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Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film
Joseph Cunneen
New York & London: Continuum, 2003.
$29.95,199 pages, ISBN 0-8264-1471-0

Nicolas Magenham
Université de Paris I - Panthéon Sorbonne


Joseph Cunneen is the co-founder and was the editor of the international quarterly Cross Currents. He has also published studies on filmmakers such as Kieslowski and Eric Rohmer, among others.

In his introduction to Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film, Cunneen complains about the fact that Bresson is "largely unknown to the majority of American moviegoers." It is true that only a few books on Bresson were published in the United States, and despite the imperfection of Cunneen's work, his book is a salutary event in the American editorial world. As a consequence, Cunneen sometimes directly addresses his American readers who could be bewildered by this or that aspect of Bresson's work. For example, in The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne [Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 1945], Cunneen warns his American readers about the fact that Bresson does not blatantly draw attention to the importance of the class distinctions that are supposed to be a significant element of the story.

Of course, Cunneen points out Bresson's trademark direction idiosyncrasies: his meticulousness as regards sound mixing or the special way he coached his actors (or rather his "models," as he called them). His precise use of natural sounds is constantly praised by Cunneen, throughout the book. Nevertheless, Cunneen does not relate the improbable meeting between Bresson and the co-producer of Lancelot of the Lake [Lancelot du Lac, 1974]: the French popular actor and satirist Jean Yanne. The latter also helped Bresson do the sound mixing of the film, and after this uncommon experience, Yanne liked making fun of Bresson's excessive meticulousness and the fact that, for instance, they spent three days searching for the perfect sound for the scraping of a poker seized by a character in one particular scene.

Bresson's relationships with his actors were rather unusual too. They are well exemplified by his experience with the incomparable actress Maria Casarès, who was The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne's protagonist. Beside being exhausted by her gruelling work conditions (during part of the shooting of The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, she was also on the stage daily, performing in a play), Maria Casarès blamed Bresson for wanting to be in control of everything. Cunneen quotes Casarès's definitive pronouncement on Bresson: "On the set he was a genuine tyrant [...] He murdered us so sweetly, so politely [...] When we entered the studio we abandoned everything that could resemble a life of our own, a personal will, in order to drag before our sweet tyrant-for he was extremely sweet-a body, hands, and a voice that he had chosen" [quoted in Sémolué, Bresson ou l'acte pur des Métamorphoses, 1993]. So things did not go as smoothly as one might have hoped, and the unfortunate experience led Bresson to stop hiring stars and to set up his own actors' direction method. It is rather ironic, moreover, that Bresson controlled Casarès like a puppet, just as her character controls the other characters like puppets in the film.

In fact, throughout his career, Bresson kept searching for a sense of restraint and "naturalness," and not only as far as the acting of his leading ladies and leading men was concerned. For example, Cunneen notes that in A Man Escaped [Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, 1956], "music is restricted to a leitmotif of chords from Mozart's Mass in C minor, which are heard at several points during the action" [p. 61]. Doing that, Bresson departed from his use of the tremendous composer Jean-Jacques Grünewald's music, which heightened Bresson's earlier films. Bresson's sense of restraint also manifested itself in the way he suggested information or ideas, or in the way he eliminated what was not really useful for the film. By the way, that is the reason why his films are so short: The Trial of Joan of Arc, for instance, only lasts sixty-five minutes. Just like the first filmmakers in the history of cinema--who had to tell Genesis or the life of Queen Elisabeth I in the ten minutes that it took a reel to unroll--Bresson tells his stories condensing his ideas as much as he can. The fact that Bresson favors image over word is another piece of evidence of his being significantly indebted to silent movies.

Although Cunneen's study of Bresson's films is quite pleasant to read, well-researched and academic in tone, it is not quite as riveting as the work of more inspired exegetes he himself evokes and quotes, such as Jean Pelegri or Louis Malle. The latter's explication of the construction of Pickpocket [1959] in Pascalian terms is very appealing, and contrasts with Cunneen's more classical analyses:

The film opens with a blinding experience of Evil ('My heart seemed to burst') and ends with the blinding experience of Good ('My heart beat violently'). Between these two carefully identified extremes, the hero is in the grip of the two Pascalian dangers, despair and pride. [p. 82]

Nevertheless, Cunneen's book makes one as eager to delve into Bresson's work again as Malle's words.

To conclude, even though Cunneen's style is not as daring as Bresson's style, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film constitutes a fine introduction to the French filmmaker's work--and not only for American moviegoers who are not familiar with him!

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