Think, You Fool


Robert Bresson

To go with his response to Cahiers du cinéma published in the 67th issue, Bresson, at the magazine’s request, had sent across his photo: a very old snap that made him look twenty years younger… Later, in the 72nd issue, we can read his objection to the fact that Cahiers attributed to him, between 1933 and 1939, the servile jobs of assistant and scriptwriter, however verified through credits and the most reliable sources. And, for a major part of his career, Bresson had us believe that he was born in 1907 while the real date is 1901.

There is then, in Bresson, a “trauma of youth” which translates to a “fixation” in his body of work. His principal characters, except those played by Sylvie and Paul Bernard in his first two films, are always young, especially towards the end of his career, with multiple protagonists of about twenty years of age (Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably) depicted by a nearly-octogenarian filmmaker. One notices the same trajectory with Rohmer, who, like Bresson, is a man of amazing vigour and a late-blooming filmmaker. The opposite of Hawks, Ford, and Visconti, who preferred filming their contemporaries as they aged.

It appears that there’s a nostalgia here for a youth lost in unsatisfactory work, the desire to erase all past and, at the same time, experience it again in an imaginary form. The filmmaker’s delayed arrival to cinema can also be explained by his initial engagement with painting (like with Pialat, the other great Auvergnese).

From the looks of it, Bresson’s youth hints at a series of wanderings: publicist, painter, scriptwriter, assistant etc. His first attempt at filmmaking, Public Affairs, is a tribute to The Last Billionaire by René Clair – a filmmaker whom he will assist and distance himself from through this work (even though there’s the same habit of filming people through windows).

Bresson really starts making films at an age when his contemporary Eisenstein completes his last. There is a certain logic to that. Eisenstein’s is first and foremost an art of silent cinema. But Bresson could barely come up with a film during his youth, simply because it was then the silent era and because his art is based primarily on sound and speech. Not entirely (his “guillotine framing” is also very important). But what distinguishes him clearly from other filmmakers is his use of speech. Look at a copy of The Trial of Joan of Arc or The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, and cut out the sound; it’s stupid, sure, but you will have a proof of Bresson’s singularity seriously fading away. Once the sound comes back, there’s no doubt about the paternity of the film.

Everyone knows this blank monotone, which was once deemed “false” insofar as it was totally foreign to contemporary cinematic acting. I sense it rather as the expression of reality since most people generally speak in a flat manner, without vocal effects. But everything’s not so simple. Bressonian speech is identified by the absence of tonic accent and even by a lowering of voice at the end of sentences or words. In short, the opposite of the norm in France. And it’s not all: there is the great speed of diction, the absence of hesitation, dead time, and awkwardness even during a long speech. This is understandable when they are beings driven by divine speech (Joan of Arc) or those who reproduce texts they have studied at the seminary in one go (the country priest). But it’s much more surprising when it comes to the criminals of L’argent, the humble peasants of Mouchette or the miser of Au hasard Balthazar: how can this utterly repulsive being defend such a cynical and stunted philosophy while his way of professing his faith, flawlessly defined in one go and with such a dignity of expression, seems to indicate a superior intelligence in him? Whatever his beliefs, the Bressonian hero is very sure of himself and knows his personal goal very well. An affirmation distinctive of each character (somewhat contradicted by the extension of the blank vocal tone to everyone). By making them speak this way, Bresson endows each creature – even the most vile-seeming – with considerable aura and weight, a conception that’s perhaps not faithful to reality but which reveals a very optimistic vision of human beings. I’m thinking of Vecchiali, who constantly imparts a grandeur to his whores, his pimps, his gangsters, his boxers and his mechanics.

Realism and its opposite at the same time. We have the proof of that in these words of the pickpocket Michel addressed to Jeanne: “Think, you fool.” This line provokes laughter, firstly because the word “fool” doesn’t entirely belong to the vocabulary of the 20th century in which the film is set. We’d hear it in Molière rather. Today, we’d rather say: “Think, you idiot”. But that’s not the essential reason for our laughter or surprise. The problem is that, against all expectations, the small pause, the small change of tone between “think” and “you fool” that naturalism requires is missing. The text is “rolled over”. Since they shot about sixty takes of this shot (as revealed by the actress Marika Green, visibly traumatized by these two words and the shooting of the brief shot containing them), it’s impossible that this particularity is the result of negligence. Only two other hypotheses remain: either that Michel is a kind of superior human being, who has everything he wants to say sorted in his head before opening the mouth, and his remark far from spontaneous, or that Bresson wanted to break realist convention of having a pause between words and, in some way, provoke the viewer by rendering a very familiar turn of phrase in a very dry manner.

A Bressonian motif tempts me: very often, Bresson duplicates the words of his text. A Bresson film is full of “no no”, “yes yes”, “go go”, “Marie Marie”, “go alone go alone”, “take me there take me there”, “remember remember”. The repeated words are always lumped together tightly. Their abrupt doubling undoes their spontaneity. We realize then that – more important than diction – it’s the choice of text that’s the pivot of Bresson’s specificity. Sometimes, a typically-refined phrase is destroyed by a trivial delivery: a long speech on universal happiness finally describes it as “boring as hell” (L’argent). We realize then that Bresson, far from the ascetic locked up with his bare essentials he’s caricatured to be1, in fact piles up contradictions of style and tonality, creating an infinite dialectic. It’s the rule of heterogeneity, Bresson’s unity residing paradoxically in his sustained heterogeneity.

If we look a little beyond speech, we realize that this alliance of opposites exists everywhere: Bresson’s films juxtapose patently modern elements (scooters, mopeds, 2CVs, horse races at Auteuil, credit card frauds in L’argent) and elements from a distant past (in the same film, laundry is done at the washing place and Bresson’s modern rural films evoke a countryside belonging to the filmmaker’s youth – always “youth” – or to the end of the 19th century, with all its clichés: bottles at the edge of the table about to shatter, axe murders, lack of electricity etc.). It’s truly the follow-up to the meeting of Diderot and the windscreen wiper that Bazin pointed out in The Ladies (Cahiers no. 3).

These internal clashes between eras – just like the ellipses and guillotine effects – serve to agitate the viewer, dumbfounded before this unexpected pile up of contradictions, and to make him look beyond naturalism through the very confrontation of different norms of naturalism. Except in Mouchette, which is too often limited solely to a pastoral realism and which is, because of that, perhaps the worst Bresson film.

I think this bi-temporality came about naturally, almost accidentally, in The Ladies and it was deliberately and systematically harnessed after that, without the “alibi” of Diderot and a classical text: Balthazar, a modern and original subject, contains no logical justification for its archaic elements.

Finally, what Intolerance, The Road to Yesterday, François Ier and Les Visiteurs seek through their editing and their very crude juxtapositions, Bresson achieves it more insidiously, and even within a shot.

Bresson is a somewhat straitlaced man, old France, very discreet, who opposed the sexual liberation of post-1968 cinema. Giving his thugs, his frauds, his hippies a pre-1914 language was perhaps the only way for him to endow them with dignity and depth. This contempt for the contemporary, this moral motivation was perhaps the unwitting springboard for a new and astounding dichotomy.

1 All these purists, Bresson as much as Hanoun, Straub as much as Godard, are at the same time rigorous and mischievous, fanciful, even affected, if only because their rigour is a gibe at the system.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]