Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Increasingly I am finding disjunction as a means of producing a transcendent vision highlighted in the cinema of Robert Bresson. A recent viewing of his 1951 adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel, Diary of a Country Priest has strengthened my perception of this Bressonian strategy.

One of the more notable qualities of Bresson’s films beginning with Country Priest and extending throughout his career, is the largely stoic, even blank look of the actors. For many used to traditional Hollywood emoting, this can be off-putting. However, through this “oddity” in his films, Bresson creates an invitation for the viewer to look more closely, to see beyond just the face and behold the person.

Such an approach to the acting, along with certain distinctive visual choices, presents an interesting case study of disjunction in Bresson’s world. Nearly halfway through Country Priest, a film which tracks the travails of a young priest in his first parish, the titular character receives the shocking news that the local countess has died. The priest had a significant, positive spiritual encounter with this woman just prior to receiving this news, one where he blessed her with peace, his raised hand falling to her lowered head, where he made the sign of the cross over her. and he visits her home twice the day after her death.

The priest then visits her home twice the day after her death. Each of the two visits, which appear back to back, open with a brief look at the priest’s journal. In the first, he writes in the present moment, recording simply that the woman has died, thereby introducing the whole sequence. However, the rest of the dialogue in the sequence—including another brief appearance of the journal between the two home visits—is in the past tense. After an initial moment in the present then, the rest of the action follows the priest’s writing about past events. This structural disjunction prepares the way for similar contrasts in both the visual approach and the acting of these scenes.

Bresson displays the first visit in a single shot, the camera placed on the near side of the bed at the headboard and zooming in on the priest as the camera follows him to the right. The man enters the countess’ room, stops at the foot of the bed, blesses her with raised hand, and then kneels. At this moment, the camera tracks back toward its original position, leaving the priest alone in prayer before the bed.

When the priest arrives in the room for the second time that day, Bresson again displays the visit in a single shot, the camera this time placed on the far side of the bed. The priest enters the room, stands at the footboard bookended by two candles, and silently prays. He then walks around to the far side of the bed and kneels into a close-up. In this case, the camera remains near the priest rather than pulling away, as it did during his first visit. The priest pulls back the muslin cover over the woman’s face, touches her forehead with his hand, gets up and walks out.

Clearly these two shots are a pair—taking place in the same room, shot in the same style, and involving the same key movements. The slight differences between the scenes bring interest to the character and highlight his tenuous situation in the film. A quick comparison might help break down the differences between these scenes:

First Visit

  • Camera placed near the priest
  • Empty room
  • Expresses himself with priestly function
  • Kneeling, prayerful act in wide shot
  • Shot ends with him kneeling 

Second Visit

  • Camera placed away from the priest
  • Room filled with guests
  • Expresses a personal loss
  • Kneeling, prayerful act in extreme close-up
  • Shot ends when he leaves the room

While the camera spends more time nearer (either by proximity or zoom) the priest in the first visit, the scene remains impersonal and abstract. He performs his priestly duty by blessing her and praying. However, before he arrives in the room for the second visit, he acknowledges the presence of a priest already there in an official capacity. This presents an opportunity for a more personal visit. Bresson keeps the camera further from him to begin, a distancing effect that seems to objectivize the moment. However, when the priest unexpectedly (at least based on his actions in the previous scene) moves directly toward the camera and kneels at the woman’s side, the situation is no longer a distant action. Here in extreme close-up, the priest once again raises his hand. But instead of blessing the countess as he did in his first visit, he brushes her face with his fingers. The moment feels intimate in a way reminiscent of his moment of blessing the countess earlier in the film—a moment she told him brought her a deep and abiding peace. And clearly, that previous encounter is on his mind, as he reminisces about ministering to her a peace he himself did not have—the miracle of empty hands, as he calls it.

The stoic figure of the priest throughout these sequences, up to and including the emotional encounter at the end of the second visit, stands at strong contrast with the words he speaks. This disjunction invites contemplation of the world within the frame. And the priest’s words suggest a world both in concert with and beyond that world within the frame. Bresson’s use of the close-up highlights this deeply personal moment. The priest’s actions through most of the sequence suggest strength and commitment to his duty as a priest. The priest’s actions at the end of the sequence suggest a deep struggle or sorrow. However, in the latter case, his face suggests nothing of the kind. In this contrast we begin to perceive hints of an unseen world of deep spiritual upheaval in the priest, an upheaval masked by his straightforward ways. This scene then is a Bressonian invitation to see the physical realm, and in seeing it clearly, to see beyond it.

Les anges du péché (1943)

Redemption stories are everywhere. Take a character down on her luck; watch her stagger through the mud of life for two hours; then rejoice as she comes out clean on the other side of her trials. Such stories are common because they reflect a deep desire in human beings to rise above the temporal cares and tribulations of life and grasp onto to something pure and real and true.

Filmmakers have been exploring and capitalizing on this universal human desire since the cinematic medium was invented. But few have explored redemption with as much formal interest, and, in certain cases, rigor, as Robert Bresson did in his first feature, Les anges du péché (The Angels of Sin).

The story follows a group of nuns as they bring two new members, Anne-Marie and Thérèse, into their family. This particular community of nuns specializes in serving imprisoned women while they are in prison, and offering them a place in the convent when they are freed. Anne-Marie comes to the sisters from a bourgeois life. With no prison in her background, she stands apart from most of the nuns. Thérèse on the other hand, begins the film as the most feared inmate in the prison. Only through Anne-Marie, an instrument of grace in the film, does Thérèse finally find her redemption. What makes Bresson’s film both interesting and excellent is not in his choice of tales, but rather in how he executes this telling of that old redemption story.

Undergirding Anne-Marie’s redemptive function is a maxim she receives, the maxim being a short quotation that each nun will seek to embody throughout the year. Anne-Marie’s maxim comes from Catherine of Siena, who wrote, “If you hear the word that ties you to another human being, do not listen to any others that follow—they are merely its echo.” The redemption in Les anges du péché only occurs when, as in the quote from Catherine, one person is tied to another. Redemption requires identification and union. Bresson illustrates these requirements in numerous ways throughout the film, but one scene stands out from among the rest (at least until the ending, which I won’t give away here, but which certainly underlines and continues what Bresson sets up in the following scene).

The scene in question takes place nearly halfway through the movie’s run time. The connection between Anne-Marie and Thérèse has already been established, the former somewhat pridefully, though genuinely, expressing her desire to raise up Thérèse from her lowly state. Only Thérèse has unexpectedly—at least as far as Anne-Marie is concerned—rejected the offer of help. Anne-Marie returns to the convent undaunted by this setback, and enters the chapel to pray that her desires will be fulfilled. The screen captures below offer a sense of the two shots following the close-up of Anne-Marie’s prayer, a wide shot of Anne-Marie bowing to pray in the chapel, and a well-designed tracking shot of Thérèse in a hallway, on her way to kill the man who wronged her.

Bresson’s mise-en-scene connects these two women beautifully. The echo of the banister in the first shot appears in shadow in the second. This visual element sets up the tension between the women, at once connecting and distinguishing the women. Could the use of shadow in the second shot indicate that Thérèse’s state is somehow lesser than Anne-Marie’s? Bresson heightens the contrast between the women by the difference in setting, rich and comfortable in the former, barren and stark in the latter. Yet even with this contrast, Bresson manages, at the same time to frame it with an underlying unification between the women, as Thérèse moves into the stairwell to occupy the exact space in the frame that Anne-Marie occupied in the previous shot.

At once distinct from and identified with one another, Anne-Marie and Thérèse occupy drastically different places in their lives, though despite that, their fates are inextricably linked one to another. Bresson makes this formal connection in the most significant scene of the movie (at least until the ending), the scene that will determine the ultimate fate of both of these women, a moment of life and death. Redemption will ultimately occur through this union, and because of it. In this darkest of moments for Thérèse, she shares a deep connection with Anne-Marie, even if, at this point, Thérèse has not reciprocated. In this brief sequence, we see a prayer being answered; we see the deep meaning of Christian love and concern for another person; and we see grace on the move, even as a woman guns down another human being. Both the mystery and the clarity of redemption are on full display in these two shots—a microcosm of the entire film, and of life.

A Man Escaped (1956)

Susan Sontag, in her essay, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” argues that “All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty.” A Man Escaped develops this theme more explicitly than in any other of his works, making it the best entry point into Bresson’s oeuvre.

The film details the imprisonment of a Free French rebel in World War II and typical of Bresson’s style, it contains lengthy sections of wordless action—the prisoner Fontaine plotting escape alone in his cell, leaving his cell for a meal, or waiting in line to dump his waste bucket. Bresson punctuates these scenes with evocative sound; the intense focus on physical and mundane tasks compels the viewer to look within the characters to understand.

But there Bresson places a second roadblock. In A Man Escaped, as in all of his films after Les Dames du Boulogne, the actors do not emote. Blank looks and unemotional responses populate the characters in the prison. Bresson resists the temptation to allow his characters to explain their deepest feelings and motivations. Such psychological speculation is simply out of the question.

By making these kinds of stylistic choices, Bresson drives the viewer to grapple with the spiritual realities of the narrative. In other words, as the main story focuses on the mundane, leaving the characters opaque, Bresson invites the viewer into spiritual contemplation. Rather than dictating particular thoughts or feelings to the audience, A Man Escaped opens a space for the viewer to interact and engage with the profound mysteries of human life, of our desire for freedom, and of the presence of God amid our struggles.

Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

Robert Bresson’s 1962 version of this famous historical event, based entirely on the minutes from the trial, provides a claustrophobic, reverent, and surprisingly brisk walk through significant moments in Joan’s final days. Clocking in at a mere 61 minutes, Bresson’s frequent cuts make the film feel even faster than it is. Constantly the camera cuts away from Joan to those scrutinizing her, and then back again. Some look upon her with sympathetic eyes, though most feel little beyond disdain for her, most often, it seems, for political, rather than exclusively religious reasons. This way of shooting and editing the piece serves to heighten Joan’s alienation from those around her.

The trial tends to focus on religious elements, which makes sense, since Joan was tried by an ecclesiastical court, headed by the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon. However, there was far more in play here beyond a simple theological dispute. Joan, having been involved in what amounts to a civil war in 15th century France, had been captured by the Burgundians and sold to their English allies. It was under these inauspicious circumstances that the trial was conducted. Bresson cleverly highlights the political nature of the trial with brief scenes before and after the day’s proceedings or in and around Joan’s cell. The bulk of the action takes place in the courtroom – a theologically driven question and answer between judges and accused that sees Joan fielding questions from at least three different men who often attempt to trip her up with their adroit queries.

Most interesting about the film is Bresson’s focus on the physicality of his characters. In typical Bresson fashion, he focuses his camera on the bodies of his actors, especially their hands and feet. The opening shot of the film pictures the walking feet of three people (including Joan’s mother), on their way to Joan’s rehabilitation trial some 25 years after her death. Once there, Joan’s mother is held up by the hands of monks on either side of her. As she’s turned away from the camera, reading a prepared piece about Joan, those helping hands are the most notable elements in the shot.

Contrast that opening sequence with the film’s conclusion, as Joan makes the long walk to her place of execution. Bresson refuses to point the camera at her face, preferring instead to show her bare feet, in a continuous shot, walking along the broken stone. In this sequence, the feet of many onlookers stand in the background, one of whom even sticks his foot out to trip her (in case one wondered if they had any pity for her). Then, as Joan is being consumed by flames, Bresson shoots part of the scene from behind, where we see her hands, chained to the post, reach out in pain. Joan’s naked feet and chained hands are quite a contrast from the clothed feet and soft hands of the intro.

Yet, even in that most difficult moment when Joan is so alone, those naked feet are a marked contrast from her chained feet throughout the trial. Consider the first time she is brought back to her room. The guard chains her foot to the immovable beam as Joan weeps at the edge of the bed. She is captive, with no sign it will end. Yet as the film concludes, and Joan makes that long walk over the stony path, her feet, while naked and accompanied only by a dangling cross, are free as they move toward impending death. There is a courage in those bare feet, a courage that evokes the one to whom she serves and entrusts herself.

A Man Escaped (1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist style is in full force for A Man Escaped. However, even as I throw that term “minimalist” around, I wonder if it isn’t somewhat misleading. Without a doubt, A Man Escaped is one of the more exciting and arresting films out there. What Bresson is doing though is clear: by keeping the action confined to the perspective of the prisoner Fontaine, he in many ways shuts out the world beyond. It is through the absence of any knowledge of the outside world, the absence of any kind of context, the absence even of the faces of most of the German officers, that the confinement of Fontaine encroaches upon us as viewers.Yet the tension slowly builds. Bresson uses the sound and music to his advantage here. We get the soft sounds of the passing trolley train. We get the loud scraping as he jostles his door. We get the crunching of glass, the scraping of iron, and the tapping of neighbors, all of which serve to break the deafening silence. However, this becomes most apparent just as the escape begins. Fontaine and Jost have just ascended to the roof, and the use of the whistle and the moving train in this sequence make the tension nearly unbearable.

Bresson’s most ingenious move may be with his use of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The music seems to always break in either during or right around periods of movement for Fontaine – going to and from his cell, in the courtyard, etc. There is a freedom associated with music, something about it that is untamed, that cannot be contained. It works well when it shows up.

There are also a number of theological ideas running through the film, though on this viewing I was less attuned to those bits of dialogue and was rather focused on the rhythms of the film, the music, and the sound. This being my second viewing, I was definitely more emotionally engaged than before, when I admired but did not feel strongly about the film. The second viewing was a great improvement, as I expected it would be. No doubt a third will continue that trend.