Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Bresson on Bresson

A Man Escaped (Directed by Robert Bresson)
Following on from last week’s post in which screenwriter and director Paul Schrader discussed the influence and style of Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’, here is an extract from a 1970 interview with Bresson by Charles Thomas Samuels in which the great French director reflects on his career up to that point. In this section Bresson discusses ‘Pickpocket’ (1959) and the compelling ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956) based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a prisoner of war held at Fort Montluc by the Nazis during World War II. 

S: I want to ask some questions about A Man Escaped, which, by the way, seems to me your greatest film. Incidentally, does that judgment upset you?

B: I don’t know how to make such comparisons. But there may be something in what you say. When I finished it, I had no idea about its value. Yet I had, for the first time in my life, an impulse to write down everything I felt about the art of filmmaking, and for that reason A Man Escaped is precious to me...

S: A Man Escaped shares with The Trial of Joan of Arc an implication of French nationalism. Did you want that?

B: No, the prisoner could have been a young American or a Vietnamese. I was interested only in the mind of someone who wishes to escape without outside help….

S: Though you create very well the experience of being in prison, you never show the brutality. For example, you don’t show Fontaine being beaten. You only show him afterward. Why?

B: Because it would be false to show the beating since the audience knows that the actor isn’t really being beaten, and such falsity would stop the film. Moreover, this is what it was like when I was a prisoner of the Germans. Once I heard someone being whipped through a door, and then I heard the body fall. That was ten times worse than if I had seen the whipping. When you see Fontaine with his bloody face being brought back to the cell, you are forced to imagine the awfulness of the beating - which makes it very powerful Furthermore, if I showed him being taken from his cell, being beaten, then being returned, it would take much too long.

S: There is another wonderful effect of concentration in this scene: Fontaine says, ‘After three days I was able to move again,’ although only a few seconds of film time have passed. This suggests how quickly he restores himself and how much courage he has.

B: That is very important. His will to go on establishes a rhythm of inexorability that touches the public. When men go to war, military music is necessary, because music has a rhythm and rhythm implants ideas.

A Man Escaped (Directed by Robert Bresson)
S: Whenever we see the window in Fontaine’s cell, it glows like a jewel. Was that a special effect?

B: No, but I do remember that I worked with my cinematographer to obtain just the right degree of light from both window and door.

S: There is one thing in the film that seems uncharacteristic in its patness. When Fontaine is sentenced, the scene takes place at the Hotel Terminus...

B: Every city in France had such a hotel where the Gestapo stayed during the occupation.

S: You didn’t desire the pun?

B: Of course not. Everything in this film is absolutely factual. I had no trouble inventing details and was familiar with the history of the place. All of the characters’ actions take place exactly where they occurred in real life.

S: You search for mystery in your films. It seems to me that here you really attain it because although the title tells us that he will escape, the film is very suspenseful.

B: The important thing is not ‘if’ but ‘how’. Here is another mystery: Although every detail of the film came from the report of Andre Devigny, I invented the dialogue with the young boy who is finally brought to Fontaine’s cell. When I read it to Devigny, I was very worried about his reaction. Do you know what he said? ‘How true!’ This shows that truth can be different from reality, because in the actual event, as Devigny told me, he behaved as if the boy were a woman he needed to seduce in order to make good his escape. In my film, on the other hand, I show Fontaine dominating the boy. You know, I wanted to call the film ‘Help Yourself,’ and that’s why I showed Devigny as dominating in the last scenes. Help yourself and God will help you.

S: There are other great moments in the film. For example, when Fontaine tells the old man in the next cell that his own attempt to escape is being made for the old man, too, or the moments when a community is achieved by means of men tapping on the walls. I could go on. This film is your greatest, I think, not because it is technically superior to the others but because it is richer in content.

B: Mouchette is rich, too!

S: I would place Mouchette with A Man Escaped among your greatest films.

B: But it seems to me there is a little too much spectacle in Mouchette.

Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson)
S: You added a lot to the Bernanos novel in Mouchette. Conversely, Pickpocket, which is an original, appears to be inspired by Crime and Punishment. For the viewer aware of this parallel, there is a problem in Pickpocket. In Crime and Punishment, whether justifiably or not, Raskolnikov thinks of his crime as benefiting humanity and thus earns a measure of sympathy. Your hero has no excuse for the crime and thus seems a little pretentious in his desire to be taken as a superior being.

B: Yes, but he is aware that pickpocketing is very difficult and dangerous. He is taken with the thrill of that. He is pretentious perhaps, like Raskolnikov, but on quite a lesser scale. Like Raskolnikov, he hates organized society...

S: What I am trying to explore with you is the emotional problem for the spectator.

B: I never think of the spectator.

S: But you can see that your hero might appear unsympathetic.

B: He is unsympathetic. Why not?

S: I am also puzzled, in view of your uninterest in psychology, at the heavy psychological emphasis in this film. Let me explain. As we see the hero stealing, we don’t know his motive, but toward the end of the film we find out that he previously stole from his mother. We then realize his psychological motivation; he stole from his mother, felt guilty about that, was ashamed to confess to her, and, therefore, commits crimes so as to be punished and fulfill his need for penitence.

B: Perhaps, but only a psychiatrist would explain it like that. As Dostoyevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you desire to find out the reason.

S: But this doesn’t answer my question. Here, in the first of your films from an original story, you, who profess to dislike psychology, are at your most psychological. Why?

B: You think it’s psychological? I didn’t mean it to be. I simply showed a man picking pockets until he was arrested. I included the fact that he stole from his mother simply to provide evidence the police needed in order to be put on his track.

S: In other words, you didn’t put it in as explanation but rather as plot device?

B: Yes. It is only to make the chief of police certain that Martin is a thief. What interested me is the power this gave the inspector, because the inspector liked to torture him – as in that long scene, where the hero doesn’t know how much the inspector knows. In fact, I originally wanted to call the film ‘Incertitude.’

S: There is something else I rather doubt you wanted in the film. The hero of your film is a criminal in two ways: He is a thief, and he denies God.

Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson)
B: On the contrary, I make him aware of the presence of God for three minutes. Few people can say they were aware of God even that long. This line of dialogue is very personal; it shows that although influenced by Dostoyevsky, I made my story benefit from my own experiences. At his mother’s funeral, a singer sings the Dies Irae in exactly the same simple way another singer sang it at my mother’s funeral in the Cathedral of Nantes, where, apart from ten nuns, my wife and I attended the service alone. Somehow this Dies Irae made a strange impression on me; I could have said then, like my pickpocket, ‘I felt God during three minutes.’

S: This raises another question. You are famous for maintaining your privacy. I didn’t even know you were married, and it was a great surprise when your wife came to the door. Isn’t Pickpocket a game of hide-and-seek since, according to you, it reflects so much of your personal experience, although if you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known it?

B: I hate publicity. One should be known for what he does, not for what he is. Nowadays a painter paints a bad painting, but he talks about it until it becomes famous. He paints for five minutes and talks about it on television for five years.

S: That reminds me of Godard. He makes bad films, but he defends them so interestingly.

B: His films are interesting. He upsets the official cinema, which cares only for profits. He taught films how to use disorder.

S: Don’t you think his purpose is more important than the individual results – which aren’t very good?

B: When he uses professional actors, I don’t like his films, but when he doesn’t, he makes the best that can be seen.

S: On this matter of your zeal for truth: There are moments in Pickpocket which seem to me to be true only to your peculiar style. For example, in the opening scene where the hero steals the purse, the people at the racetrack are preternaturally calm. I can’t believe that people watch a race so impassively.

B: But not every part of a racetrack crowd reacts in the same way. There are always certain people who watch impassively. I didn’t want him to commit his theft when people were shouting; I wanted it to happen in silence, so that one could hear the crescendo of the horses’ galloping.

S: But such a scene, even among sympathetic viewers, raises the question of whether we are seeing truth in your films or the reflection of a very deliberate and personal style. I ask myself that question occasionally in Pickpocket and almost always in The Trial of Joan of Arc.

B: If that happens, it is my fault. My style is natural to me. You see, I want to make things so concentrated and so unified that the spectator feels as if he has seen one single moment. I control all speech and gesture so as to produce an object that is indivisible. Because I believe that one moves an audience only through rhythm, concentration, and unity.

Interview with Robert Bresson – Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1972.

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