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Home > Contents > Article: MK Raghavendra
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Robert Bresson:
The Spiritual Cinema Of An Unbeliever
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MK Raghavendra
Film theory and the 'masterwork'
Robert Bresson's films are among the highest achievements of cinema as art, but there is something even old fashioned about this assertion - because of the direction that film theory and scholarship have taken. In the earliest years of film scholarship cinema was still regarded as inferior to literature and the other arts, and the films valorized were predictably those rare films capable of standing alongside important works of literature or music, the cinema of filmmakers
Robert Bresson like Antonioni, Dreyer or Fellini. The second generation of scholars - called the 'auteurists'- were brought up on cinema rather than on high culture and extended the same methods to films that were more popular - often those within the American studio system, which had been neglected because they were regarded as mass produced. Identifying a filmmaker as 'auteur' implied an act of discovery on the critic's part because it was the consequence of finding consistent styles, motifs and concerns in the work of filmmakers who had unabashedly worked within the mainstream. Until well into the 1960s, critics and theorists regarded ideas in cinema essentially as ideas about the world. The transformation of film theory and scholarship in the late 1960s is attributed to the radicalization of culture by the 'materialists' after 1968. The tendency from the 1970s onwards is away from these hierarchies among films and filmmakers and to 'dissolve' the differences between texts in terms of their 'artistic value'. Stated very baldly this tendency stems from a critical understanding of the power of the system (or the ideology behind it).
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The understanding is that filmmaking - because of the cost involved in it - is deeply implicated in the capitalist system and under the guise of receiving 'cinematic art' audiences are encouraged to pursue an 'elevated meaning' which is not qualitatively different from the thrills that aficionados of adventure films pursue or the sexual gratification that viewers seek in pornography. Art films are also 'consumed' as these other kinds of films are. Whatever their claimed merits, the system benefits from these art works just as it benefits from thrillers or from pornography because the 'experimentation' of art cinema does nothing to destabilize the capitalist system in which it flourishes. Every kind of film that caters to the market is essentially a commodity although the niche to which caters may be different. Even films that claim to be politically radical - like Costa-Gavras' Z (1969) or Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) - are not different because they ultimately take their place as one genre in a plethora, being consumed exactly as other films are consumed, whether a romance of a police film.
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Roland Barthes' classification of literary texts (1) can perhaps be applied to cinema. Standard genre cinema can be termed 'readerly texts' which permit the audience little room to respond in any way except that of the passive onlooker. The audience watches the film unfold and the film virtually reads itself. Barthes's term 'plural' texts can perhaps be used to categorize the exceptional auteur films within genre cinema, the films of people like Ford, Sirk and Minelli which are beset by complexities and contradictions despite their appearance of coherence. 'Writerly' texts (the ultimate category) are texts that deliberately subvert authoritative meaning because they are conscious of filmmaking as a political process. They are, in effect, films that are conscious of the ideological function of cinema and (by inference) new developments in film theory. The result of the 'writerly' text in film, it has been claimed, is to even destroy the pleasure of cinema (2) and the films cited are like those by Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968), Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen (Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977) who try to be avant-garde in a more political sense than those like Alain Robbe-Grillet (L'immortelle, 1963) and others like Jean-Luc Godard (Wind from the East, 1970) (3) and Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976) (4) who have also been canonized in the territory of the art film. It is not clear where the masterworks of directors like Bresson lie within this classification but they are 'readerly' in as much as their coherence is beyond doubt and audiences are not 'challenged' by their contradictions. They are 'plural' in as much as they demand a higher level of engagement than standard genre cinema and each film does not offer its own interpretation as 'readerly' films do.
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It has been suggested (5) that the types of criticism fighting for supremacy in film studies can itself be categorized in the same way. Journalistic film criticism or film reviewing is 'readerly' because it is complicit with the industry it hopes to foster. If journalistic film criticism promotes appreciation of cinema in a way that is helpful to the film industry, academic criticism offers 'plural' interpretations of cinema - especially of art cinema - attending to the most lasting qualities of the most significant films. Radical film criticism from the 1960s onwards is perhaps 'writerly' in the sense that literary and filmic texts are 'writerly' because they are conscious of the political/ ideological role of cinema and chiefly address this aspect. They are suspicious of the things that cinephiles derive from cinema - like its pleasure.
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By and large, radical film study (which is now also less overtly political) has expanded its influence into the universities and the term 'academic criticism' can perhaps not be used to describe the appreciation of cinema today. The term 'essayistic criticism' (6) may therefore be employed to distinguish Susan Sontag's appreciation of Godard or Bresson from Pauline Kael's reviews in the New Yorker (journalistic criticism) and Laura Mulvey's feminist inquiries (academic scholarship). Where academics are usually preoccupied with 'deep' interpretation that goes beyond intentionality, significant works of cinema may deserve to be first made 'perceptible' through surface reading - with 'meaning' as one of its effects. As Susan Sontag has suggested, in the face of interpreters wooly abstractions, the critic can produce a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the work of art (7).
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Although academic film study has become more moderate in its radicalism, the distance that it has moved away from its emphasis on the appreciation of masterworks can be grasped through an examination of Film Quarterly, one of the most authoritative of academic film journals, published by the University of California Press at Berkeley. The journal is intended for people 'who love film' and a scrutiny of its content page is useful here. The journal has scholarly articles, interviews, film and book reviews. In the new millennium - until well into 2009 - the journal has only two articles on non-American filmmakers who might be considered 'major' according to the canon - Almodovar and Antonioni. Since Almodovar allows himself to be looked at entirely from the gender perspective (which is a far cry from studying his work as 'high art') it is only Antonioni who is from the canon. The title of the essay on Antonioni is also revealing: "The Rhythms of Life: An Appreciation of Michelangelo Antonioni, Extreme Aesthete of the Real." (8) There is something even shamefaced in the use of the word 'appreciation' with regard to Antonioni here - it is as if 'appreciation' is contrary to the normal purpose of a scholarly film journal. Those who respond to my observation with skepticism need only consider how an 'appreciation' of Shakespeare, Euripides or Kafka would sound to a student of literature.
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Film Quarterly's film reviews are also significant because in a period of nearly a decade there is no review of a film by any of the following filmmakers - who have been productive and whom cinephiles generally consider important to cinema: Aki Kaurismaki, Theo Angelopoulos, Lars Von Trier, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, David Cronenberg, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Atom Egoyan, the Dardenne brothers, Werner Herzog and Wong Kar-wai.
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Cinephiles have sometimes commented on the gap that has opened up between film scholarship and film criticism, regretted it and wished that it be bridged with mutual benefit:
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"One of the invaluable aspects of scholarly work is this "huge collective effort" that builds upon the work of others--both of centuries past and contemporary. The edifices that scholars construct have the likelihood of being tall and capacious by virtue of the largeness of this effort. There is a lesson here that film critics can learn from scholars: the practice of reading widely to become familiar with traditions of thought in film, art, philosophy, and other disciplines that can guide them and their readers towards a deeper understanding of cinema..
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What can film scholars learn from practicing film critics? At least two things. First, critics are invaluable because they have their fingers on the pulse of cinema at any moment. They are on the front-lines, watching new films, directions and innovations break. They help determine which films will acquire critical reputations, thus boosting the films' chances of being taken up for future study. Second, journalist-critics have the talent to write engagingly and skillfully for a large audience of educated non-scholars. In addition to their customary mode of writing--with their peers in mind--scholars could learn much from critics about cultivating this alternative and useful mode of writing that can bridge the gap between academia and the general reader." (9).
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As should now be apparent to the reader, the hope expressed here is unlikely to be fulfilled because academic film study ignores the filmmakers and films that have 'acquired critical reputations' and simply attends to the cinema upon which its critical methods can be employed. Academic study generates only more academic study and does not assist in the project of cinema. It has no impact on the institution of filmmaking - but it cannot congratulate itself for not being complicit with the filmmaking industry because it is complicit with the business of publishing.
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While the earliest of the radical theorists were steeped in cinema, this is hardly true of their followers. The earliest radical readings of film texts were 'oppositional' readings in as much as they positioned themselves in opposition to the dominant readings of these films. To find a parallel from literature, the post-colonial reading of Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (10) opposed the dominant reading of the novel as a classic of literature about the black heart of 'civilized man'. But what happens in academic study is that so much emphasis is placed on the radical/ subversive reading that, at least within its own space, the surface meaning is even lost sight of. It is as if The Heart of Darkness was never intended to be read in any way other than the post-colonial one. When reading strategies are restricted by the consideration of ideology, appreciation does suffer - and it is difficult to accept that appreciation is ingenuous. Sometimes, the appreciation of a work is more profound than a symptomatic reading of its ideological discourse. Walter Benjamin's essays on Brecht and Baudelaire are, for instance, appreciations. In film studies the neglect of appreciation has led to a proliferation of philistinism within the academia, a philistinism that is easily concealed in jargon and in the self-righteousness common to 'politically correct' readings of texts (11).
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Rather than look to film academics to guide them to a 'deeper understanding of cinema', it will be more useful for cinephiles and film critics to improve their own understanding of what is valuable in the films they like best. Needless to add the appreciation of what one likes best cannot go hand-in-hand with a disinclination to be critical and to hurt. It cannot become a public relations exercise - as much of the film criticism published has become. Unfortunately, the kind of appreciative writing available to the cinephile - often no more than expressions of enthusiasm - is of a lower order than that available to the lover of literature. This is perhaps because reading literature naturally helps improve one's literary skills while watching cinema does not. Susan Sontag's essay on Bresson, for instance, is perhaps more insightful than the writing of film critics on the subject because Sontag did not write only on cinema but had an understanding of literature as well.
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This is an essay about Robert Bresson that attempts to arrive at a new understanding of the filmmaker's work - which has already been written about extensively. Film theory does not have much to do with Bresson but it has been necessary to dwell on it at such great length because it is not enough to simply explain or interpret the masterwork in cinema. It is even necessary to rescue it from the indifference that the discipline of film studies regards it. It is perhaps once again necessary to treat ideas in cinema as ideas about the world because cinema has contributed in no insignificant way to bring the world to the cinephile.
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Understanding Bresson
Bresson is not an easy filmmaker to write about but the critical discourse around his films is dominated by the school that sees him as a 'Catholic' filmmaker (12). To use the jargon of academia, the meaning of Bresson's films is a contested site in which Catholic film critics have hegemonic control. While the notion of a 'Catholic artist' might be more appropriate to a medieval painter to whom the world was the Roman Catholic world, I would like to argue that characterizing a filmmaker who worked in the 1980s in this way tends to limit him because Bresson's greatness should be evident to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Bresson described himself as a 'Christian atheist' - which has seen him being appropriated by Catholic film critics - but I propose to approach him from his 'atheist' side, i.e. view him as a secular filmmaker, albeit with a Catholic background - and therefore Catholic motifs in his work. Moreover, it is one thing to recognize that a filmmaker is religious and another to assert that the value of his or her work lies in his or her religious beliefs.
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Another difficulty with the religious interpretation of Robert Bresson's films is that it is 'theory-down' - as a psycho-analytical or a Marxist interpretation would also be - with the difference that the 'theory' employed is theology rather than Marxism or Freudian psychoanalysis. A theoretical position charts a generality of which the interpreted work is only an instance. As has been argued, showing that a film is an instance of a general theory would imply that the film is, in certain respects, routine and pretty much like everything else in the same domain (13). This being the case, how can the Catholic critic argue that Bresson's films are different from those of another 'Jansenist' filmmaker, assuming of course that there is another? Even if there is no other Jansenist filmmaker, the argument can only point to Bresson being 'Jansenist' but not to his being a great artist.
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One of the most insightful essays about Robert Bresson is the one by Susan Sontag (14) which is not overly preoccupied with religion. Sontag surveys Bressons oeuvre up to The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) but it is her understanding of Bresson's methods rather than her analyses of individual films that is most revealing. Since I propose to use Sontag's conclusions about Robert Bresson's methods in the course of my arguments, I will begin by listing them here:
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  1. Bresson’s art is a reflective art because its emotional power is mediated. The pull towards emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements that promote distance, disinterestedness and impartiality.
  2. Bresson is regarded as a ‘cold’ filmmaker but this is only in relation to the exuberance of a Fellini. Sometimes the form and material are deliberately placed in opposition to each other. Brecht, for instance, often places hot subjects in a cold frame. Bresson’s ‘coldness’ is not like this and the form is perfectly compatible with the theme.
  3. Form and manner are not the same. Welles, the early Rene Clair, Sternberg are directors with an unmistakable style. But they never created a rigorous form as Bresson (and Ozu) have. Like Ozu’s films, Bresson’s films are designed to discipline the emotions even while arousing them. Reflective art like Bresson’s is art which imposes a certain discipline on the audience – postponing easy gratification.
  4. Where Brecht wishes distance to keep hot emotions cool and intelligence to prevail, the emotional distance maintained by Bresson is because identification with a character is a kind of impertinence – an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.
  5. The elimination of suspense in Bresson’s films (often by revealing the ending very early) is a way of moderating narrative involvement.  
  6. Bresson’s use of non-acting ‘models’ instead of actors is also a way of restricting narrative involvement. Also, there are spiritual resources beyond the actor’s effort. But Bresson’s films work best when the presence of the actor is itself luminous – e.g. Francois Leterrier in A Condemned Man Escapes (1957). In many other films like Pickpocket (1959) and The Trial of Joan of Arc this is not entirely successful.
  7. Bresson is interested in spiritual action – in the ‘physics rather than the psychology of souls’. Why people behave as they do is, ultimately, not to be understood. Actions cannot appear implausible but motivation is to be left opaque.
An approach to Bresson
Sontag's essay is a useful way in which to approach the films of Robert Bresson and another is the filmmaker's own denser writing - maxims collected in a slim volume entitled Notes on Cinematography (15). The following are a few of Bresson's maxims that could lead us to an understanding of his films:
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  1. “No directing of actors. No learning of parts. No staging. But the use of working models taken from life. Being (models) instead of seeming (actors).”
  2. “Nothing rings more false in a film than that natural tone of the theatre copying life and traced over studied sentiments.”
  3. “Respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is.”
  4. “Apply myself to insignificant (non-significant) images. Flatten my images without attenuating them.”
  5. “To create is not to deform or invent persons and things. It is to tie new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are.”
  6. “Radically suppress intentions in your models.”
  7. “No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. The noises must become music.”
  8. “Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought.”
  9. “Actor. The to and fro of the character in front of his nature forces the public to look for talent on his face, instead of the enigma peculiar to each living creature.”
  10. “Hide the ideas so people find them. The most important will also be the most hidden.”
  11. “Debussy himself used to play with the piano’s lid down.”
  12. “When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer. A sound must never come to the help of an image or an image to the help of a sound.”
  13. “No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain.)”
  14. “The real when it has reached the mind, is already not real any more. Our too thoughtful, too intelligent eye.”
  15. “The true is inimitable, the false, untransformable.”
  16. “Your genius is not in the counterfeiting of nature (actors, sets) but in your own way of choosing and coordinating bits taken directly from it by machines.”
  17. “Cut what would deflect attention elsewhere.”
  18. “The things we bring off by chance – what power they have!”
  19. “(Fragmentation) is indispensable if one does not want to fall into representation. To see beings and things in their separate parts. Render them independent in order to give them a new dependence.”
  20. “Displaying everything condemns cinema to cliché, obliges it to display things as everyone is in the habit of seeing them.” 
The maxims pertain to Robert Bresson's filmmaking methods and not to his thematic concerns, but it is still possible to say something about the kind of subjects that interest the filmmaker. Firstly, Bresson is less preoccupied with 'personal expression' than with getting at the 'real' and with understanding 'nature', which suggests that in sensibility he belongs to an earlier period with greater faith in 'objective reality'. This is confirmed by Bresson's dependence upon texts by classical writers (like Bernanos, Diderot, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy) who still believed that the world and man's place in it could be known. Unlike Jacques Rivette who treats classical literature (e.g. Diderot, Balzac, Emily Bronte) only as 'texts' (16), Bresson is preoccupied with bringing alive their 'truths' even if this means that he is not being faithful to them (i.e. taking the original texts literally). The skeptical reader may question the notion of an immutable 'truth' but Bresson is only using it as a basis for praxis and not presenting it as possible to reach rigorously.
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Another aspect of Bresson that seems to be important is his belief that the 'real' is not 'imitation' in any sense. Actors 'imitate' what they are expected to be, but 'models' can simple be, even this 'being' happens only intermittently. Bresson apparently does not expect his films to reflect the 'truth' continuously but only glimpsed now and then - through chance. The trick is perhaps not to put in narrative material that will 'deflect from the real'. The recognition of the 'real' is also not the result of one's intelligence; it is not mediated by thought but grasped intuitively by the model/filmmaker/audience.
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Judging from whatever Bresson says, it would seem that the model playing Joan of Arc is not simply 'representing' her but is her - even if this is only for a moment or two in the entire course of a film. What this means is difficult to grasp but it could have a parallel in Jorge Luis Borges's dictum: "Anyone who recites a line from Shakespeare is Shakespeare." If Shakespeare became Shakespeare because of the magical lines he wrote, could not the same thing happen to someone else who catches their magic? Similarly, what Bresson suggests is that since we do not know Joan as an individual but only though her acts of faith, the same acts of faith could happen in some form on the screen - even if only for a fleeting moment or two - and his purpose is to allow them to happen. There are two other characteristics of Bresson's films that may be pertinent here. While Bresson's remarks suggest that he uses sounds instead of music as a way of capturing the 'real' instead of 'supporting' or 'reinforcing' it, another aspect from his films that seems related is Bresson's focus on hands and feet instead of faces. There is a passage in a Borges 'parable' that may shed some light this second latter aspect:
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"The profile of a Jew in the subway may be that of Christ; the hands that give us some coins at a change window may recall those which some soldiers once nailed to the Cross. Perhaps some feature of the Crucified Face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the Face died, was effaced, so that God might become everyone." (17)
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What interests me more than the religious thrust of the passage is that God's Face needs to be 'effaced' before God can become 'everyone' but the hands giving us some coins in a change window may already recall those once nailed to the Cross. To elaborate, the countenance is an index of individual identity while hands and feet are not. If Bresson's models are to be Jesus, Joan of Arc or Raskolnikov (Bresson makes no distinction between historical characters and fictional ones in his search for the 'real' - both come to us through texts) their identities must be subdued, which implies that their faces should be 'effaced' in some way. It would perhaps be appropriate to attend more to hands and feet, which not only cannot be associated with individual identity but are also less self-conscious. This notion, I would like to argue, could be extended to deal with Bresson's great attention to sounds as well. Sounds, unlike images, are difficult to assign to individual objects. As an instance, the scratching of a pen (18) is no different from the scratching of another but the difference in appearance between two pens is more manifest. The emphasis on sounds over images once again points to the suppression of the individuality of the object. Joan of Arc coughing at the stake (instead of crying out) can also be interpreted as a way of suppressing the model's identity - so she could 'become' Joan.
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Being one of the few filmmakers to have actually theorized about filmmaking (19) these conclusions are expected to be useful in understanding Bresson's work. While I will examine a few of Bresson's films my interest is also in the enormous transformation in his outlook after he started using color. Two phases can be identified in his career - corresponding to his black and white films beginning with Diary of a Country Priest and the color films beginning withA Gentle Woman (1969). I will not discuss the earliest films because they are not 'Bressonian' - they do not follow his expressed ideas on filmmaking. I propose to examine three films from each phase in his career and then speculate on the difference between the two phases, an inquiry that is perhaps long overdue. Lastly, this essay is primarily an appreciation and while there are different criteria by which films may be evaluated - coherence, originality, intensity and complexity being some of them (20) - I hope to be able to bring out the complexity of Bresson's approach through the way his films narrate and generate meaning. Needless to add, the intention is to make Bresson accessible to lay persons, which means describing the films in some detail and describing them in greater detail than is common in criticism. I also hope to explore Bresson's development as an artist by looking at his two phases.
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Diary of a Country Priest (1950)
Diary of a Country Priest is based on a novel by Catholic writer Georges Bernanos which is written in the first person - as a journal maintained by the sickly young priest of a parish in rural France. The film begins with the Priest arriving in village of Ambricourt and being witness to lovers locked in a furtive embrace - and turning their backs to him when he looks. This sequence virtually sets the tome for the first part which deals with local hostility to the Priest. The second man Fabregars haggles
Diary of a Country Priest over the funeral expenses of his wife and accuses the church of exploiting the poor. The other characters encountered by the Priest are the Priest of Torcy, a much older man who is worldly wise - if not cynical - and who believes that they are 'at war'. Torcy's friend is Dr Delbende, an unbelieving medical practitioner, rumors of whose unhygienic ways have seen him losing patients. When the young Priest first meets him, 'his hands are unclean after hunting'. The most striking 'moment' in this part of the film is perhaps the catechism class in which only one child - Seraphita - appears to be attentive, her hands bobbing up and down in suppressed excitement at being the only one knowing the answer. But when he appreciates her in private he discovers he has been 'set up'. The girl responds with the maturity of an adult and praises his 'beautiful eyes'. Quite surprised by this, he also finds that the other girls have all been made witness to this 'private' exchange in order to humiliate him. There is a hint of suggestiveness in Seraphita's conduct here because the admission of a grown man's physical beauty is not something one would expect from a girl her age. Although this is later belied when Seraphita (still displaying maturity far beyond her years) administers to him, the child's conduct in this sequence even anticipates Regan's innuendo in The Exorcist in as much as a child displays sexual maturity and her remarks are directed at a priest. The point here is not that the two films are similar but that both films are set in Catholic milieus and feature children strangely without their customary innocence as a threatening motif. Organized religion is a space in which wickedness proliferates, Bresson appears to say - as he did more powerfully in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in which the compulsively evil Gerard is shown to sing in a church choir.
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There is another moment in Diary of a Country Priest a little later after Dr Delbende's funeral (the doctor apparently shot himself) when the protagonist talks to his well-wisher, the priest of Torcy. The two stand a short distance from the church which has been decorated for the funeral. What I find significant is that we see the decorations being removed even as the conversation is in progress and the sense we get is of the church suddenly rendered naked and being reduced to what it essentially is: a cold grey stone edifice.
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Bresson's film is based on a deeply religious literary work and it hardly subverts the purpose of the original. Still, it exhibits a kind of ambivalence towards the Church that is palpable. One contributing factor could be that while the novel is in the first person, cinema cannot provide a corresponding viewpoint and we see what the Priest sees as well as his own responses - of which he cannot always be aware. There are therefore small differences between what we see happening and what his diary is describing which should be taken note of. This, I suggest, becomes significant in the second part of the film in which the Priest's health improves marginally and he is able to give solace to people who have resisted, chiefly the Countess and her daughter Chantal.
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Chantal appears to hate everyone around her - her father the Count, her mother and her father's lover, the governess. After a conversation with Chantal in which she pours out her scorn at the world, he senses correctly that she has a suicide note with her and asks her for it. Chantal is visibly perturbed and audibly declares him the 'Devil'. While the priest does not succeed in bringing comfort to Chantal, he does succeed with her mother. The Countess is a proud but lonely woman living with the memory of a dead male child. She has become accustomed to her husband's infidelities and no longer cares. As with Chantal, the priest displays such wisdom that the Countess even attributes his words to someone else - he could not have had the experience for them. Although his exchange with the Countess is later misinterpreted, the Priest reconciles her to her position and she acknowledges the help he has rendered her through a letter. The Countess, however, dies the very next morning and the Priest returns to the manor to pay his last respects.
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While much of the religious conversation between the Priest and the Countess (as with the priest and Chantal) has the appearance of being rushed through, the sequence in which the priest visits the dead Countess is striking. Everyone in attendance is formally dressed for the occasion while the Priest looks scruffy as he always does and the sense is that he is an intruder barely tolerated; the Count does not even look at him when he passes by on the staircase. "The Count pretended not to see me," says the voice-over but we only see the Priest not taken notice of. To give the Priest's intimacy with the Countess emphasis, the camera catches the priest kissing her cold forehead in close-up as if there had been a private informal bond - even a mystical communion - between them, not mediated by the institution he has been serving, i.e. the Church.
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The Priest has never been close to official power and privilege and his distance from the Count is given emphasis by the bars of the manor gate. He is not shown at the pulpit in church, he visits people personally and his religious exchanges with his congregation are inevitably private. The more closely we look at the protagonist, the more does he appear a mystic rather than a representative of the Church and his power belongs to his own person rather than derived from the institution. The Priest of Torcy who once patronized him acknowledges it when he seeks his blessing at their parting.
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The last part of Diary of a Country Priest begins with the priest's worsening health and concludes in his death of stomach cancer. His stomach has been unable to stand anything except dry bread soaked in wine and the 'wine' he has been using is a poisonous brew - so the Priest of Torcy tells him - that kills. He is also told that his background implies drunkard ancestors, and his blood was poisoned at birth (he was 'pickled in alcohol' is the way Torcy puts it). While this has a parallel in Renoir's The Human Beast (1938) in which the Jacques Lantier has murderous fits because of the alcohol consumed by his ancestors, the association of mental illness with mystical visions/ power is made by Dostoyevsky in The Idiot in which the Christ-like figure Prince Myshkin has epileptic fits, commencing with his seeing things with exceptional clarity. In Bresson's film many of the people in the village regard the priest as a drunkard and the film is ambiguous about the source of his mystical power. The Priest's dying exclamation "All is grace" is not necessarily Bresson affirming Catholicism. This is reported to his friend the Priest of Torcy by another religious outcast, Dufrety and the sense is that if a representative of the Church must attain 'grace' it is only as an outsider.
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Diary of a Country Priest is ambiguous but it does not display the kind of deliberate ambiguity that European art cinema has been shown to exhibit (21). European art cinema as a single category after 1945, David Bordwell argues, defines itself specifically against the classical Hollywood narrative mode especially with regard to cause-effect linkage between events - and the linkages become looser and more tenuous. Bordwell cites films like Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960) in which Anna is lost and never found and Godard's Breathless (1959) in which the reasons for Patricia's betrayal of Michel are not known. The art film narrative works by two principles: realism and authorial expressivity. Here, 'realism' is an acknowledgment of 'life's untidiness'. To elaborate, the detective in a whodunit cannot be accidentally run over just before he solves a crime but such an occurrence is not impossible in a 'thriller' by Jean-Luc Godard. The protagonists of the art film are not motivated as those in the classical Hollywood film are and their inconsistency, their lack of purpose in films ranging from Breathless and Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) to Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) needs to be interpreted as owing to the real malaises of contemporary life - alienation, inability to communicate etc. Bordwell suggests that since classical Hollywood cinema is the covert reference point, the audience is invited to interpret the deviations from classical Hollywood storytelling in terms of authorial expressivity, i.e. induce the audience to ask: 'What is the director trying to say?' 'Ambiguity' therefore becomes a key element that invites interpretation in art cinema and the 'author' becomes a key organizing element in the narrative, 'signature styles' usually providing clues as to what filmmakers may be meaning.
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While Diary of a Country Priest has a discernible 'signature style' like the films coming under art cinema - those of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni etc. - the audience is not drawn into interpreting the film in terms of what Bresson is 'trying to say'. The filmmaker does not become a mediator between the spectator and the world. The ambiguity in Diary of a Country Priest has correspondence, instead, with the mystery of the world itself, that will not submit to any doctrine - Catholic or otherwise. If Bresson would suppress intention in his models it is the same 'intention' on the part of the artist - to make of the world what it is not, in the guise of 'expression' - that he is wary of.
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A Condemned Man Escapes (1957)
Bresson's films are dimly described as 'spiritual' but it is less the 'Catholic' film Diary of a Country Priest than the prison escape film A Condemned Man Escapes that illuminates the meaning of the term, which is not gratuitous. This film, which is based on real-life incident, tells the story of condemned prisoner Lieutenant Fontaine who escaped from a Nazis prison in occupied France. What makes this film so 'spiritual' is, paradoxically, its scrupulous attention to material things. The film begins inside a car with a hand moving furtively to the door handle. The hand, we discover, belongs to Fontaine who is being taken to prison. Unlike the other prisoner beside him he is not handcuffed and he is therefore attempting to jump out of the car at the least opportunity. Fontaine finally jumps out but fails to break free; when he is put into his cell his face is bleeding profusely from the pistol-whipping apparently administered.
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Bresson is very particular about what he may show and what he may not. We never see a German soldier’s face in full; we are neither made witness to any violence nor to any emotional outburst. The film has a voice-over as in Diary of a Country Priest but here it is entirely factual and sparer, with the verbal account not conflicting with what we see but attempting to complement it. Fontaine’s own breakdown is not shown but “My courage abandoned me and I cried” he says matter-of-factly in the film’s voice-over.
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The images saturating A Condemned Man Escapes pertain to the physical details of Fontaine’s incarceration. The camera is often catching movement through a narrow slit between two prison doors and movement is so restricted that prisoners may hardly make contact. Even overtaking a prisoner in a line to get nearer to a ‘friend’ is a formidable task. It is in this milieu that Fontaine gets to know other people. There is the priest with whom Fontaine argues about God and Orsini who was betrayed by his wife and who is shot after he makes the first attempt to break out. But it is Fontaine who is most preoccupied with escape, his resolve becoming greater when he is sentenced to death.
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Here are long segments in which Fontaine sharpens a soup spoon on the stone floor, using it to chisel away at the door-joints to separate and detach the oak boards, extracting the steel wires from his wooden bed to make a rope with and carefully dismantling the lantern to make hooks. There are few films as attentive to physical detail as A Condemned Man Escapes but instead of becoming grounded in physicality, these images of confinement take it elsewhere. Where ‘freedom’ is empty rhetoric in most dramas extolling it, the palpability of the obstacles placed in Lieutenant Fontaine’s way that make us understand not only freedom and fellowship but also the doggedness of the spirit pursuing them to the end.
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Given the restrictions placed upon character development by a story in which people communicate to each other through taps and scratching, meet each other only when they wash themselves, Bresson gets his effects through an economy all but impossible. A glance at the man is all we get with a one line account and we are convinced of Orsini’s tragic story. We are never in doubt that death is near and betrayal likely. Fontaine finally escapes with a lice-infested young man in German uniform (a ‘deserter’) named Jost who shares his cell. Fontaine is not sure if he can trust Jost but he has no option but to let him in on the plan. He decides that if Jost refuses to join him he will have to be killed. Jost has one anxious expression on his face and he hardly ‘acts’ but we are convinced not only that he is acutely flesh and blood but also that his blood might need to be spilled by Fontaine.
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Bresson, as I suggested, has no ‘unique vision’ to offer to the world – although he has a unique method - and this film does not propose anything outside the domain of the familiar. It values the same things that conventional wisdom has taught us to value – freedom and camaraderie, specifically. But what the film does is to give new life to a cliché and awaken an idea all but dead. A Condemned Man Escapes is ‘spiritual’ because through the drama of overcoming actual obstacles (and not abstractions) the film makes the ‘human sprit’ palpable in an unprecedented way.
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A Condemned Man Escapes makes us aware that what Bresson is attempting is to deal with the notion of spiritual freedom through a studied emphasis on confinement - or the other things opposing it. In Diary of a Country Priest the Priest attains ‘grace’ because he struggles against the apathy of the community perhaps created by the very institution he is serving. Although many of the other characters are initially hostile to the Priest he is still able to reach them through his ministrations; but the Count himself remains impervious. It is significant that the ‘villain’ of the film, the Count, is the one person who has had a good relationship with the Church - and is prepared to make contributions. It is also significant that Bresson does not identify any individual with the Church and the senior-most official – the Canon – who is the Count’s uncle, is even sympathetic to the Priest. But there is still the sense of the Church as an institution connecting only with privilege and indifferent to the spiritual needs of the community. The Catholic Church, I therefore suggest, plays the same role in Diary of a Country Priest that the prison plays in A Condemned Man Escapes. It is an obstacle that the human spirit must strain itself to overcome.
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The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)
Bresson’s films from Diary of a Country Priest onwards become sparer with every effort. The Trial of Joan of Arc is even more austere than A Condemned Man Escapes because the filmmaker places more restrictions upon himself with regard to what he may show. The film is a faithful visualization of the Joan’s trial using the actual transcripts. It is virtually all questions and answers, which means that people rarely even talk informally, the questions themselves read out and Joan’s answers being unrevealing. Since Bresson takes trouble to add very little – even in terms of facial expressions – this is as ‘truthful’ a recreation of Joan’s last days as it is possible for cinema to provide. There are, for instance, none of the close-ups that Dreyer provides in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) which, because they display everything, might have ‘condemned cinema to cliché.’ 
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While Diary of a Country Priest has a strong narrative, narration reduces progressively in the other two films with an increasing emphasis on ‘real moments’. The ‘real moments’ in The Trial of Joan of Arc - upon which most of the weight of the film rests – can almost be marked. The first is perhaps Joan’s mother making an official statement about her daughter’s life and death about twenty-five years after the girl’s martyrdom. The mother’s face is not seen as she is helped into the court - at the Trial of Rehabilitation - to read out her statement. Joan’s trial is like a set piece but in court there is a young monk sympathetic to her who makes covert gestures indicating how she should answer. The gestures cease gradually once the monk senses that Joan’s position cannot be retrieved. Another important sequence pertains to Joan lying ill in bed after consuming what she has been given to eat. We do not see her initially but a wooden bowl with the bones of the fish just eaten is taken away. We are shown Joan’s limp white hand coming out from under a cover to have her pulse taken and heavy steel manacles being hauled out from under the cover so she can be unchained briefly.
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In writing about the ‘model’ playing Joan, Susan Sontag comments upon her lack of luminosity and contrasts it with Francois Leterrier who plays the protagonist in A Condemned Man Escapes. I would like to argue that The Trial of Joan of Arc is about Joan as a spent force, after her visions have ceased, and ‘luminosity’ from the model might have been counterproductive. Joan of Arc in Bresson’s film is perhaps the opposite of Fontaine in A Condemned Man Escapes because while Fontaine represents the resolute human spirit, Joan in The Trial of Joan of Arc represents the human spirit subdued. It is after her trial that this becomes more evident because Joan fears death and repeats a recantation that is written out for her. Joan is emotional now but Bresson avoids catching her countenance; Joan turning away or falling back on her bed with a moan is all we see. The sequence dealing with her execution is also revealing because instead of dwelling on Joan, it commences with her meager belongings being put away in a sack – a pair of boots and some tattered clothes, mainly. Then we see boards being hammered together to erect a platform and sticks heaped around it. Joan is barefoot and takes short steps to the stake because the cassock is narrow around her ankles. When the wood is lit Joan mutters her prayers mechanically and coughs out when the smoke reaches her. The eyes of the monks tending to the fire are also wet because of the smoke. The last image we see – when the fire is spent and the smoke has cleared – is the burned out stake with empty chains entwined around them.
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The interpretation that The Trial of Joan of Arc is about the human spirit subdued may be met with opposition from those who would assert that the spirit is indestructible. This is a weak objection because we cannot value what is ‘indestructible’ and ‘eternal’; life, after all, is valuable only because we are mortal. Bresson also does not need to convince us that Joan of Arc once had ‘spirit’ because we come to the film only with that knowledge and conviction. But Bresson may still have imagined that The Trial of Joan of Arc would befound too ‘bleak’ because he puts in two incongruous images at the end. When Joan ascends the steps to the stake he shows a spaniel which appears to be following her but then stops and looks up. A moment later he shows us pigeons alighting on a roof. These images may be intended to signify ‘life’ and ‘renewal’ in a film that could be taken to be about defeat and death - but they contradict Bresson’s own expressed tenets because they are ‘traced over by studied sentiments.’
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Shifting to color
Filmmakers usually shift to color when the technology becomes available, and non-mainstream cinema is usually slower to shift because of budgetary constraints. But it is not very often that one senses a change in sensibility in the director’s work when she or he makes the shift. Color, to the artist in cinema, has evidently more complex possibilities than black and white. When filmmakers consciously choose black and white, they often do it to suggest Manichaean divisions (Schindler’s List) or, when their preoccupation is psychology or interiority, divided or ruptured selves (e.g. Psycho or Bergman’s films). Robert Bresson’s films in black and white suggest binary conflict of some kind, usually a struggle. His last two films in black and white appear to belie this because they are psychologically more complex. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967) deal with girl protagonists who conduct themselves more strangely that do the protagonists of the earlier films. Both are people with ‘spirit’ placed in difficult situations but instead of a remedy, they seek out their own destruction. I will not discuss these two films but they include elements that contradict my own supposition that Bresson is an unbeliever - in a way that the films I have discussed do not. Both films conclude with the death of the protagonist – not the girl but the donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar – with optimistic lighting and bars of music to convey the sense that they are ‘watched over’. Bresson seems to imply that while the fates of their respective protagonists may defeat human understanding, there is still a higher authority who judges. The two films are emotionally moving in a way that none of the other films discussed are but their implication, it can be argued, makes them suspect. It defeats the admission that human action is not always understandable. Implying an ‘overseeing’ authority who witnesses what we do not perhaps also amounts to ‘wishing Man’s nature more palpable than it is’.
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Bresson’s last films in color are the films in which Man’s mystery is preserved most uncompromisingly and they are the films to which his own tenets most apply. Where most filmmakers use color beguilingly, Bresson is cold and harsh and there is scarcely a frame in these films that is eye-catching. If Bergman’s colors (Cries and Whispers, 1972) are deep and rich to suggest great torment, Fellini’s (Amarcord, 1974) are muted as if to suggest affectionate recall, Bresson’s colors appear to mimic cheap plastic –  unappealing but entirely functional, as if deliberately devised not to distract. The three films in color that I propose to discuss are A Gentle Woman (1969), The Devil, Probably (1977) and L’Argent (1983).
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A Gentle Woman (1969)
This film is based on a short story by Dostoyevsky which might be considered difficult to film because it takes the shape of an obsessive monologue – that of a husband grieving over the death of his wife by suicide. The man is a rich moneylender who married a poor girl of very gentle disposition. The moneylender loved her dearly but withheld love from her, intending to shower her with it at the appropriate moment. As may be expected from Dostoyevsky, the man presents no reason for his conduct which is not so say that he is not a vivid and compelling creation. When the moneylender abandons his coldness and wholeheartedly embraces the girl, she is too far gone - though she sheds tears of joy - and kills herself.
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Bresson is faithful to the original story although he reduces the obsessive monologue to a first person account that sounds like a report – comparable to Fontaine’s in A Condemned Man Escapes. This means that the centre of focus is the girl - and not the moneylender - who becomes the greater object of interest. The psychological logic of the story is much more opaque than in any of Bresson’s other films up to this point but where Dostoyevsky’s story depends entirely on its vividness for its power Bresson’s film leaves the behavior of the two protagonists enigmatic, although strangely recognizable.
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The first event in the film is the wife jumping off an apartment balcony to her death on the pavement below. We don’t see her jumping off but the housekeeper who comes in sees the chair she has climbed up on still wobbling and a flowerpot on the balcony overbalancing. The husband’s narration of their married life together begins shortly thereafter - with him standing close to the feet of the dead girl on the bed, her hands crossed over her breast. The film returns to the same scene after every incidence of narration.
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The husband Luc is a moneylender and the Girl is poor and keeps coming to him to sell numerous things she possesses. Luc notices her as quiet and educated and helps her with an advertisement offering her services as an au pair girl that she wants to put out. Luc also surprises her by quoting a line spoken by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust. He pursues her and asks her to marry him. It is not love he is offering her but marriage, he makes it clear. The two are married at the registrar’s with no one else in attendance, after which they retire to his apartment. Luc has clear ideas about the direction their lives should take and, as he tells us when the brief excitement of their first night together is over, “I quenched her elation.”
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Luc recites to his wife the various terms of their marriage. They need to build ‘capital’ and must therefore conserve their money. They cannot therefore visit the theatre, which is expensive, although they can go to the cinema once every week. The girl listens to all this without demur although the word ‘capital’ appears to have her wondering.  Few words are spoken between husband and wife and explanations are not provided. The first luminously ‘real’ moment perhaps occurs in the cinema hall. The two watch a film together and it seems a historical costume drama. Suddenly, she looks at the stranger sitting to the other side of her and we see their hands. From the tense way they are poised on their respective laps – her right and the stranger’s left hand – there has evidently been an attempt by the stranger to make contact. The Girl looks deliberately at Luc now and he understands quickly. Husband and wife exchange places and Luc glances at the stranger briefly before returning to the film. After the film ends the stranger follows the two to their car still hopeful of making contact with the woman - perhaps estranged from her man. But she gives Luc an impulsive hug and Luc says, “I was sure of her love” in the voice over.
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In Dostoyevsky’s story the husband is cold and incommunicative in his marriage but articulate when addressing the reader. This means he is conscious of the deviousness of his own conduct and the recognition induces us to interpret his psychology. My own interpretation is that the husband is enacting the fantasy of power that we detect in children when they ill-treat their pets and then shower them with love, enjoying the animal’s display of relief. Denying love and extending it at will perhaps actualizes the fantasy that the inclination to love is unilaterally ours. Bresson’s film, in contrast, does not allow us to interpret Luc’s or his wife’s psychology. What we see is all there is - though we need to watch closely.
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Although their quarrels are interspersed with interludes of tenderness the relationship between Luc and his wife deteriorates progressively after their first disagreement – when he finds her ‘being charitable with his money’. Luc knows that a boy has been coming to see her occasionally - although he deliberately does not try to look at or identify him. It is not that Luc feels no jealousy but it isn’t his nature to exhibit it unduly. Bresson interrupts the sequences dealing with their exchanges – including their silences – with distracting interludes like the extended theatre sequence from Hamlet. It is difficult to say what the interlude does in terms of narrative development but since their responses to culture are so different (she is clearly more sensitive) that we sense the distance between them growing. Bresson gives this emphasis when she is hunched forward in her seat and he is reclining.
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The point of no return in their relationship is reached when Luc finds his wife with the boy. Luc hears a bit of conversation and knows she has behaved creditably but deliberately keeps silent about what he has heard, briefly enjoying the moral power it gives him. The Girl is humiliated and while he pretends to be asleep Luc sees her contemplating him with a loaded pistol. He says nothing to her when he ‘awakens’ but arranges it so that the two will sleep in separate rooms, indicating that he knows. The girl’s consequent illness changes matters because Luc tries to be caring, talk about the things she loves but none of it is of much avail because their silences deepen. When Luc finally bursts out with an expression of deep regret and proposes that they begin life anew the girl weeps as in Dostoyevsky’s story, but points out, “We won’t be new.” The film eventually concludes with Luc lowering his dead wife’s head back into the coffin and the mahogany lid being screwed on.
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A Gentle Woman is a new kind of film for Robert Bresson because it is almost completely devoid of the optimism that marked even The Trial of Joan of Arc - which is still haunted by what Joan once was. I have hitherto tried to defend the use of the term ‘spiritual’ with regard to Bresson’s cinema although it is imprecise and tends to be applied to everything redolent of religion. A Gentle Woman is not even remotely religious (22) and, if anything, the closing of the film works against the belief in an afterlife. Still, it can be argued, it is ‘spiritual’ in a way that films by more overtly religious filmmakers have not been. If one considers Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Ingmar Bergman communicates an intense sense of physical/ emotional distance developing between twopeople in the process of a marital break-up - anticipated in the opening altercation between the other couple. Bergman gets us interested in the psychology of his characters - in a way that Bresson does not. Psychology is a way explaining human beings in a rational way but, as Bresson notes, creative artists with faith in psychology create only what can be explained.
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In A Gentle Woman husband and wife drift apart not because of their respective psychological traits but because they are weighed down in some baffling way. Luc, who must bear most of the responsibility because the girl tries to reach out to him initially, is deliberate in extinguishing whatever elation she feels at having a man but without knowing why. More strikingly, the girl submits without protest but also without appearing a ‘victim’ incapable of choosing or acting. She seems to be in the grip of a realization going beyond a reason or even a cause. Bresson may be using a ‘model’ to play the girl but Dominique Sanda is infused with inner mystery in A Gentle Woman and her performance is perhaps the apogee of all Bressonian performances. The girl’s suicide after weeping tears of joy at the husband’s declaration of love seems the most natural thing in the world. We are not in control of our own acts, Bresson’s film implies and, if anything, it communicates the impossibility of happiness.
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The Devil, Probably (1977)
A Gentle Woman was made a year after the student uprising in Paris but it shows no engagement with politics. Bresson’s only engagement with politics however came eight years later. The Devil, Probably is based on a screenplay by Bresson himself and tells a contemporary story about four people: Charles, Alberte, Edwige and Michel. The characters are a foursome obsessively preoccupied with the havoc caused to the environment by human greed (perhaps ‘the market’ would be a euphemism for it today). Bresson uses some stock footage – trees pulled down, baby seals clubbed to death, rivers being polluted – not to tell us what we know too well but to enlighten us on the preoccupations of his protagonists. Charles is the charismatic leader of the group while Michel is the one who has his feet still planted in everyday life and preoccupied with ‘getting on’. Alberte and Edwige are both in love with Charles - although neither is jealous of the other. Alberte declares to Michel that it is he she loves but the indications are that she still gives herself to Charles out of her admiration and respect, and that Michel will gladly go along.
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Much of the first part of the film is taken up with student activism and rhetoric. Groups gather and people cheer and the general sense is that of people who know that things are desperately wrong but who are merely fidgeting at the discomfort or proposing 'destruction'. Bresson's view is perhaps the very antithesis of Jean-Luc Godard's in La Chinoise (1967) (also about radical students) which suggests that even misguided action is preferable to no action. In The Devil, Probably the group is united in the understanding that political action without a clear purpose is stupid.
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The protagonist of The Devil, Probably is however only Charles and it gives us glimpses of his attempts at finding a solution – as much for the world as for himself. Youth meetings, student discussions with Catholic priests, an encounter with a psychiatrist and an attempt at rehabilitating a drug addict. The general sense we get of Charles is of someone restless but reaching an impasse in nearly every path he takes either politically or personally. In the meeting of slogan-shouting radical students, for instance, he mutters ‘idiots’ in the middle of a tirade from the platform and leaves, quickly followed by the other three. Bresson’s film seems to be made in some strange visual shorthand - and in one or two sequences the dialogue sounds as though in-between sentences had been deliberately omitted. This, I propose, is a quick way of suggesting the deadening monotony of intellectual arguments. The paths in ‘crucial’ debates concerning mankind’s survival are so unwavering that the activist-thinker has scarcely any liberty to step outside. The ‘in-between’ lines of dialogue, not being especially significant, are therefore deliberately omitted.
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When these 'debates' or 'protestations' are interspersed with footage of the world depleting itself furiously, the spectator catches the despair of a young man gradually discovering that he is only toying with an elaborate system of futile words and gestures while the world apparently signified by them is winding down unequivocally. To make matters worse everyone is implicated in the relentless march. Michel, for instance, is employed in a road construction project cutting through a forest being decimated. So, perhaps, is every object, and even the items in Alberte's refrigerator cannot protest their innocence. There will be no revolution, someone asserts, because it is too late. To the question of who or what is responsible for all this, a commuter on a bus replies, "The Devil, probably."
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That Charles is going to take his life is never in doubt because his death is announced in a newspaper at the start and the rest of the film is related in flashback. Charles, even while being mothered by the two devoted girls, is only debating about what exit he should take - drowning in the bath tub seems very difficult and one has too many misgivings about pulling the actual trigger. The best way is perhaps to pay someone needing money to shoot him from behind, which is what Charles does - after getting a last shot of cognac at a late night cafť.
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Mouchette, A Gentle Woman and The Devil, Probably are all about people who kill themselves but we see a gradual change in the way Bresson approaches suicide. The difference between the suicides in Mouchette and The Devil, Probably is that Mouchette takes her own life almost out of rage at her own condition and it is an act of rebellion. We are never in doubt about Mouchette’s motives because we have been made privy to her condition. Charles in The Devil, Probably (like the Girl in A Gentle Woman) is more mysterious in his actual motives. The suicide sequence does not focus upon Charles but concludes in silence with his killer walking away. Charles getting someone to kill him also means that with a person present there is no speculation about Bresson’s faith an omniscient eye.
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The Devil, Probably shares a characteristic with A Gentle Woman that we do not detect in the early films. Where the early films - in black and white - are given to the travails of single protagonists the later films are more complex in as much as they deal with relationships and/or external preoccupations. Bresson appears to make a shift from interiority to behavior as if more conscious of the impossibility of ‘knowing’ people and understanding their motivations. Also, while interiority can be explored cinematically through private gestures perceptible only to the camera, behavior is manifested only in relationships and exchanges. It is significant that where Bresson’s protagonists are often caught ruminating alone in the early films, they appear only in ‘transactions’ in the later ones. What Bresson shows us in Diary of a Country Priest and A Condemned Man Escapes he keeps out of our reach in A Gentle Woman and The Devil, Probably and our inferences are more tentative.
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L’Argent (1983)
The Devil, Probably is uncharacteristically political for a film by Bresson. It may have caused discomfort at the time – still given to radical optimism - because very little has been written about it. While its bleak view of civilization seems more valid today than other more optimistic tracts of the 1970s, the political-documentary side of the film tends to overbalance the Bressonian side and I am not sure that Charles is one of the filmmaker’s more successful creations. Perhaps Bresson’s own moral preoccupations induce him to identify with Charles in some way. After The Devil, Probably, however, Bresson made his last film, possibly the most mysterious film in his entire career, L’Argent, based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy.
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In L’Argent a forged currency note is passed by two boys to a photographer, who passes it – with full knowledge and along with a few others - to Yvon, who drives an oil tanker. Yvon is caught passing them and is judged guilty when the photographer and his wily assistant Lucien deny knowledge either of him or of the forged notes. Since Yvon loses his job and is hard-up he is easily talked into driving the getaway car in a robbery. Up to this point the film is laying the foundation for what is to follow because the film is primarily about Yvon’s fate.
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The first sequence involving Yvon's conscious descent into crime begins with Yvon waiting in his getaway car. We don't get to see the robbery and Bresson catches the action entirely from the periphery - some plainclothesmen with guns behind parked cars, police cars patrolling the street. The actual 'action' is seen from so far away that it is barely recognizable as a robbery. Yvon only knows that he has been engaged to do something illegal but has not troubled himself with the details. In court he has little to say and is sentenced to three years. Bresson also gives us a brief glimpse of Yvon as a husband and a father. While Yvon can barely keep away from his little daughter Yvette, he has few words for his anxious wife Elise. He is led away even before Elise can get a clear sense of what is happening.
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Bresson shows Yvon’s entry into prison in his characteristic shorthand. A prison van backing into a yard, the rear door opening and three pieces of luggage being deposited outside, three handcuffed prisoners descending one by one, each one picking up a piece and being led away. The sequence involving Yvon’s only meeting with Elise is also unembellished – prisoners in single file receiving numbered tokens corresponding to the window at which their loved one’s wait, Yvon having nothing to ask except about Yvette but Elise saying nothing.
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The next few segments dealing with Yvon in prison are among the most poignant in Bressons films. They commence with letters being brought in to be sorted out and read before they are sent to the prisoners. One letter is from Elise and addressed to Yvon. Elise reveals that their daughter Yvette is dead from diphtheria but that she couldn't bring herself to reveal this when she met Yvon. This is cut to the letter lying on the stone floor and a hand reaching for it. We soon see that Elise's letter is being studied by Yvon's cellmates. Yvon is shown to be lying face down on his bed and the letter is the apparent reason for his distress. One of the prisoners murmurs wisely that we value life because death is always near and the two comfort themselves with some liquor hidden in the mattress.
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Bresson has already dealt with imprisonment in A Condemned Man Escapes but its portrayal here is different. Where the earlier film dwelt partly on the camaraderie between prisoners, L’Argent is about the crushing nature of confinement. Yvon’s letters to Elise are retuned unopened and the biggest blow is her two line letter telling him that she will not see him again and that she is beginning life anew. When news of this letter gets around the other prisoners’ comments infuriate him, he is forced into an outburst, and the consequence is solitary confinement. Bresson inserts a resplendent moment in the segment dealing with the solitary confinement - which culminates in Yvon’s attempted suicide. We hear a grating noise issuing from Yvon’s cell, a guard peering through a keyhole and entering to talk to him. The noise ceases briefly and then starts up once again. This time Bresson shows us Yvon lying on his bed and staring up at the ceiling while his left hand aimlessly drags a metal cup to and fro on the stone floor. Sensing that he may need to be pacified the guard returns with a sedative that Yvon puts into his mouth. When the guard leaves Yvon pulls it out and adds it to the small pile of pills he has already collected. Yvon does not die from the pills but is discharged when his term is completed.
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Yvon’s first act after he leaves prison is to check in at a shabby hotel and kill the proprietor and his wife. Bresson shows us Yvon washing his hands and tinted water flowing into the drain. He is shown buttoning his trousers and it is apparent that he has also raped the proprietor’s wife. The ostensible motive is robbery but Yvon finds little money in the safe.
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I earlier described L’Argent as ‘mysterious’ and the reason I did so is that there is little provided in terms of motive for Yvon’s conduct after his release. His killing of the couple in the hotel is perhaps simply a means to stop the noise going on in his head. After the act Yvon finds shelter with a grey-haired elderly woman who lives with her alcoholic musician father and her sister’s family. She is a widow with no one else except them and she does all the work in the household. She is accepting when Yvon reveals his killing of the two in the hotel. Bresson, of course, keeps the drama in this revelation off-screen but the widow acts normally and Yvon continues to stay in a small shack on her land, although her father resents Yvon’s presence. Yvon and the widow don’t have much to communicate but there is a bond growing between them and Yvon asks her why she is willing to undergo such drudgery when she is ill-treated. At the climax Yvon kills the woman and the rest of the family – including a handicapped child – with an axe and surrenders to the police.
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My rendering of the story of L’Argent is faithful in the sense that the effort has been to stay away from questions pertaining to Yvon’s psychology. I have also not paid attention to the story of Lucien the photographer’s assistant who embarks upon a series of frauds, becomes rich and a philanthropist, and announces his ‘philosophy’ in court when tried. Lucien meets Yvon in prison but is whisked off to a high-security prison when he tries to break out and we don’t hear of him thereafter. It is difficult to say what the story of Lucien is doing in L’Argent but it could help us understand Yvon. Lucien and Yvon are not alike because Lucien is smart while Yvon is unthinking and impulsive. But the same act of deceit turns both the perpetrator (Lucien) and the victim (Yvon) into committing acts of which they might otherwise have been incapable and both Yvon and Lucien are eventually destroyed.
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Bresson is rarely schematic but we can perhaps see why Lucien’s story is necessary to the film. Without Lucien, it can be argued, Yvon emerges as a victim and his conduct after his release would become too bizarre - our immediate response might be to grant him absolution but that would be too difficult, given the horrific nature of what he has done. Moreover, with Lucien joining him at the ‘bottom’, society’s unfairness is no longer the issue and the film cannot be read as social criticism. This forces us to attach other meanings to Yvon’s conduct.
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Yvon is imprisoned for being in the periphery of criminality and his being in the 'periphery' of things has perhaps a clue for us. He does not conceal his murder of the two in the hotel from the widow and we may presume that he is not driven by the instinct for self-preservation. The widow is aware of the risk in sheltering him but still does so. When Yvon goes up to her room at the climax, she does not look surprised and only waits. Judging from his conversation with her, his killing of the widow is perhaps intended as a release but Yvon does not stop there. He kills the others as well and 'looks for money'.
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The manner in which Yvon is accidentally driven into a life of crime determines only the initial thrust of the film. Yvon begins as a victim of circumstances and the break-up of his family also pushes him into despair but at this point, something happens to him. Here again the contrast with Lucien is instructive because while Lucien retains his panache even in prison, Yvon seems to be conscious of his own insignificance, his own position in the 'periphery' as it were. An inner change apparently occurs and Yvon perhaps decides that he is not worthy of the moral life. When he kills subsequently, it is perhaps less for gain than to confirm the moral depths to which he can sink. It may therefore not be quite correct to describe Yvon as 'evil' and he seems, rather, to be simply bent on renouncing 'the kingdom of Heaven' because he is unworthy of it. His killing of the widow follows an indication that he feels for her and one wonders if he sees this tendency toward the good as unbecoming of his 'true' self. Yvon has earlier discovered that there is no money in the house but he not only demands it of the woman but also axes her before she can respond; the perfunctory demand enables him to sink even lower and that is perhaps its essential purpose.
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L’Argent has a strange closing that has not been written about. Yvon surrenders to the police in a café and this arouses the curiosity of the bystanders. When he is led out in handcuffs there a huge crowd outside waiting to see him but, curiously enough, the crowd keeps looking into the café even after he has been led out - as if the real drama is still to happen, i.e. the man already led out by the police is too ordinary to be at the centre of such drama. Yvon, who has been on the periphery remains, in effect, on the periphery despite the conspicuous nature of his acts.
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Conclusion
L'Argent is not enigmatic by design and this interpretation of Yvon's conduct is not invited by Bresson who is content with Pascal's dictum: 'The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of' (23) but my interpretation is not 'psychological' in the accepted sense. Psychology - of which Bresson is distrustful - manifests itself in transactions and interpersonal behavior. Yvon's personal sense of insignificance - as I have argued - is not in relation to other men. While Lucien's self-worth stems from his belief in his superiority Yvon's unworthiness is metaphysical and even religious because it is directed at a moral order not controlled by a human agency. To phrase it differently, Yvon's condition is less psychological than spiritual. While it may appear contradictory for me to describe Bresson as an unbeliever and still invoke religion in my arguments, Bresson is perhaps an 'unbeliever' in the sense that he sees no possibility of God outside Man. With mankind eventually destroying itself, God himself would also be dead. Bresson's protagonists are often driven by belief - or lack of it - but this does not mean that he shares the beliefs. This view, I would argue, is still different from that of Catholic critics who, because they treat his films as illustrating doctrine, turn Bresson into a religious polemicist.
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In studying Bresson’s career I divided his output into two distinct phases corresponding to black and white and color because I detected differences in Bresson’s approach in the two phases. The early films are simpler in as much as they are about struggles – against lack of faith in Diary of a Country Priest and for freedom in A Condemned Man Escapes. Of course this way of identifying cinema is much too broad because every WWII film from Hollywood is about a Manichaean ‘struggle’. Still, Bresson has hardly distinguished himself by the singularity of his themes and the categorization is only intended to differentiate within his oeuvre. Bresson’s color films show more interest in character/ relationships than the early ones but, as I have already noted, this is prefigured by his last two films in black and white: Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette. While ‘struggle’ is still a key notion in these two films (24) it disappears altogether in A Gentle Woman and the later films are also bleaker. In his Notes on Cinematography Bresson writes against the use of music but it is only beginning with A Gentle Woman that his films completely eschew background scores – which may be regarded as manipulating the emotions to certain ends. It is difficult to speculate on the reasons for the change in Bresson’s approach partly because so little is known about his life; his psychology – like those of his characters - must remain opaque. But it is as though the early films had some faith in the transformative power of cinema that was suddenly lost by the time Bresson made A Gentle Woman.
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One of the corner-stones of film appreciation is the auteur theory which was first annunciated by Francois Truffaut (25). The first value-determining premise of the auteur theory is that the distinguishable personality of the director is a criterion of value. Over a group of films, an auteur must exhibit recurrent characteristics of style which serve as his signature. The second important and even ultimate premise is concerned with 'interior meaning', which is not quite the director's vision of the world or his/ her personal beliefs about life. It is, rather, the 'tension' between the director's personality and his material and manifests itself in a certain attitude brought to bear on his/ her subject matter. Although Bresson is hailed as an auteur, he was not taken up with a 'personal vision' but only with being 'true to nature'. Even his 'signature style' is not an expression of his personality - like Fellini's for instance - but devised deliberately to achieve his purpose. Bresson was a humanist like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the insights that emerge from his films are not private discoveries but familiar truths. Perhaps Bresson's greatest achievement was that he devised a rigorous method that emptied these familiar truths of clichť and made them unfamiliar once more.
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Notes/ References
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1.
Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, (trans) Richard Miller, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974, pp4-6.(Back to Main Story)
2.
For a celebrated instance of the hostility of theorists to the pleasure of cinema, see Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", from Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp 833-844. (Back to Main Story)
3.
Peter Wollen, “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent D’Est”, from Leo Braudy, Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, pp 499-507. (Back to Main Story)
4.
Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981, pp 145 -164. (Back to Main Story)
5.
Dudley Andrew, Concepts in Film Theory, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984, pp130-1.(Back to Main Story)
6.
Term used by David Bordwell, Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, pp264. (Back to Main Story)
7.
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, from A Susan Sontag reader, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982, pp 95-104. (Back to Main Story)
8.
James S Williams, The Rhythms of Life: An Appreciation of Michelangelo Antonioni, Extreme Aesthete of the Real, Film Quarterly, Fall, 2008, Vol. 62. No.1. (Back to Main Story)
9.
See (http://www.girishshambu.com/blog/2009/07/building-large-conversation.html) the posting entitled 'Building a Large Conversation' and dated 13th July, 2009 on Girish Shambu's eponymous blog. (Back to Main Story)
10.
As if "by studying movies and TV shows one could purportedly contribute to political struggles on behalf of the disadvantaged." David Bordwell, "Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory," in David Bordwell, NoŽl Carroll (eds.) Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, p 11. (Back to Main Story)
11.
To state it very simply the post-colonial reading of The Heart of Darkness discovers colonial discourse in Conrad's novel in which Africa - instead of being acknowledged as an actual political space populated by people with a history - becomes a convenient metaphor for the 'darkness' in the white protagonist's heart.(Back to Main Story)
12.
To get a rough sense of what is routine in the writing on Bresson's films see Senses of Cinema, Robert Bresson by Alan Pavelin.
http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/bresson.html (Back to Main Story)
13.
Noel Carroll, Prospects for Film Theory, from David Bordwell, NoŽl Carroll (eds.) Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, p 43. (Back to Main Story)
14.
Susan Sontag, Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson, from A Susan Sontag reader, pp 121-136. (Back to Main Story)
15.
'Cinematography' to Bresson is not simply operating the camera but the most important element in cinema. Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, New York: Urizen Books, Inc. 1977. (Back to Main Story)
16.
See MK Raghavendra, The World as Narrative: Jacques Rivette at Eighty, www.phalanx.in , Issue No. 2. (Back to Main Story)
17.
Jorge Luis Borges, Paradiso XXXI, 108, from A Personal Anthology, (trans. Anthony Kerrigan), New York: Grove Press, 1967, p176. (Back to Main Story)
18.
This refers to a celebrated trial scene in The Trial of Joan of Arc. (Back to Main Story)
19.
Unlike Eistenstein and Pudovkin who were also theorists but whose films are easily understood, Bresson is a difficult filmmaker and the intention behind his filmmaking is far from apparent. Eisenstein and Pudovkin's writing was intended to explain cinema. Bresson's Notes on Cinematography helps us to understand only his cinema. (Back to Main Story)
20.
David Bordwell, Film Art: An Introduction, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1993, pp 52-54. (Back to Main Story)
21.
David Bordwell, The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice, from Leo Braudy, Marshall Cohen (eds.) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp 716-724. (Back to Main Story)
22.
Of course the meaning of 'religious' will always be disputed but I take it to mean belief in the existence of a God who is aware. Films that subscribe to this belief usually have views associated with specific religions. A 'cinema without religion' cannot be equated with a 'materialist cinema' or a 'rationalist cinema' because one may disbelieve in an aware and just God, but also disbelieve that the answers provided by materialism are final. (Back to Main Story)
23.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was an influential mathematician and religious philosopher. Robert Bresson was an admirer of Pascal, who he regarded as 'for everyone' - as I have characterized Bresson himself, instead of for only Roman Catholics. (Back to Main Story)
24.
While Mouchette clearly deals with a girl's struggle Au Hasard Balthasar may present a problem because neither the girl nor the donkey appear to be engaged in a 'struggle' as we understand it. Still, the optimism of the ending has us wondering - whether optimism could exist unless there was an implied struggle of some kind. What could a filmmaker be 'optimistic' about except the conclusion of a struggle? (Back to Main Story)
25.
See Andrew Sarris, Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962, from Leo Braudy, Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, pp 515-535. (Back to Main Story)
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M.K.Raghavendra is the Founder-Editor of Phalanx
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