TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1976

Robert Bresson’s Austere Vision

WITH ROBERT BRESSON, THE PLACE to begin is a detail, one as small and irreducible as possible. Near the end of Diary of a Country Priest (1950), for instance, the priest enters a café in Lille. He has come to this city from his poor village parish to have the stomach pain that afflicts him diagnosed (the diagnosis is cancer), and he has come into this café because he found himself unable to pray at the local church. As he sits alone in the room, he writes in the diary that has, through his voice-over recitations from it, served as the source for the film’s story. The woman who owns the café comes in to chat, mistaking the diary for a sermon, and absently throws a crumpled piece of paper into the stove. Although Bresson isolated it with a close-up, the piece of paper thrown into the stove seems almost an incidental detail. The close-up itself does, for that matter. Yet they disclose perhaps more about Bresson’s regard for this priest than any other single moment in the film.

The same discarding gesture, which is so casual here, is the central event of two earlier scenes and, through them, of the film as a whole. Both scenes involve the priest’s relations with the family of a count whose estate is in the priest’s parish. In the first scene the count’s daughter uses the priest’s confessional to proclaim her unrepented hatred of her father, and in the midst of her outburst the priest suddenly guesses blindly but rightly that she has a letter she plans to send her father denouncing him. Abandoning the role of confessor, the priest demands the letter from her and soon burns it, unopened, in his stove. In the second scene the priest calls on the countess at home and, again without solicitude, becomes the audience for another outburst of bitterness and grief. The cause of the countess’ despair is the death of a son, and at the height of her frenzy, she hurls a locket containing mementos of him into the fireplace. Where the priest earlier burns the letter wrested from this woman’s daughter, he now plunges his arm into the fire in order to retrieve the locket the woman has thrown away.

Like these two scenes, the one near the film’s end when the priest writes his diary in the café involves an act of confession. That is what a diary is, a confession. It is confession in its most private, personal, truthful form, and the priest’s capacity for such relentlessly private experience as the diary represents is what Bresson admired in him. Moreover, like an ancient relic which turns to dust the moment it is exhumed, the sort of truth this diary tells always turns to something disreputable when the eyes of the world fall upon it. Made public, its private sacrament looks profane. Unable to pray in church, where a pious attitude would be apparent, the priest instead prays in a café by keeping his diary. This unread testament is the only prayer he has. But the café owner misconstrues it for a rather slovenly practice of writing sermons, public declarations of faith, while tippling.

Like the crumpled paper when it hits the fire in the stove, the priest’s holiness is instantly consumed by misinterpretation when it is exposed to the café owner’s idle curiosity. The consequences of the earlier scene with the countess are very much the same, too, for it turns out that her daughter has eavesdropped on her conversation with the priest. The truth is that the priest’s faith finally breaks the countess’ habit of bitterness. She undergoes a kind of conversion in his company. But after she dies, her daughter relates the whole incident to the priest’s superiors in a way that causes him to be charged with misconduct. Thus is his ministry once again turned to ashes as soon as it becomes a public concern.

In effect the priest’s relationship with the countess disappears without its true content ever being known, just as the letter the priest takes from the countess’ daughter does earlier when he burns it. In a sense that first incident goes further than the other two. It suggests not just that goodness always remains unknown, but that actual concealment is a form of goodness and that expressing oneself is corrupting almost by its nature. The daughter is the only one in this film who always wants to make her feelings known. The malicious letter she wants to send to her father is typical. The priest’s heroism is to prevent what is hurtful from being said, as when he burns her letter, or simply to remain silent himself, as when he refuses to speak in his own defense against her charges to his superiors.

In the trials by fire of the two earlier scenes, the difference in the priest’s actions—committing the letter to the flames in the one scene while rescuing the locket from them in the other—is emblematic of the difference between the fates of the two women. The mother is saved while the daughter is not. Aside from this sign the fires give us, however, the difference between the two women is not apparent. Why one should respond to the priest and the other not, we cannot say. Except in the eyes of the priest, redemption is indistinguishable from damnation. Like the priest’s own goodness, salvation remains a hidden presence in the world. Appearing as the priest himself is about to die and reminding us of his earlier tribulations, then, the purgatorial fire in the stove at the café also reminds us of his saintliness, which is otherwise so unapparent.

By association with the two fires earlier, and the differing fates of the two women that those fires symbolize, the fire in the café stove prepares us as well for the priest’s dying words: “All is grace.” The difference between those two women is finally one of grace, and the grace Bresson would have us sense in the priest himself is his readiness to accept both his success with the countess and his failure with her daughter as being, equally, God’s will. The greatness of the priest lies in his ability to give himself over to the divine providence he calls “grace.” To submit to God and His grace in this way is the ultimate humility, for it requires the priest to endure the inexorable loneliness and isolation of being thought a failure by his fellow men. His parishioners have only condescension and contempt for him. Even his one friend, a fellow priest, has avuncular pity for him at best and, in yet another of those continuous misapprehensions of the meaning of his life, ends by thinking him an alcoholic. From his slogging endurance of all this, we understand that the priest accepts the invisibility in the world of his work, of his worth and of grace itself.

All of this is to say that Diary of a Country Priest is an exceptional film, one that deals affectingly with something movies almost never seem able to touch upon: the soul of man, the movement of the spirit within the rock. That crumpled paper thrown into the café stove and the shot containing this event are only momentary details, and I do not wish to exaggerate their contribution to the effect of the film. But beyond what has already been said, their singularity lies in the fact that they are practically the only details of Bresson’s film not taken right out of the Georges Bernanos novel on which the film is based.

Every Bresson adaptation has been extraordinarily faithful to the book on which it was based, but Diary is the most literal translation of them all. In an essay included in the collection What is Cinema?, the French critic André Bazin even went so far as to suggest that Bernanos would have taken more liberties with the novel than Bresson did. This is quite a claim, considering that Bernanos once rejected an adaptation written by the most renowned screen collaborators in France, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, because it was not close enough to his novel. Certainly Bresson’s script, which he wrote himself (as he has those for all nine films since Diary), is as close as conceivable to Bernanos’ fiction. Bresson’s film takes out some of Bernanos’ material, condensing the action of the novel in ways that a movie can scarcely help. But Bresson added virtually nothing, except the piece of paper tossed into the café stove.

This is not to say that Bresson’s film is a “faithful adaptation” in any of the usual senses. The film goes far beyond everything covered by that stock phrase, as the paper thrown into the café stove, the one place where the film departs from the novel, shows more clearly than anywhere else. A faithful adaptation is literal-minded. It takes the plot and dialogue from a novel exactly as it finds them. Bresson did that, of course, but in his scrupulous rekindling of the fires in the novel he took the imagery as well. What the fire he introduced into the café scene does is acknowledge that imagery in Bernanos’ novel and enhance its significance by extending it in the film. It adopts Bernanos’ values and intentions as well as adapting his story. More than mere adaptation, this is an act almost of submission to the imagination of another. It is for Bresson as an artist an act of self-effacement and self-abnegation comparable to the priest’s own.

The imagination to which Bresson was submitting was, to put the matter more accurately, not Bernanos’ so much as the priest’s. The source of the novel’s power over Bresson lay in its being a first-person narration. Through repeated shots of diary pages covered with the priest’s handwriting, Bresson took great care to preserve our sense that this is the priest’s own version of his life we are seeing. The film becomes in effect not a fiction film, but a documentary on the priest’s diary. The austere, monotonous look of the film results from its documentarist’s approach to the diary, which was for Bresson, as André Bazin put it, “a cold, hard fact, a reality to be accepted as it stands.” Because the diary became for Bresson the word made manifest, la parole originaire, it permitted him to use the techniques of realism to film the life of the spirit.

The result of Bresson’s adaptation of Bernanos’ novel offers a parallel to Joyce’s autobiography in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Bresson’s career as in Joyce’s, confession and diary-keeping crossed over from a religious experience to an esthetic one. The religious set the precedent for the esthetic. Having given over his imagination to Bernanos, Bresson emerged as an artist in his own right. Having lost himself in the spiritual life of the priest, he found his identity as a filmmaker in a way he had not done before. This is clear from his films before and after Diary, and it really does seem a paradox in which filmmaking for Bresson approached, as it were, a religious experience. From immersing himself in the character of the priest, he acquired an extraordinary insight into cinematic style.

I do not mean to suggest that Bresson’s style issues from Diary full-blown like Athena from the head of Zeus. Signs of it can be seen already in the preceding film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944). That film, based on a tale by Diderot, concerns a woman who, jilted by her lover, gets revenge through flinging at his head a girl everyone except him knows to be a whore. At the church where her lover is marrying this whore, the woman tells him the truth about her; and as the woman arrives gloating at the reception afterwards, her lover, too distraught now to face his guests, is driving off. At this point Bresson did something which is, in this film, peculiar. He cut to a point-of-view shot through the window in the car door so that the woman, standing beside the car smirking, is framed by the window. Then, as her ex-lover drives off, Bresson had her pass out of the frame to one side, leaving it, for a final moment, empty.

In later films a scene which ends with the frame vacant like this becomes one of the most distinctive features of Bresson’s style. But in this film it is still only a tentative and uncertain experiment. Bresson resorted to the car window as if he were uneasy that he needed some pretext for emptying the frame. In the films after Diary, he would let the camera stay where it was and simply have the characters leave the frame. He would no longer mask his perception in clumsy point-of-view shots as if it were the characters’ rather than his own. He would have courage enough of his convictions to do such shots on his own authority, having realized in Diary why the impulse to empty the frame came to him in the first place.

In Les Dames, he did not yet realize this. Despite its promise of the work to come, it is essentially a film about alienation. The point-of-view shot at the end does repeat an image of empty picture frames seen on the walls of the whore’s apartment earlier (the paintings having been hocked). But the real purpose of the shot through the car window is to fit into an imagery—a rather conventional one for the theme of alienation—in which characters are seen outside doorways, the windows of their rooms, etc. Although characters in Diary and subsequent films are often even more mean-spirited than in Les Dames, the theme is no longer alienation but its opposite. And in those later films, the evacuated frame comes to imply a fullness that we cannot see, rather than just the emptiness that we can.

As I said initially, the place to begin with Bresson is a detail. This is because the style that came out of Bresson’s experience making Diary concentrates on detail as no other filmmaker’s ever has. It is not that Bresson’s style is attentive to detail, nor are his films rich in detail and fretwork like some jewel-encrusted statue. On the contrary, detail counts for much in Bresson’s films because his style reduces human experience to nothing but a few details. Delimited more and more with each successive film, this style reached its most severe and rigorous form in Bresson’s 1961 feature Le Proces de Jeanne d’Arc.

To some of Bresson’s admirers this film goes too far. For example, at the end of an essay included in Against Interpretation—perhaps the best essay on Bresson besides Bazin’s—Susan Sontag apologized for Le Proces on the grounds that “a conception as ambitious as [Bresson’s] cannot help but have its extremism.” What a conception as ambitious as Bresson’s really cannot help, though, is needing time for us to get used to it. Like all truly original work, Bresson’s makes us uncomfortable at first. Ms. Sontag formed her opinion in 1964, when Le Proces was still Bresson’s most recent film. I wonder whether she would judge it so harshly now that she has lived with it longer. In Bresson’s case especially, it seems to me that if you accept the premises of his art, then you cannot balk at its ultimate conclusions. The intention to press this art toward some ultimate conclusion is already implicit in the premise itself. If you yield to the power of Diary, then I cannot see how you draw the line short of Le Proces. Bresson himself certainly could not have.

Like Diary, Le Proces begins with the word. In a preface to the film Bresson said, “Joan had no burial, and we do not have any portrait of her. But there remains for us something better than a portrait: her words before the judges of Rouen.” Le Proces, therefore, sets out from Joan’s testimony at her trial much as Diary does from the testament of the priest. Like Diary, too, Le Proces forges its spirituality out of those circumstances in it which seem most inimical to the spirit. It transforms alienation into affirmation and sacrament. It finds the model for its own art in the very way that the church persecuted its heroine.

That way, as Bresson perceived it, was to trivialize her faith. The film’s moments of greatest tension are those when the scratching of the clerks’ quills is the only sound to be heard and the only movement to be seen. This is how the word becomes an image in this film. The Church’s whole attack on Joan resolves itself into this eking out of a trial record against her. Thus does the film show Joan being driven to the stake by the subtlest increments of canon law imaginable. It is a process—due process—that receives its perfect summary image near the film’s end when Joan is at last being driven to the stake physically. A foot comes out of the crowd to trip her up, just as her judges have tried to do. But what is more humiliating, the shift she is to be burned in hobbles her feet so that she can take only tiny, mincing steps. They make it appear as if she were rushing to the stake.

Bresson’s entire film becomes the condensation of history into minutiae like those mincing footsteps. After Joan has told the judges at the beginning that she feels it her duty to try to escape, her cell door is sometimes left open just a crack, enough to be a provocation but not to let in any real hope. The judges repeatedly spy on Joan through a chink in her cell wall so small she does not realize it is there until a ray of light seeps through it one night. The sheer physical restraint her English jailers keep her under is simply noted in a shot where a heavy ankle chain she wears falls a few inches from a block of wood to her cell floor. Amidst this subtle violence, the only hand raised in her defense, literally, is the hand a young cleric sometimes moves to caution her against a devious question. But even the movement of that hand is only a febrile, fluttering gesture. The tracking of a quill, setting ajar of a door, covert gesturing of a hand, dropping down of a few links of chain—these are the events by which Joan’s whole world is defined.

It is perhaps already apparent how the process of reduction extends from the content of the film into its form—how the judges’ attempts to wear away Joan’s resistance carry with them a wearing away of all that is extraneous in cinematic style. Stripped of the illusion that there are momentous events, human experience becomes only a series of details, and limited to the depiction of such details, the scenes in the film often become a single, elliptical shot. Several scenes in Le Proces are only one line long, and two have no lines of dialogue at all. One of them simply fades in on Joan as she cries quietly to herself in her cell, and then fades out. The other shows two men meeting at the top of a stair and exchanging glances before each passes on his way.

In a style as restrictive as this, there is obviously no room for histrionics. Short, uneventful scenes afford scant opportunity for acting anyway, and Bresson’s direction reduces the opportunity further. His actors are made to deliver their lines as inexpressively as possible. Even their posture is rigidly determined, all characters walking with arms held down at their sides, backs stiff and torsos immobile. For the same reason that he does not permit acting, Bresson never employs stars. His whole effort is to do away with personality, both the sort an actor creates for a character and the sort a star creates for himself. In order to get at what is universal in human experience, Bresson eliminates everything that is individual or idiosyncratic in his characters.

Gradually in Le Proces we realize that what these stylistic restrictions and reductions are leading to is a total negation of Joan herself. Like the country priest, Joan is ultimately to be known to us by her absence. The whole purpose of the subtractive style Bresson evolved after Diary is to approach more nearly human spiritualization, and in Joan’s martyrdom this style finds its perfect story. Bressonian style combines with historical fact literally to eradicate Joan from existence. The entire film becomes an analogue for that most typical of all Bresson’s shots, where the camera lingers on empty space after the character has left the frame.

In this shot, especially as it is used whenever Joan leaves the courtroom in Le Proces, we see the character’s back receding as the emptiness fills in behind her. But in this film we also have a whole scene that anticipates in the same way, by focusing on Joan’s back, the emptiness that will occur in the film’s ending. It is a scene following an attempt, permitted the English by the Church, to molest Joan sexually. As the chief trial judge enters her cell, Joan sits with her back to him, and we see her that way too. The anonymity of this view reflects the way the Church has seen her in allowing her to be abused physically. But as always in Bresson, deprivation and depravity become the very occasion for the human spirit to manifest itself. The same anonymity serves the inexpressiveness Bresson always tries to achieve in order to generalize and abstract a character’s experience. As Joan sits with her back to the judge, she reviles him for what he has permitted; and when she at last turns to face him, and us, it is to retract dispassionately the confession she made to save herself from the stake.

Various other scenes prepare the way as well for the total voiding of Joan from our sight at the end. At one point, for example, the shift in which she is to be burned is brought in. Held stiff and erect before the camera, it looks, though empty, almost as if it were being filled by some human form that we cannot see, a human form divine, an invisible presence. In the end, when Joan has been burned at the stake, all these images of diminution and negation come together in a final shot of the stake itself. On it the chains that bound Joan now hang limp and empty, Joan herself having been consumed away as completely as those scraps of paper thrown into the stove 10 years earlier in Diary.

To see fully the unique achievement of Bresson’s film, it might be worthwhile to compare its ending with that of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. Joan’s story has been so attractive to filmmakers, being done in at least half a dozen versions, that it is practically a genre all its own. But Dreyer’s is the only other version that is comparable to Bresson’s. Dreyer was after the same spirituality in Joan’s martyrdom that Bresson sought, and he worked from the same records of Joan’s trial and rehabilitation. It is all the more remarkable, then, that Dreyer’s film arrives at an ending almost the opposite in form from Bresson’s. Bresson acknowledged Dreyer’s film and its influence on him by opening his film with the same tracking shot of feet walking that The Passion begins with. But it is apparent almost from that moment on how different Bresson’s approach was to be.

Both filmmakers, for example, wished to make us feel the extent to which the court was able to dominate Joan. Dreyer put this across by keeping the angle and position of the camera fixed when it is on Joan, but varying both wildly when the camera is on the judges, so they appear to tower over and surround her. Bresson achieved this disproportion between his antagonists by far more neutral means characteristic of his style. He often showed us a point-of-view shot of Joan through the chink in her cell wall which the judges used to spy on her, and occasionally he did a reverse shot back through the chink from the same distance inside the cell. In the latter shots, the ragged edges of the chink that framed Joan’s whole figure a moment ago now framed only the eye of a judge or soldier. We begin to feel that their imprisonment has shrunk Joan’s existence until she is like an insect being scrutinized in a bottle.

At the end of Dreyer’s film, the gyrations of his camera become extreme. The alternation of high and low angles somersaults into an overhead shot that begins from dead vertical and tilts until the image is upside down. At several other points the camera is placed in a free-swinging harness like a pendulum, and at the moment Joan dies a riot breaks out. In Bresson’s film, on the other hand, the ending attempts to approach what Dreyer’s film has from the start: silence. This is not in Bresson’s film just the silence of no sound, but the fuller silence of religious experience which lies beyond all language. Having worked its way through all the rhetoric of Joan’s trial in the dialogue, the film does arrive at near soundlessness now. There has been no music since a drum beat at the beginning, so the only sound to be heard as she is burned is the crackling of the fire, which intensifies momentarily and then also fades away. After that there is only the cooing of a few doves that are, in Dreyer’s film, a great swooping flight of birds.

But the silence in Bresson’s film is, as it were, visual too. It is a stillness of action as well as of sound. At the moment Joan dies her judges stand fixed in their places, neither moving nor speaking as they watch. The chains hang limp and empty on the stake, and the cross which was held up to Joan as she burned intermittently emerges from and disappears in the swirling smoke. Diary ends with the same image of a cross. But the one held up to Joan differs from that to which Bresson cut in Diary by being made in an open-work design. That is, the cross itself is formed by an iron frame describing and enclosing empty space. It is an apt image for what Le Proces attempts more forcefully than any other work Bresson has done.

Stylistically, the filmmaker to whom Bresson might almost better be compared is John Ford. Ford’s stationary camera, refusal to use editing in editorializing ways and economical storytelling are all aspects of a film realism like Bresson’s. But the purpose of such techniques in Ford’s films is to allow us to identify with history and feel our kinship to the characters on the screen. To watch a Ford film is to belong to a community. It is a socializing experience. A Bresson film is the opposite. Like our own experience of it, the experience we see in it is not communal and shared, but unique and utterly private. It is always to get at some otherness in human experience that Bresson makes a film. In fact, Bresson makes films the way he does—conservatively, by sticking to bare essentials and avoiding all excess—out of respect for such otherness.

His style is at heart a form of epistemological humility. It approaches its truth by paring away all extrapolation and fancy. In Le Proces, Bresson was dealing with the inaccessibility of history as well as the human spirit, which is perhaps why his style is yet more severe and disciplined here than before. The remoteness Bresson felt from his characters’ lives and the indirection with which he approached their feelings do not, however, make his film a mere intellectual exercise. It is addressed to our feeling just as surely as more sentimental and popular filmmaking, like Ford’s, is. The difference, as Susan Sontag explained it in her essay on Bresson, is that

there is art that involves, that creates empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.

Great reflective art is not frigid. It can exalt the spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make him weep. But its emotional power is mediated. The pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality. . . .

In the film, the master of the reflexive mode is Robert Bresson.

Bresson’s first color film, Une Femme Douce (1969), begins with a total negation of the character, like that with which Le Proces ends. The woman to whom the title refers kills herself by jumping off a balcony, and like the death of Joan at the end of Le Proces, the woman’s death dispossesses her completely from our sight. Someone who witnesses the event looks into the room beyond which the balcony lies. A table on the balcony tips over toppling a potted flower, and a rocking chair rocks. A white shawl flutters earthward as cars below slam on their brakes. Thus does the woman kill herself without ever being present to us until after she is dead. At the end of the film we see this same sequence again, the events that lead up to her death having been narrated in the meantime by her husband as she is laid out in the bedroom from which she jumped. And in that interim, as in Le Proces (whose ending we also know, of course, when the film begins), Bresson prepared the way for the woman to die again at the end. Like Joan, this woman disappears from our view gradually in scene after scene until, at the end, we are ready for her assumption into the void of Bresson’s style.

There are a couple of scenes early in the film, for instance, that are erotic. In the first the woman goes into the bathroom on her wedding night, and after running some water there, comes out clad only in a towel to push her husband over playfully on their bed. In the second, he goes into the bathroom on a subsequent night to retrieve a dropped bar of soap while she lounges nude in the tub. What these two scenes then lead to is a third that is a reprise of them both, except that the woman herself is not present this time. This scene occurs after her relationship with her husband has begun to disintegrate, and he has stormed out following a fight with her. When he returns home, he enters the bathroom to find the tub water running but his wife gone; and as he comes out of the bathroom he slumps on the bed from which she is now absent, but in which her sexual presence lingers suggestively because of some underwear discarded there. The garter belt and bra lying on the bed here look back on this woman’s consummation of her marriage much as Joan’s empty shift looks forward to her consummation, in another sense, at the stake.

For all its similarity to Le Proces, though, Une Femme Douce has in its ending something entirely different too—something foreign to the art of the earlier film. The toppled flower pot, the shawl floating to earth and the sounds of automobiles may all come in the absence and aftermath of the woman when she dies. They may stand in her place and be a voiding of her herself from the film. But they are also a coming to fruition of certain imageries that Bresson imposed on her experience. An opposition between organism and mechanism has been elaborated throughout the film in a contrast between the sight of flowers and the sound of automobiles, or the living flight of birds, so like the graceful descent of the woman’s shawl, and the machine flight of airplanes. These currents of images are intersected by others that distinguish different kinds of perception, the machine-made perceptions of photographs, phonographs, movies or television and the man-made perceptions of painting and theater or the immediate perceptions of experience itself.

In part this unaccustomed wealth of imagery may result from Bresson’s having been working for the first time in color, which is by nature a more florid medium than black and white and encourages a more ornamental style. More important, no doubt, was the fact that for once Bresson was not giving himself up wholly to his narrator’s view. On the contrary, the effect of the film depends largely on our perceiving a discrepancy between events and the husband’s view of them. In order to offer a counter view, Bresson had to assert rather than efface himself. Instead of serving as what Keats once called “the chameleon poet,” Bresson needed to impose imageries of his own on the husband’s story. In the first paragraph of the Dostoyevsky novella on which the film is based, the husband confides to us, “That’s the horrible part of it—I understand everything!” But in truth the horrible part is that he understands nothing. Bresson now found himself dealing in a film with a first-person narration that does not redeem, but deceive.

It may even be that Bresson was attracted to Dostoyevsky’s story precisely because it offered an opportunity to dissociate his art from the act of suicide. Suicide is of course the ultimate act of self-effacement, self-abnegation, and maybe it is the form of spiritualization for which Bresson’s art was always striving. (Certainly there always seemed to be in Bresson’s Catholicism a disconcerting undertone that was stoical.) Bresson’s next film after Le Proces is Au Hasard Balthazar (1965). In it, while continuing to eschew symbolism in any conventional sense, Bresson attempted to find in the suffering of a donkey an adequate vessel for the arbitrary and unredeemed suffering of humanity. In the film after that, Mouchette (1966), which is the one before Une Femme Douce, such suffering is no longer deflected. It is endured by a 13-year-old girl and drives her to kill herself. This is a death that Bresson seems to have accepted, or perhaps even embraced. Like all the other deaths before it in Bresson’s work, this one is unmediated by interpretation and unrelieved by his art. Mouchette is Joan stripped of her holiness and sainthood. It is as if the ineluctable process of reduction in Bresson’s style had deprived Joan of all her resources, and then abandoned her to a world so indifferent, so godless, she had to martyr herself.

The line that Susan Sontag drew at Le Proces I would draw here, at Mouchette. Une Femme Douce suggests Bresson also drew the line here. In the greatest art, content proposes form. The two achieve a unity. Bresson’s work is unarguably great in this way, yet in Mouchette the union of form and content seems to become almost a conspiracy against life itself. In Une Femme Douce, Bresson’s work retreats from, or else passes beyond, the absolute null point to which his art had brought him. Because the strictures of his style are loosened in Une Femme Douce, Bresson’s filmmaking becomes, though more conventional perhaps, also more playful and various. Maybe this easing was necessary. The dark night of the soul holds terrors from which one must finally awaken to daylight. If the dark night does have its terrors, however, it also has its beauties that are rarer than anything the light of day can reveal. Whatever films Bresson is yet to make—and they may be very great films indeed—Le Proces de Jeanne d’Arc will remain the perfection of his art.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. is the film critic of Commonweal.