… “Good lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?”
This is from the essay ‘Despair Abounding: The Recent Films of Robert Bresson’ by Michael Dempsey found in Robert Bresson edited by James Quandt (1998):
Spare, austere, restrained, severe, bleak — words like these typically appear in every description of Robert Bresson’s films. Certainly, they all apply. No filmmaker has ever denied us more intransigently so much of what we tend to regard — rightly — as the pleasures of cinema: all those “forbidden” delights of acting, overtly beautiful imagery, styles of editing and camerawork and art direction and scoring and special effects which “vulgarly” manipulate us — all of them bastardized tricks of “filmed theater,” which is what the very term “cinema” means to him.
[line break added] His kind of filmmaking he calls le cinématographe; some of its components are monotone line readings, automatic gestures, and untrained “models” instead of actors and their false expressiveness; flat rather than eye-catching imagery; elliptical editing which compresses emotional peaks and often omits even climactic scenes; chaste camerawork which hides faces as often as it reveals them or holds on spaces after characters have vacated them.
[line break added] Whether you call it “spiritual style,” like Susan Sontag, “transcendental style,” like Paul Schrader, or Bresson’s “universe,” like Amédée Ayfre, it is a style which portrays life as Calvary, in which mortification is endless and all surfaces, human or material, obdurately resist yielding “insight” or “meaning.”
But the hill of Calvary leads finally to eternal ecstasy in the next world for those who are able to climb it. Despite the forbidding chill which any account of Bresson’s methods may suggest to people who do not know any of his work, he is actually a fountainhead of faith in the reality of this eternal ecstasy. He marshals his expressive resources toward final shots which seek to draw this same faith from us.
… Bresson has been the most optimistic of filmmakers; every facet of his fastidiously cultivated technique has striven to show the way to Paradise.
But all this has changed drastically during the past dozen years. During that time, Bresson made his first color films — Une femme douce (1969), Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and The Devil Probably (1977) — and they all have something else in common: the waning of transcendence and the rise of despair.
[ … ]
… how sad if The Devil Probably proves to be his last film.
… I wish that somehow chronology could be rearranged to make Four Nights of a Dreamer his newest film instead.
… Four Nights [is not] exuberant even by Bresson’s standards; it too, dwells on isolation and despair. But, unlike its companion films, it also has not merely moments but long passages of weird, soaring elation.
[from the end of Dempsey’s description of the film]
… Moments later, sitting in a café with Jacques, she sums up this conflict between “unbidden” love and “chosen” love: what she feels for the lodger will fade because she did not choose to feel it, but her new feelings for Jacques will last because she decided to feel them. By this point, Bresson’s hypnotic depiction of the four nights has induced us to agree; we can happily see the film end now, with each telling the other of the strange roads which have led them to one another.
But this “chosen” love is another fantasy, and Bresson’s direction of the next moments destroys it breathtakingly. As Jacques and Marthe leave the café, newly pledged to each other, he renews our pleasure in the nightlife around the Pont Neuf with additional exquisite images: Jacques wrapping a red-and-white gift scarf around Marthe’s neck, a candle burning on a street musician’s guitar case. Just as we see the candle, Marthe is telling Jacques to come live in the lodger’s old room, and he is gazing up at the moon.
[line break added] But she is looking levelly at something else: the lodger approaching through the crowd of night people. He sees her, calls to her. Then, with shocking swiftness: she rushes to him, Jacques looks down to see her reach him, she kisses him, she runs back to kiss Jacques three times, she vanishes with the lodger, Jacques watches. Bresson has never directed a crueler, more piercing moment of disillusionment than this.
Yet he implicitly accepts Dostoevsky’s fervent, contradictory concluding lines: “Good lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?” Instead of quoting these lines, Bresson permits us to notice the reflection of the “luminous marvelous nights” in the colors of Jacques’s paintings. “Call it a happy ending if you wish,” Clarens writes. I do, and I will.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.