As insufferable as he is erudite, Armond White has never tempted me to reach through cyberspace and bitch-slap him so severely than with his latest column, in which he elects to “rescue” Robert Bresson from the evil clutches of Gary Indiana
Film Forum’s ongoing presentation of several Robert Bresson films (Pickpocket and Mouchette for the next two weeks and Au Hasard Balthazar a couple years ago) has prompted a sort of iconoclastic revival, post–The Passion of the Christ. Now it’s the atheists’ turn to claim Bresson, as if getting rid of the last vestiges of Christianity in art. But are they right?
Is the Pope German?
It’s reasonable that seeing new prints of Bresson’s masterpieces should challenge previous Bresson scholarship that was based on worn copies and lousy 16mm versions. Restored prints refute the received wisdom that Bresson was ascetic or austere. Film Forum’s previous restorations proved Diary of a Country Priest and Les Dames du Bois de Bologne are among the most sensual black-and-white movies ever made. Their richness is preserved on Criterion’s DVDs as well as on New Yorker’s A Man Escaped DVD.
Since more people see Bresson’s films on DVD than at Film Forum’s ideal big-screen presentation, you might expect an onward-and-upward reassessment; instead, Bresson revisionism has gone straight to hell. I’d like to perform a preemptive strike on the liner-notes essay for Criterion’s upcoming Pickpocket DVD that attempts to hijack Bresson for a godless age.
Serious reconsideration of Bresson is “hijacking”? Well maybe for you, dear. But knee-jerk citations of “spirituality” — which quite frankly is all we’ve been served by most English-speaking Bresson critics — are pretty damned tiresome. Yes he believed in God — but then God failed. And Bresson’s films are a very carefully observed chart of that failure.
Currently, moviemakers win approval for being secular: whether the mildly irreverent Wedding Crashers, the disbelieving yet sentimental Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio or their art-house equivalents The Holy Girl and My Summer of Love, which offered MTV-trite religious skepticism. Those films are merely petulant commercialism compared to Bresson’s high-minded art exercises, which were never so esoteric that they were beyond the ken of regular moviegoers.
And that’s why “regular moviegoers” preferred the blood and guts of Mel Gibson’s NASCAR Jesus ? Far be it from me to bring up such “low-minded” matters but the President of the United States is a religious fanatic who believes that God told him to invade Afganistant and Iraq. Consequently even the teeniest bit of monotheistic skepticism is heartily welcome in these troubled times. Robert Bresson’s blossoming atheism is quite another, deeper, matter.
Controversy isn’t needed to make Bresson more exciting and relevant. But Gary Indiana’s Pickpocket essay confirms that after The Passion of the Christ, critics and left-leaning media wonks no longer use art to understand human experience or contemplate survival.
This attitude is hostile to the fact that Western Christian habit was the basis of Bresson’s intense absorption in the toughest, most mystifying human experiences—a disillusioned country priest, an alienated petty thief, a scheming urban sophisticate, provincial girls approaching their first change of life. Each one’s personal agony or private passion was shrewdly, cleverly displayed through a highly idiosyncratic composition and editing style that only appeared detached. Bresson unconventionally built direct access to numinous imagery and subtle evocations of the otherworldly.
Empty halls, bare walls, downcast eyes and close-ups of hands grasping door-knobs are “otherworldly”? Maybe for you.
Previous film scholars were right to consider that these movies offered a transcendant viewing experience. (Paul Schrader’s 1972 book-length study Transcendental Style in Film articulated a devout intellectualism that not only led to Schrader’s Taxi Driver and American Gigolo scripts but also Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus and Humanité.) All recognized that Bresson had expanded cinema’s potential to touch questions about faith, as well as the mysteries of evil. Bresson forced his audience of educated, presumably skeptical viewers to appreciate the moral struggle and spiritual essence that are inherent to daily living and that make survival possible.
That’s true only in the most general sense. Being a Protestant, Schrader misread Bresson’s iconographic concerns. And while he sensed the master’s exquisite homoeroticism he found no way of converting it into standard-issue heterosexual romanticism. As for Bruno Dumont, his loathesome 29 Palms shows he has far less unserstanding of the “snuff film” than Bresson demonstrated in L’Argent
But Indiana renounces the Christian basis of Bresson’s films, saying they are “fixated on the death of feeling and the uselessness of Christian faith.” He twists Bresson’s movies into meaninglessness—that is, to Indiana’s own petty use. Thus Pickpocket’s mortifying story of Michel (Martin LaSalle), a young Parisian who opts for the emotional aloofness of criminal life, is interpreted as a libertine’s parable. “Stealing has a specific psychosexual meaning for him…he can cop an orgasm if he manages to be in the right place at the right time and rubs against the right partner. His fears are more logistical than spiritual, and also function as aphrodisiacs.” This horny adolescent fantasy perverts Bresson’s consistent view of behavior and struggle.
Well there’s nothing “adolescent” about Bresson’s hero’s horniness –which is the first thing one would expect White, as a gay man, to understand. Pickpocket is a cautionary “coming out” tale — whose antecedent is Chereau’s L’Homme Blesse. Quite understandably for a man of his generation, and temperatment, Bresson doesn’t have his anti-hero “fall” too far, and in fact stages a last-minute “rescue” in the form of a convient heroine (Marika Green, whose niece Eva would decades later strip for Bertolucci’s cameras, the better to enjoy the polymorphous-perverse charms of Louis Garrel and Michael Pitt) But it doesn’t get away from the fact that the central pickpocketing sequence is a virtual gay orgy.
As criticism, it overlooks the compelling evidence that Pickpocket responds to Hitchcock’s startlingly Bressonian 1956 The Wrong Man, a correlated look into the abyss of modern crime and punishment. (LaSalle even resembles Henry Fonda; Indiana pretentiously offers Egon Schiele.)
Well LaSalle was taken up by by a vast number of filmmakers (Costa-Gavras among them), but not Hitchcock.
It’s impossible to popularize Bresson by denying his own professed religious ideas, but Indiana goes for a sophomoric equation—Camus—while condemning Bresson’s favored source, author Georges Bernanos, as “a protofascist Christian.”
And what of Dostoevsky, Armond?
He then sullies Pickpocket’s inherently Christian critique of commodity fetishism by illogically aligning Bresson with Guy Debord and the Situationists.
“Sullies”? Gimmeafuckingbreak! DeBord committed suicide precisely in the manner of (and for the same reasons as) a protagonist in late Bresson.
By removing the core of Bresson’s beliefs, Indiana negates Bresson’s vision—that faith which extended to Jacques Demy transforming Pickpocket in Bay of Angels (as he also transformed Les Dames into Lola). Demy’s testaments to Christian humanism illuminated Bresson’s gravity, disproving Indiana’s claim that “belief is just as toxic as cynicism.”
Jacques, being gay (but coming out very late) recognized a kindred spirit. Still for all his toughness (and Jacques was very tough) he wasn’t quite up to the level of Bresson. I can’t see him as a gigolo, as Bresson was in his youth (thus making Les Dames du Bois de Boulgne an apologia provita sua)
Such facile Freudianism belittles Pickpocket, particularly when Indiana misreads Bresson’s sensuality. He rejects what Schrader called its “redemptive ending,” where Michel, imprisoned by his restless anomie, finally accepts Jeanne’s love. Indiana fantasizes that Michel “will probably find dozens of lovers in jail.” This is laughably literal-minded—not just lowbrow, but gutterbrow
Can I get an “Oh Prunella!” ?
Gary quite clearly had Un condamne a mort s’est echappe in mind, for painfully obvious reasons I discuss here.
It disregards Bresson’s erotic appreciation and critique—the admittedly conservative yet undeniable connection of rock n’ roll–era sex with mechanized depersonalization (especially in Balthazar and Mouchette). Yet Bresson never denies the sensuous, stealthy, erotic exchange of Michel’s pickpocketing routines. These montages fragment intimacy. A network of illicit practices, they are marvels of cinematic legerdemain: no less an irony for sober-minded Bresson than ecstatic Christianity.
And White disregards Bresson’s taste for rough trade – painfully obvious in Balthazar and to some extent Mouchette as well.
Indiana’s essay is an enraging hipster polemic, but what causes alarm is its glib presumption that Bresson’s vision was nihilistic, an iconoclastic view that, with Criterion’s sanction, threatens to spread.
“Mariah — bar the door!”
Writing of “action [scenes] that speak volumes about nothing but feel uncomfortably textured like real life,” Indiana ignores how Bresson penetrated the surface of real life.
Not at all. Gary’s following in the footsteps of Serge Daney ( a very important film theorist, Cahiers critic and Bresson enthusiast who died of AIDS) Serge reviewed Le Diable Probablement, in a Cahiers essay called “The Organ and the Vaccuum Cleaner” (translated inot English in Little Caesar # 10) after a key scene in the film where the hero played by the gorgeous Antoinne Monnier (Matisse’s grandson) goes to church for guidance and finds only the noise of the entitled devices. This is clearly presented by Bresson as the discovery of God’s non-existence. In the same piece Serge notes “The Bressonian ‘model’ is never over thirty. It is better to evaluate Charles as a sonorous body among others, chosen from among others.”
Bresson was not Bunuel’s anarchistic fellow-traveler. But even that perception is better than any Indiana offers. Flip Bunuel’s comic misanthropy and see the deep pity that Bresson emphasized. If Bunuel was horrified by man’s hypocritical habits and institutions, Bresson took the unceasing tendency toward cruelty to heart.
The important difference is the contrasting display of Bunuel’s disgust and Bresson’s compassion. Both expressions are equally human—and among the glories of film art—but the distinction may also explain why Bresson’s b&w films (shot by L.H. Burel and Ghislain Cloquet) are so visually exquisite. These films don’t predict our decline but chart our stumbling. Michel confesses, “I ran. I fell,” nobly underscored with Mozart. No argument can deny that Bresson filled even the most sordid plots with spiritual beauty.
And you’ve got nothing to say about physical beauty? Claude Laydu, Francois Letterier, Martin LaSalle, Francois LaFarge, Guillaume de Forets (son of Louis-Rene), and Christian Patey form a bulwark of babe-a-liciousness that’s cinematically without precedent. And that’s not to mention the sapphic eye-candy (Bresson being the most refined lesbian-hag since Proust) offered by the likes of Elina Labourdette, Marika Green, Florence Delay, Anne Wiazemsky, Isabelle Weingarten and “the one that got away” — Dominque Sanda.
No, there’s nothing “sordid” about this lot. But White would do well to put the missal and the rosary beads down and pop Le Diable Probablement into the DVD player once again.
Give it up, Armond. Gary got it right.