pessimism of his last films, as much as the exaltation of his earlier work, seems to scream out religious ideology. As his career ends, Bresson’s films feel so rigid they seem like collections of remarkable although disconnected static images, even as they serve narratives, unconventional narratives to be sure.
It is a little ironic that his final color experiments, Lancelot du Lac (1974), Le diable problement (1977), and L’argent (1983, newly released from Criterion), are so grim, since one would at first think that his acceptance of color might signal a blossoming of his worldview, an added dimension to his understanding of humanity. But the opposite is the case, with the quattrocento humanism of A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959), with its radiant faces and incipient eroticism of body (very much recalling images from Bicycle Thieves, another quattrocento throwback), turned into the soullessness of L’argent. I am always fascinated with Bresson, but can accept him chiefly at the level of graphic art; his still lifes are entrancing, whether his minutely-crafted and composed images are of tabletops, a woman’s purse, or red leather gloves holding a gas pump. He tends to avoid the color green, in traditional iconography associated with fertility and the erotic. The green of Lancelot du Lac, necessarily shot in part out of doors, has an odd neutrality, and takes a back seat to the suits of metal armor worn by Arthur’s knights, hunks of junk that crash into each other at the film’s end, suggesting a badly thought-through demolition derby. This apocalyptic rethinking of the grail myth, one of the great utopian narratives of western literature, is too mannered for me to take Bresson’s pessimism seriously. Bresson’s understanding of the myth as simply a story of blood and adultery is obvious to any thoughtful person who spends a serious moment with the tale (in any version). Le diable problement seems to be a conservative Catholic’s dismissal of the Sixties youth culture as so much self-indulgent nonsense that leads to real trouble, the type of view that inspired people to think that Charles Manson spelled the end to the “age of Aquarius,” and in Europe helped justify the birth of the nouveau philosophes, the post-’68 reactionary (and thoroughly crackpot) intellectuals like Jean Baudrillard.
By the Seventies, Bresson finds nothing in the great accomplishments of art suggesting human triumph. His use of Mozart’s Mass in D Minor at the end of A Man Escaped acted as a final benediction; in L’argent, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy is a device to make a piano vibrate so much it sends a wine glass crashing on the floor. There is, above all, the question of the human subject. Bresson is known for casting non-actors who are “models” separated from the world of acting, with its fakeness and affectations. But Bresson’s world is hardly one of realism; indeed, it is so stylized as to risk accusations of contrivance, which have vanished of course with his canonization. Bruno Dumont, who has thoughtlessly been deemed an heir to Bresson, has distanced himself from the man for whom he is presumably an acolyte, complaining, above all, about the “monotoned mannequins” who populate Bresson’s films, without emotion (especially desire, or any sense of real aspiration), who would not be out of place as zombies in George A. Romero’s intelligent slaps at capitalist society (Dawn of the Dead  and Land of the Dead , especially).
L’argent adapts the first half of the Tolstoy story The Forged Coupon, a work that seems to be Tolstoy’s slap at Dostoyevsky, or what Trotsky called Dostoyevsky’s “perfidious Christianity,” with its fake redemption. But Tolstoy’s critical project seems only barely in Bresson, as a counterfeit bank note passes from hand to hand, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, finally ending up with a country woman and her father, the ending signaled by a graphic but unfelt homicide. The note-passing seems done by automatons, although one can see a bit of arrogance or sociopathy here and there – but assuming these characteristics are present may be a leap, since Bresson’s shorthand character development is so sparse. At the end, the killer is marched out of a building as people gaze into the building’s empty space, which reviewers (and Bresson) have termed a “void.”
If we read the denouement this way, Bresson seems an absurdist, or Nietzschean, but there are questions. Bresson’s minimalism makes troublesome any questions about his convictions: has he any? Those who argue that L’argent is Bresson’s attack on capitalism seem to have watched another film. Where is there any critique of an economic system, in whatever form of metaphor? In Le diable problement we do get images of ecological holocaust, but they are mediated by young minds giving up on things, without much sense of the holocaust’s roots in political-economy. By L’argent, Bresson has simply rendered an unargued case-closed judgment on humanity. It is interesting to contrast L’argent with the 2005 Finnish film Frozen Land, another adaptation of the Tolstoy story. While it’s a work of lesser accomplishment than Bresson’s, one can’t help but recognize a level of human concern alien to Bresson’s later period.
I have seen L’argent only in poor 16mm and inferior DVD editions before Criterion did its magic. This 4K version nearly glows, allowing all the pleasures one takes from the Bresson image (and philosophy, if one is inclined). The Blu-ray disc comes with James Quandt’s video essay “L’argent: A to Z,” the title suggesting absolute comprehensiveness, but I think Quandt is being humorous. The essay is a smart introduction for beginners and a nice indulgence for those who have spent some time with Bresson. The disc also has an extended segment of a press conference at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Such an event, with Bresson at the center of a dais, necessarily makes him the superior party, very much so given the many stupid questions – and attempts by audience members to monopolize the moment. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that Bresson, in his many interviews, prefers evasion via some form of obscurantism to serious grappling with ideas. The Blu-ray booklet has a fine essay by Adrian Martin, and a rather legendary conversation between Bresson and Michel Ciment.
These comments may seem close-minded and overly harsh on Bresson. At the moment I’m not favorably disposed to him, but my revisitations are frequent. He is sufficiently serious as artist and person to warrant the effort.
Christopher Sharrett teaches film at Seton Hall University. He is Contributing Editor for Film International.