The critical discourse surrounding Robert Bresson has been some of the most contentious in film history, due, in large part, to a crucial impasse among scholars. Bresson criticism has traditionally been divided into two rival groups; the “transcendentalists” and the “materialists”, referring, in the broadest sense, to the spiritual and secular interpretations of his work. The origins of this debate can be traced back to the 1960s and the rise of the auteur theory, but even today, these viewpoints are generally regarded as mutually exclusive. In response to the overwhelming dominance of the transcendental approach, a critical offshoot was formed to discuss Bresson in a completely non-religious context, and as time has gone by, and this particular strain of criticism has gained self-consciousness, these groups have only become more extreme.
The most famous advocate of the transcendental approach is Paul Schrader, whose book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer offers a detailed analysis of Bresson’s aesthetics through a Christian lens. Schrader is usually credited with fostering this interpretation, but in fact, most of his observations are from a chapter in Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, entitled Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson. In it, she hypothesizes that Bresson’s aesthetics make him “transcendental,” as opposed to the overtly Christian subject matter in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or the themes of salvation and redemption in A Man Escaped (1956). She notes the technique of “doubling,” the elimination of suspense, the use of non-actors, all of which are discussed by Schrader in his book. She even introduces the Bresson/Ozu comparison, which is arguably the starting point for Schrader’s entire argument. These writings, for decades, have served as the foundational texts for modern Bresson criticism,
Jonathan Rosenbaum, on the other hand, is at the forefront of the materialist approach. He feels that Schrader affords Bresson the inaccessibility of an icon and misinterprets his work, reading metaphysical subtext into a body of work that, in his opinion, evokes more sensuality than spirituality. He contends that basing one’s interpretation on the customs of the Christian church is inherently reductive, and his final judgement seems to be that Bresson’s films have been forced to conform to an abstract theoretical framework that has been formed independently after-the-fact, and which has begun to overshadow the films themselves. The transcendental approach has become such a ubiquitous “fact” that it is now treated as a foregone conclusion, one that is unlikely to be questioned, even at its most basic level, by those writing about Bresson. Rosenbaum acknowledges the spiritual themes in Bresson’s work, but cautions against too much reliance on them, and most of his praise goes to Bresson’s editing and use of sound. This, in essence, is the substance of the argument.
In other attempts to deconstruct the transcendental reading, critics have often cited Bresson’s later work. Although the transcendental approach refers specifically to films in the “prison cycle” (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc), there is a notable change in Bresson’s work, beginning with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), that would seem to contradict the widely-held view of him as a spiritual artist. In the prison cycle, the protagonists end in a state of deliverance from their guilt and suffering. In the later films, there is no salvation. These films are testaments to human cruelty, focusing on Godless people inflicting suffering on the innocent, ending in tragedy, and some critics feel they can even be described as “atheist”, which has led many to wonder how the man responsible for such works could also be responsible for the so-called transcendental films. This has become something of a conversation-ender, but what I find interesting about these late-period films is that they do not so much demonstrate a lack of faith in God, as a lack of faith in people.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) was the turning point, when the insistent pessimism that characterized Bresson’s late period first entered his work. There is no explanation for what brought this on, but by 1966, Bresson seemed to have been convinced that materialism had taken over contemporary society and that God had become remote. In the earlier films, the protagonists (the priest, Joan of Arc) re-assert their faith in their final moments, but in the later films, the saintly figures (Balthazar, Mouchette) die silently, at the hands of brutal sadists. And yet, this shift is more noticeable in the sadists than in the saints. They are self-centered, heartless, superficial people, and Bresson seems to feel not that God has abandoned them, but that they have abandoned God and given themselves over to vapid self-interest. But making a film about a Godless world isn’t the same as saying there is no God. In fact, one could argue that emphasizing a spiritual void draws attention to the spiritual, although there is room for interpretation in this claim, but it would seem a mistake to read Bresson’s late-period films as explicit endorsements of atheism.
Notably, this debate tends to circumvent Bresson’s own views of his films. Although reclusive, Bresson gave a handful of interviews in his life, and the opinions expressed here have not been fully integrated into the discussion. To my knowledge, the only time Bresson was ever directly confronted with the transcendental approach was in Paul Schrader’s 1976 interview, Robert Bresson, Possibly. This interview does not resolve the transcendental vs. materialist debate as conclusively as one might hope. In fact, the entire interview could be said to be an exercise in miscommunication. Schrader prefaces the interview with something Bresson wrote to him about Transcendental Style in Film; “I have always been very surprised not to recognize myself in the image formed by those who are really interested in me”. Schrader goes on to say that, “Bresson cannot (or will not) understand why I respect him, and I cannot (or will not) accept his interpretation of his films.” Apparently, Bresson found the interview so uninteresting that he asked for it not to be published. This would seem as firm a standstill as any critic and filmmaker could reach, and it suggests an extremely hostile confrontation, but reading the interview, I do not find these reflections exactly match the content of the discussion. It is clear that Bresson does not align himself completely with Schrader’s theory, but neither does he completely reject it. Rather, he seems determined to render transcendence a misleading distraction in the reading of his films.
The interview proceeds like this: Schrader presents his formalist analysis of Bresson’s films as spiritual works and Bresson questions, mimizes or recontextualizes these assumptions at every turn. For example, Schrader brings up the concept of “doubling”, which refers to the execution of a particular action on screen twice (or more). The priest in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) often writes in a journal. We see his narration on screen and we hear it in voiceover, and Schrader argues that this is a deliberate measure to retard the emotions, but Bresson responds that he is not conscious of having done it, and he doesn’t find any significance in it. The interview contains several comparable exchanges with more or less the same results. Schrader is not entirely to blame for this (Bresson is an impatient interviewee), but Schrader is myopic in his interpretation. In the aftermath, he seems to have concluded that his interpretation is fundamentally at odds with Bresson’s, and essentially chooses to ignore it, but while Bresson seems to feel that Schrader ascribes too much importance to certain filmic techniques, he does not seem to share Schrader’s defeatism.
Here are some quotes from the interview that I find pertinent:
(1) “… without pronouncing the word ‘God,’ the more I see the presence of God …” (Bresson)
(2) “There is a presence of something which I call God, but I don’t want to show it too much. I prefer to make people feel it.” (Bresson)
(3) “There is something different than earth where we live which you can’t imagine, but you can imagine that you could imagine.” (Bresson)
(4) “I try to understand people’s sentiments aside from religion.” (Bresson)
These quotes point in another direction. It would appear that Bresson sees transcendence as something mysterious and intuitive which cannot be typified by a theory such as Schrader’s. He expresses similar feelings in other interviews, and it’s worth noting that Schrader’s interview takes place after Bresson’s perceived ideological shift, which can, perhaps, explain quotes like, “I am very religious—was very religious” (Bresson).
It is unsurprising that Schrader (raised Calvinist) would be drawn to a transcendental reading, just as it is unsurprising that Rosenbaum (atheist) would be drawn to a materialist one. Critics tend to remake Bresson in their own image, highlighting and omitting parts of his films to support their individual theory of his work. The question is, how could two completely opposite (seemingly contradictory) readings of the same films exist? For as long as Bresson’s films have been around, there have been those who have seen them as spiritual works, and there have been those who have seen this as a hoax. These two narratives both work with the same basic set of facts and the dichotomy is now so entrenched that some have even made the assertion that Bresson’s films express the non-resolution of these ideas, or essentially, that Bresson’s films mean nothing at all. However, I believe the answer is much simpler than that.
The reason Bresson’s films resist singular interpretations is because they are dialectical in nature. His films contain elements of humanism, nihilism, absurdism, existentialism, transcendentalism, and probably others too. For Bresson, life was full of both faith and doubt, good and evil, happiness and unhappiness, love and hate, etc. All these perspectives coexist in his work. Rosenbaum is correct that the term “transcendence” has often been misapplied, or applied lazily, but Bresson still (whether consciously or unconsciously) made certain films in an ascetic style. This does not negate Rosenbaum’s interpretation any more than Bresson’s comments negate Schrader’s interpretation. Bresson’s films, together, form an antinomic voice, and this may, in fact, be why they resonate with so many people. Bresson appeals to each viewer individually, speaks to their position and gives credence to the multitudes of every phenomenon.