Robert Bresson is often described as the “patron saint” of the cinema, or “the most Christian director.” For the past 60 years, the dominant reading of his films in academic circles has been a religious one. The words “transcendental,” “spiritual,” “Jansenist,” “Christian” and “metaphysical” are interchangeably applied to his films, particularly those in the prison cycle, but the relationship between Bresson’s cinema and his perceived religious orientation is more complex than its pervasiveness would suggest. To begin with, we don’t actually know what his beliefs were. Many critics refer to Bresson as a “self-described Christian atheist,” but there is no proof he ever said this. No one has been able to locate a source for this bizarrely-ubiquitous misquote. Furthermore, scholars regularly call him a Jansenist, even though he categorically rejected the label. Reading the works of critics, one gets the sense that Bresson’s films have been forced to conform to a theoretical framework which has been formed independently after-the-fact, and which has begun to overshadow the films themselves. When studying Bresson, it has become increasingly necessary to unpack the conjectural (sometimes dogmatic) scholarship to arrive at an organic interpretation.
Bresson criticism has traditionally been divided into two rival camps; “transcendental” and “materialist.” 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 lifted from an essay by Susan Sontag, 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, arguably the starting point for Schrader’s entire argument. These writings, for decades, have served as the foundational texts for modern Bresson criticism, and depending on who you ask, it’s a school-of-thought completely founded on misinterpretation, which has become more widely accepted than Bresson’s own view of his films.
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 (Ozu too) and misinterprets his work, reading metaphysical subtext into a body of work that, in his opinion, evokes more sensuality than spirituality. He 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 cinematography, etc. The transcendental approach, at least, offers a more substantial explanation for Bresson’s patronage, because if Bresson wasn’t exploring the metaphysical, it’s hard to see anything superlative about him. The techniques which Rosenbaum admires, and which are frequently cited as representative of his greatness, suggest efficiency more than anything else. In this respect, Sontag and Schrader do a better job explaining their admiration. Unfortunately, the validity of their argument is complicated by the existence of an interview between Bresson and Schrader from 1976, titled Robert Bresson, Possibly, in which Schrader confronts Bresson with his theory, and Bresson, more or less, repudiates it.
By his own admission, Schrader does not communicate effectively with Bresson. His expectation that Bresson would support his theory is not fulfilled, and Bresson seems determined to render transcendence a misleading distraction in the reading of his films. Schrader, for example, 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 this repetition is a deliberate measure to retard the emotions, but Bresson says he is not conscious of having done it, and doesn’t find any significance in it. Schrader makes passing reference to other hypotheses, and Bresson questions even his most basic assumptions. He apparently found the interview so uninteresting that he later asked for it not to be published.
So, the question raised by Robert Bresson, Possibly is whether or not the audience can interpret something one way, if the creator explicitly regards it as the opposite. In a broader sense, are interpretive models even helpful? Bresson doesn’t reject Schrader’s theory outright, but he certainly denies he intended for it to be that way, and it’s hard to argue in favor of a theory, if the creator didn’t intend for it to be that way. If we ignore that fact, we may as well assume the creator did it on a subconscious level, or that blind luck was responsible for the outcome, neither of which is particularly satisfying. If the qualities which make a film good are coincidental, i.e. they might just as easily have been left out by the creator, how much stock can we really place in them? And if the creator isn’t responsible for the quality of a film, who is?
Here is another question: Why do Christians feel such a kinship with Bresson? For as long as his films have been in existence, there have been those who have seen them as religious works. There must be a reason for this. As unlikely as it seems that Christians have watched these films and intuitively recognized the formal qualities Schrader discusses, it seems equally unlikely they have read something into Bresson’s films that simply isn’t there. Countless other films of a religious nature have not received the same treatment. Nobody describes The Ten Commandments (1956) as “transcendental.” We know that Bresson didn’t intend everything Schrader theorized, but there is undeniably a conflict between the corporeal and the divine in his work. The question is, how did it get there?
There is a moment in Robert Bresson, Possibly which I believe may hold the answer. The interview begins with a question about theology: Schrader asks Bresson how he can make a film which sanctifies the protagonist in a world without theology, i.e. where God is not discussed (or is discussed very little). Bresson responds that he is trying to show God’s presence in the everyday, the material, and this answer offers a meaningful hint: Bresson perceived that a film could emphasize the absence of God, and in doing so, prove the existence of God, because making a film about a Godless world is the same as saying there is a God. I may be paraphrasing a little, but I think this captures the spirit of what he was trying to say, and it highlights an important fact: From this exchange (and others), it is clear that Bresson was knowledgeable about religion and had at least a passing familiarity with theology. If he wasn’t a Christian, he was both mindful of Christianity and preoccupied by Christian ideas. That much is provable. Given these leanings, is it not possible that he unconsciously constructed his films in a way that corresponded to a spiritual way of thinking? In other words, Bresson may not have intended to use a transcendental style, but did he? And if so, what does that mean?
This question highlights a crucial gap in Schrader and Sontag’s writing: For all their elaborate analysis of Bresson’s approach, neither of them clearly articulates why such techniques make a film “transcendental.” They talk about retarding the emotions, which Sontag calls a “reflective mode,” but this is not inherently Christian, spiritual or transcendental. Schrader notes that Bresson holds on actions before cutting, but takes for granted that audiences will connect this with the concept of transcendence. Any number of things could be “happening” during this stillness, none of which are provable, and this is perhaps why Bresson (and others) found their hypotheses unconvincing.
The funny thing is that I feel like I do understand what makes these films “transcendental,” and it’s simpler than I would have thought. All religions, to some extent, encourage asceticism, a certain way of living one’s life without indulgence. It’s a basic tenet of spirituality that exists across cultures, and that, I think, is what Schrader was trying to express. The only point I can imagine he and Bresson agreeing upon is that Bresson’s films are non indulgent. His plots are simple, his style is minimalistic, etc. Schrader would probably call this “ascetic,” and Bresson might quibble with the word choice, but he would probably be willing to grant that his films avoid emotionally-manipulative techniques (close-ups, performance, music), and this cuts right to the heart of the argument, because ultimately, the transcendental style is just a tone, one which avoids cheap thrills, not unlike being in Church, and it seems possible (even probable) that Bresson made his films in this way because of an unconscious affinity for the ascetic. If his films contain even a trace of transcendental style, and I believe they do, they can still be read as expressions of the Holy.