… a great director is one who lets you try for things.
… Bresson’s art director, Charbonnier, had found a wonderful natural setting for the film [The Trial of Joan of Arc] under the observatory at Meudon. Charbonnier, incidentally, is a very nice man and a very talented painter even though I don’t understand his talent. We get on well, but we don’t talk the same language. It’s like Picasso: I just don’t understand, and it’s neither his fault nor mine.
[line break added] Anyway, these vaults he had found, huge and full of nooks and angles, were absolutely perfect as a medieval decor. I rubbed my hands, thinking what a joy it was going to be. We tested about a dozen girls, all of them very pretty, and Bresson chose one with great possibilities. Charming, absolutely right for the Maid, and with eyes that were extraordinarily intelligent, limpid, and pure.
Then we started. And he didn’t use the setting at all. He stuck me in front of a wall covered with cloth hangings to represent the tribunal where most of the action takes place. And bang up against the hangings — and on a little dais to boot — were the judges. You’d have thought it was a church pageant or something. I said to him, “Robert, why haven’t you left me anything behind so I can convey the feeling that we’re in an enormous room? What do you expect me to do with this?” “Ah,” he said, “but you see I want it to be simple and spare. I don’t want anything to distract the eye.” That was our first disagreement.
Next we simply turned everything round, still with that wretched dais, and shot the girl. You never saw Joan and her judges together, not once. No interrelation. For me this is Bresson’s kippered herring; you get a nice clean set of bones but nothing to eat around them. I saw it very differently, and quite honestly I think I could have done something with it. Second disagreement.
Our third disagreement had me curled up into a ball and showing my prickles, because it concerned me professionally. Here we had this sweet, simple, charming girl with the most marvelous, beautiful eyes, and Bresson would never let her look up at the camera. Never. She always had to look down, even when she was answering her judges. I told Bresson that if I believed in God, which I don’t, I would look up when I thought of Him. If I believed, He wouldn’t be beneath me but above me.
[line break added] Yet here Bresson was making Joan behave like a shifty hypocrite. And it wasn’t even a sign of humility in her, because Joan was not humble or humbled. She was a mystic, a visionary … you have to be to lead soldiers into battle without even knowing how to use a sword. I was so furious I really let myself go, and Bresson didn’t like it. He didn’t want to have Joan look up because Dreyer had done that.
Anyway, that was our great quarrel, and since Bresson will never admit his mistakes — as he is perfectly entitled not to — he held it against me. I had humiliated him, so he wanted to humiliate me. That, however, isn’t easy to do.
… I wasn’t at all in agreement with Bresson about the film because I didn’t care for the way he turned his hero into a lousy little swine (even if he did love his mother).
But he did admire Bresson, nevertheless:
… I really loved my profession because you had everything to do, everything to discover. Nowadays everything has to be safe. They don’t take risks any more. … [A] great cameraman, to my mind, has the right to be wrong. And a great director is one who lets you try for things. … Bresson … he was the last of the species.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.