Late Bresson and the Visual Arts: Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment Book 9789462983649, 9789048533992

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Late Bresson and the Visual Arts: Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment Book
 9789462983649, 9789048533992

Table of contents :
Table of Contents
Bresson in Color: Reinventing History through Avant-Garde Experiment
Part 1. Classical and Postwar Painting
1. Bresson’s Debt to Painting
Iconography, Lighting, Color, and Framing Practices
2. The Turn to Postwar Abstraction
Action Painting, L’Art Informel, and Le Nouveau Réalisme
Part 2. Avant-Garde Experiment
3. Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism
Sexual Desire, Masochism, and Abjection
4. The Design and Pattern of the Whole
Constructivist Painting and Theater
5. Between Constructivism and Minimalism
Bresson’s Ambivalence Toward the Modern
Illustration Credits
About the author

Citation preview


Late Bresson and the

Visual Arts Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment raymond watkins

Late Bresson and the Visual Arts

Late Bresson and the Visual Arts Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment

Raymond Watkins

Amsterdam University Press

Sections of chapter 1 and 2 have previously appeared in “Robert Bresson’s Modernist Canvas: The Gesture Toward Painting in Au hasard Balthazar,” Cinema Journal 51.2 (Winter 2012): 1-25. Sections of chapter 3 have previously appeared in “Robert Bresson’s Surrealist Ghosts,” Studies in French Cinema 13.2 (May 2013): 141-155. Cover illustration: A nude Dominique Sanda positioned in front of television set and Cupid and Psyche painting in Une femme douce. Cover design: Kok Korpershoek, Amsterdam Lay-out: Crius Group, Hulshout isbn 978 94 6298 364 9 e-isbn 978 90 4853 399 2 doi 10.5117/9789462983649 nur 670 © R. Watkins / Amsterdam University Press B.V., Amsterdam 2018 All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the written permission of both the copyright owner and the author of the book. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to use all copyrighted illustrations reproduced in this book. Nonetheless, whosoever believes to have rights to this material is advised to contact the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7 Introduction 9 Bresson in Color: Reinventing History through Avant-Garde Experiment

Part 1  Classical and Postwar Painting 1. Bresson’s Debt to Painting


2. The Turn to Postwar Abstraction


Iconography, Lighting, Color, and Framing Practices

Action Painting, L’Art Informel, and Le Nouveau Réalisme

Part 2  Avant-Garde Experiment 3. Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism


4. The Design and Pattern of the Whole


5. Between Constructivism and Minimalism


Illustration Credits


Sexual Desire, Masochism, and Abjection

Constructivist Painting and Theater

Bresson’s Ambivalence Toward the Modern

Bibliography 235 About the author


Index 249

Acknowledgements Because this project has had such a long incubation, it has benefitted from the help of many more people, institutions, and communities than I can possibly acknowledge. I was very fortunate at the start to be part of a talented community of filmmakers and scholars at The University of Iowa. The idea for this project first emerged though a student-led reading group on phenomenology and the visual turn, progressed through a graduate seminar with Dudley Andrew on cinema and modernity, and was guided by Jacques Aumont in Iowa City and in Paris. Dudley’s tireless, infectious enthusiasm for cinema pushed me to pursue obscure leads and engage the material in more intellectually vibrant ways. A research fellowship in Paris supported by Véronique Godard and funded by the Society for French American Cultural Services and Educational Aid (FACSEA) enabled me to map out the project. Thanks to Steve Ungar for encouraging me to apply, and for providing the foundation in Surrealism that shaped chapter three. This book is indebted to many readers, mostly anonymous. Brian Price’s insights helped me theorize in a more thorough way the tension between painting and the anachronistic in Bresson’s work. Two anonymous readers at Amsterdam University Press pointed out weaknesses in the manuscript’s structure in such a lucid way that I was forced to address them. I also want to single out for special praise an anonymous reader at Framework some years ago, whose nine pages of single-spaced notes on Au hasard Balthazar provided a route to think through the stakes of a book-length study. A good deal of the primary research was done while teaching at Case Western Reserve University. I couldn’t imagine completing this study without the tremendous collection at the Ingalls Library in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Thanks to Case Western art history faculty members Anne Helmrich and Ellen G. Landau, who helped me identify artworks in Bresson’s films. While at Colgate University, I made several research trips to Paris, and presented my work at a number of conferences. Thanks to Lynn Schwarzer in Film and Media Studies and Connie Harsh in English who were strong supporters of my research and travel requests, no matter how far-flung. Conversations with Scott MacDonald provided energy at critical times, especially his concept of the cine-nocturne shared in draft form. I am equally indebted to the small community of passionate scholars who study the intersection between cinema and the arts. Through her conferences, publications, and journal, Ágnes Pethö has been a unifying force for studies of cinema and intermediality in Europe. In the U.S., the insights and


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comradery of members of the CinemArts Scholarly Interest Group kept the project on track, especially Susan Felleman, Steve Jacobs, Brigitte Peucker, and Jennifer Wild—and buoyed by the friendship of Prakash Younger. A special note of thanks is due to Angela Dalle Vacche, who has been the most enthusiastic supporter of this project from the start. Her feedback is reflected in innumerable ways in this study, through perceptive comments at SCMS panels, promising research directions shared through email, and a consistently attentive reading of drafts. The final product would have been far inferior without her sustained interest and involvement. Obtaining permissions for the images has proven to be nearly as arduous as writing the book. Harumi Klossowska de Rola liked the project, and kindly allowed the Balthus painting La rue to be reproduced. Without James Quandt’s help in navigating the labyrinth of Bresson rights, alerting me to recently released DVDs, and putting me in contact with the right people in France, this book would have almost no images. No one knows the Bresson landscape as well as James, and he did everything he could to ensure that the project would be successful. Thanks too to Mark Morrisson, Chair of the English Department at Penn State University, whose subvention helped defray permission costs for images. Finally, I am indebted to production team at Amsterdam University Press for their thoroughness, care, and attention to detail, especially Kristi Prins, Sarah de Waard, Chantal Nicolaes and Maryse Elliott. Much of this book was written in central Pennsylvania while living in a large, Victorian farmhouse, which turned out to be the ideal place for such a task. I thank Ziggy Coyle and David Bauschpies for the use of Circle Z Farm, and my mom, Kathy Graham, for her steadfast support. I dedicate this book to Tina Coyle, who lived with it practically every day for the past three years, read innumerable drafts, and remained a patient sounding board for my daily anxieties, doubts, and worries.

Introduction Bresson in Color: Reinventing History through Avant-Garde Experiment These men drew upon the pictorial, sculptural, theatrical, and poetic enterprise—the cinema of the Bauhaus, the theatre of constructivism, the objects of surrealism, the festivities of dada, preserved, partially and precariously, through the emigration of European artists driven to this continent by fascism.1

Although Annette Michelson’s above quote traces the genealogy of postwar American avant-garde film, I argue in this study that many of the same avant-garde and disciplinary influences are evident in Robert Bresson’s late films. If Michelson’s comment addresses the lack of serious and sustained inquiry into the artistic lineage of the American avant-garde, then this study suggests parallel missed opportunities in examining Bresson’s late color work. While many Bresson studies focus on his use of literary texts, his talent at adaptation, or his reliance on such Christian themes as punishment and salvation, this study instead investigates Bresson’s work from a finearts perspective. I explore connections to sculpture and performance art, Bresson’s interest in gallery and museum space, the turn to long-established painterly themes and motifs, the parallels to postwar gestural and abstract art, and his affiliation with the avant-garde, especially the movements of Surrealism, Constructivism, and Minimalism. My claim is that a very different view of Bresson emerges by approaching his work through other visual arts traditions and practices. At the heart of this comparison between cinema and the visual arts is Bresson’s—and the Bresson scholar’s—understanding of the relationship between cinema and history, a connection that I explore in this introduction through three interconnected topics: the method and approach of film archeology; the way avant-garde influences emerge in


Annette Michelson, “About Snow,” October 8 (Spring 1979), 111-112.

Watkins, R., Late Bresson and the Visual Arts. Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment, Amsterdam University Press, 2018 doi 10.5117/9789462983649/intro


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Bresson’s work, with a focus on Surrealism and Constructivism; and Bresson’s predilection for tropes of automatism and the new.

Georges Didi-Huberman and the Anachronistic Tradition

Images certainly have a history; but what they are, the movement proper to them, their specific power, all that appears only as a symptom—a malaise, a more or less violent denial, a suspension—in history.2

This study questions the widely accepted narrative story of Robert Bresson as director. Colin Burnett’s recent study, The Invention of Robert Bresson (2017) pursues much the same goal by deconstructing the view of Bresson as an “isolated recluse”, as part of the way he has been mystified as auteur, largely based on critics who have “compil[ed] an inventory of arbitrarily periodized clusters of facts and rumors”.3 To rectify the problem, Burnett reclaims Bresson not as a philosopher or theologian, but first and foremost as auteur by situating him within 1950s French film culture. In contrast, this study explores the way Bresson draws on other painterly and avant-garde visual styles and incorporates them into his particular approach. Our goals are nonetheless complementary, since, in this study, Bresson is seen to engage actively with a range of pre and postwar artistic forms and practices, and, for that reason, could not be further removed from the notion of isolated recluse. While Burnett concentrates on the shifts in Bresson’s early maturation as an auteur, this study suggests that such experimentation continues—and even accelerates—in the subsequent late films. The place where we most strongly diverge, however, is that the present study is much less tethered to the biographical events of Bresson’s life, and much less focused on establishing links between Bresson’s cultural milieu and his formation as film director. Certainly the impulse to place Bresson in the historical context of 1940s and 1950s French film culture is long overdue. But we must be equally careful not to reach conclusions about Bresson’s style or approach that are true simply because they are shown to grow out of events that happened in his life. Should we, for example, as Burnett suggests, 2 Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps: Histoire de l’art et anachronism des images (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2000), 25. All translations from this and other texts in French are my own unless otherwise indicated. 3 Colin Burnett, The Invention of Robert Bresson: The Auteur and His Market (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2017), 11.

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read Bresson’s austere, minimalist tendencies as a product of his commercial photography work for Chanel and other companies in the 1930s, rather than through broader intellectual currents such as Brechtian distantiation discussed by Susan Sontag, or the influence of Byzantine art suggested by Paul Schrader?4 Does one influence necessarily occlude another because it is more directly connected to an artist’s life and particular experience? Given how little we know about Bresson’s life, any study invariably confronts these methodological questions about the degree to which the historical record should provide the final say in determining influence. Late in his study, Burnett equally grapples with this problem of viewing Bresson as a product of the postwar, avant-garde cultural marketplace that produced him, while also seeing him as “adopting an outspoken, engaged, and even rebellious stance within cultural life”.5 At the heart of this tension are two positions: a deterministic view of Bresson as one whose identity was forged at a particular place and time, and a view of him as a fierce iconoclast who rebelled against such reductive strictures. This tension emerges most sharply when Bresson is placed within the context of the realist theories of André Bazin and Georges Sadoul. Bresson’s style goes to such extremes of anti-cinema that it, “made even other realist modes seem suspiciously artificial or removed from direct phenomenal experience”.6 At least in this particular example, individual style is seen to trump the realist conventions of the period. Such deviations suggest that there is something unconventional, perhaps even ahistorical, at the core of Bresson’s aesthetic, given the extent to which he pushes the conventions of realism to the limits of asceticism. Because so little is known about Bresson, approaching his work is not unlike the position of art historians who attempt to understand ancient, medieval, or Renaissance artworks or artists. The problem of determining artistic influence, and the relationship between artist and history, has been much more extensively theorized in the field of art history. Georges Didi-Huberman criticizes the way a “euchronic” process is customarily preferred: decisions about the work of art are based on how well it has been made to fit into its particular historical moment.7 Such an approach is on display in the vast majority of art historical studies, whose golden rule is that “anachronism must at all costs be avoided, and one must not project one’s 4 Ibid., 47. 5 Ibid., 189, note 9. 6 Ibid., 147. 7 Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps, 13.


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concepts, tastes, or values onto past realities”.8 Didi-Huberman focuses on the abstract panel beneath Fra Angelico’s fresco Madone des ombres (Madonna of the Shadows, 1440-1450), in which, for scholars, only a document of that particular time period will permit access to the “mental tools” of the time, even if an artist’s contemporaries “do not seem to understand the work any better than those individuals separated in time”.9 Given our current fidelity to empiricism, such a document is seen to have the greatest truth value, even if just as many interpretative decisions are made, since scholars are trained to value scientific exactitude and specificity as the way to arrive at the greatest degree of truth: the more concrete the data we can amass about a particular object or moment, the more insightful and accurate our study will consequently be.10 Following Didi-Huberman’s reservations, this study actively resists such a one-to-one relationship between milieu and artistic creation, in order to keep past and present in a dynamic state of dialogue. Why does Didi-Huberman spend so much energy advocating for the positive virtues of anachronism? As Jacques Rancière points out, the situation is rather unique in France for those who theorize about the study of history. Rancière questions the methods of the French Annales school established in the 1920s, and specifically such historians as Lucien Febvre, who insists that anachronism is the “worst of all sins, the sin that cannot be forgiven”, because fundamental to the historical process is the view that a “particular historical event or character must belong wholly to the time in which it or she is found”.11 Rancière instead attempts to create what he calls “heretical histories”, as in his study of proletarianism, La nuit des prolétaires: Archives du rêve ouvrier (1981), by looking at individuals and events rather than cataloguing activities into larger social, economic, or juridical systems.12 Anachronism thus contains a political force for Rancière, since the only possibility for radical change is by acknowledging the unusual, 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid., 15. 10 Even today art historians rely on Cristoforo Landino’s sixteen categories of art criticism to interpret Italian Quattrocento canvases. However, 30 years separates the death of Fra Angelico and Landino’s categories, and these concepts substantially changed in meaning over the course of those years, not to mention the significant linguistic and cultural differences between the two men. For Didi-Huberman, the foundations of art history are built upon such anachronistic practices. See Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps, 15, and Didi-Huberman, Devant l’image: Question posée aux fins d’une histoire de l’art (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1990), 52-53. 11 Tim Stott, “Introduction to Jacques Rancière’s ‘The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth,” InPrint 3.1 (2015), accessed 30 January 2018. 12 Jacques Rancière, “The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth (English translation),” InPrint 3(1) (2015), 46, accessed 31 January 2018.

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the exceptional, or the emergent, which can only come from the specific acts of those who are customarily ignored in such studies, rather than from a top-down conception of how the larger society must necessarily behave. The Annales’s concept of history thus ends up being profoundly anti-historical, since, by sealing off a particular time period, people and events can only reflect the larger mentalités into which they are born. Instead, Rancière ends his essay by gesturing toward the transformative power of the anachronistic in much the same spirit that emerges in the work of Didi-Huberman: “An anachrony is a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left ‘its’ time, and in this way is given the capacity to define completely original points of orientation (les aiguillages), to carry out leaps from one temporal line to another.”13 While I thus welcome Colin Burnett’s study as a necessary corrective to past Bresson scholarship, I also want to resist the implicit corresponding argument that the more details we learn about the events of Bresson’s life or his epoch, the better we will be able to understand his films. Perhaps there are directions that Bresson took, styles he assimilated, or innovations he developed that have no direct connection to—or at least cannot be so easily explained by—where he worked, who he befriended, or what the prevailing French attitudes were toward cinema in his day. Perhaps one goal of Bresson’s style is to be as anachronistic as the Fra Angelica described by Didi-Huberman, a Renaissance artist who employs a montage-like approach that draws on at least four radically different historical moments: a thirteenth- and fourteenth-century use of color; a f ifteenth-century use of perspective; Byzantine, and even Gothic iconography; and the 20th century Abstract Expressionist style of Jackson Pollock.14 Didi-Huberman thus encourages a view of history that isn’t a linear or straightforward cause-and-effect process, but rather the art object stands at the nexus of a variety of historical times that, “enter into collision, or are plastically based on each other, bifurcate, or become muddled together”.15 The scholar struggles to smooth over such rough edges between history and artwork, presenting a seamlessness between particular artistic choices and the milieu in which he or she lived. Didi-Huberman instead encourages a movement in the opposite direction, creating new objects that are as revolutionary as the Surrealist juxtapositions between historical epochs. Such juxtapositions make us realize that there is no unidirectional line of progress in history, 13 Ibid, 47. 14 Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps, 16, 20-21. 15 Ibid., 43.


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but rather time progresses like a “bretzel”.16 It is equally important that we do not view the object or image as having one assignable place for all times like the Annales historians, and precisely the motivation for Aby Warburg’s concept of the interval. The ultimate goal of such an approach, however, is not to deny history, or to promote an ahistorical perspective, but rather to dismiss the implicit abstractions of the historical method, ultimately to counter the ever-present assumption that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between an artist and the milieu in which he or she lived and worked.

Film Archeology: The Resistance to Chronology and Historical “Fact” To provide the theoretical structure for such an approach to Bresson, I draw on the philosophical method of film archeology. Much like the approach of Didi-Huberman, film archeology shares a distrust of established history, especially works that build on the insights of Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin to develop a more complex model for the relationship between past objects or events and present-day explanations of them. According to Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, media archaeologists construct, “alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their ‘perfection’”, since inventions, styles, and ideas that did not survive also have equally important ramifications on present-day practices.17 Bresson’s films reveal a surprisingly wide range of subterranean connections to visual art practices in the fields of painting, sculpture, photography, theatre, and dance that span from the Middle Ages to postwar France. While I draw on previous Bresson studies, this project is based neither on established critical frameworks for understanding Bresson’s work, nor on the notion that cinema has a predetermined etiology. In this respect, the study’s precursors would include the work of the German art historian Aby Warburg, whose Mnemosyne Atlas (1927-1929) provides a catalog of shared visual motifs drawn from books, magazines, newspapers, and other popular sources, as well as André Malraux’s Musée imaginaire (1947), which encourages readers to find, “the persisting life of certain forms, emerging ever and again like spectres of the 16 Ibid., 155. 17 Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 3.

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past”.18 These two projects do not delimit visual images according to shared epoch or genre, but first establish commonalities through resemblance. As a result, such an approach stresses intermediality by focusing on the way particular motifs shift and transform over time and across media. Unlike many studies within the f ield of f ilm or media archeology, however, this study does not unearth neglected or forgotten technological apparatuses for the insights they may shed on our understanding of media today. What this study instead shares is the desire to complicate a linear account of history by being receptive to a wide range of iconography and visual material. Such an approach illustrates what Eric Kluitenberg defines as the “fantasmatic” and what Janet Harbord terms “ex-centric cinema” in her study of Giorgio Agamben: hidden potentialities that indicate important clues to impractical, forgotten, or uncertain genealogies.19 Such an approach can, in the words of Huhtamo, correct unexamined or entrenched beliefs by bringing the “neglected, misrepresented, and/or suppressed aspects of both media’s past(s) and their present […] into a conversation with each another”.20 Similarly, Thomas Elsaesser makes an eloquent case for viewing history not as a unified string of events, but rather as a series of discontinuous, heterogeneous, and differently caused eruptions in time.21 He discusses the significance of obsolescence, the subjectivity of memory, and, “complex and contradictory relations of multiple causal chains, to seriality and repetition, to stochastic causality”22 . In his essay on the relationship between eighteenth-century Dutch still life painting and contemporary European art cinema, Jacques Aumont employs Aby Warburg’s concept of migration to resist in a parallel way the view of history as progressive improvement, by being receptive to the emergence of obscure or underestimated influences in a film.23 Aumont ends his essay with a call for greater attention to the 18 André Malraux, Voices of Silence, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 24. 19 Eric Kluitenberg, “On the Archeology of Imaginary Media,” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 57; Janet Harbord, Ex-centric Cinema: Giorgio Agamben and Film Archeology (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016). 20 Erkki Huhtamo, “Dismantling the Fairy Engine: Media Archeology as Topos Study,” Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 28. 21 Thomas Elsaesser, “Media Archeology as the Poetics of Obsolescence,” Film History and Media Archaeology (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 331-350. 22 Ibid., 337-338. 23 Jacques Aumont, “‘Migrations’ ou le spectre de la peinture,” Matière d’images (Paris: Images Modernes, 2005), 41-83.


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relationship between history and film studies that fully acknowledges the role played by the image, by facial representation, and by the visual register as cinema’s genuine achievement.24 Following Aumont’s call, the present study unearths a wide range of figural and iconographic elements emerging from the Middle Ages to the early 1980s that cross disciplinary fields and reveal a complex overlapping of migrations within the visual arts. It is not only this study’s approach that reflects film archeology’s interrogation of the way we arrive at historical truth, but equally the way that Bresson borrows from sources. His trajectory is characterized by obscure, often competing influences. One example is the way he incorporates religious characters, themes, and iconography into his work. We should not rely on Bresson’s own religious faith to explain such choices, I believe, but rather should turn to religious painting, especially the following influences that I explore in chapters one and two: medieval icon painting, the visual hierarchy established in Renaissance painting between the earthy and the spiritual, the careful attention to light and shadow in the baroque, the oscillation between concealment and revelation that emerges in Une femme douce (1969) and the question of the invisible sublime, which Bresson alludes to as much through Alfred Manessier’s lyrical abstractionist canvases as through Piet Mondrian’s concept of the spiritual infinite. Similar approaches toward determining influence have already been suggested by a small coterie of art historians who propose moving beyond the artwork’s immediate historical milieu to consider other factors that determine why a particular style emerges on the canvas. Michael Fried focuses on the way a painting’s figures oscillate between being intensely absorbed in a task, or directly announcing their presence to the viewer.25 For Fried, the history of French painting from the Renaissance can be understood through this dialectic. Painting is most actively committed to the ideals of absorption in the eighteenth century through the writings of Denis Diderot and the paintings of Jean-Simèon Chardin, gradually moves toward the theatricality or direct “facingness” of Édouard Manet, and finally negotiates between the two poles in post-1970s photography.26 The lack of 24 Ibid., 57: “Que cela demande une analyse capable d’accepter la part d’image, la part de figure, la part de visual que comporte l’oeuvre de cinéma, ce n’est pas pour me déplaire.” 25 Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). 26 Fried’s research can be viewed as an interconnected effort to trace the changing historical dynamic between absorption and theatricality in painting and the visual arts, beginning with his essay “Art and Objecthood,” (Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)), and continuing through a series of historical studies of individual painters

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drama and suspense in a Bresson film reveals a strong affiliation with the absorptive tradition, a relationship I explore in chapter one by comparing Bresson’s iconography to that of the French baroque painter Georges de la Tour. Bresson also employs strategies to prevent the spectator’s gaze from penetrating into a scene, as if to amplify the character’s absorption and the viewer’s distance. He instructs his actors to look down to avoid eye contact, and he introduces physical obstacles that separate the actor from spectator, such as by dressing his actors in medieval armor in Lancelot du lac (1974) to stress their “blindness” to viewer response or identification.27 As Bresson phrases it, the model “should reveal nothing, should not enter into communication with the outside world, should remain at all times firmly closed off”.28 Drawing on religious themes provides an additional method to distance the viewer by demonstrating a character’s intense devotion to a spiritual realm by joining a cloistered community that has renounced the outside world. One can see through Fried’s notion of absorption that Bresson’s style and motifs fit within a long-established French painterly tradition. The art historian Alexander Nagel develops an equally unorthodox model to account for the relationship between a work of art and its historical context. In chapter one, I draw on his book Medieval Modern to explain the way Bresson’s films draw on medieval and early Renaissance works of art just as much as on modern ones. Nagel elaborates on the theoretical underpinnings of his approach in his subsequent Anachronic Renaissance, cowritten with Christopher Wood. The authors examine Renaissance works of art in which all marks of time have been removed, such that the work seems to intentionally hesitate between historical forms without definitively settling on one. To understand the nature of this hesitation, Nagel and Wood draw on Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura: “the possible gain in legitimacy conferred by the marks of time is easily offset by the risk of loss of aura through fixing in time. To fix an image or temple in time is to reduce (and contemporary photographers) from the Renaissance to the present, including: The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Manet’s Modernism: or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998); Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Why Photography Matters as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). 27 Fried notes that blindness is a frequent trope to illustrate painting’s indifference to the observer, evident in Chardin’s L’aveugle (1753), Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s L’aveugle trompé (1755), Diderot’s “Letter on the Blind” (1749), and portraits of the blind Roman general Belisarius. See Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, 149. 28 Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe. (Paris: Gallimard), 1975, 103.


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it to human proportions”.29 Painting’s uniqueness is thus to be found in the way it at times hesitates between past and present, or between auratic transcendence and the everyday, since an artwork is capable of holding “incompatible models in suspension without deciding”.30 An artwork’s ability to escape human time thus reveals its “anachronic” qualities, which is linked to the divine, since theologians read sacred texts as “indications of a suprahistorical divine plan that suspended earthly time”.31 The spiritual component of Bresson’s films might equally be viewed as an effort to contrast historical time with a divine time that reestablishes some semblance of auratic wholeness. This suspension between human and divine is perhaps Bresson’s most important inheritance from painting. While filming, Bresson seeks out “constant anachronisms” on set, and constructs his films outside any single, identifiable historical moment.32 Bresson’s two films set in the Middle Ages, Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) and Lancelot du lac, intermingle archaic, preindustrial elements with modern ones, which explains the inclusion of such modern props as a chessboard and a wooden tub in Lancelot. According to Bresson, the goal while filming Lancelot was to create a setting without “[…] time or place. While working, it never occurred to me that the armor could be from any other age than our own. The iron clothing is simply an object that makes sounds, music, rhythm”.33 By not being tied to a concrete historical moment, Bresson suggests, the viewer can more fully concentrate on the sounds and rhythms of the present, a similar sentiment voiced by Georges Didi-Huberman, who ends his study of the anachronistic in art with Barnett Newman’s “The Sublime is Now” (1948).34 In discussing Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc, Bresson asks: “Is it not strange that in our films the more we distance historical characters from their époque, the closer they get to us, and the more true they are?”35 Precisely by distancing Jeanne from any recognizable historical time or place, she becomes more authentic and believable. Bresson’s pressing concern while 29 Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood. Anachronic Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 8. 30 Ibid., 18. 31 Ibid., 10. 32 Yvonne Baby, “Du fer qui fait du bruit,” Le monde (26 September 1974), 15. 33 Ibid. 34 Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps. Didi-Huberman draws extensively on Walter Benjamin’s conception of history. 35 Yves Kovacs, “Entretien avec Robert Bresson,” Cahiers du cinéma 140 (May 1963), 410. Reprinted in Robert Bresson, Bresson par Bresson: Entretiens 1943-1983, ed. Mylène Bresson (Paris: Flammarion, 2013), 127.

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in the director’s chair is that too much historical detail will eliminate new possible directions, reducing the film’s unique ability to capture the present moment. He succinctly sums up this idea in response to a question about an ambiguous plot point in Au hasard Balthazar (1966): “I would like it if all historic details were eliminated from a film.”36 Related to the notion of suspending historical events is Pierre Klossowski’s notion of the “possible body” that I discuss in chapter three, which imagines new, nonproductive relationships outside authorized circuits of exchange. Such a desire to move beyond singular historical events or causes perhaps stems for both Klossowski and Bresson from the radical ambition of the Surrealists, who juxtapose past with present to subvert the linearity of historical time. A parallel approach to the historical is Giorgio Agamben’s concept of potentialities, which equally stresses the nonproductive: “the inhabiting of one’s impotentiality as a mode of resistance to the current imperative to be productive, compliant and identifiable as subjects in a system”.37 Bresson’s films provide a similar resistance to historical chronology, especially in the way he disrupts a viewer’s ability to make coherent sense of the narrative. The protagonist commits suicide in Une femme douce, for example, as if to release the viewer from the obligations of story by revealing the most important dramatic event at the start of the film. Bresson also subverts narrative chronology to problematize the notion of a clearly delineated before and after. In Une femme douce, he eliminates conventional flashback by shifting between the dead wife on display in the present, and past scenes of her when she is still alive in the past. Bresson claims that these scene changes do not indicate any movement between past and present: “It is not the rather banal story of a young married couple that attracted me. It is instead the possibility of a constant confrontation, a continual juxtaposition between two images: a dead young girl, and a living young girl [….] these are not flashbacks, but something else: the confrontation between life and death.”38 The constant movement between the dead and living protagonist reflects a consummate Surrealist interest in animating the lifeless body and killing the animate one, in addition to giving the gentle woman—and the film—a timelessness that transcends the artificial human categories of past and present. 36 Robert Bresson, “Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson.” “Pour le plaisir” television series. Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (11 May 1966). Reprinted in Bresson, Bresson par Bresson: Entretiens, 207. 37 Harbord, Ex-centric Cinema, 25. 38 Bresson, Bresson par Bresson: Entretiens, 248.


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Bresson employs a related strategy to distance his f ilms from their historical moment by juxtaposing the antiquated with the modern. André Bazin describes this contradictory movement as “the reciprocal interplay of seemingly incompatible elements” in Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951), such as the tension between an eighteenth-century revenge tale and the modern focus on prostitution, or the contrast between a Denis Diderot script and the robotic movement of windshield wipers as they rhythmically glide across a car window in Les dames de bois de Bologne (1945).39 Building on Bazin’s insight, Luc Moullet introduces the term “bi-temporality” to describe this same tendency in L’a rgent (1983): …we begin to see that everywhere there is this alliance of contrasts: films juxtaposing modern elements (scooters, mopeds, the Citroën 2CV, shopping in Auteuil, credit card cheats in L’argent), and elements of a revolutionary past (in the same f ilm, people still do their laundry at lavoirs, and Bresson’s contemporary rural films evoke instead a dignified countryside from the time of the filmmaker’s youth—always the idea of “youth”—or the end of the nineteenth century with all its stereotypes, bottles close to the edge of the table that are going to break, axe murders, no electricity, etc.). 40

Bresson is not the first to juxtapose the antiquated past with the hypermodern. Charles Baudelaire creates a much earlier example in Les fleurs du mal (1857) by superimposing archaic myth onto the present as a way of illustrating to what extent humanity has been evacuated from nineteenth-century Paris. Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project, 1927-1940), is similarly built on the implicit contrast between the arcades and then contemporary Parisian life and technology. Both Benjamin and Bresson thus situate their approach within a tradition that draws explicitly on the temporal slippages characteristic of the Surrealists’s outmoded visions. Miriam Hansen even describes the connections between Benjamin and the Surrealist method in these terms: “the return of archaic, cyclical, mythological time in the accelerated succession of the new (fashion, technology)”, on display for instance in depictions of the epoch of Louis VII within André Breton’s Nadja. 41 By 39 André Bazin, “Le journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson,” Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1998), 130. 40 Luc Moullet, “Robert Bresson: Think, You Fool,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinémathèque, 2011), 512. 41 Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Sigfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 331.

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examining objects removed from their historical context, Benjamin insists, the viewer comes to realize the arbitrary nature of material signification, and, as a result, the fantasy and emptiness of the commodity itself. While the turn to mythological time recalls a Surrealist, even Marxist desire to employ the outdated and archaic to create new commodity relations, such an impulse grows out of an older, fine-arts, and religious tradition of balancing the auratic, spiritual work against one that offers markings of its age and time. Bresson and Benjamin’s explorations of obsolete historical pathways open history to new possible lineages and offspring, and indicates just how fragmentary and precarious our own present-day notions of history remain through the collision between past and present. In Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (2013), Erika Balsom similarly traces the way such video artists as Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, and Jerome de Rijke/Willem de Rooji emphasize nonsynchronous temporalities through such obsolescent technologies as the 16mm projector in order to counter the contemporary image assault by mass culture.42 But such an impulse toward what Balsom terms “mute facticity” is on display in Bresson’s films beginning in the late 1960s, long before either the triumph of the digital image, or pronounced anxieties about cinema’s obsolescence.43 Bresson not only offers alternative historical trajectories to counter a cinema of narrative consumerism, but he articulates what Balsom describes as cinema’s desire to return to a more authentic real—not by projecting images inside the museum like the contemporary artists she examines, but rather by staging scenes in the Louvre and in the Musée national d’art moderne, for example, in Une femme douce—in order to gesture toward similar strategies at work among the abstract painters of his day. Chapter two explores such strategies in detail, while I return to the question of Bresson’s representation of the relationship between past and present in chapter five, connecting it to his ambivalent attitude toward the modern machine.

The Influence of the Avant-Garde: Surrealism and Constructivism Surrealism and Constructivism are often viewed as occupying antithetical poles of the avant-garde, given each movement’s approach. The former emphasizes nature, the unconscious, and the individual, while the later 42 Erika Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013). 43 Ibid., 81.


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stresses the mechanical, the technological, and the collective. This study maintains that the two movements share a much deeper affiliation than is commonly acknowledged: both are grounded in utopian dreams and passions, and both share a similar interest in the merging of human and machine. In a rather lengthy parenthetical aside in her review of André Bazin’s What is Cinema? (1967), Annette Michelson similarly suggests that Surrealism and Constructivism are more alike than might at first seem possible. She notes that the Surrealists and Constructivists had a deep admiration for each other, and points out the irony in the way each claims cinema for itself: If, for Constructivism, montage could incarnate the Dialectic, for Surrealism it proposed the modalities of the Encounter. It is through their generative esthetic metaphors that Constructivism and Surrealism reach out towards each other, and it is in the area of cinema that they briefly join. We know that the Surrealists, who had not yet made their own films, greeted Potemkin on its appearance in 1925 as the first major achievement in the medium, while the Constructivists had already paid spontaneous homage to the early serials loved by the Surrealists. If each movement imperiously claimed film for its very own, it was because each perceived the manner in which its transforming qualities, esthetic and social, converged with an intimacy and impact that were radically poetic.44

Surrealism and Constructivism are described less as distinct movements than as different cinematic “modalities”. Michelson suggests that, for both movements, imaginative transformation through highly poetic images is connected to the social—and therefore political—since the power of the imagination is required to produce a shift in how one views the world. As André Breton phrases the idea, the “revolution of the mind […] was a precondition for revolution in the streets”. 45 Surrealist influences are especially difficult to disentangle from Constructivist ones in Bresson’s work, because the two movements are so closely allied as distinct modalities of many of the same overarching themes and concerns. One example of the close aesthetic affinities between Surrealism and Constructivism can be seen through an essay I discuss in chapters three and four: “Paolo Uccello, peintre lunaire” (1935). Written by noted French 44 Annette Michelson, “What is Cinema?,” Artforum 6.10 (1968), 70. 45 Quoted in Brian Price, Neither God nor Master: Robert Bresson and Radical Politics (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011), 113.

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art historian Georges Pudelko, the article appears in the Surrealist journal Minotaur, and offers tantalizing links between Uccello’s style and Surrealist painting of the 1930s.46 Uccello’s paintings suggest the Surrealist uncanny in the way the human is reduced to an inanimate automaton, while the horses are instead painted in a highly naturalistic style, especially in The Battle at San Romano (c. 1440). Such a depiction resembles the Surrealist enthusiasm for mannequins, statues, and the robot Olympia in E. T. A. Hoffman’s “Der Sandmann” (1816), all of which animates the dead object and treats the human as inanimate, which reflects Bresson’s treatment of objects, and his depiction of models as machine-like. According to Pudelko, however, who labels Uccello a “gothic constructivist”, Constructivism similarly treats the human as machine, witnessed in Uccello’s dehumanized representation of soldiers in the same painting. 47 Pudelko’s insight points to the dynamic contrast between stasis and movement in Uccello that is equally common in Bresson’s films, especially through the use of immobile paintings in Une femme douce (chapter one), the Surrealist automaton (chapter three), and the contrapuntal structure of Constructivism (chapter four). While each of these influences play an important role in Bresson’s work, there is a porosity in terms of how they cross-pollinate and cluster around particular themes. The most sustained overlap between Surrealism and Constructivism emerges in Bresson’s interest in framing, and I investigate the way such framing practices grow out of painterly traditions, Surrealist preoccupations, and Constructivist concerns in subsequent chapters of this book. I link Bresson’s juxtaposition between foreground and background space to the style of Paul Cézanne, to the Cubist fragmentation of space, and to the startling juxtapositions of time and space characteristic of Surrealism and Constructivism. Through his Dada creations, Marcel Duchamp comments on the way the frame perpetually reorients a spectator’s vision. By presenting an artwork consisting of glass panes in a window frame, for example, Duchamp’s La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-1923), serves as a self-conscious reflection on the way framing decisions construct our vision. By making the frame transparent and built of everyday materials, the construction becomes as important as the figures represented within it. Structuralist cinema further explores the possibilities inherent in framing and perspective, especially the work of experimental filmmaker Michael Snow, whose films offer a progressive interrogation of the relationship

46 Georges Pudelko, “Paolo Uccello peintre lunaire,” Minotaure 7 (1935), 32-41. 47 Ibid., 33.


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between frame and surrounding world.48 In Wavelength (1967), a camera slowly zooms in across the space of an apartment for 45 minutes, disinterested in the human events taking place in the room, and stops at the end to focus on a photograph of the sea on the adjacent wall. At the same historical moment, the films of Richard Serra turn to Russian Constructivism and the work of Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. Serra’s Frame (1969) and Railroad Turnbridge (1976), for example, are concerned with the way framing and perspective are critical to the spectator’s experience. 49 So what begins as Dadaist reflection in Duchamp’s work later emerges in American avant-garde cinema, and subsequently emerges in the Constructivist-influenced short films of Richard Serra. The visual trope of framing has a rich, shared genealogy among the avant-garde that makes it difficult to ascribe ownership, or even to distinguish the characteristics of one manifestation from another. I discuss Bresson’s particular framing practices in each chapter of this study, in a way that draws on each of the influences discussed above. One possible critique of Bresson’s work is that it cannot share a deep affiliation with the European avant-garde because it is too removed from the political, even revolutionary aspirations of the interwar period. Brian Price argues, however, that Bresson’s films are meditations on the nature of radical political revolution, and, even more, as inquiries into why such movements ultimately failed.50 Each film can thus be seen as a critique of capitalism through an exploration of ideology, even if left-wing revolution is ultimately portrayed as a botched effort—again, reinforcing the view that Bresson’s work, much like the films discussed by Erika Balsom, focuses on failure and ruin.51 Une femme douce, for example, asks why May 1968 results in a return to repressive sexual politics depicted in the relationship between the pawnbroker and his wife. Lancelot du lac ruminates on the impediments to collectivity and the startling increase in police force and student surveillance. Le diable probablement (1977) observes the failures of militant left-wing terrorist groups. And L’a rgent explores the problems with François Mitterrand’s first term socialist experiment. Even though the actions of the radical left are not viewed as feasible solutions to the problems of the time, Price nevertheless convincingly argues that Bresson should not 48 Annette Michelson, “About Snow,” October 8 (Spring 1979): 112. 49 Serra discusses the influence of 1920s Russian cinema on his films, and the importance of framing, in Annette Michelson, “The Films of Richard Serra: An Interview,” October 10 (1979), 68-104. 50 Price, Neither God Nor Master, 95-96. 51 Balsom, “Ruinophilia,” Exhibiting Culture in Contemporary Art, 91-101.

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be viewed as the detached auteur, but rather as someone directly engaged with important political questions of his day. Regardless of whether Bresson’s films function as commentaries on revolution, it is undeniable that Bresson becomes increasingly politically engaged in the late 1960s. One sign of this shift can be seen in his desire to film in color, which happens long after the French film industry shifts to the new technology, and, for Price, has more to do with Bresson’s desire to focus on the “relational properties of color itself”.52 Bresson’s most revolutionary experimentation with color and form happens at the same moment as his increased engagement with political issues of the day, such as his participation in the protest against removing Henri Langois from the Cinémathèque française in March of 1968.53 Parallels are equally evident between the critique of environmental destruction in Le diable probablement, the Marxist defense of the protagonist Yvon against his bourgeois tormentors in L’argent, and the critique of capitalism and defense of collectivism, ecological rights, and class structure in those two films. Price turns to the Russian novelists whose work Bresson adapted, namely Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, to find an historical moment that parallels Bresson’s response to such popular revolutionary tactics. Such connections correspond to my explorations of the way Bresson borrows from Russian Constructivism in the attention to color, line, geometric form, and mise en scène, especially in Bresson’s last four films from 1975 to 1983. The turn to color invites more experimental visual strategies that draw on the revolutionary style of the avant-garde. I therefore do not believe it possible to divorce Bresson’s increasingly bold formal innovation in color, line, and space from the overt political critique contained in the late films.

Automatism and the Machine The notion of the human as automaton, or art as a machinic process, is a common theme among members of the European avant-garde. Hal Foster organizes his study of various European avant-garde movements according to the relationship between the human body and the machine, which he calls “the double-logic of the prosthesis”.54 By this, Foster means that, in each 52 Price, Neither God Nor Master, 95-96. 53 Ibid. 54 Hal Foster, Prosthetic Gods (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 109. Jennifer Wild similarly identifies “diagrammatic perception” in the work of such French Dadaists as Francis Picabia


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avant-garde movement, technology is represented as either a constriction or extension of the human body. While for Constructivism the machine extends the reach and capacity of the human body, Surrealism instead mocks technology as a constriction based on dismemberment through broken automatons and fragmented mannequins.55 Dada and Surrealism thus harbor an instinctive distrust of the military-industrial modern world, while such other movements as Vorticism, futurism, and Constructivism instead embrace the possibilities of technological man. Bresson appears to straddle both sides of the avant-garde’s polarized attitude toward the prosthesis. He shares with Surrealism the distrust of the military-industrial complex, most clearly seen in the documentary sequences in Le diable probablement that attest to the brutality and destruction that humans inflict on the natural and animal world, and an interest in the disabled or fragmented body, such as the female protagonists of Une femme douce or Mouchette (1967). However, one is unlikely to find in even the earliest films the absurd Surrealist anti-machines, nonsense machines, or anthropomorphic machines described by Foster that parody human progress or advancement. Instead, the machines that appear in Bresson are filmed in a nearly reverential fashion. In this way, Bresson’s films shift between extending and limiting the human body, which perhaps speaks to the contrasting influence of Constructivism and Surrealism, ultimately best explained through American Minimalist artists who reveal much the same contradictory relationship to the modern world. Bresson’s attraction to automatism and machine-like behavior not only links his work to Surrealism and Constructivism, but to almost every avant-garde artist examined in this study. His work resembles the French collective l’Art Informel, for example, to the degree that its practitioners create organic forms that suggest non-manipulated, found objects beyond any conscious effort at representation. Similarly, in Bresson’s films and in Le Nouveau Réalisme, bodies themselves recount events. The nude models in Yves Klein’s anthropometry canvases function as “living brushes” who roll across the canvas once blue paint is applied to their bodies, much as the various splotches of paint on Jacques’s hand in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1972) reveals the autonomous actions of his body, revealing the and Marcel Duchamp, both of whom create abstract machines that substitute lived, human relationships with the representation of abstract circuitry, diagrams, and mechanical processes. See Jennifer Wild, The Parisian Avant-Garde in the Age of Cinema, 1900-1923 (Berkeley: The University of California Press 2015), 65-73. 55 Foster, Prosthetic Gods, 113-114.

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way Bresson associates painting with a body’s unconscious gestures and movements. Allowing the body to speak for itself, however, is not the only route to automatism; artists also rely on the machine’s impersonal rhythms and processes to create the work of art. In Les tirs, for example, Nikki de SaintPhalle shoots a 22-caliber rifle at polythene bags of paint that explode on the canvas, so that the bullet effectively creates the work of art. At about the same moment, in Japan, the Gutai group use such machines as cannons, cranes, and helicopters to create involuntary art. And Nicolas Schöffer’s Lux 1 (which appears in Une femme douce) and Spatiodynamic Tower, emphasize mechanical, nonhuman rhythms and movements. In these examples, the mechanical apparatus restricts or eliminates direct human involvement, as if to insist that art is that which exists beyond the limits of the human. Simulating the distance created by Yves Klein’s flame thrower, Nikki de Saint-Phalle’s rifle, Shoso Shimamoto’s cannon, or Jean Tinguely’s robots, Bresson equally relies on cinema’s mechanical operation to distance the viewer from the live event. I discuss this tendency in chapter five through Bresson’s parallels with Yvonne Rainer, who shifts from dance choreography to cinema because the latter offers additional anti-theatrical and anti-narrational possibilities. Russian Constructivist artists take the metaphor of man as machine even further. The connection to Bresson begins in revolutionary Russia with Lev Kuleshov’s development of montage editing as a way of recording the movements and gestures of the human body, much as Bresson fragments the human body into a collection of isolated parts. Bresson’s work similarly constructs meaning, not through one shot or scene, but rather in the way shots are organized to build on or contrast with one another. Bresson phrases the idea in the following way: A film does not consist of images, it consists of the connections between images. And these connections give life. The same is true for color; in painting, a blue is a blue, but if you put it next to a yellow, it is no longer the same blue. Or, next to a red and a yellow, it is even less the same yellow, the same blue, and the same red. I would say that a film not only consists of elements that are images, but also sounds. And not only links, but also rhythm. In other words, the artist ultimately arrives at touch through form.”56

56 Bresson, Bresson par Bresson: Entretiens, 95.


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Bresson’s affinities with Constructivism are especially clear when placed next to the avant-garde theatre techniques of Vsevelod Meyerhold, who is less interested in narrative story than in rhythm, tempo, mise en scène, and color. Meyerhold’s manipulation of his actors through gesture, static poses, and silence, his stark contrast between movement and stasis, and his emphasis on anonymity are equally evident in the way Bresson privileges form over individual human expression. As a result, the viewer focuses on impersonal rhythms and the overall movement of the composition, rather than on actors’ communicative acts. Bresson emphasizes this lack of individual agency through anonymity, whether the use of armor in Lancelot du lac, the use of uniforms in L’argent, or the way crowds act as one unified identity in many of the late films. The painters Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich go even further than Meyerhold in their explorations of geometrical form, using the circle, square, and cross to insist on a work’s nonrepresentational value. American Minimalists in particular associate the work of art with the machine’s rhythmic regularity, efficiency, and lack of interiority. Yvonne Rainer and Frank Stella develop an anti-expressive style that is remarkably close to that of Bresson in its staunch resistance to narrative form, and in the use of such machinic qualities as repetition, or the elimination of the private realm.

The Book Ahead Each of the following five chapters examines a different artistic movement or visual style on display in Bresson’s color films, and has been divided into two sections. Part I, “Classical and Postwar Painting”, covers familiar ground in Bresson scholarship by building on previous studies of Bresson’s use of painting to explore the ways in which he draws on the motifs, tropes, style, and iconography of particular painters from the Middle Ages to the present. These two chapters each begin with a discussion of Au hasard Balthazar, followed by subsections on Une femme douce and Quatre nuits d’un rêveur. Although Au hasard Balthazar is not considered a “late” Bresson film, it nonetheless reveals a dramatic increase in the use of painterly techniques and styles compared to the early and mid-career films. I therefore draw on it both to show how much Bresson begins to self-consciously allude to specific paintings or styles, and to serve as a point of contrast in tracing Bresson’s evolution through the color period. Such a strategy indicates how much the canonical films share, and where they deviate with their lesser known color counterparts in the way they invoke the visual arts.

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Chapter one, “Bresson’s Debt to Painting: Iconography, Lighting, Color, and Framing Practices”, explores parallels between Bresson’s films and innovations in the field of painting. To begin, I examine the techniques that Bresson carries over from the black and white films, in order to parallel or distinguish such methods from the approach of the color films. Subsequent subsections explore the painters and styles that influenced Bresson, including Paul Cézanne and Jean-Antoine Watteau in Au hasard Balthazar; religious painting in Une femme douce, ranging from the Renaissance frescos of Piero della Francesca to the canvases of Bresson’s contemporary Alfred Mannessier that appear in the film; and what I call the “medieval modern” aesthetic as it is developed by Bresson in Lancelot du lac, drawing on the work of Giotto and the baroque use of light by Georges de la Tour. Chapter two, “The Turn to Postwar Abstraction: Action Painting, L’Art Informel, and Le Nouveau Réalisme”, explores the close connection between Bresson’s films and postwar, predominantly French innovations in abstract and gestural art occurring contemporaneously. This chapter also examines Bresson’s distinctive emphasis on the body, which parallels the innovations of other artists of the epoch. One reason for such a remarkable set of parallels is that by the postwar period painting moves from the canvas toward the time-based conventions of cinema by expanding beyond the frame, with an equally transformed relationship between artist and artwork, evident in the approach of Abstract Expressionism (and related manifestations of gestural art in France), L’Art Informel, Le Nouveau Réalisme, tachism, and lyrical expressionism. Bresson positions the protagonist Jacques in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur in much the same way as Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, Piet Mondrian, or Nicki de Saint-Phalle might position themselves to create works that move from the canvas to occupy surrounding space through the mediation of the artist’s body. I am not suggesting, however, that Bresson consciously imitates such a diverse range of movements and styles. Rather, he shares a set of characteristics with avant-garde painters, sculptors, and installation artists of his day in his approach to line, color, lighting, and space. The chapter also explores Bresson’s similarities to the nineteenth-century nocturne as developed by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler occupies an intermediary position between painting and avant-garde experiment in his attention to color, light, line, and form. By comparing his nocturne style to that of Bresson in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1972), I position Bresson between painterly and avant-garde concerns. Part Two, “Avant-Garde Experiment”, pivots to broader stylistic parallels between Bresson and the interwar avant-garde, focusing on three traditions: French Surrealism, Russian Constructivism and American Minimalism.


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Chapter three, “Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism: Sexual Desire, Masochism, and Abjection”, explores both conventional and unorthodox manifestations of Surrealism. I examine the nature of the “Surrealist threshold” in Une femme douce, and I read the protagonist Jacques of Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1972) as a flâneur, drawing on both Louis Aragon’s Le paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928) for comparable examples. I then explore the parallels between Bresson and the Surrealist-influenced work of Pierre Klossowski, whose sadomasochistic novels, drawings, and philosophical writings closely match Bresson’s themes, especially Klossowski’s interest in nonproductive perversity as an alternative to capitalist exchange. I end the chapter by comparing Bresson’s depiction of animals in Lancelot du lac to the contemporary French “cinema of sensation” film movement, which draws on extreme violence, bloodshed, and the “unwatchable” as a way of reducing the human body to its animal state. Chapter four, “The Design and Pattern of the Whole: Constructivist Painting and Theatre”, examines Bresson’s connections to Constructivism through a number of examples drawn from the late films: the kinetic light sculpture of Nicolas Schöffer in Une femme douce; the influence of the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich and the neoplasticism of Piet Mondrian in Lancelot du lac ; and Vsevolod Meyerhold’s approach to theater in relationship to Bresson’s method in L’argent. Since Bresson borrows more overtly from Constructivist influences at the end of his career, I focus on his final three films in this chapter. I also examine the distinctive way in which color is employed in L’a rgent, which is much more systematic and coordinated than in any previous film. What I term the “painterly gesture” in Au hasard Balthazar thus becomes a dedicated commitment to avant-garde and intermedial approaches in the color films. Such a progression reveals stylistic inclinations at particular moments in his life: Quatre nuits and Une femme douce reveal overt Surrealist symbols, themes, and attitudes that first appear in his black-and-white films, while Constructivist influences emerge more strongly in the final three films. I thus chart shifts in Bresson’s approach from the influence of Cézanne and conventional iconographic allusions in Au hasard Balthazar, to a Surrealist phase from 1968 to 1972, most evident in Une femme douce and Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, and to a period of clear Constructivist preoccupations from 1974 to 1983, on display in four films beginning with Lancelot du lac (1976) and ending with L’a rgent (1983). By comparing Bresson’s work to American Minimalism in chapter five, “Between Constructivism and Minimalism: Bresson’s Ambivalence Toward the Modern”, I argue that Bresson’s affiliation with Constructivism

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is necessary limited, since he translates Constructivist themes and tropes into a transformed postwar setting in much the same fashion as American Minimalist artists of the epoch.57 I begin by examining Bresson’s relationship to modernity, and find the same contradiction present in Minimalist art: an embrace of automatism and the machine, but an equally strong anxiety about the destructive aspects of a technological society run amok. Finally, I compare Bresson’s style and themes to the dance aesthetic of Yvonne Rainer, focusing on their shared interest in a machine aesthetics, the use of hands, and the posed portrait, touching on parallel innovations in the work of Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

57 Artists and art historians such as Barbara Rose, Robert Morris, and James Meyer—among others—have underscored Constructivism’s direct influence on Minimalism.

Part 1 Classical and Postwar Painting


Bresson’s Debt to Painting Iconography, Lighting, Color, and Framing Practices Abstract Chapter one examines the way Bresson borrows from styles, techniques, and conventions in the history of painting, with a focus on his diverse collection of framing practices. Subsections focus on the way framing is used in Une femme douce (1969), especially the relationship between shots of the wife and a Cupid and Psyche painting; the way Cézanne’s incommensurate perspectives and flattening of space are mined by Bresson; the use of Christian themes and canvases in Une femme douce to arrive at an invisible spiritual sublime, especially through paintings by Alfred Manessier; and parallels between Georges de la Tour’s baroque nocturnal paintings and Bresson’s lighting practices in Lancelot du lac (1974). Keywords: Alfred Manessier, baroque lighting, framing, Georges de la Tour, Paul Cézanne, the sublime

Robert Bresson develops a filmmaking style that is noticeably different from other directors of his time. I argue in this chapter that such a singular approach is possible because Bresson draws, in a number of highly original ways, on the conventions, style, and iconography of painting. Such tendencies are hardly surprising, since Bresson trained as a painter in his youth, and claims in numerous interviews throughout his career that he never actually left painting, but rather transported a distinctive set of painterly concerns to the cinema, evident from the wide range of painters discussed in Notes sur le cinématographe (1975).1 It is relatively common to encounter comparisons between Bresson and painting, and a handful of articles even tease out parallels between a particular Bresson film and an individual painter’s 1

As far as I know, none of Bresson’s own paintings have survived.

Watkins, R., Late Bresson and the Visual Arts. Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment, Amsterdam University Press, 2018 doi 10.5117/9789462983649/ch01


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style, including work by Giotto, Uccello, Vermeer, Courbet, and Cézanne.2 In her foundational study on the relationship between painting and cinema, Angela Dalle Vacche acknowledges Bresson’s unique contributions to the interchange between painting and cinema, but observes that almost no analysis has been done on the topic.3 Dalle Vacche is quite right: beyond a few preliminary nods, little has been done to explore such connections in a rigorous or detailed way. Studies on the relationship between painting and cinema tend to focus on a small group of f ilmmakers, led by such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, or Peter Greenaway. A central goal of this study is to expand our current understanding of cinema’s relationship to painting and the interarts through Bresson’s work, and to provide a bridge to contemporary studies that trace cinema’s increasing emergence into the white cube of the art gallery. This study thus takes a radically different route from the majority of Anglo-American Bresson criticism, which emphasizes such topics as Bresson’s Christian themes, or on his unique skill at adapting works of literature by Denis Diderot, Georges Bernanos, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. I instead share Jean-Pierre Provoyeur’s view that Bresson’s source texts release him from the necessities of a readable narrative, and that he “chooses to make other things visible than events and their logical sequence: the periphery of actions, the moment that is least significant and least driven by narrative”. 4 Bresson himself phrases the idea in a similar way in discussing his formation as a filmmaker: “What I took in from life were not ideas translated into words, but sensations. Music and painting—forms, colors—were more real for me than all the known books”.5 Bresson’s films might, for this reason, be seen to explore how far one can travel from narrative story, a point Provoyeur

2 On Giotto and Bresson, see Marianne Fricheau, “Le diable dans la lumière de Giotto: Deux petits tableaux et le film de Robert Bresson Le diable probablement,” Robert Bresson (Turin: Canale, 1989), 63-69. On Vermeer and Bresson, see Jean-Claude Rousseau, “Bresson, Vermeer,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. by James Quandt, trans. by Doris Cowan (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival, 2011), 426-431. On Courbet and Bresson, see Susan Hayward, “Cohesive Relations and Texture in Bresson’s Film,¨ L’argent, SubStance 15(3) (1986), 52-68. On Cézanne and Bresson, see Peter L. Doebler, “Going Beyond Cézanne: The Development of Robert Bresson’s Film Style in Response to the Painting of Paul Cézanne,” senses of cinema 43 (April-June, 2007). 3 Angela Dalle Vacche, Cinema and Painting: How Art is Used in Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996): 253, n. 15. 4 Jean-Louis Provoyeur, Le cinéma de Robert Bresson: De l’effet de réel à l’effet sublime (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2003), 89. 5 Yvonne Baby, “L’art n’est pas un luxe, mais un besoin vital,” Le monde (11 November 1971), 13.

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illustrates by comparing a series of episodes of Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon to Bresson’s highly elliptical retelling in L’a rgent.6 The preoccupation with framing is what Bresson most overtly shares with painting, and it unites the subsections of this chapter, whether in the de-framings of Au hasard Balthazar; the complex stagings of light and color in Une femme douce; or the way Bresson draws on the iconography of religious painting in Une femme douce and Lancelot du lac, which suggests the sublime through an invisible, spiritual image that, by definition, exceeds the boundaries of the frame. A final kind of framing is the use of “thresholds” to develop intermedial links to other genres and visual art practices. While the focus is on painting, I necessarily touch on the variety of other iconographic traditions from which Bresson draws in his framing practices, including a bande dessinée, the television screen, photography, and the varied and creative use of light.

The Transition from Black and White to Color To adequately assess what Bresson imports from his black-and-white films, and what he invents anew, it is necessary to look at his trajectory as a filmmaker, and to examine how his approach evolves from such strongly classical work of the 1940s as Les dames de bois de Bologne (1945) to the much more innovative, even experimental films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That transformation is possible, I argue, due to the increasingly overt influence of painting and the plastic arts. Although the influence of painting is discernable as early as the “prison cycle” trilogy from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s—as seen in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962)—it nonetheless remains difficult to establish direct correspondences between Bresson’s style in these films and the characteristics of painting.7 If the prison cycle provides traces of painting, then the subsequent film, Au hasard Balthazar (1966), is an overt, even reflexive statement on the role of painting and the plastic arts in Bresson’s black-and-white films. One can view a tension in Bresson’s career between the plot-driven story and the plastic concerns of texture and form, with the latter gradually overtaking the former. The films that 6 Provoyeur, “Tolstoï et Bresson,” Le cinéma de Robert Bresson, 43-61. 7 In Pickpocket de Robert Bresson (Paris: Yellow Now, 1990), Pierre Gabeston mentions parallels between particular shots and works by Henri Matisse, Robert Delaunay, Georges Braque, and Kazimir Malevich—but such links play a rather tertiary role in his argument.


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Bresson developed with little or no literary influence—including Au hasard Balthazar, Lancelot du lac, and Le diable probablement—for example, reveal less narrative cohesion, and are much more directly influenced by the fine arts. Although some critics contend that his color films are less powerful and innovative than the widely acclaimed black-and-white films of the 1950s, I take a dramatically different stance: rather than restricting Bresson’s talent, the shift to color provides more freedom to experiment with form by addressing in an increasingly complex way such concerns as the play of light and shadow, and the contrast between movement and stasis. But elements of painting emerge in Bresson’s films before 1966, providing the groundwork for subsequent innovation, and revealing important differences from later methods. One of the most obvious traits is the way that characters, shots, and scenes are meticulously framed. Jacques A ­ umont even classifies Bresson as a “cinema-painter” because of the way he foregrounds the frame in his work.8 One unique aspect of Bresson’s films is that he encourages a partial return to what Aumont terms the composed and fixed nineteenth-century ébauche, rather than embracing the fleeting and contigent étude.9 Susan Hayward confirms this pattern in the way the camera almost never moves or follows movement in L’argent, and characters seldom step out of the rectangle of the frame, so that “each shot is thus a single distinct—because discontinuous—unit of time and space”.10 As a result of this fragmented treatment of time and space, a viewer focuses much more on what Hayward calls the texture of shots, “the same effect from the materiality of his text [achieved by Gustave] Courbet from his painting”.11 The composed sequence of motionless tableaux thus indicates a desire to return, not only to the style of Courbet, but to the conventions of painting itself. Bresson’s second feature, Les dames des bois de Boulogne, already reveals his preoccupation with the way characters are positioned within doorways, windows, or captured through the panes of car windshields, glass elevators, or in front of mirrors. Dominique Païni observes that the way Hélène and Agnès are relegated to autonomous space resembles a distinction between sacred and profane realms established in Renaissance painting, especially evident in the way the angel and the Virgin Mary are firmly separated by a pillar in Piero della Francesca’s Annunciation fresco.12 8 Jacques Aumont, L’oeil interminable (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Séguier), 120, 221. 9 Ibid., 38-39. 10 Susan Hayward, “Cohesive Relations and Texture in Bresson’s Film L’argent,” SubStance 15(3) (1986): 66. 11 Ibid., 67. 12 Dominique Païni, Le cinéma, un art moderne (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1997), 133.

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Such a division between realms equally informs Journal d’un curé de campagne, in the bifurcation between the sacred preoccupations of the priest and the terrestrial, malevolent intentions of such characters as Louise, Chantel, and the count. Furthermore, Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc establishes a separation between the spiritual isolation of Jeanne and the vindictive English clergy who watch her through keyholes, cracks in the prison wall, or from the periphery of the courtroom. Bresson carefully regulates space to isolate characters from one another, and to confine protagonists to real or imagined prisons. Although the interest in frames and thresholds is evident from Bresson’s earliest films, he draws more overtly on painterly and even avant-garde themes and styles, and increasingly moves away from the obligations of narrative by the end of the 1950s. A second painterly characteristic that emerges in Bresson´s early films is his attention to light and shadow. Alain Thiher first coined the term “baroque light” to describe the use of light and shadow in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé to classify characters as either morally pure or corrupt.13 Such effects can equally be traced to Les dames de bois de Bologne: when Jean and Hélène speak in her living room, rectangular strips of light are projected on the back wall, or light flickers across a close-up of Hélène’s face, as if to represent visually her Machiavellian scheme to destroy the lives of Jean and Agnès. But Bresson more often introduces artificial light to create dramatic chiaroscuro effects in a scene, such as the bright flames that emanate from the fireplace to illuminate Jean’s face and cast Hélène in partial darkness. This technique anticipates Seraphita’s use of a lantern to illuminate the priest’s face in a wooded night scene in Journal d’un curé de campagne, while, nine years later, the grain merchant’s face is illuminated by a lantern he carries to greet Marie in Au hasard Balthazar. Artificial light is often confined to characters’ faces in the black-and-white films to indicate their mental anguish or moral standing. Rather than simply intensifying dramatic conflicts in his color films, however, such light takes on additional functions that move beyond the limits of character psychology, and even beyond the human realm. I provide examples later in this chapter of the way Bresson captures subtle reflections on the Seine, or films the brightly lit Parisian bateaux-mouches in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, demonstrating a preoccupation with reflections, illuminations, and luminescence in the tradition of the nineteenth-century nocturne as practiced by James McNeill Whistler. I also compare the warm beige glow of the camp lanterns in Lancelot du 13 Allen Thiher, “Bresson’s Un condamné à mort: The Semiotics of Grace,” Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1998), 230.


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lac to the Luminist paintings of Georges de la Tour. Bresson thus becomes progressively more experimental in highlighting a film’s abstract rhythm, whether in the use of chiaroscuro lighting, in the attention to various hues of reflective color, or in the oscillation between movement and stasis, liberties that appear to have been especially mobilized by the turn to color. Bresson’s most important affiliation with painting, I argue, is his attentiveness to color, in part because it subverts the long artistic tradition, stretching from the ancient Greeks to the present, in which artistic line is privileged over color. Rosalind Galt argues that classical film theory falls victim to the same chronophobic tradition as painting in which line is the repository of the true, the beautiful and the good, while color is viewed with suspicion as morally and aesthetically inferior.14 Taking such insights in a congruent direction, Brian Price equates line with a classical Hollywood, realist style, while color belongs to an experimental tradition in which abstraction is preferred to an easily digestible narrative. Price illustrates the way color expands beyond and overtakes the strictures of line in Henri Matisse’s The Joy of Life (1905-1906).15 I compare a shade of blue used by the French painter Yves Klein to a nearly identical tone used by Bresson in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, suggesting that, for the two artists, primary colors contain revolutionary power to loosen figure’s stranglehold on art. Seven years after introducing his signature International Klein Blue (IKB), Klein writes the screenplay and manifesto, The War (of line and color) or toward a monochrome proposition (1954), which recounts color’s historical inferiority to line, and offers a counter movement that begins with Eugène Delacroix, expands in Matisse, and reaches its apotheosis in the elimination of line in his own monochrome work.16 I argue that Bresson is just as aware as Matisse and Klein of the stakes involved in the historical battle between color and line, and, as I discuss, his work can be read as an effort to privilege color over narrative cohesion or sense.

14 Rosalind Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 75. 15 Brian Price, “Color, the Formless, and Cinematic Eros,” Framework 47(1) (Spring 2006): 25. Galt and Price build on David Batchelor’s Chromophobia (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), and Jacqueline Lichtenstein’s The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age, trans. Emily McVarish (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). 16 Luc Vancheri, Cinéma et peinture: Passages, partages, presences (Paris: Armand Colin, 2007), 72-73.

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Deframings in Au hasard Balthazar Perhaps Au hasard Balthazar has the most overt interest in painterly influences because it is one of the few Bresson films without literary model. Critics have correspondingly unearthed a number of painterly antecedents, especially of the donkey Balthazar, from the representation of the lamb in Matthias Grünewald’s Issenheim Altarpiece (1516), to Paolo Uccello’s St. George and the Dragon (1455).17 The analysis of both paintings builds on their status as religious allegories for the mastery of good over evil, including a bleeding and injured animal—lamb and dragon, respectively—as symbol for Balthazar, who suffers a gunshot wound and dies at the end of the film. Both readings underscore the tendency to trace Bresson’s iconography to medieval Christian painting and iconography. But it is surprising that little attention has been given to Bresson’s own professed painterly influence on Balthazar: Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Gilles (1718-19, Figure 1.1).18 Gilles was uncharacteristic of Watteau. For one, the painting was one of his largest, an almost life-size reproduction at 72¼” x 58¾”. For another, the work was displayed outside the typical circles of art exhibition, and may have been a store advertisement.19 Although Watteau was known for his exaggerated commedia dell’arte figures, Gilles “awes us by the power of its affirmation of a real, human presence in the world of theatrical fantasy”.20 We might say much the same for Bresson’s efforts through Balthazar to overturn cinema’s inflated theatricality that corrupts the pure expression of what he terms the “cinématographe”. What is it about Gilles that so caught Bresson’s eye? Donald Posner argues that the painting is a clear antecedent to Jean-Baptiste Pater’s The Comedian’s March (1713-1736), since the same group of commedia dell’arte figures travels through the countryside and momentarily stop to perform for spectators.21 But, while Pater’s parade continues across the canvas, led by an anthropomorphized, clownish donkey, Gilles and his donkey are 17 The first is from Keith Reader, Robert Bresson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 87. The second is from Tony Pipolo, “Au hasard, Balthazar: The Body in the Soul,” Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema, ed. Ted Perry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 265-267. Pipolo offers several possibilities for the way characters in the painting are interpreted in Balthazar; the dragon, for instance, is both Gérard and Balthazar. 18 Bresson makes this remark in an interview with Michel Estève, reported by Estève in Mireille Latil-Le-Dantec, Michel Estève, Stanislas Fumet, and Jean d’Yvoire, “Au hasard Balthazar,” La table ronde 222-223 (July-August 1966): 102. 19 Donald Posner, Antoine Watteau (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 270. 20 Ibid., 271. 21 Ibid., 270.


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Fig. 1.1. Jean-Antoine Watteau Gilles (1718-1719). Gilles closely resembles the Bresson model in his blank expression and controlled pose, with his arms to the side.

suspended in immobility. The other characters in the background, especially the Captain in his bright red hat and jacket, try to coerce the donkey forward, while Gilles stands removed from the activities of the other characters and stares—along with the donkey—directly at the spectator. It is as if direct eye contact with the viewer not only prevents the parade’s forward motion, but also prevents the formation of a cohesive narrative, which was achieved in Pater’s original. Gilles is played out between the procession’s horizontal forward progress across the canvas, and Gilles’s vertical fixedness, which

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suspends activity on his left. This tension between movement and stasis is similarly embodied in Bresson’s lifeless models, whose very existence is anathema to narrative progression or an individual sense of will. Gilles’s lifeless arms, his emotionless, blank stare that seems to look inward rather than project any sentiment or energy toward the viewer, and his imposing white suit that announces his “presentness”, all work together to deliver precisely the kind of inscrutable opacity Bresson seeks in his models.22 Not only does Gilles closely resemble Bresson’s models, but the shape and position of the donkey’s head are remarkably similar to shots of Balthazar, especially the eye of both donkeys, which amplifies what Bresson describes as Balthazar’s automatic eye function that resembles the camera aperature: “The camera can register things that our eye cannot, or more likely, that our mind cannot. What astonishes me is that the mind only shows us the tricks, falsifies what the camera authentically presents”.23 The camera mechanically captures every detail of activity without recourse to conscious understanding; Bresson underscores the similarity between camera and animal eye in calling the camera “a miracle” to human understanding, a sensor that detects any trace of the false.24 The donkey in Gilles blends into the landscape to such an extent that it is difficult to determine where the earth and shrubbery end and the animal begins, reinforcing his function as an inanimate, mechanical lens. The gaze between donkey and spectator in both works equally slows narrative progression to the point of stasis, and derails any effort at an evolving plot. In this way, the donkey’s stubbornness is the stubbornness of painting itself, which prevents forward progress and fixes activity on the suspended stare between spectator and model. It is precisely this stare that Jean-Claude Rousseau finds as key to the aesthetic of Bresson and Vermeer, since, for both artists, events are reduced to “moments of attention, of hearing, of immobility”.25 Attention is, for this reason, frequently thematized in Bresson’s films, as with the condemned man Fontaine in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, who concentrates all of his energy on such tedious tasks as the construction of a rope that will lead to his freedom from prison, or with the pickpocket Michel in Pickpocket, who must attend to the most imperceptible details of his craft to be successful, details that escape the 22 Bresson, “Modèle. Fermé, n’entre en communication avec le dehors qu’à son insu,” Notes sur le cinématographe, 103. 23 Gibert Salachas, “’À propos de Au hasard Balthazar’: Pour le plasir d’écouter et de regarder Robert Bresson,” Téléciné 131 (December 1966): 7. 24 Jean-Luc Godard and Michel Delahaye, “La question: Entretien avec Robert Bresson,” Cahiers du cinéma 178 (May 1966): 68. 25 Rousseau, “Bresson, Vermeer,” Robert Bresson (Revised), 72.


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everyday attention of a victim or passerby. In Bresson, “life and liberty are suspended by this capacity for attention”.26 But, Rousseau continues, for Vermeer and Bresson, the object of rapt attention is seldom revealed, since both artists are interested in what cannot be shown beyond the character’s own gesture toward this ineffable or otherworldly purpose. I would add that the viewer’s absorption in the scene is mirrored in the behavior of the model whose attention is directed toward a mysterious higher calling. Bresson’s focus on such narrative gaps or lacunae, moments that resist a viewer’s full knowledge or understanding, has been situated within the context of modern painting by Pascal Bonitzer in a way that builds on Rousseau’s insights. In his Décadrages: Peinture et cinéma (1985), Bonitzer describes one particular tendency in postwar painting as characterized by “deframings”: efforts to de-emphasize narrative suspense by eliminating key components of the drama, by focusing on trivial objects or elements that conceal causal relations, and by fragmenting scenes into a collection of isolated and incoherent clues. He draws principally from the style of such painters as Leonardo Cremonini, Valerio Adami, Dino Buzzati, Francis Bacon, and Pop artists of the 20th century.27 Concomitant with such deframings is a sadistic relationship between artist and model, since the artist’s aim is to “mutilate and denounce the body outside the frame and focus on dead, empty and sterile areas of the setting”, resulting in narrative fragmentation.28 Bonitzer names Bresson as the artist who most effectively transports this range of stylistic tendencies to the cinema by specializing in the creation of equally fragmentary, oblique, and incoherent situations and events. One characteristic of Pop art that Bonitzer does not mention is its tendency to reach beyond the rarified and elite space of fine art through ironic winks at a wide range of everyday cultural objects, from advertising images, political slogans, and Hollywood celebrities, to Roy Lichtenstein’s emulation of the classic comic strip. Was Bresson equally influenced by such popular art in constructing Au hasard Balthazar? In discussing his sources for Balthazar, Bresson emphasizes his memories from childhood in Auvergne as a key inspiration.29 On another occasion, Bresson responds to the question of influence by stating that the film is “bathed in the countryside atmosphere of [his] childhood”.30 Given this emphasis, one possible influence is the film 26 Ibid. 27 Pascal Bonitzer, Décadrages : Peinture et cinéma (Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, 1985), 80. 28 Ibid. 29 Godard and Delahaye, “La question,” 70. 30 Yvonne Baby, “Entretien avec Robert Bresson, sur son film Au hasard, Balthazar: Pas de parabole, pas de symbole,” Le monde (26 May 1966), 14.

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Fig. 1.2. Teddy and Maggy welcome the donkey Pom into their family, initiating adventures against the adult world.

Jeux interdits (René Clément, 1952), which follows two children, Paulette and Michel, as they struggle to cope with the death of family members during World War Two bombing raids. The children steal crosses from a neighborhood cemetery to create a secret graveyard dedicated to a wide range of animals—including an earthworm, chick, dog, and cockroach—in marked contrast to the ridiculous and petty slapstick squabbles among the adult sphere, namely the Gouard and Dollé families. The film’s sympathies are squarely placed with these two children, obsessed as they are with death and the animal world, and have reverberations in Balthazar. But I would like to focus instead on another popular source that corresponds even closer in style and plot to Balthazar: the Belgian children’s cartoon Les aventures de Pom et Teddy by François Craenhals.31 Bonitzer’s conflation of Bresson’s sado-masochistic tendencies combined with a postwar Pop style calls Pom et Teddy forcefully to mind, since Bresson strives for precisely the kind of 31 François Craenhals, Les aventures de Pom et Teddy (Bruxelles: Collection du Lombard, 1956).


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Fig. 1.3. A young Marie and Jacques roll in hay with Balthazar.

fragmentation and deformation of the human body in order to make it less recognizably human that the cartoon form naturally achieves. Pom et Teddy supplemented issues of Tin Tin for a total of eleven volumes, appearing in French-speaking countries between 1953 and 1963. The inaugural volume begins when Teddy, a young assistant of a magic act at the Tokbürger Circus, introduces a baby donkey to his friend Maggy that they name Pom. Obvious differences between the two works should be mentioned. Pom et Teddy is a children’s cartoon, with innumerable suspenseful adventures in such remote and exotic locales as India, the Congo, and Spain; with near-death experiences; and colorful imaginary characters, such as a bald giant named Tarass-Boulba. Balthazar, in contrast, is an adult story, and its narrative development is correspondingly much more nuanced and complex. Beyond generic differences, though, both works are structured around a fundamental dichotomy between the privileged, secret world of children and animals, and a sinful, depraved adult world that seeks to harass, exploit, and profit from such innocents. The polarized dynamics between the two worlds are established by a preliminary bonding scene between child protagonists, who congeal into a “family unit” to fight collectively against the machinations of the contaminated adult sphere. This bonding scene occurs when the children frolic in hay with the baby donkey: in Pom et Teddy, it occurs under a circus tent (Figure 1.2), while, in Balthazar, Jacques and Marie play with Balthazar in a barn hay loft (Figure 1.3). Both works operate according to a child-like moral reductionism in which motivations fall into strictly good or evil categories. In Pom et Teddy,

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the bourgeois, sadistic boy Cahini beats Pom as Teddy helplessly looks on, while Gérard and his friend pummel Balthazar while Marie looks down— equally helpless—from an upstairs window. Senseless evil is more overtly concentrated in Au hasard Balthazar in the character of Gérard, who lights Balthazar’s tail on fire to get him to move, and, at the end of the film, loads Balthzar with contraband and then abandons him in the Pyrenees, where the donkey is shot by a customs agent. Gérard’s level of malfeasance is matched by the security guard L’impossible, who has an inexplicable loathing for Pom and beats him at every opportunity. Beyond the motivations of pure evil, the larger conflict of these stories is a donkey hero who, simply by his existence, is at odds with human society. The donkey is viewed as a pre-industrial, antiquated relic for whom society no longer has any use, but becomes all the more valuable to children. In Pom et Teddy, Pom becomes obsolete at the circus and is replaced by farm tractors. Teddy hides Pom so he is not taken away. Similarly, Gérard’s gang snickers at Balthazar as an absurd anachronism, and Marie’s father is embarrassed by his reliance on an old-fashioned donkey. The violence and rage of the malevolent characters are most often directed at the bodies of the two donkeys, Pom and Balthazar, who undergo beatings, deprivations of food and water, and a variety of physical wounds that dictate the direction of the plot. Pom is nearly killed and stuffed by a taxidermist, but saved at the last moment by Teddy’s intervention. Although Pom is on his deathbed after botched efforts by a veterinarian to save him, he is ultimately brought back to life by throwing himself in a stream, where he regains his strength, and is ultimately cured. Balthazar is just as close to death when a sledgehammer is brought out to kill him. Instead, Arnold bargains to transport him into the mountains. Soon thereafter, they arrive at a spring where Arnold announces, “Balthazar is healed.” Both stories suggest that it is the naturally occurring and rejuvenating power of water—in the form of a stream or spring—rather than any intervention by human society that saves the donkey from annihilation. Two additional near-death scenes provide the strongest iconographic parallel between the bodies of the two donkeys: Pom is attacked by a wild boar, and lies bleeding in a field (Figure 1.4), while, at the end of Balthazar, Balthazar is in a similar situation as a result of a gunshot wound to the side (Figure 1.5). Both donkeys are sacrificed, left to die alone, although Pom is later resuscitated for more serialized adventures, while Balthazar dies and the film ends. In order to remain within the human world, both stories seem to say, the animal must suffer, buffeted by a continuous onslaught of physical conflicts.


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Fig. 1.4. Pom is left in a field to die after being gored by a wild boar.

Bresson develops a style that brings to cinema a heightened awareness of the relation between artist and canvas characteristic of a wide spectrum of art of his era, concentrating on such themes as automatism, reflexivity, and the negotiation between stasis and movement, human and nonhuman, presence and absence. The ultimate goal, however, is not to develop a cinematic art that matches the greatest works of literature or painting. Instead, Bresson draws on painting, sculpture, and such popular art forms as the bande dessinée. Such forays into the popular echo Karen Beckman’s recent explorations of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s Toute le mémoire du monde (1956), and Resnais’ L’a nnée dernière à Marienbad (1961) to argue that postwar French cinema is indebted to such popular art forms as animation, graphic arts, and the cartoon.32 Beckman argues that the French new wave has been inappropriately understood as an “automatic registration of the world”, 32 Karen Beckman, “Animating the Cinéfils: Alain Resnais and the Cinema of Discovery,” Cinema Journal 54(4) (Summer 2015): 1-25.

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Fig. 1.5. The final shot of Au hasard Balthazar: Balthazar dies alone in a pasture.

when, in fact, they exhibit just as many abstract qualities characteristic of contemporary digital technology.33 André Bazin develops a similar argument for viewing Bresson’s aesthetic in the shifts between realist and imaginary registers. I similarly insist that Bresson’s aesthetic involves moving between a view of cinema as the recording of nature at one moment, and as a carefully molded and constructed edifice in the next moment, since his work is, like that of Resnais, so “permeated and transformed by the neighboring arts”.34 Such gestures in Au hasard Balthazar become increasingly more overt in the subsequent color films of the 1970s.

Framing in Une femme douce Of all Bresson’s films, Une femme douce is the one most explicitly concerned with approaching a shot or scene as the construction of a series of layered planes.35 It also incorporates more references to other works of art 33 Ibid., 21. 34 Ibid., 24-25. 35 One might describe Une femme douce in the same way that Brigitte Peucker describes Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), as “a veritable discourse on framing,


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Fig. 1.6. Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jupiter et Antiope (1715-1716).

than any of his other films, and most of the paintings are of female nudes, as if juxtaposing other famous female models to Bresson’s depiction of his female protagonist.36 In one scene, the wife pages through a book of famous nudes in the history of art, lingering on four: Edouard Manet’s La blonde aux seins nu (1878) and Olympia (1863); the French symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s L’Espérance, or Hope (1871-1872); and Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Jupiter et Antiope (1715-1716).37 A disclosure shot reveals that the last painting is not in fact within the book like the others, but is rather the actual painting at the Louvre (Figure 1.6). unframing, and reframing, both in contrast to and as a reminder of the mobile and changing film frame we often disregard” See Brigitte Peucker, “Un-framing the Image : Theatricality and the Art World of Bitter Tears,” The Companion to Ranier Werner Fassbinder, ed. Brigitte Peucker (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 361. Bresson’s influence on Fassbinder was considerable, evident in the murder scene in Bresson’s Le diable probablement, which is used as the opening sequence of Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979). 36 By turning to the history of the nude in painting to comment on the representation of his protagonist, Bresson’s f ilm illustrates Susan Felleman’s point that the female body is often fetishized as objet d’art in film, whether as painting or sculpture. See Susan Felleman, Art in the Cinematic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). Brigitte Peucker also links cinema’s hybrid tendencies to race and gender in Incorporating Images: Film and the Rival Arts (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995). 37 Husband and wife remain unnamed throughout the film. I refer to him as pawnbroker, and to her as wife or pawnbroker’s wife.

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The pawnbroker tells us in voice-over that the wife’s purpose in visiting the Louvre is to admire the Venus and Psyche nudes, although its sole effect on him is to see women instead as an “instrument of pleasure”. All four paintings are thus concerned with the structure of scopophilic desire projected onto the female body. The connection between these models is established visually, since the pale figure of Hope in the Puvis de Chavannes painting and the ivory flesh of the nymph Antiope—in contrast with the bronze flesh of Jupiter—closely resemble the wife’s alabaster complexion and blond hair. But the connection is also thematically conveyed in the last painting through Jupiter’s act of pulling back the sheet to reveal the nude Antiope. Just at that moment when Watteau refers to his own creative process by including Jupiter, as the one who “reveals” the figured female body and thus functions as artistic stand-in for Watteau, Bresson indulges in a similar act of manipulation by transporting the viewer from the pawnbroker’s apartment to the Louvre. This sequence illustrates the way Bresson uses painting to comment on his own awareness of the way the wife is framed throughout Une femme douce, especially since Bresson makes the comparison using Antiope, a rare Watteau nude and one of his most powerful in terms of “observed posture and movement”.38 Revelation is the theme of another painting that appears in the film: a Psyche and Cupid canvas placed in the living room of the pawnbroker’s apartment.39 The painting is shot and lit in such a variety of ways that it functions as another character, at least as “alive” as the mute housekeeper Anna. As with Watteau’s Jupiter et Antiope, this canvas involves a famous mythological scene of revelation of a nude body: the moment when Psyche, breaking her promise never to look at Cupid, shines a candle on him as he sleeps. 40 As a result of her transgression, she is ostracized from the community and forbidden from seeing Cupid again. Both paintings thus depict a female character abandoned by family and community, not unlike the wife’s increasing isolation once she marries the pawnbroker in Une femme 38 Posner, Antoine Watteau, 80. 39 I have not determined the artist of this painting, which closely resembles a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Italian canvas under the influence of Carravaggio. Cupid’s stillness and posture resemble statuary, much like Perino del Vaga’s Cupid and Psyche fresco (1536-1547), or Caracciolo Battistello’s Sleeping Cupid (1616), in which Cupid holds one hand to the forehead, while one hand crosses the body in nearly identical iconographic style. In all three, Cupid is draped in a red curtain. 40 For a discussion of Psyche’s lamp as a metaphor for the struggle of the soul to view divine light, see Costas Panayotakis, “Vision and Light in Apuleius’ Tale of Psyche and Her Mysterious Husband,” The Classical Quarterly 51(2) (2001), 576-583. The use of light as spiritual illumination in painting is the focus of the subsequent section.


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Fig. 1.7. The nude model framed in front of television set and illuminated Cupid and Psyche painting.

douce. Both paintings also use projected light to parallel the artist’s effort to make the figure visible with the way the body is revealed by a character within the painting. This link is further emphasized by the fact that Jupiter is absent from the shot, as if Bresson replaces the Roman god as the one who performs the revelation. Since Une femme douce is especially concerned with the way the female model is shaped through light and shadow, it is not surprising that the subject of Psyche illuminating Cupid with her lamp was widely copied by Caravaggisti as a way to explore the way a single artificial light could lighten a dark scene. 41 Bresson has similarly turned to Psyche and Cupid to emphasize the importance of light in displaying his model in a particular fashion. Jean Sémolué describes Bresson’s approach using similar terms, as a series of “revealed nudities” of the wife, and associates it with the painterly 41 Sonia Cavicchioli discusses three painters whose canvases of Psyche discovering Cupid’s identity are all explorations of the use of light: Simon Vouet, Benedetto Luti, and the anonymous Candlelight Master. See Sonia Cavicchioli, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche (New York: George Braziller, 2002), 197-198. I return to this connection in the chapter by comparing Bresson to the French Carravagist Georges de la Tour.

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approach of Chardin and Vermeer who “rendered their subjects indissociable from light and color”. 42 A scene on the night of the couple’s honeymoon confirms the close relationship between painting and the wife’s representation. Running across the living room in a towel, the wife abruptly stops—as if arriving at a spike mark on the set—drops her towel to reveal her nude body, looks down, and stands immobile for several seconds (Figure 1.7). Figure 1.7 illustrates the extent to which Bresson’s cinema operates according to what Dudley Andrew describes as thresholds that increase depth through the proliferation of additional forms of art. 43 Dufayal’s television set in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (amélie 2001), for example, functions as both a clothed sculpture and a projection of Amélie’s VHS video art. An additional layer is added by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881), which Dufayal meticulously copies throughout the film. 44 Bresson constructs an even more concentrated image cluster shown in Figure 1.7: the Cupid and Psyche painting on the left, the television and portrait of the wife in the center, a decorative overmantel that provides two additional identical panels in the upper right, and, in the lower right, the back of rectangular and circular art frames stacked against a fireplace, which provides yet another threshold. The carefully placed television set might be seen to function as a conduit between painterly and cinematic models, figured by race cars that travel as if along an electric circuit from the nude in the apartment to the nudes in the painting. Such a proliferation of thresholds suggests additional dimensions, viewing positions, and access routes to the scene, much in the manner of a Cubist painting. It also perhaps explains why Bresson has turned the Cupid and Psyche painting on its side, inviting the viewer to imagine new relationships with the depicted figures that go beyond a singular viewing position, or even conventional notions of figure and ground. Such “picture-turning” has an important history in avant-garde art. The painter Wassily Kandinsky discovered nonobjective art when he saw one of his own paintings placed on its side, such that he could “discern only forms and colors and whose content 42 Jean Sémolué, “Une femme douce,” Téléciné, 157 (1969), 14. 43 Dudley Andrew, What Cinema Is!: Bazin’s Quest and its Charge (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 79. Instead of thresholds, Yvonne Spielmann coins the term “image cluster” to describe the films of Peter Greenaway, in which multiple media or images overlap in one shot or scene to increase spatial density. Quoted in Ágnes Pethö, “Intermediality in Film: A Historiography of Methodologies,” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae Film and Media Studies 2 (2010), 61. 44 Andrew, What Cinema Is!, 77.


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was incomprehensible”. 45 For the Russian literary critic Viktor Shlovsky, such efforts achieve the formalist goal of making familiar objects strange through abstract relationships between elements. Yuri Tsivian argues that such defamilarization is evident in Constructivist photographer Alexander Rodchenko’s tendency to film people and things from unexpected and unconventional viewpoints, and often from extreme high or low angles. 46 Rodchenko’s Pedestrians (Street) (1928), for example, is founded on an optical illusion in which human forms appear as shadows, and it is only when the photograph is turned 90 degrees that humans can be clearly distinguished. Cameraman Mikhail Kaufman achieves much the same effect in his shots of shadows in Kino-Eye (1924), since “for a true Kinok, as for a Constructivist, to see the street in a strange—defamiliarized—way was tantamount to making it more real”. 47 By turning a classical painting sideways, Bresson thus proclaims his affinities with an avant-garde tradition that breaks from naturalistic representation in favor of a defamiliarized art. Bresson’s links in this scene to the “Rodchencko angle” are thus part of a larger pattern of influence from Russian Constructivism that I explore in chapter four.

Embodiment: From Paul Cézanne to Cinema’s Contradictory Perspectives A key figure in painting’s shift toward the cinematic is Paul Cézanne, who plays perhaps the most important role in Bresson’s own artistic development. 48 Bresson not only acknowledges Cézanne’s importance in several aphorisms in his Notes, but also claims, when asked why he abandoned painting, that, after Cézanne, nothing remained to be said. Perhaps what Bresson recognized was Cézanne’s particular success at bringing photographic processes to the realm of painting.49 Jonathan Crary unearths similar 45 Wassily Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, ed. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: DaCapo Press, 1994), 369-370. Felleman historicizes allusions to modernist “picture turning”, focusing on the John Ferren paintings that appear in Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955). Susan Felleman, Real Objects in Unreal Situations: Modern Art in Fiction Films (Bristol: Intellect, 2014), 98-103. 46 Yuri Tsivian, “Turning Objects, Toppled Pictures,” October 121 (Summer, 2007): 106-107. 47 Ibid., 110. 48 See Peter L. Doebler, “Going Beyond Cézanne: The Development of Robert Bresson’s Film Style in Response to the Painting of Paul Cézanne,” senses of cinema 43 (April-June 2007), http:// (accessed July 9, 2010). 49 Such movement is confirmed by Angela Dalle Vacche, who finds in Cézanne’s work a doubling that resembles the blurry shadows and frozen “mummies” of photographic reproduction; the

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Fig. 1.8. Paul Cézanne, Nature morte avec l’Amour en plâtre (Still Life with Plaster Cupid, 1894).

parallels between Cézanne and the contemporaneous work of photographer Jules-Etienne Marey, since both men are concerned with “the recording of temporal processes, motor responses and rhythms”.50 Crary adds that characters’ isolation and alienation symptomatic of mass society; and a shift in methods of perception that challenges painting’s “timeless, stable, and exclusively mental vision”. See “Cézanne and the Lumière Brothers,” Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls?, ed. Angela Dalle Vacche (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 47-48. 50 Jonathan Crary, “Dr. Mabuse and Mr. Edison,” Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996), 269.


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Cézanne’s approach mirrors montage editing, “which bind[s] dramatically different spatial positions into new kinds of syntheses and adjacencies”.51 Crary’s insights are on full display in a work like Cézanne’s Nature morte avec l’Amour en plâtre (Still Life with Plaster Cupid 1894), which dissolves any clear separation between foreground and background, and suggests a Cubist-like attention to the way different perspectives are brought together through a synthetic montage construction (Figure 1.8). In the lower-left corner of Figure 1.8, the bulb of an onion rests on the table placed in the foreground, while, at exactly the point at which the stem turns green, it instead joins the representational surface of another painting in the background. Such a placement emphasizes the rhythm and movement of Cézanne’s own hand as he touches the canvas to link perspectives and objects together.52 The negotiation between the realms of vision and touch thus results in an oscillation between foreground and background, conveying a sense of movement. Still Life with Plaster Cupid, is in this way, constructed out of a series of intentionally incommensurate planes. Cupid’s foreground size, for example, is extremely small in relationship to the enormous piece of round fruit in the background, and the horizontal floor seems to rise up to become a vertical wall. The fact that the background of the painting is populated with overlapping canvases placed at various oblique angles even alludes to Cézanne’s own strategy of creating multiple contradictory planes. Still Life with Plaster Cupid shares tactics with Bresson’s Une femme douce, not only in the inclusion of an artistic Cupid, but in the way both works are built upon a proliferation of allusions to other paintings, books, and works of sculpture. Bresson provides similar Cézanne-like incommensurate perspectives that directly engage the viewer in two ways: by forcing one to reconcile the distant view with the close one (the dynamic exchange between near and far), and by reaching out toward the viewer much in the fashion of cinema. Cézanne’s method directly emerges in the way Bresson’s characters often seem either too close or too far away. In Journal d’un curé de campagne, for example, the priest is presented either through extreme close-ups of a particular gesture of the hand or arm, or, inversely, through a shot in which his body is lost within a much larger landscape, such as between giant trees in a park.53 Bresson either enlarges overlooked 51 Ibid., 270. 52 Richard Shiff, “Cézanne’s Physicality: The Politics of Touch,” The Language of Art History, eds. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 159. 53 Vincent Amiel, Le corps au cinéma: Keaton, Bresson, Cassavetes (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998), 46.

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body parts, or he reduces the human body by placing it within a much larger context.54 Like Cézanne, Bresson thus constructs his shots in the same way that an individual assembles a series of partial views to construct a world from the point of view of one’s own perpetually reorienting body. In a quite similar fashion, Bresson incorporates works of art to force the viewer to shift between distinct near and far planes. His use of background artwork in this way closely matches the approach of Michelangelo Antonioni. Alain Bonfand discovers an “expectant conspiring” between set décor and story in Antonioni’s f ilms: artworks that remain in the background as decoration unexpectedly undergo a transformation—activated by cinema’s own movement—in which they begin to infect the foregrounded narrative events.55 Bresson’s use of painting is often similarly constructed around the dynamic interaction between near and far. Such paintings as Paolo Uccello’s Caccia notturna (The Hunt in the Forest, 1470, Figure 4.2) provide clues to Bresson’s mise en scène strategies. The four perpendicular, symmetrical parasol trees in The Hunt are arranged in relationship to the row of black logs in the extreme foreground. The use of such repeated props are no doubt a product of Uccello’s concern with mathematical precision and Renaissance perspective; the tree trunks thus play much the same role as the jousting poles in the San Romano battle scenes to give the canvas depth and dimensionality. Such sequential, horizontal movement across the elongated canvas equally brings to mind cinematic movement as one still frame passes to the next, just as the same forest background is reproduced at each even spaced log. Instead of creating one central viewing position, the painting instead exhibits, “a complexity of perspectival vistas that emphasizes the dynamism, the agitation, the centripetal force of the whole system, in contrast to the immobile rhythm of the tree trucks in the forest”.56 Uccello is therefore less interested in costruzione legittima than with the contrast between the movement of the hunters and animals and the stasis of the background forest. Bresson creates much the same dichotomy in Lancelot du lac, as knights and riderless horses frantically crisscross the depths of the forest, but the forest itself is always filmed in the same way to appear eternally fixed. The forest is thus simultaneously still and moving in both Bresson’s and Uccello’s renditions. Provoyeur comes to the conclusion that, “What unites Bresson and Uccello is the relationship between scenes 54 Ibid., 52. 55 Alain Bonfand, Le cinéma saturé: Essai sur les relations de la peinture et des images en mouvement (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2007), 126. 56 Franco Borsi, Stephano Borsi, Paolo Uccello (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 267.


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full of movement and fury that are nevertheless static. The characters are fixed in their war-like attitudes.”57 Pope-Hennessey arrives at much the same insight about The Battle of San Romano in the way the canvases are divided in both theme and style into a background and foreground (Figure 4.1). The background functions as a drop curtain at the theater with no spatial reference to the episode in front, making the spectator aware “of the disparity between the false space represented on the backcloth and the real space of the stage”.58 In this way, Uccello contrasts two-dimensional background stasis with dynamic, if not volatile, foreground movement, much as Bresson maintains two discrete registers between a constructed attention to color, light, and geometrical form in the background of a scene, and a foreground occupied with characters that advance the narrative. Both artists thus play with the juxtaposition between the artificial and the “real”, the overtly constructed background and, consequently, the more realistic foreground.59 I will return to this and other frescos by Uccello in later chapters to discuss the considerable parallels between his work and Bresson’s Surrealist and Constructivist influences. Suffice it to say for now that Bresson similarly builds a scene through peripheral shots that bring attention to the insignificant and enlarge the dimensions of the frame. Une femme douce goes even further in the way the oscillation between figure and ground emerges through the fluctuating relationship between the young wife and a Psyche and Cupid painting. Shifting the focus from foreground to background is characteristic of a wide range of films, and is not necessarily signaled through allusion to a photograph, sculpture, or painting. Jennifer Barker observes much the same shift in Andreï Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) when a viewer’s attention is diverted from human figures in the foreground to a long shot of a valley and gently swaying trees as a gust of wind travels across the shot. The viewer looks at the edges and in-between spaces of a frame, in a shift “from the visible to that which makes the visible possible”.60 Hitchcock goes even further than 57 Provoyeur, Le cinéma de Robert Bresson, 321-322. Provoyeur claims that the final battle and death scene in Lancelot du lac contain numerous direct references to Uccello’s Battle of San Romano and The Hunt in the Forest. 58 John Pope-Hennessey, The Complete Work of Paolo Uccello (London: Phaidon Publishers, 1950), 21. 59 Peucker discusses these points in her analysis of Hitchcock, especially his oscillation between still and moving images in creating a balance between the artificial and the real. See Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 81-82. 60 Jennifer Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press), 153.

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Antonioni or Tarkovsky in combining near and far into the camera apparatus itself through the dolly zoom shot. Hitchcock’s crew created this shot for the bell tower stairwell scenes at the San Juan Bautista mission in Vertigo (1958), in which the camera zooms forward while simultaneously dollying backward to film Scotty as he climbs the rectangular staircase. Scotty’s physical and psychological disequilibrium is thus mimicked in the viewer’s experience of a similarly contradictory camera movement. Peucker observes that Hitchcock structures his films around such spectatorial disorientation that shifts between two- and three-dimensionality, which she terms the “oscillation effect”.61 Given our discussion of Cézanne, it is not surprising that Frederic Jameson equates Hitchcock’s shifts between perspectival depth and flat space to Cézanne’s movement between a three-dimensional Cubist space and an abstraction that flattens all forms.62 A key example is a deep shot of tree trunks in North by Northwest (1959), which is contrasted with the two lovers who slowly approach one another from each side of the frame in the foreground. The way the trunks have been layered in space adds depth, even as the lovers’ abstract placement emphasizes the artificiality and flatness of the scene. Brian Price identifies a similar shifting terrain between foreground and background in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002), especially through the incorporation of Jeremy Blake paintings. Anderson alternates between a realist mode and the flattening of three-dimensional space in which any distinction between figure and ground is lost, since a character can no longer be differentiated from the background pattern and colors.63 Phenomenological approaches to film highlight such overlapping planes, since they provide supplementary viewpoints that engage the body in the ordinarily passive act of consuming an image. Jennifer Barker, for example, discusses the proscenium stage in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1928), which enables him to run from the space of the theater, through the screen, and to join the events taking place within the film.64 In a similar fashion, a mirror transforms into a framed passageway allowing Sherlock to pass through it, to the surprise of the audience. For Barker, such frames mimic the viewer’s own identificatory process in negotiating between the space of the theater and the diegetic space of the film. By using a cameraman who passes between these two worlds, Keaton creates contrasting frames much 61 Peucker, The Material Image, 81-82. 62 Ibid., 99-100. Frederic Jameson, “Spatial Systems in North by Northwest,” Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (New York: Verso, 1992), 62-63. 63 Price, “Color, the Formless, and Cinematic Eros,” 23-24. 64 Barker, The Tactile Eye, 98-106.


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in the way that Cézanne’s Still Life with Plaster Cupid forces the viewer to resolve the incompatibility between several spaces or planes, and to reflect on the way the image itself has been constructed or framed. Elena del Río similarly describes the wide variety of screens in Adam Egoyan’s Speaking Parts (1989), which function to “decompose the notion of a flat, singular, and immediate image”.65 Lance and his sister Lisa interact through technological screens, including the film itself, a television screen that presents Lance’s audition, and telephone video screens to facilitate Lance and Clara’s present-day discussions. Egoyan’s film is, in this way, structured according to a multiplicity of bodily representations that inhabit different spatial and temporal sites. For del Rìo, the contrast between Lance’s various technological identities emphasizes the concept of “perspective”, which takes into account the materiality and motility of the body: “For any relation between seer and seen to be established, then, the seer cannot merely consider the seen as a distant object, but rather has to bridge the gap that constrains the object into remaining a separate entity.”66 Egoyan’s frames generate contradictory perspectives that are only possible if experienced through a mutable and multiple lived spectatorial body, rather than as that body might be represented. Each in their own unique way, Cézanne, Hitchcock, Keaton, and Bresson equally construct the image with an interest in inserting the human body into a detached, panoramic view.

Religious Painting: Iconography, Framing, Space, and Light in Une femme douce While many categorize Bresson as a religious filmmaker, perhaps his passionate interest in methods of figuration in the history of painting provides a more accurate explanation for his focus on Christian characters, subject matter, and themes.67 In his exploration of the way the seventeenth-century 65 Elena del Río, “The Body as Foundation of the Screen: Allegories of Technology in Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts,” Camera Obscura 38 (May 1996): 92-115. 66 Ibid., 106. 67 Brian Price similarly warns against maintaining the conventional view of Bresson as a “religious f ilmmaker preoccupied with questions of grace and predestination, election and salvation, and the enactment of theological problem[s].” See Price, Neither God Nor Master, 3. Vivian Sobchack arrives at a similar conclusion, suggesting that Christian themes in overtly “religious” films such as Bresson’s early work serve as allegories for deeper phenomenological questions. See Vivian Sobchak, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 298.

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Dutch vanitas still life emerges in European cinema, Jacques Aumont demonstrates that references to canonical Christian themes and symbols are commonplace among postwar European directors.68 One could easily add Une femme douce to Aumont’s chosen examples, since the protagonist’s dead body serves as a memento mori, and her indulgence in the pleasures of the body—in particular the scene at the couple’s apartment in which she eats éclairs, listens to records of classical and jazz music, and pages through one book of animal anatomy and another of famous female nudes in painting—reads like a Christian treatise on temptations to be renounced when placed next to the timeless, spiritual domain of God.69 But it may be just as accurate to view Une femme douce’s Christianity through the seventeenth-century emergence of vanitas as through the tradition of medieval icon painting. Bonfand argues that the films of Andreï Tarkovsky create an image that becomes an “icon” in the religious sense of a painting that captures the imprint and emanates the spirit of Christ. Tarkovsky himself claims that the icon “captures the absolute in the image. It is by the image that a sense of infinity is expressed that goes beyond its limits: the spiritual in the material, immensity within the dimensions of a frame”.70 The key to achieving icon status in Bonfand’s reading is in the way light emanates from the body, therefore signifying a movement from materiality to immateriality: “The Trinity is not defeated, but rather joined and reconstituted at that moment in which the frame is inundated with light.”71 Tarkovsky achieves such spiritual transcendence in Andrei Rublev (1966) by increasing the use of thin strands of yellow light or silk until, “a gold rain invades the foreground and radiates in all space”.72 Gold is the ideal material to signify a spiritual liberation from earthly ties. But, while Andrei Rublev directly resurrects the icon as the image dissolves into a painting at the end, the saintly icon in Stalker (1979) is instead diffused throughout the film in fragmented shots of the Zone.73 Bresson’s approach might be best described as following the indirect pattern of Stalker, since 68 Jacques Aumont, “´Migrations’ ou le spectre de la peinture,” Matière d’images (Paris: Éditions Images Modernes, 2005), 41-57. 69 Dahan even reads Une femme douce as a “fresque” of Vanitas, witnessed in three symbols of egotism and human finitude that repeatedly emerge in the film: mirrors, gold, and prehistoric bones. See Danielle Dahan, Robert Bresson: Une téléologie du silence (Heidelberg: Winter, 2004), 149. 70 Qtd. in Bonfand, Le cinéma saturé, 242. 71 Ibid. 72 Ibid., 243. 73 Ibid., 245.


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Fig. 1.9. The pawnbroker positioned next to Alfred Manessier’s Résurrection.

the icon is introduced obliquely through the film in the form of fragmented shots, gold art frames or bed frames, and a preoccupation with natural light. The paintings on display in Une femme douce add further evidence to the notion that Bresson’s interest in Christianity is primarily a method to tap into its iconographic traditions. For example, Bresson introduces three canvases by the French lyrical abstractionist Alfred Manessier shot on location at the Musée national d’art moderne, a painter who turns to Catholic iconography in parallel ways, and who equally gestures toward a mysterious spirituality beyond the visible world. If a painting within a film redirects attention from narrative concerns toward inconspicuous spaces, then that gesture seems doubled here through Bresson’s use of the only rack focus in the film, which shifts attention from the back of the pawnbroker’s head to a bright yellow-red sun positioned adjacent to him in Manessier’s Résurrection (1961, Figure 1.9). Louis Marin maintains that Manessier’s turn to religious themes was a response to a representational impasse in painting initiated by Cubism and exacerbated by Abstract Expressionism.74 It is therefore not by accident that Manessier’s artistic passage from figuration to non-figuration takes place 74 Louis Marin, “Manessier ou comment le religieux fait peintre,” Manessier (Paris: Centre national des art plastiques, 1992), 21. Marin provides examples of Abstract Expressionism’s equal turn toward religion to resolve vexing problems of representation: Jackson Pollock’s

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at precisely the moment of his religious conversion at a Trappist Monastery when he sings the Salve Regina.75 For Marin, Manessier’s goal is to depict the non-representable God, precisely that same effort as Bresson to make the spiritual realm visible through the absence or dissolution of figure. Could Bresson then suggest a parallel between Manessier’s path toward non-figuration and his own, in the way both contrast an earthly materialism to an invisible higher spiritual meaning? If so, then Manessier’s magnificent sublime would perhaps be transformed into a force of terror and despair in Bresson’s late films. Bresson and Manessier’s distinct manifestations of the sublime may be attributable to the art medium in which they appear, a concept explored by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Benjamin places painting within the realm of religion and the sacred, in contrast to the mechanical, automatic operation of the cinema. But Benjamin suggests that, by lingering on such things as human faces, the cinema has not eradicated the aura as much as reduced it to a series of fragmentary appearances. Aumont’s notion of “migration” suggests a comparable film archaeological model, in which cinema permits the emergence of a wide range of often subterranean visual material.76 Bresson’s allusions to painting thus mimic the structure of cinema itself, which operates through glimpses into the auratic wholeness of past artwork. What Benjamin terms “the blue flower in the land of technology” to describe cinema, might be an equally accurate description of Bresson’s protagonist insofar as she is continuously associated with the painted portrait.77 Cinema’s dialectical battle with the aura is reflected in Bresson’s effort to recapture such wholeness through depictions of the wife, who is equally tethered to the history of painterly representation. I am not alone in noting Bresson’s insistent turn to Christian iconography found in painting. As previously mentioned, Dominique Païni observes a carefully maintained divide between the sacred, nonhuman realm of Hélène (Maria Casarès), and the human, profane space of Agnès (Élina black paintings (1952); Barnett Newman’s stations of the cross (1962-1966); and Mark Rothko’s ecumenical chapel in Houston (1964-1967). 75 Ibid., 22-23. 76 Aumont, “´Migrations,’ ou le spectre de la peinture,” 57. 77 Walter Benjamin coins this phrase in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955), 219-253. Miriam Hansen discusses the phrase’s importance (and its English mistranslation) in “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,’” New German Critique 40 (Winter, 1987): 179-224.


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Fig. 1.10. Piero della Francesca, Annunciation (1452-1466).

Labourdette) in Bresson’s first feature-length film, Les dames de bois de Bologne, which is duplicated in Annunciation paintings.78 Encounters between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are often staged such that the realms demarcating the spiritual and the earthly are distinctly separated from one another. In Piero della Francesca’s fresco Annunciation (part of the Legend of the True Cross series (1452-1466)), for example, Mary has been isolated from the angel by a large white pillar that firmly demarcates human activities directly within the purview and protection of the building 78 Païni, Le cinéma, un art moderne, 133.

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from spiritual ones that take place in the full expanse of God, heaven, and nature (Figure 1.10).79 In terms of staging, temporal development, and dramatic relationships between characters, such a scene is replicated when Hélène visits Agnès’s home. In Bresson’s reformulation, Agnès’s mother occupies the position of Mary, shown genuflecting before Hélène; Helène incarnates the spirit of an evil angel, dressed in a cloak and all-black clothing, not entering the home, and immobile for most of the sequence; and the rebirth of Christ becomes the rebirth of Agnès.80 Much like the angel who remains outside the human sphere, Hélène is posted behind the window, removed from the activities of the home. For Païni, Bresson’s goal is to fuse together two contradictory “desiring-spaces”: the spiritual world of Hélène and the terrestrial world of Agnès.81 The sequence is not only self-consciously aware of the role of framing, but even makes reference to such strategies by placing two empty frames next to Agnès’s door where her mother and Hélène pass (Figure 1.11).

Fig. 1.11. The positioning of empty frames as a moment of “Bresson fecit” when he indicates the central role played by framing in his work.82

79 Ibid., 131-132. 80 Ibid., 133. 81 Ibid., 134. 82 Ibid.


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In this way, Bresson indicates the organizing logic of the film: the closing off of any contact between two spaces, represented by two empty frames that have been placed at the entrance to Agnes’s home. Bresson imports from Renaissance art the notion that the sacred is an autonomous space removed from everyday space. But perhaps the most important aspect of religious painting for Bresson is his careful attention to shadow and light, a connection I have suggested through reference to Tarkovsky and Manessier. Bresson chooses artwork for Une femme douce that is concerned foremost with the way light is projected onto and reflects surrounding surfaces, precisely what Marin terms Manessier’s “radiance principle”.83 For Manessier, light makes the object visible, not unlike the way in which Psyche’s candle, as surrogate for the artist, permits Cupid to be seen. The focus is thus not on the object, but rather on its emergence out of nothingness: “The ultimate offering of ‘the religious’ by painting is the visible itself under its transcendent condition of emergence with respect to the light: light permits the visible to be seen”.84 Light also enables the artist to move toward non-figuration by attempting to capture the invisible world hidden within the visible.85 Light actively shapes the contours of space by determining what remains hidden and what will be seen; it displays the twin qualities of revelation and concealment so central to Bresson’s project in Une femme douce. If light is the catalyst that brings Manessier’s canvas to life, then Bresson employs light in much the same way to add movement to the flat surface of his Cupid and Psyche painting. Such deliberate attention to light supports the claim that filmmakers learned from Northern European painters to “use light as if it were alive, inviting it and coaxing it to expand and create its own visions”.86 To the extent that the pawnbroker’s wife has been immobilized, the characters in the Cupid and Psyche correspondingly spring to life. When the wife turns on the television, for example, Psyche’s light forms a funnel shape on the canvas that is narrow at the top and becomes brighter and wider across Psyche’s body. But, when the wife returns from the bathroom in a towel, the light has changed into a well-delineated rectangle (Figure 1.7). This rectangle has the same dimensions as the television screen, as if Psyche’s light mysteriously transforms to correspond to the emanations from the 83 Marin, “Manessier ou comment le religieux fait peintre,” 26. Like Matisse, Manessier was equally known for his stained glass windows in churches, underscoring the importance of light for him in artistic creation. See J. P. Hodin, Manessier (Bath, England: Adams & Dart, 1972), 8. 84 Ibid., 25. 85 Ibid, 23. 86 Anne Hollander, Moving Pictures (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1989), 16.

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Fig. 1.12. Dominique Sanda carefully positioned for the night, much like the Caravaggisti figures of Cupid and Psyche on display behind her.

television once it has been turned on, suggesting that both media create images through practices of illumination.87 In a later scene, the pawnbroker demands that his wife sleep in a separate bed. But, instead of going to this spot, she instead remains seated on a chair directly in front of the Cupid and Psyche painting for the entire night. Cupid and Psyche, along with the wife, are now illuminated by a rectangular beam of light that seems to shine on their heads as much as on hers (Figure 1.12). The wife is again presented as more inanimate than the mythological characters behind her. Changing the light suggests that the Cupid and Psyche canvas communicates a different story to the viewer in each sequence. Such overt manipulations of light are dramatically contrasted to presentday scenes with the husband and Anna after the wife’s suicide in which all shadow has been eliminated through the use of three-point lighting. Bresson suggests that, once the wife has died, any modeling of the set, any depth created through interactions between character and set, becomes impossible. It is perhaps because the wife’s representation is so bound to

87 Through his depictions of the television in Une femme douce, Bresson seems receptive to early manifestations of video art, inaugurated the same year by the “TV as a Creative Medium” exhibit at Howard Wise Galley in New York City.


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Fig. 1.13. Light as protagonist: gradually illuminating the feet of Cupid and chest of Psyche.

light and shadow that her affiliation with Psyche and Cupid remains so strong throughout the film. A subsequent low-angle shot at the end of the night scene generates one of the most mysterious sequences in the film: the camera has been moved to the corner, as if Bresson has selected one particular spot for closer inspection within Figure 1.12. We see the lower left of the Cupid and Psyche painting, consisting of Cupid’s feet, Psyche’s hand and torso, two small canvases to the left, and the heavy green window curtains that Bresson uses to reconfigure space in imitation of neoclassical painting (Figure 1.13). As with Figure 1.7, this shot is divided into a series of thresholds—window, canvases, and curtains—placed at oblique angles to the camera. One of Bresson’s characteristic traits, introduced as early as Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, is to focus on the legs and feet rather than the faces of his models. The focus in this shot is on the feet of the painted Cupid, indicating to what extent Bresson views his models and painted figures as interchangeable. Nothing moves in this ten-second shot, except for light traveling through the window to increasingly illuminate the floor and Cupid and Psyche’s naked bodies. By using light to increasingly illuminate Cupid and Psyche, Bresson again parallels his own figuration of the wife to Psyche’s use of candlelight to figure Cupid. Both sequences with Cupid and Psyche underscore the importance of light as a key framing device

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of the film, and the degree to which Une femme douce can be seen as a self-aware construction of the wife’s portrait.

The Medieval Modern Aesthetic in Lancelot du lac In what is perhaps the most comprehensive study on the links between medieval and modern art, Alexander Nagel argues that medieval visual representation has an extensive set of philosophical, stylistic, and spiritual links to the modern, a fact that is key to understanding how Bresson’s work could be simultaneously influenced by artists from both time periods. 88 Even in limiting discussion to the modern artists examined in this study, the links to medieval art are plentiful. Nagel devotes a chapter to the medieval concept of the “cathedral lodge”, which was revived by Yves-Klein and explored by both Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and Henri Matisse in their interest in reflective light, especially through the use of stained glass in churches or cathedrals.89 Bresson is similarly inclined to use light and color to suggest spiritual epiphany. Such links to the Middle Ages seem directly expressed through Bresson’s gravitation to projects based on such celebrated figures as Jeanne d’Arc and Lancelot. Bresson’s use of bright gold tones in Une femme douce and Lancelot du lac is also reminiscent of the way gold leaf is employed in medieval book illumination. Jean Sémolué, for example, suggests that the vivid paintings that appear in Duke René d’Anjou’s fifteenth-century allegorical poem Le livre d’amour épris (The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, 1457-1470) bear striking similarities to Bresson’s film in the iconography, costumes, and use of saturated colors. I identify similar parallels in Bresson’s work to gothic, medieval, baroque, and early Renaissance painting. Bresson was captivated by the story of King Artus and the knights of the round table, and had wanted to create a film version of the legend for at least 20 years, until he was finally able to secure funding in 1974 for Lancelot du lac. Why did this story hold so much interest for so long? I argue that it is connected to his interest in a film that fully expresses the plastic qualities of painting, including a concern with light, color, line, and volume. To understand the extent to which Bresson borrows from medieval precursors, it may be helpful to compare his approach to that of Andreï Tarkovsky, since Bresson is similarly concerned with the way the material can invoke a spiritual infinity that surpasses its frame or limits. By turning to a medieval story, Bresson seems 88 Alexander Nagel, Medieval Modern: Art out of Time (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012). 89 Ibid., 14-15.


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to signal precisely this desire to return to an indexical, premodern form of visual expression, matching his style to the subject matter and themes of the film. Tarkovsky’s insights into the relationship between religion and cinema, along with Nagel’s meditations on the affinities between medieval and modern are not the only clues that Bresson’s Lancelot consciously turns to a premodern aesthetic. In chapter three, I compare the distinctive faces of Bresson’s models to those of the artist Balthus, suggesting a shared style that harkens back not only to medieval figuration, but even more directly to Byzantine painting. Barthélémy Amengual was one of the first to comment on the way both Bresson and Byzantine art draw simultaneously on the concrete and the abstract, the sensual and the spiritual, even combining them into one as spiritual icon.90 Paul Schrader expands on Amengual’s insight, focusing on the way Bresson’s models and Byzantine works of art emphasize, “frontality, nonexpressive faces, hieratic postures, symmetric compositions, and twodimensionality”.91 Especially convincing are side-by-side illustrations between the elongated face of a twelfth-century Byzantine Christ and the similarly extended, slender face of Martin Lassalle, the protagonist of Pickpocket.92 Bresson’s stoic models call to mind similar anonymous Byzantine figures, especially in the way such stylization influences subsequent painters like Giotto and the impassive portraits of nobility by Giovanni Bellini. In a review of Lancelot when the film was released, Amengual claims that Bresson recognizes in medieval illumination, the heraldic, and the emblematic form his own art. Amengual asks, “Doesn’t illumination, like Bresson, excel in signifying, in creating more by depicting less?”93 Amengual suggests that both Bresson and medieval illumination rely on a repertoire of symbol to convey particular meaning to the viewer.94 Vincent Amiel, Amengual’s colleague at the journal Positif, elaborates on this suggestion, finding three central parallels between medieval illumination and Bresson’s style. The first is the way both forms condense events, which brings the image close to the function of a sign, and is similar to Amengual’s notion 90 Barthélémy Amengual, “Rapports avec l’art byzantine,” S. M. Eisenstein, Premier Plan 25 (October, 1962), 97. For additional parallels between Byzantine and modernist art, see Clement Greenberg, “Byzantine Parallels,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1961), 167–170, which parallels modernist abstraction to the flatness and literalness of the Byzantine gold and glass mosaic, as well as its emphasis on full color that radiates into spectatorial space. 91 Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 99. 92 Ibid., 99-101. 93 Barthélémy Amengual, “Lancelot du lac,” Positif 162 (October 1974): 55. 94 Ibid.

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of the “emblematic”.95 Just as the medieval image, “liberates itself from the movement of the text by using iconic fragments”, so too do Bresson’s “flattened images liberate themselves from the narrative to insist on the power of the present moment”.96 Secondly, the medieval image is powerful enough to create a new reality and is given equal weight to the word, rather than simply being its illustration, which is its customary role in nineteenthcentury book images. Finally, words and images are juxtaposed to one another such that the visibility of writing is contrasted to the readability of the image. On this last point, one can see the way Bresson frequently conveys important information through a sound rather than through a visual image. Bresson’s propensity to use text or voice-over in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé and Journal d’un curé de campagne often provide the same information twice, just as a text—such as the priest’s diary—is shown as words are being written. Written or spoken words therefore do not function as commentary on the image, but rather stand on their own and are used to contrast one media with another. Echoing the way Amiel parallels Bresson and medieval illumination through a similar method of using “iconic fragments”, Marianne Fricheau notes that Bresson’s films are constructed much like the medieval fresco.97 By this, she means that scenes are assembled such that they do not suggest any natural progression or relationship between each other, much as Bresson presents scenes as isolated events with little connection or cause and effect relationship to preceding or subsequent scenes. In addition, what stands out in both Giotto and Bresson’s depictions is the ordinariness of activities, whether in the way one of the apostles holds his wine glass in Giotto’s La cène (1320-1325), or in the way Bresson momentarily suspends a body in movement, focusing on “the profile, the bent arms, one leg held toward the back in a gentle equilibrium”.98 Consequently, Bresson and Giotto do not use figuration as a way to advance the narrative, but rather they approach significant historical events, “with complete liberty in the choice of details and in their representations. Each sequence has the value of a piece of a fresco.”99 Both artists thus deflate significant historical events or people through the everydayness of their depictions. In what will become a central 95 Vincent Amiel, Lancelot du lac de Robert Bresson (Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2014), 6-7. 96 Ibid., 102. 97 Marianne Fricheau, “Le diable dans la lumière de Giotto: Deux petits tableaux et le film de Robert Bresson Le diable probablement,” Robert Bresson (Turin: Canale, 1989), 67. 98 Ibid., 68. 99 Ibid., 67.


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refrain, Amiel calls Lancelot du lac an “anti-story”, not only through the use of a disconnected style, but also by stripping the widely known historical legend of almost all familiar events and supernatural occurrences.100 The scene in which King Artus pulls a sword from solid rock, for example, so celebrated in the special effect wizardry of John Boorman’s Excaliber (1981), is removed in Bresson’s austere adaptation. Bresson’s art is based on breaking the conventions of story by defamiliarizing the viewer and emptying the story of narrative event, so that Lancelot becomes the mundane events of a group of knights who patiently wait at a mostly deserted encampment, and silently bemoan their precipitous downfall. Despite this brief inventory of parallels between Bresson and the medieval image, I align much more closely with scholars who view Lancelot as a modern work.101 While significant correspondences exist between Bresson’s style and medieval approaches to color, light, and composition, Lancelot ultimately feels like a modern notion of the medieval period. Bresson encourages such a reading when he confesses that, “in working [on this film], it never occurred to me that the armor could have come from another époque than ours. [It is] simply iron clothing that makes sounds, music, rhythm”.102 Michel Estève similarly observes that not only the armor, but a range of other objects including tents, the round table, and the wooden tub are conscious anachronisms that do not try in the least to be authentic reproductions.103 Later in the same interview, Bresson elaborates on the genesis of the film: “Probably the events of Lancelot came to me from the temptations of modern life”, giving as an example the way that the contemporary crisis of the Church in France is paralleled in problems with religious faith among King Artus´s knights.104 Such comments cast doubt on whether Bresson’s film was designed to have any genuine correspondence to the medieval period. 100 Amiel, Lancelot du lac, 21-23. 101 Film scholars tend to highlight the film’s modernist qualities, while medievalists stress its links to the Middle Ages. Kristen Thompson discusses Bresson’s patterns of light, color, and form over narrative story, while Vincent Amiel argues that Lancelot du lac firmly distances itself from the Lancelot tradition. On the other side would be such works as Brian Levy and Lesley Coote, “The Subversion of Medievalism in Lancelot du lac and Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Postmodern Medievalisms, ed. Richard Utz, Jessie G. Swan (D. S. Brewer, 2005), 99-126, which directly connect Lancelot du lac to medieval aesthetics; and Jean Delmas, “Robert Bresson et ses armures,” Jeune cinéma 82 (November 1974), 19-24, and Hervé Gauville, “Lancelot du sang,” Robert Bresson, Camera/stylo 5 (January, 1985), 100-103, who analyze Lancelot in terms of traditions of courtly love. 102 Baby, “Du fer qui fait du bruit,” 15. 103 Michel Estève, Robert Bresson, rev. ed. (Paris: Seghers, 1974). 104 Baby, “Du fer qui fait du bruit,” 15.

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It is perhaps best to think of Lancelot du lac as a modern work that, like other modern visual works discussed by Nagel, has stylistic affinities with the Middle Ages, even while maintaining a distinctive modern sensibility.

Georges de La Tour’s Baroque Lighting Effects Although Sémolué only notes in passing that the Quattrocentro painter Piero della Francesca’s Le songe de Constantin (1459-1466) bears iconographic similarities to Bresson’s Lancelot du lac, several parallels immediately stand out: the contrast between physical and spiritual worlds, matched by the illumination or darkness of particular regions of the canvas; the decision to stage the scene at the tent’s entrance, which reflects Bresson’s predilection for placing a shot at the ambiguous threshold between interior and exterior space; the use of saturated primary colors; and the use of chiaroscuro lighting to contrast the brightly illuminated tent in the foreground with other elements in silhouette or darkness, including the soldier on the left, the sides of the tent, and distant background tents. Especially reminiscent of Bresson’s film is the use of small fragments of vivid color, such as the thin band of cerulean blue on the inside of the attendant’s gown in the foreground that unobtrusively grabs the viewer’s attention. Although Le songe de Constantin hints at a number of Bresson’s representational strategies, it anticipates the more exaggerated luminism of Caravaggio and Georges de La Tour one hundred years later, which even more closely matches Bresson’s style, iconography, and use of light. Bresson’s baroque lighting style does not suddenly emerge in his late work. As mentioned, Allen Thiher identifies a Christian “baroque code” at work in Un condamné à mort s’est echappé, based precisely on representational codes elaborated by Georges de La Tour and Philippe de Champaigne in the tension between light and shadow in Fontaine’s cell, and in the way Bresson uses light volumes to differentiate between characters.105 Thiher concludes: “The tension between light and dark is thus already codified, for it designates a semantic space created by the opposition of flesh and spirit, free will and grace, or human and divine”.106 For Georges de La Tour and other baroque painters, the stark contrast between divine, Christian light and the darkness of the material world reveals the point of demarcation between good and evil. Such moral allegory is at times replicated in Lancelot du 105 Thiher, “Bresson’s Un condamné à mort,” 230. 106 Ibid.


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lac in the dynamic between the knight’s camp as a refuge of good and light, in contrast to either the nefarious silhouette of Mordred, or the dark forest that the knight Lionel describes as the “land of the devil” in Lancelot. Although La Tour and Bresson oppose flesh and the human world to the divine realm, for both artists, the body is the necessary conduit for access to the spiritual domain. The most sensual of La Tour’s four depictions of the repentant Magdalene, The Repentant Magdalene with a Document (c. 1630‑1635), provides a model for this dynamic: the semi-nude Magdalene, whose face is hidden by her thick brown hair, except for her lips and nose, leans sensually toward the candlelight to inspect a human skull she holds in her hands. The golden candlelight illuminates her face and chest, while her sides and the rest of the room remain in darkness. Philip Conisbee claims that, because Magdalene “had hidden herself away from the eyes of men,” this image has a strong voyeuristic component for the spectator; her seductive pose is contrasted to the solitary, meditative study of a skull and a text.107 While he concludes that the painting is about the mortality of the flesh in the tradition of the vanitas, I would add that this image does not retain a moralistic tone, especially as it is simultaneously a sensual celebration of her present, nude body as she leans toward the flame. Much like Bresson’s depiction of la femme douce, which is equally a memento mori in which moral judgment has been replaced with a celebration of sensual pleasure, La Tour creates a dynamic tension between the material world and the spiritual life of his figures; the scene is thus both a heightened sensorial experience and a more spiritual one. Of all the painters from whom Bresson borrows in Lancelot du lac, Georges de La Tour’s influence is the most transparent, not only on the level of iconography, but also in the way their models are similarly depicted. Although La Tour is known as the “undisputed leading figure in European Caravaggism”, his simplified forms, along with the development of a tranquility and stillness in character and setting, is much more spiritual and meditative than that of Caravaggio.108 La Tour’s nocturnal paintings are characterized by a narrow field of vision that generally concentrates on only one or two figures. Much in the way that Bresson heavily suppresses movement or activity in his models, viewers are struck by La Tour’s compositional “simplicity and sobriety”.109 In particular, 107 Philip Conisbee, “An Introduction to the Life and Art of Georges de La Tour,” Georges de La Tour and His World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 104. 108 Claude Falcucci, Simona Rinaldi, “A Candle in the Darkness: Light and Shadow in the Paintings of Georges de La Tour,” The Adoration of the Shepherds, Christ with Saint Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop, ed. Valeria Merlini, Dimitri Salmon, Daniela Storti (Milan: Skira, 2011), 167. 109 Dimitri Salmon, “Christ with Saint Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop and The Adoration of the Shepherds: Two Masterpieces by Georges de La Tour,” The Adoration of the Shepherds, Christ with

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his models are characterized by innocence, purity, and deep contemplation, often looking downward to avert their gaze from direct contact with the spectator. Following Michael Fried’s insights into the depiction of models in eighteenth-century French painting, La Tour’s models are characterized by their intense absorption in activities that distract them from the viewer, just as Bresson’s models seem carefully removed from the spectator’s probing gaze.110 An additional similarity that underscores both artists’ concern with the sensorium of the human body is their shared interest in the depiction of hands. Conisbee observes that La Tour, “focuses his most intense energy on hands and faces”.111 Some of La Tour’s most famous early paintings depict sleight of hand, which emphasizes a shift away from a psychological or narrative story to the lived conditions of physical bodies.112 Such works include La diseuse de bonne aventure (The Fortune-Teller, 1630-1634); Le tricheur à l’as de trèfle (The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, 1630-1634); and Le tricheur à l’as de carreau (The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, 1630-1634), all of which involve one character cheating another through acts of deception. One might also include Rixe de musiciens (The Musician’s Brawl, c. 1625-1630), in which the musicians’ faces on the right side convey enjoyment and pleasure, in contrast to the weapons in the hands of the two central characters: a shawm used by the figure on the right, and the other who wields a knife in one hand and a hurdy-gurdy crank in the other. By looking from faces to hands, the scene dramatically shifts in mood from celebration to deadly violence. Such paintings offer direct parallels to Bresson’s Pickpocket, which explores what a thief’s hand does unbeknownst to either the head or eyes of his victims. But, more commonly in the nocturnes, La Tour depicts delicate, semi-transparent hands that shield or redirect a single candle’s reflected light, focusing less on the light itself than on the way that light is sculpted by a human agent.113 Although Bresson manipulates lighting for dramatic effect in early work, the color films employ light in a more reflexive, self-conscious way. As previously discussed, Bresson includes a Cupid and Psyche painting in Saint Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop, ed. Valeria Merlini, Dimitri Salmon, Daniela Storti (Milan: Skira, 2011), 88. 110 Fried, Absorption and Theatricality. 111 Conisbee, “An Introduction to the Life,” 28. 112 According to Conisbee, although the subject matter and iconography of such moralizing narratives are borrowed from both Caravaggio and northern painters of a previous generation, La Tour’s treatment is uniquely his own. Ibid., 68. 113 For a perceptive inventory of examples taken from Bresson films that examine his distinctive use of hand gestures, see kogonada’s video essay for The Criterion Collection: https://www. (accessed 1 November 2017).


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Fig. 1.14: Georges de La Tour, L’adoration des bergers (Nativity, 1644).

several scenes of Une femme douce, which is concerned with the way light is reflected in a room, since Psyche is captured in the forbidden act of illuminating Cupid by holding a candle above his head. Such allusions draw attention to the way Bresson illuminates his own protagonist in Une femme douce. Lancelot du lac draws attention to the play between light and dark in an equally reflexive way. When Lancelot visits Mordred at his tent in an effort to broker peace, for example, we are given a point-of-view shot of Lancelot looking at a woman’s shawl in the right corner of the tent. At just that moment, Mordred twists the lamp away so that the corner is plunged into darkness, consciously indicating Bresson’s own strategy of selectively illuminating particular parts of a shot or scene. Sémolué is astute in observing that La Tour’s style is alluded to whenever, “the lanterns illuminate the beige and tan tents, shadowing the faces, gently encircling them with a halo”.114 Bresson’s chiaroscuro lighting often keeps a face in darkness but illuminates the body, giving the scene a warm, diffuse glow, as when Lancelot reaches his hand out to Mordred in an offer of friendship,

114 Jean Sémolué, Bresson ou l’acte pur des metamorphoses (Paris: Flammarion, 1993), 217.

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and, in the counter-shot, Mordred is transformed into a silhouette with an orange-yellow light illuminating him from below outside the tent. More than any other film, Lancelot emphasizes the reflective power of candlelight, especially in scenes in which the side of a tent suddenly glows with rich orange-red tones. Gauvain’s moving lantern brings the wall of a tent to life, as if a wall switch is turned on, and emphasizes the artificiality of the scene, as if Gauvain travels across a constructed theater set. Such lighting effects equally suggest George de la Tour’s highly atmospheric, gothic style, which privileges the transmission of spiritual feeling over any naturalistic representation.115 To draw out parallels between La Tour and Bresson in lighting, iconography, and deportment of models, I include one representative example of La Tour’s candlelight work: L’adoration des bergers (Nativity, 1644, Figure 1.14). While in many nativity scenes spiritual light emanates from the infant Jesus to illuminate his surroundings, in this representation, Joseph’s candle seems to furnish some of the light, rather than it emanating exclusively from a higher force. In this way, La Tour removes typical religious symbolism. Similarly, in The Ecstasy of Saint Francis (1640-1645), rapture is depicted as a completely terrestrial experience. In speaking of this painting, Conisbee underscores La Tour’s unusual pedestrian approach to religious topics: “There is no visionary or miraculous element to be seen: no angel, no stigmata, no halo.”116 All spectacle, whether involving miracles, magic, or the supernatural, has been removed in favor of a single-minded focus on Saint Francis’s interior journey. Much like Bresson’s impassive, expressionless models, Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds in L’adoration des bergers share no communication and make no eye contact, but stare downward, as if on a meditative journey that involves looking inside themselves, rather than at any external object. In the nocturnes, La Tour captures his models in silent reflection, just as Bresson’s protagonists undergo solitary adventures that involve exploring their own intensely private, interior worlds. Michael Fried’s central claim in Absorption and Theatricality is that the model ignores the spectator’s presence by his or her complete absorption in other activities. A key canvas Fried draws on to demonstrate this dynamic is Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s Jeune garçon jouant aux cartes (The Card Castle, c. 1737), and, more specifically, two playing cards that are wedged vertically in a half-opened desk drawer midway between the viewer and the young boy. Fried argues that these cards function as a signpost that 115 See Falucci and Rinaldi, “A Candle in the Darkness,” 174-177. 116 Conisbee, “An Introduction to the Life,” 116.


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Fig. 1.15: Gauvain on his deathbed, surrounded by the knights of the round table.

demarcates the limits between the spectator’s world and the “inward, concentrated, closed” state of the young boy.117 In L’adoration des bergers, Joseph’s hand and arm have a similar function to Chardin’s playing cards: as a barrier that separates spectator from flame, so that the light remains confined within the circular perimeter established by the five figures. As the most pronounced example of chiaroscuro in the painting—along with Joseph’s arm and the side of his leg—the hand signifies the point of separation between the spectator and the otherworldly, “distracted” confines of the painting. Instead of playing cards, such a separation between spectator and model is created by Joseph’s hand in redirecting the candle’s light. La Tour thus establishes the same divide between interior and exterior space subsequently developed by Chardin, but through hands and the manipulation of light. Such a strategy is common in the nocturnes; another example would be the nimble fingers and delicate arms of the young angel in L’apparition de l’ange à saint Joseph (The Dream of Saint Joseph, c. 1640), which are used to demarcate the boundary between ochre light and darkness, such that it concentrates on her face and the sleeping Joseph. A model’s fingers and hands are therefore a focal point of the composition, not only in the paintings of La Tour, but in the films of Bresson. The most striking iconographic correspondence between L’adoration and Lancelot du lac is not to be found in the focus on hands, however, but 117 Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, 48-49.

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between La Tour’s depiction of the baby Jesus and Bresson’s treatment of the knight Gauvain after he is mortally wounded and carried to the stable at night. Both baby Jesus and Gauvain have been tightly swaddled in white bandages, such that their respective arms have been firmly wrapped to their bodies, and both are placed in the middle of a pile of straw (Figure 1.15). The way the white light reflects off the near side of baby Jesus’s face makes him appear synthetic, as if constructed from wax. Gauvain is similarly presented in such an artificial way, with strong parallels to the depiction of the corpse of the pawnbroker’s wife on display throughout Une femme douce. The scene in both La Tour and Bresson is illuminated by reddish candlelight that reflects surrounding faces and bodies, and that flickers in the film, creating fluctuating shadows. Both scenes are also organized in an austere manger with a group of figures forming a circle around the central character. Although Gauvain’s purity and innocence are clearly equated to the newborn Jesus, La Tour celebrates the very beginning of life, while Bresson instead depicts the end, indicated by the bloody wound across Gauvain’s chest. Gauvain is thus equally depicted as the martyred figure that Jesus will subsequently become as an adult.


The Turn to Postwar Abstraction Action Painting, L’Art Informel, and Le Nouveau Réalisme Abstract Chapter two begins by contrasting the citational style of Au hasard Balthazar (1966) with the much more performative approach of the early color f ilms. I compare Jean Fautrier’s materialist l’Art Informel style in L’otage (1943-1945) to Bresson’s aesthetic in Une femme douce, as well as the French Nouveau Réaliste style of Yves Klein and Nikki de Saint Phalle, which emerges in Bresson’s approach to color, lighting, space, and acting in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1972). I also contrast the painterly styles of Yves Klien and Pierre Soulages, and examine what Bresson borrows—or avoids—from each in Quatre nuits. Finally, I examine the parallels between art as an autonomous, self-regulating machine in Nouveau Réalisme and in Bresson’s films. Keywords: L’Art Informel, automatism, Jean Fautrier, Le Nouveau Réalisme, phenomenology, Yves Klein

Bresson’s color films share a number of characteristics with postwar French abstract artists in the way they similarly understand and approach the artistic process. These similarities are especially close given the way Bresson privileges the human body and sensory experience. Bresson constructs a film in much the way described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty for how an individual makes sense of the surrounding world: the image first arrives as a sensory experience that is subsequently organized into story. Bresson even describes the cinema screen as a material surface to cover like a painter’s canvas: “Submit your film to the reality of the screen, as a painter submits his painting to the reality of the canvas itself and the colors applied on it.”1 Despite productive points of contact between Bresson and an ascetic, 1 Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, 117.

Watkins, R., Late Bresson and the Visual Arts. Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment, Amsterdam University Press, 2018 doi 10.5117/9789462983649/ch02


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Minimalist tradition that I explore in chapter five, I ultimately believe that the postwar flourishing of phenomenology exerts the most significant and sustained influence on Bresson. One purpose of this chapter is to argue that Bresson’s view of painting cannot be divorced from a particular attitude toward and depiction of the body. This chapter therefore has two intertwined foci: an examination of the relationship between painting and cinema through the lens of phenomenology, and a comparison of three Bresson films to three postwar French artistic movements. I explore Bresson’s particular version of the lived body by looking at the way it emerges in Au hasard Balthazar and by discussing particular examples as they correspond to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on painting. While Au hasard Balthazar alludes to the action painting of Jackson Pollock in the depiction of Gérard, the gesture feels distant, as if Bresson points to particular paintings rather than seamlessly integrating them into his films. In other words, Bresson suggests action painting in Au hasard Balthazar, but his film is never influenced by the approach or style of action painting itself. In contrast, the early color films are much more exploratory in the way they engage with the style and techniques of gestural artists, such as the way Quatre nuits d’un rêveur is attentive to the connection between painting—which becomes a central theme of the film—and the body’s lived experience. Subsequent sections compare L’Art Informel artist Jean Fautrier’s Otages paintings to Bresson’s Une femme douce, the influence of the Nouveau Réalisme of Nikki de Saint-Phalle and Yves Klein on Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, and similar attention to color, line, and shadow in the paintings of Pierre Soulages. The chapter also briefly discusses the tradition of the cine-nocturne, which has been important, especially through the work of James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903) in the development of a postwar painterly style, and is a powerful influence on Bresson’s Quatre nuits d’un rêveur.

Gérard as Action Painter in Au hasard Balthazar While critics generally agree that Bresson’s two direct discussions of contemporary abstract painting are parodic admonitions against artists who take themselves too seriously, some have found an echo in Bresson’s own style.2 Both sequences are structured as if another film had suddenly 2 See Charles Barr, “Au hasard, Balthazar,” The Films of Robert Bresson, ed. Ian Cameron (New York: Praeger, 1969), 106-108; Mirella Jona Affron, “Bresson and Pascal: Rhetorical Affinities,”

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been placed in the projector; completely disconnected from the plot, they introduce characters who only appear in that particular sequence. The first occurs about halfway through Au hasard Balthazar, as two painters ride Balthazar and another donkey across the desolate landscape guided by Arnold. The camera concentrates on the faces of the two painters, with counter-shots of the feet of the two donkeys and Arnold, who can only be identif ied by his distinctive sandals. The artists have the following conversation: Man 1: And then, a multitude of structures of which I am not the master leap out of my canvas, each one carrying a dialectic. It is not the waterfall that I grasp, but what the waterfall dictates to me without any logical relation to it. Its fall puts me in movement. Man 2: A cerebral painting? A thought painting? Man 1: A painting of action, action painting.

Example two takes place five years later in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1971), in which the protagonist, Jacques, has an unexpected visit from a fellow student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, who delivers a similarly abstruse disquisition on the nature of art. Showing photographs of his recent paintings, each of which contains a small spot, the friend announces: “The smaller [the spots], the larger the world that they define in suggesting that world. One does not see the spots that one sees, one sees all that is not there.” Philippe Arnaud provides a nuanced analysis of these rather wooden scenes, suggesting that, while both discussions start off as jargon-laden and parodic, they open up to a more serious reflection on art that corresponds to Bresson’s own elliptical style.3 As if following the advice of the young art student in Quatre nuits, Bresson’s work concentrates on small, seemingly unimportant details (the “spots”) that leads to a recognition of what isn’t there. Bresson’s films are constructed of what Arnaud terms a “dislocated harshness”, in which characters are faced with a constant sense of disorientation and loss due to the brutally fragmented nature of the narrative. 4 Quarterly Review of Film and Video 10(2) (1985): 129; and Lindley Hanlon, “From Paradox to Allegory: The Movement of the Narrative in Au hasard, Balthazar,” Fragments: Bresson’s Film Style (London: Associated University Presses, 1986), 102-103. 3 Philippe Arnaud, Robert Bresson (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2003), 70. 4 Ibid. By basing his painterly philosophy on “les taches” (spots), Jacques’s friend alludes to the French artistic movement of Tachism, which emerged at the same moment as Abstract Expressionism and was seen as its European equivalent, showing the close relation between the two Bresson “painting” scenes. The key for Bresson was no doubt that both movements


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Although Arnaud does not elaborate on the action painting sequence in Au hasard Balthazar, I would argue that it alludes in an equally significant way to Bresson’s artistic process and his affinities to Abstract Expressionism. I tease out these connections by turning to a most unlikely source: the punk rock singer Patty Smith, who, in 1977, fell offstage during a concert, cracked two vertebrae in her neck, and was bed-ridden for several months.5 She watched Au hasard Balthazar so often during her convalescence that her mind became a “notebook of stills and annotations”. from which she composed a prose poem that unearths parallels between Balthazar and the tenets of Abstract Expressionism.6 Despite the speculative tone of Smith’s poem, she offers one of the most perceptive accounts of Bresson’s own approach to filmmaking. In one passage, she compares the moment when Gérard pours black oil onto the road to watch cars spin out of control to Jackson Pollock’s “No. 14.” For Smith, the anger that Gérard redirects as destructive action mimics the artistic style of Pollock so closely that, in her view, both men are “licensed killers”: [Gérard’s] hands, like his clothes, are covered with the extract of action-oil. like the artist he is what he does. his clothes are black and so is oil—his medium. w/it he can abstract language into the physical hieroglyphics of convergence, of blue poles [. . .] gerard equates painting with a car skidding, crashing and sputtering. Like no: 11, 14 this is no accident [. . .] he knows what he wants to see and controls destruction.7

Smith suggests a relationship between Gérard and Pollock, both of whom cultivate an image as the rebel but whose revolt is channeled into artistic creation as pure iconoclasm. Smith describes the scene in which Gérard squirts a can of Esso oil directly onto the road in a series of swirling lines or “drips” (Figure 2.1). drew the viewer’s attention to the process in which art is created, through such techniques as improvised brushwork, the use of drips, and applying paint directly from the tube. 5 Jane Sloan, Robert Bresson: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983), 87. Sloan erroneously claims 1968 as the year of Smith’s accident, instead of 1977 when she fell from a stage in Tampa, Florida. 6 Patty Smith, “robert bresson,” Early Work 1970-1979 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 142-147. 7 Ibid., 145. The notion of Balthazar as action painting (or “action-cinema”) originates with Charles Barr, and Smith borrows much the same tone and language: “The crash is not something that happens ‘outside’ [Gérard] and might thus in the last analysis or judgment be held not to belong to him. The oil and his clothes are black. He is what he does.” “Au hasard, Balthazar,” 111.

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Fig. 2.1. The viewers’ first encounter with Gérard, as he drips oil onto the road.

The close-up cuts off the heads of Gérard and his gang, reminiscent of Namuth’s photographs of Pollock’s own physical, bodily process for creating a painting. Despite the difficulty of deciphering such phrases as “the physical hieroglyphics of convergence”, Smith seems on-target in noting the way Bresson directly alludes to Pollock’s artistic process, and to the similar way in which rebellious energy is transfigured into art. Smith’s poem conflates the 1950s American tough guy modeled on icons like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) with Pollock’s position within the art world. Pollock redirects masculine swagger and violence to the canvas to explode artistic convention, and painting becomes a bullying of all resources into action. In this way, both Pollock and Gérard become rebels with a cause, and the cause is artistic creation.8 For Smith, Balthazar’s aesthetic is fueled by the dislocation of twodimensional immobile models who find themselves within an active, threedimensional space—whether Marie, who becomes “a living breathing work of art” or the woman in the car that skids off the road, who “discover[s] her 8 Bresson provides an equivalent cultural link between Gérard’s f ictional gang and the “blousons noirs” (black shirts) sweeping across France from 1957-1959, which Antoine de Baceque perceptively links in style and energy to the Nouvelle Vague. Certainly this conflation of the sociological and cinematic Nouvelle Vague runs through Bresson’s film, with Gérard embodying in part the rebellious spirit of the young Turks. Antoine de Baecque, La nouvelle vague: Portrait d’une jeunesse (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), 47-48.


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husband is a work of art”.9 Action painting similarly puts the world in movement through a demolition of the representational surface, or, as Smith puts it in the case of Pollock, “a master pissing on the arched curls of villon”.10 Putting the figure in motion was what Harold Rosenberg had in mind when he coined the term “action painting”.11 In a series of essays on the topic, he documents the change effected by a brand of automatic painting from treating the canvas as a place to render a prior image to approaching it as a site for action, so that the painting displays the event that takes place when the artist paints rather than concealing it.12 Barbara Rose argues that many artists decided, “to forsake the two-dimensional surface of the canvas [in order] to enter the ‘arena’ of real time, real space and literal materials”.13 Painting leaves the realm of fixed representation and joins the “arena” of bodily movement and activity, and Pollock provides a blueprint for how such a bodily awakening can take place. Perhaps for this reason, the key image for Patty Smith is Gérard’s hands, since they are, as much for him as for Pollock, the medium by which he creates; they are active agents of “action-oil”. Maureen Turim similarly observes that we are first introduced not to Gérard, but rather to his hands, and that they remain a key synecdoche for him throughout the film.14 The emphasis on Gérard’s hands corroborates his role as agent provocateur in the manufacture of the image. Bresson puts it succinctly in his interview with Gilbert Salachas, examining why hands and gestures are so significant in Balthazar: “The hand is autonomous, our gestures, our limbs are nearly autonomous. We no longer control them.”15 In the Bresson universe, limbs become automatic functions of the body. Gesture and movement neither belong to us, nor do we control them; they are as foreign as the object world itself. He clarifies using a hand analogy: “if your hands are on you knees, it is not you who [then] place these hands over your eyes”.16 Gérard represents the same embodied return as the hand/body movement of Jackson Pollock, 9 Smith, “robert bresson,” 145. 10 Ibid. 11 Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News 51(8) (December 1952): 22-23, 48-50. 12 Ibid., 23. Rosenberg expresses much the same idea in “The Concept of Action in Painting,” Artworks and Packages (New York: Horizon Press, 1969), 213-228. 13 Barbara Rose, “Namuth’s Photographs and the Pollock Myth,” Pollock Painting, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: Agrinde Publications, 1978), 67. 14 Maureen Turim, “The Textual System of Au hasard Balthazar” (Master’s Thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1975), 100. 15 Gilbert Salachas, “´À propos de Au hasard, Balthazar’: Pour le plaisir d’écouter et de regarder Robert Bresson,” Téléciné 131 (December, 1966): 7. 16 Ibid.

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insofar as the body’s automatic behavior is captured on the canvas or the screen before reaching conscious understanding. Borrowing Montaigne’s eloquent turn of phrase to capture the essence of his own cinematic universe, Bresson admits, “les gestes nous découvrent” (“gestures discover us”).17 The best portrait of Gérard as action painter occurs during a party to celebrate Arnold’s sudden inheritance, initiated by a jazz song composed by Jean Wiener playing on the bar’s jukebox.18 Gérard dances through the room, leaps onto the bar, overturns a small wooden table, and throws a barstool at a second wall-sized mirror, all in an effort to break every glass, liquor bottle, and mirror in the bar. The crowd continues to dance, as if oblivious to the destruction occurring around them. What stands out about this scene—even more than Gérard’s frenzied movement—is the amplified sounds of crashing and breaking glass, which gives the impression of utter destruction in the bar. Although shattering the mirrors’ flat surface calls to mind analytic Cubism, Gérard’s violence evokes Pollock more strongly, who attempts to break through a static representation by destroying the inaccurate, one-dimensional reflection. Even the way the mirror that Gérard breaks with a champagne bottle crumbles from the frame—with shards that continue to capture fragmented bodies that dance through the room—adds to the sense that what Gérard attempts to destroy is figuration itself (Figures 2.2 and 2.3). In articulating the nature of Pollock’s method, Rosalind Krauss resorts to much the same metaphor as Bresson: “it is as though he had gone up to the mirror to witness his own appearing and had smashed the mirror instead.”19 Both Pollock and Gérard thus seek a more accurate self-portrait that involves performing the very process of representation.20 While references to action painting center on the activity of Gérard, in one scene, Bresson and Gérard’s conceptions of painting seem to intersect, as if Bresson shares some aspect of action painting’s approach to figuration. The sequence begins when Gérard and his gang of blousons noirs meet Marie at an abandoned cottage. In the subsequent scene, we learn that they undress her, 17 Ibid., 10. 18 Jean Wiener was well-known for his work in New Music and for his more than 300 f ilm scores. In addition to the jazz scene in Balthazar, he worked with Bresson on the music in Les affaires publiques (1934), Mouchette, and Une femme douce. 19 Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 260. 20 A comparison by René Prédal similarly connects Bresson to action painting: “Like Antonioni, Bresson practices an action painting, but if the Italian filmmaker is concerned primarily with color, the brushstroke absorbs the attention of our auteur.” Bresson’s films suggest a process whereby the image reflexively calls back the hand that brought it into existence, in this case, the hand of Gérard. René Prédal, “Robert Bresson: L’aventure intérieure,” L’avant-scène cinéma, 408-409 (January-February 1992): 24.


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Fig. 2.2. Gérard raises the champagne bottle.

Fig. 2.3. And destroys his own reflection.

beat her, and lock her in a room, but, at this point, we only see them running from the cottage as they throw Marie’s clothes into the air. The camera cuts to another group of boys peering in through a window, but we are denied a view of Marie until her father and Jacques fend off the crowd. At this point, the camera peers through the window to capture the nude Marie in what resembles a Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s odalisque (Figure 2.4). Crouched in a corner

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Fig. 2.4. Marie posed as the fine arts statue by Gérard and his gang.

and twisted away from the camera, Marie’s distended torso and lines bring to mind nothing so much as Ingres’s The Valpinçon Bather (1808; Figure 2.5). Speaking of this scene in an interview, the actress Anne Wiazemsky comments in the third person on the way her body had been carefully positioned for the shot: “Marie’s nude body was that of a fine arts statue [d’un modèle des Beaux Arts].”21 In the subsequent scene, Marie’s mother hints at the close relation between Bresson’s own acts of figuration, movement, and visibility when she announces to Jacques that Marie is “never to be seen again”. Once she transforms into statuary, Marie simply vanishes from the film, without any resolution to her ongoing saga, as if the tension between forward progression and the model’s entrenched stasis has devolved into Marie’s ossification as work of art. The catalyst for her devolution is, curiously enough, Gérard and his gang. While in Pollock’s work, “the painter has become an actor”, in Bresson’s film, the actor Gérard has become a painter, taking such preparatory measures as removing Marie’s clothes, which enables her emergence as fully realized art object.22 The painter’s process of “killing” the living model through artistic immobilization is thematized in Balthazar as Gérard’s sadistic impulse to reduce the living person to an inanimate or inhuman form. Gérard’s need to control Marie and other models finds echoes in Bresson’s own notoriously 21 Jacques Fieschi, “Robert Bresson,” Cinématographe 29 (July-August 1977): 29. 22 Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” 23.


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Fig. 2.5. Ingres’s The Valpinçon Bather (1808).

strict directorial style, in which every interpretative gesture, movement, or emotion is kept under the imperious control of the director. Gérard’s desire to rewrite the other characters can be explained by Merleau-Ponty in his distinction between vision and motor skills, in which the stable world of vision is repeatedly undercut by the earthly movement of the body. Wayne Froman teases out the implications of Merleau-Ponty’s model by seeing action painting as the attempt to move beyond a detached Renaissance perspective in which a subject is placed in a fixed position before gaining access to the surrounding world.23 Froman instead sees action painting as an articulation of the struggle between the artist’s bodily movement and his or her vision. His primary example is Willem de Kooning’s 23 Wayne J. Froman, “Action Painting and the World as Picture,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (Summer 1988): 473.

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series of “Woman” paintings, in which “the features of the painting [. . .] are no longer apprehended as elements in a configuration that is taking shape, but rather are temporary resolutions of strains or tension in the painter’s perceptual field, resolutions that give way to other strains or tensions”.24 De Kooning’s ongoing struggle between bodily activity and cognitive understanding perpetually rewrites the emerging figure. Froman concludes that, by making motion the subject of the painting, “action painting ‘looks for’ the dynamic in which the art of painting originates”.25 The expression “looks for” suggests that action painting is a reflexive turning inward to explore its own process of coming into existence, which is similar to Bresson’s understanding of the dynamics involved in action painting as they are translated into the behavior of his models in Au hasard Balthazar. Despite Gérard’s similarities to action painting, it is clear that in tone, temperament, and style, Bresson remains quite distant from Pollock. Bresson’s careful attention to the way each part fits into the larger whole could not convey a more different tone from Pollock’s lyrical, first-person exuberance. While Bresson maintains authorial restraint and distance from Gérard, his other models, and even his audience, such that his own position is always obscured in relation to his work, Pollock’s gesture is an impulsive plunge into the canvas. Although the references to action painting willfully advertise a reading of Bresson-as-painter, such scenes ultimately serve as a red herring in terms of discovering Bresson’s own influences, which, in the case of the abandoned cottage scene, appears more influenced by Ingres than by Pollock, even if allusions to both artists stress the tension between movement and stasis, spontaneity and authorial control.26

Jacques’s Loft as Modern Canvas in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur While there has been a good deal of conjecture about Bresson’s training as a painter before turning to cinema, no traces remain of his own paintings, or even documents that discuss his own painterly style. For that reason, it is fascinating to learn that Bresson originally intended to create Jacques’s 24 Ibid., 473. 25 Ibid., 344. 26 In a late interview, Bresson expresses his disdain for Pollock’s drip canvases as “decoration” rather than the kind of serious reflection seen in the work of Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, or Paul Cézanne: “No, there is nothing there. For me, it is lamentable to make those [canvases], and pass it off as painting.” See “Entretien avec Robert Bresson (18 January 1985),” Drôle d’époque 7 (Fall 2000): 26.


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paintings himself, which would have shed a good deal of light on the topic. Due to production constraints on the set of Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, the young painter Anne-Elia Aristote allowed her left-bank loft to be used for the scenes in Jacques’s studio, and, at that point, Bresson decided to use her work for the film instead of creating his own.27 Given the themes of Quatre nuits, one can see why Bresson decided on Aristote’s work: the paintings are almost exclusively oversized portraits of faceless women, depicted in large swaths of primary color; and have a strong commercial, Pop art feel like the Pom et Teddy series, witnessed for instance in the “Elle” button on the lapel of one female figure. Such use of color reflects Bresson’s similar exploration of purely formal concerns characteristic of postwar painting. The oversized, faceless heads and abstract arrangement of color suggest a similar treatment of the human form as inanimate object in both their work, with the body relegated to more pressing concerns of color, light, and space. Although much of Quatre nuits features dark or muted tones, scenes within Jacques’s apartment are instead characterized by carefully arranged shots in monochrome color, as if imitating the composition of an Aristote canvas. For Christian Zimmer, such deliberate juxtaposition of color has a painterly origin, especially in the way colors in Quatre nuits are, “violently decided upon, as in an abstract painting by a modern master”.28 The very first interior shot of the loft, for example, captures a brightly colored yellow wall in the background as Jacques pulls two oranges out of a red grocery bag in the foreground. Viewers are suddenly confronted with a shot rich in contrasting colors (Figure 2.6). By having Jacques hold oranges directly in front of the yellow wall, Bresson seems to comment on the central role played by color in this sequence. The spectator makes associations between orange, red, and yellow, as if the oranges are on display solely for their particular color values. Bresson also suggests that Jacques carries the yellow tones of the walls into the surrounding space of the loft by physically transporting the oranges, something that extends and expands the frame in a way not possible in a painting. Alain Bonfand terms this play an “expectant conspiring” between background and foreground in the work of Michelangelo Antonioni.29 In Quatre nuits, Bresson similarly stresses the exchange between static background and active foreground, but, instead of focusing on the female protagonist’s body in contrast to the background Cupid and Psyche painting in Une femme douce, the contrast is instead played out 27 Claude Beylie, “Quatre nuits d’un rêveur,” Écran 5 (April 1972): 65-68. 28 Christian Zimmer, “De glace et de feu,” Les temps modernes 309 (April 1972): 1727. 29 Bonfand, Le cinéma saturé, 126.

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Fig. 2.6. One of the first shots of Jacques’s loft: the bright yellow walls in contrast to the muted or dark tones outside this confined space.

between the unbroken plane of yellow as duplicated in the oranges that Jacques moves across the frame.30 By examining Bresson’s work through the dynamic exchange between foreground and background, one can see that Une femme douce’s central preoccupation with the female figure is displaced in favor or the relationship between color, form, and space in Quatre nuits. A comparable example can be found in the work of the painter Piet Mondrian. Mondrian viewed his atelier as an extension of the canvas, an architectural space of color and geometric form in his careful attention to every centimeter of wall space. Bonfand focuses on an easel Mondrian insisted on placing in his atelier, although he never actually used it for any of his paintings. The easel represents the atelier as a place of “overflow” between painting and wall, raising questions about framing and the relationship between a painted surface and its surrounding environment.31 As a result, Mondrian’s art is the product of a constant negotiation between canvas and surrounding space: “the atelier is the experimentation with a work that goes beyond the painting itself, but that still conserves the painting as the center

30 Felleman in Real Objects, 143, discusses a similar correspondence between canvas and cinema shot through, “a close-up of bright yellow paint spilling over the white ground [that] cuts to another of bright yellow egg yolks, broken in a bowl,” in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978). 31 Bonfand, Le cinéma saturé, 56.


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of its problem, more than as a simple constituent element”.32 Paintings and fixed images in Bresson’s films do something quite similar in the dynamic between the individual work and the larger organizing principle of the film. Perhaps the most telling example is Jacques’s atelier in Quatre nuits, in which the film plays on the dynamic between Jacques’s works of art and the surrounding space of his loft in much the same fashion as Mondrian, evident in Bresson’s careful use of yellow and orange tones. Because Bresson rarely provides a transitional shot between an exterior and interior location, interior space becomes an otherworldly domain in which characters are almost entirely removed from the surrounding world. They become prisoners within a confined, claustrophobic space—whether literally in the case of Fontaine, the protagonist of Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), or figuratively in the wife’s isolation in the upstairs living quarters of Une femme douce. Much the same can be said of Jacques’s loft in Quatre nuits. With the exception of an unexpected visit from a former classmate at the École des Beaux Arts, no one enters this apartment and no dialogue is exchanged; it is a place for the pure contemplation of light and color. Just as Jacques lives within the sphere of personal fantasy, dreaming of what he calls, “beautiful maidens in castles waiting to be rescued”, he is physically surrounded by his own portraits of women. The loft thus becomes an extension of Jacques’s imaginative fantasy. It is for this reason unsurprising that Jacques’s one visitor should be another artist who launches into an extended polemic about the nature of modern art. The classmate insists that material objects are no longer central to artistic creation, as they were with Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s brioche, Edouard Manet’s peonies, or Vincent Van Gogh’s chair and boots. For the contemporary artist, it is instead the absence of objects, and even the absence of the artist, that characterizes serious art. As the classmate becomes more strident, Jacques frantically searches through his cupboard for a bottle of whiskey, trying to find a specific, material object that is hidden from him, and expressly violating the classmate´s rule for the kind of art in which one should be interested. One cannot help but see in this scene an ironic contrast between the classmate´s abstract commentary and Jacques’s clumsy effort to find just such a hidden object, especially given the central importance that objects play in Bresson’s films. Such parallels indicate the extent to which Bresson self-consciously addresses questions of cinematic representation based on innovations taking place at the time in the domain of painting.

32 Ibid., 54. 

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Fig. 2.7. An abstract “painting” in the hallway outside Jacques’ loft, next to the classmate after his disquisition on modern painting.

Although due to a series of puzzled, deadpan reaction shots of Jacques, the classmate´s discourse on modern art is portrayed as ridiculous, it contains striking parallels to Bresson’s own style. The classmate ends his polemic, for example, by saying that “the canvas is sensually structured in order to form a complete light source rendered specifically solid”. Given the careful attention paid to the transient nature of illuminated light throughout Quatre nuits, the classmate´s disquisition would seem to describe Bresson’s own filmmaking strategies. The bateaux-mouches repeatedly shown traveling down the Seine are machines that function precisely as a “complete light source” that reinterpret surrounding space, and determine what the spectator sees as “solid” due to the numerous high-powered floodlights that extend the dimensions of the boat. Like many painters of the time, Bresson treats light itself as an object, illustrating the classmate´s claim that, what matters is no longer the artist’s ability to represent particular objects, but rather the way the object itself is transformed through its surroundings. The American painter Sam Francis, who lived in Paris and was closely associated with L’Art Informel in the 1950s, describes the central role light plays in capturing the blues, orange, and yellows of his underwater work Reefs (1955). What most interests Francis is “the quality of the light itself […] not just the play of light, but the substance from which light was made”.33 33 James Johnson Sweeney, Sam Francis (Berkeley: University of California Art Museum, 1967), 14. Quoted in Peter Selz, Sam Francis (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975), 34.


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Fig. 2.8. Jean Fautrier, Tête d’otage, no. 8 (1944).

But evidence of the importance of the classmate’s discourse appears long before the emergence of the bateaux-mouches. In the subsequent shot at the end of the classmate’s monologue, for example, Jacques stands in the doorway of his loft and his classmate says goodbye from the staircase. What appears to be an abstract painting emerges just behind the classmate and directly in front of the spectator and Jacques (Figure 2.7). By shooting this sequence of the classmate with a “found” painting conspicuously placed in the center of the background, Bresson invites us to establish a relationship between this work and the classmate´s polemic on the development of painting. The area in which white plaster has been thickly applied to the surface closely resembles the work of Jean Fautrier,

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as well as other members of the L’Art Informel collective of postwar artists working in and around Paris. Fautrier’s earliest three-dimensional layered plaster constructions were created at the end of World War II to represent the disfigured and deformed heads of Nazi prisoners that were tortured and executed in the woods near Fautrier’s home in France during the occupation (Figure 2.8). The similarities between Fautrier’s Tête d’otage, no. 8 (1944) and the stairwell painting in Quatre nuits are striking: a circular mass of white swirls of thick paste surrounded by a gradation of mustard, brown, and yellow tones that give the object an organic feel. Bresson and Fautrier each in his own way blur the distinction between a found object and one that has been intentionally created as art. In Bresson’s case, the spectator is unsure whether the swirl of paint is a wall repair, or an extension of the series of carefully presented art objects found within Jacques’s loft. By placing this shot directly after the classmate’s manifesto on the new rules of artistic creation, Bresson draws attention to precisely the kind of work the classmate describes: a “canvas” that no longer represents objects, but rather emphasizes the way light, color, and form interact in surrounding space. If the classmate’s works are black, circular splotches, then Bresson seems to provide his own equivalent example in the stairwell scene, as painting, light, and actor converge in this narrow, confined space.

The Silence of Painting, The Stillness of Sculpture: Tactile Expression in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur Why does Bresson transform Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist from a clerk in the short story “White Nights” (1848) into a painter in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur? The answer is not directly autobiographical, in my view, but rather has to do with painting, and especially abstract painting’s embodied experience of the world. In discussions of Quatre nuits, Tony Pipolo and Jean Michel Frodon claim that, because the protagonist is a painter, the film is an autobiographical portrait of Bresson’s own youth.34 The impulse to look to Bresson’s own past makes sense, but, considering how vehement Bresson was to conceal all aspects of his private life from public view, it seems unlikely that his motivation in transforming Dostoevsky’s clerk would be to allude to his own past. Given the importance of painting to 34 Jean-Michel Frodon, Robert Bresson (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2007), 69; Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), 278.


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Bresson, and that he claimed never to have left it even after turning to filmmaking, a more appropriate claim is that the film’s characters and subject matter reflect his own strategies of representation as he constructs Quatre nuits. Consequently, Bresson’s project is not, as Pipolo suggests, to comment critically on young Jacques’s naïveté and immaturity, but, on the contrary, to immerse the viewer more completely in this character’s embodied view of the world. Jacques’s act of painting in Quatre nuits emphasizes the immediate, physical relationship between protagonist’s body and surrounding color, light, and sound, much in the way painting functions for Bresson as a threshold into bodily awareness. Jean Collet arrives at a similar reading of the way Bresson’s use of painting in Quatre nuits emphasizes the body’s felt experience: What is important from my point of view is that the hero of these Four Nights is a painter (much like Bresson […] and the film is in color). At the end of his adventure, Jacques finds his small room and his brushes. Bresson makes us feel—he helps us touch with our own hand—the experience of the painter […] One would say that painting employs vision to lead us to touch, to give us the desire to touch and to clasp the object in one’s embrace.35

Collet highlights painting’s desire to convey direct bodily experiences that go beyond a detached visual experience. Bresson’s focus on Jacques’s physical act of applying paint to his canvas underscores the dynamic between hand, brush, and canvas; Quatre nuits insists at all times that the spectator directly experience the event. Bresson’s emphasis on painting’s tactile qualities is first signaled when Jacques meets Marthe on the second of their four nights together. They stop walking so that she can cradle his painted hand in hers. The subsequent close-up, which focuses on the red, green, white, and black splotches of paint that mark his fingers and palm, has echoes of a crucifixion scene in the careful way in which Marthe stops to gently touch the colored marks as if they were wounds (Figure 2.9). Bresson is well-known for close-ups of hands and feet to emphasize a particular part of the body. The splotches of paint on Jacques’s hand similarly serve as irrefutable traces of what Jacques’s hand has previously 35 Jean Collet, “Choix de films: Quatre nuits d’un rêveur de Robert Bresson,” Études (March 1972): 430.

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Fig. 2.9. Marthe gently cradles Jacques’s hand in her own in order to inspect the colored splotches of paint across his fingers and palm more closely.

done. Bresson thus conflates two normally distinct ways to emphasize the body’s engagement in the world: a close-up of a hand, and the reference to painting through traces of colored paint. Painting for Bresson is thus as much visual as tactile because, as Collet phrases it, the viewer wants to grasp the represented object, much as Jacques had grasped his paintbrushes. The hand thus maintains traces of how it is used, not unlike the splotches of blue paint on the nude women who Yves Klein terms “living brushes”.36 The connection between paint and body leads Klein to claim that “painting is a coloured surface which becomes a living epidermis”, making the link quite explicit between canvas and human skin.37 Through the image of Jacques’s hand, Bresson makes a similar connection between the act of painting as a tactile extension of Jacques’s own body. The emphasis on Jacques’s act of creating art indicates to what extent his own history is an unimportant aspect of the narrative. When Marthe asks to hear the story of Jacques’s life, he confesses that he doesn’t have a past or a story to tell. Similarly, we learn nothing of Jacques’s past in the flashbacks; unlike Marthe, who shows a clear transformation in deportment, attitude and dress, especially through the solemn, black-hooded capes she wears in the present, Jacques shows no change in either behavior or dress. The notion 36 Nicolas Charlet, Yves Klein (Paris: Vilo International, 2000), 152. 37 Ibid., 80.


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that the human body creates its own story is precisely the way Vincent Amiel describes Bresson’s films. For Amiel, the movement and gesture of the body recount the central events, rather than any narrative structure that is imposed on that body: “the body is not a form [une silhouette], but an assemblage of gestures, anodine, labored, repeated”.38 We might therefore see the night scenes in Quatre nuits as a kind of Yves Klein event in which the blue traces of the body recount events in the way bodies press themselves against the canvas, much as the white, black, and blue paint on Jacques’s hands tells the “story” of his life. Bresson provides a similar depiction in the final moments of the film: the viewer hears nothing other than the sound of brushstrokes as Jacques leans across the floor on his knees to paint a canvas. The moment fits particularly well with André Bazin’s discussion of the ending of Bresson’s Le Journal d’un curé de campagne 20 years earlier, in which “the spectator has been led, step by step, towards that night of the senses the only expression of which is a light on a blank screen”.39 The phrase “night of the senses” seems equally appropriate for Quatre nuits, which functions as a nocturnal investigation into the nature of sensation, progressing from light to a representation of the act of painting. The film thus ends, not with Jacques and Marthe in a romantic embrace, but rather with Jacques alone in his loft in an “embrace” with the materials of his art. Jacques’s intimate engagement with his canvas is all the more charged with sensuality because he has an almost complete lack of physical or emotional contact with others. His relationships, like his artwork, are based on fantasy, seen in the montage of couples who kiss in a park as Jacques longingly and unabashedly gawks at them. The desire of the film is similarly Marthe and Jacques’s desire to arrive at genuine physical contact, rather than the play of images, reflections, and dreams that characterize their lives. From the opening credits, Bresson establishes the tone for the way the spectator should approach the film: an out of focus blur of multicolored lights that reflect off moving cars, as if the light is refracted through rain. Lindley Hanlon describes this shot as “sight myopia” in the way the colors become a “combinative synesthesia”. 40 The notion of myopia succinctly captures Laura Marks’s concept of haptic space, since the spectator must try to decipher the color, light, and figural patterns directly confronting him or her rather than having enough distance to decode the image rationally 38 Amiel, Le corps au cinéma, 37. 39 André Bazin, What is Cinema? Volume 1, trans. Hugh Grey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 140. 40 Hanlon, “From Paradox to Allegory,” 131.

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within the narrative. 41 An additional investigation of haptic vision occurs in the scene in Marthe’s bedroom, in which she stands naked in front of a mirror and turns her foot and her hand, then explores her legs, stomach, and arms through touch. Camera shots fragment her body into a series of isolated parts as she explores that region of her body, and the eye functions as a hand, as if Marthe is being touched instead by another person and explores her body in a completely fresh way. 42 Because the viewer hears the same kind of Brazilian pop music on the radio that is played live in several outdoor scenes next to the Seine, these songs function as an invitation to embodiment. For all the above reasons, the scene illustrates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “intertwining”, the double contact between the subject who senses the world and at the same time senses herself. 43 Marthe, in fact, demonstrates the way intertwining functions, since her ability to sense the world happens in conjunction with the recognition of herself as a sensing body. 44 In this way, Bresson shows Marthe moving back and forth between seeing her body and experiencing that body directly through touch much as a spectator moves between her own body and the bodies on screen.45 Bresson’s concern with capturing the lived condition of the human body is emphasized not only by careful attention to surrounding color and light, but equally by occasionally slowing his protagonists to near photographic stasis, much as he slows Marie by recreating an Ingres canvas in Au hasard Balthazar. Perhaps the best example in Quatre nuits is the carefully positioned, nude bodies of Marthe and the lodger in his bedroom, in contrast to the rhythmic tapping of the mother’s high heels against the tile floor as she calls repeatedly for Marthe. According to Bresson, the goal in this scene was precisely to contrast the couple’s sense of their own stillness with the agitation of the mother in the hall. 46 Bresson took a long time to craft this particular scene, writing, “I preferred a vertical couple standing nude and motionless, holding each other close, to the eternal scene of lovers 41 Laura Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2002). 42 Christian Zimmer, “De glace et de feu,” Les temps modernes 309 (April 1972): 1726. Despite the fact that Marthe is naked, Zimmer notes that this scene is “shorn of all feeling of spectacle or eroticism”, reinforcing Bresson’s focus on the haptic. 43 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Intertwining—The Chiasm,” The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 130-155. 44 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge, 2002), 235-282. Merleau-Ponty elaborates on the concept of intertwining in later writings with what he terms “flesh”. 45 Barker, The Tactile Eye. 46 Carlos Clarens, “Four Nights of a Dreamer,” Sight and Sound 41(1) (Winter 1971): 2.


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Fig. 2.10. Still life of Marthe and the lodger: naked, entwined, and motionless like mythological figures.

tossing about horizontally.”47 The emphasis on verticality and stasis stresses Bresson’s sculptural interest in the nude form, rather than a more typical focus on lust, sensuality, or even activity. Except for the lodger’s hand that slowly creeps across Marthe’s back, they stand motionless in the center of the room. Once they are naked, the light in the room also abruptly changes from a fully illuminated space to a dark, bluish glow, as the couple takes on the posture of classical statuary, silhouetted by the diminished light that now enters through the curtained window. One might title this sculpture The Entwined Lovers as it alludes to similar iconography in classical works. Bresson then films the couple using a languorous, steady tilt that begins at their feet and stops at their heads (Figure 2.10). The lover’s heightened physical sensitivity to one another is reflected in the shift in the bedroom from light to dark and activity to stillness. Bresson uses stasis in much the same way when Jacques and Marthe watch transfixed at the railing as a bateau-mouche glides by, and other pedestrians pass behind them, suggesting that their bodies become inanimate in order to experience surrounding sensations more fully. At the end of the film, when Marthe and the lodger finally reunite, they are carefully framed in front of a bright orange window display. The display is empty on the right side, precisely where the lover’s stop to embrace passionately, as if they are 47 Ibid.

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Fig. 2.11. The subsequent shot of Marthe and the lodger at the end of Quatre nuits: still depicted as statuary, and paralleled with the mannequins in the store window.

meant to stop precisely in that spot. They are also positioned next to three female mannequins on the left side, drawing a comparison between their entanglement and the inanimate bodies in the storefront display. It is as if Bresson extends the lovers’ positions as statuary from the last time the viewer saw them positioned together in the blue bedroom, although now they are silhouetted against a brightly illuminated orange backdrop. In both settings, the lovers are set off from the movement of passersby and filmed as mannequin-like art objects, rather than animate human beings (Figure 2.11). Many such references to statuary in Quatre nuits allude to photography and the process of mechanical reproduction. At the premier of The Bonds of Love, Bresson’s parody of the gangster genre, celebrities walk down the red carpet, including Marthe and her mother, but the only sounds the audience hear are the clicking of cameras and the explosion of magnesium lights in an overt parody of the frenzy surrounding a Hollywood premiere. During this sequence, the camera cuts to what appears to be a Roman soldier standing at the entrance of the Cinémathèque, but the viewer can only see the top of his head, adorned with a gold helmet and a plume of red feathers. In a subsequent close-up, he holds a gold sword to his nose and is completely still except for his eyes, which shift back and forth as the bright white flashes of paparazzi illuminate the top of his head. Bresson here makes the connection explicit between statuary and photography: the journalists who shoot


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their cameras and the proliferation of flashes are all efforts to create still images out of a moving scene, something that Bresson similarly achieves in capturing the Roman soldier as a series of immobile photographs. Such examples indicate the extent to which Bresson’s aesthetic is invested in the contrast between movement and stasis.

Bresson’s Experiment in Blue Radiance: The Influence of Yves Klein and Pierre Soulages on Quatre nuits d’un rêveur When Quatre nuits was first released in 1972, French reviewers were especially mindful of the sustained use of the color blue to establish the film’s mood. Bresson himself admits that he reflected a good deal on the color of scenes in Quatre nuits, and chose cold tones of blue and green over warm browns to create the film’s atmosphere. 48 Jean-Marie Dunoyer titles his review for Le monde “Blue Nights”, explaining that at least half of the film was filmed at night, and that such scenes emphasize the illumination of objects within a dark blue setting. 49 Claude Beylie argues that Quatre nuits goes further than any previous Bresson film in its particular attention to abstraction as well as “forms and colors of the exterior world”, to the point of simulating a “hallucination”.50 Beylie thus suggests changing the film’s title to “Man Alone on a Blue Background”, and experiencing it as an abstract painting rather than being projected on a screen.51 Beylie’s revised title perhaps inadvertently alludes to the French poster for Quatre nuits, in which Jacques’s solitary, diminutive figure is superimposed on a vast, aquamarine background (Figure 2.12). The use of a particular spectrum of blue tones is of central importance in the development of abstract painting, one of the most significant advancements signaled by Pablo Picasso’s blue period in which he painted a series of atmospheric blue-green canvases from 1901 to 1904. Blue subsequently plays a significant role in the work of a number of Expressionist painters such as Nicolas de Staël, who draws on the deep cerulean blue of the Mediterranean in his landscapes. However, the artist to whom Bresson’s approach in Quatre nuits can be most directly be compared is Yves Klein, given Klein’s single-minded obsession with a particular shade of electric 48 49 50 51

Beylie, “Quatre nuits d’un rêveur,” Écran 5 (April 1972): 66. Jean-Marie Dunoyer, “Les nuits bleues,” Le monde (3 February 1972), 11. Beylie, “Quatre nuits d’un rêveur,” 65. Ibid., 66.

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Fig. 2.12. The French poster for Robert Bresson’s Quatre nuits: Jacques’s collage-like and minuscule silhouette is placed within a solid blue, Yves Klein background.

ultramarine, subsequently called International Klein Blue (IKB). Klein´s most famous works involve covering nearly 200 canvases with this particular tone that he developed in consultation with a chemist. Klein’s first blue period installation in 1957 at the Galerie Apollinaire in Milan features eleven nearly identical blue monochrome paintings that were placed on wooden posts about 20 centimeters in front of the gallery walls. Such efforts indicate that, from the start, Klein understood his work as designed to interact in the gallery space with surrounding bodies and objects much like the characters in a film. Luc Vancheri elaborates on the influence of cinema on Klein’s work, leading Klein to write a script called La guerre (de la ligne et de la couleur) ou (vers la proposition monochrome) (1954), which explores, “the luminous projection of the cinematographic image, the effects of retinal persistence


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due to the exposure of the human eye to a continual source of light”.52 According to Vancheri, Klein “entrusted in cinema the power to return or restore the memory of an aesthetic experience”, not unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s project in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), or contemporary artists like Douglas Gordon whose 24 Hour Psycho (1993) explores cinema’s collective memory by transporting into gallery space, and drastically slowing down, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).53 Particular shots in Quatre nuits suggest direct allusions to Klein’s early work, which consisted almost exclusively of covering a canvas in one color. Both Klein and the Bresson of Quatre nuits seem focused on creating a frame that is as saturated as possible with a particular vivid hue. An early monochromatic canvas such as Klein’s Untitled (1955), for example, was created by painting the canvas in much the same deep amaranth tones as the wall in Jacques’s kitchen (Figure 2.6), which fills the background of the frame, and immerses the viewer in a wash of primary color. This focus on a singular color has a common origin in the way both men are interested in the spiritual dimensions of artistic creation that goes beyond visible representation, which enables Klein “to see into the absolute and immaterial”.54 As a result, painting is a passageway to a new spiritual horizon, made attainable through a monochromatic color that leads directly to such a rarefied state. Klein’s goal is therefore not to make something blue, but rather to saturate a space completely in a blue atmosphere. In Le vide (1958), for example, he paints the inside of the Galerie Iris Clert a bright white to reflect surrounding blue windows, blue drinks, and a blue neon tube that illuminates the exhibition. As part of the exhibition, Klein planned to bathe the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in blue light, but authorities denied his requests.55 The goal was thus to create what he calls a “radiance” in which the monochromatic canvas permeates the surrounding environment.56 Bresson’s aim with Quatre nuits might similarly be described as constructing a blue ambiance around Jacques and Marthe, as if to preserve their bodies eternally in blue amber. Klein was not the only painter to be concerned with the way a canvas radiates particular colors. Pierre Soulages focused on the way a black surface 52 Vancheri, Cinéma et peinture, 72-73. 53 Ibid. For a discussion of the way installation artists draw on cinema’s past, see Balsom, “Chapter 2 – Filmic Ruins,” Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art, 65-106. 54 Kerry Brougher, “Involuntary Painting,” Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2010), 20. 55 Charlet, Yves Klein, 88. 56 Ibid., 91.

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permits light and color to be reflected, especially saturated blues.57 In describing the design of stained glass windows in the Roman Abbey in his hometown of Conques, France, Soulages admits that he was particularly pleased with the way he turned the interior space blue through the use of colored windows, describing it as a “radiance effect” in the way light occupies space; as he puts it, “space is hypnotized by light”.58 Soulages compares this work to Henri Matisse’s use of saturated red in L’atelier rouge (1911), in which a red tint consumes all space in the room. In a series of paintings termed “outrenoir”, or “beyond black”, Soulages focuses on the way the movement of the paintbrush creates edges and grooves that the light would hit in different ways, producing a spectrum of gray tones. The reflections thus generate what Isabelle Ewig terms “active light” (“la lumière agisssante”) that goes beyond a stable or pure black.59 Ewig compares this process to Moholy-Nagy’s experiments of directly exposing photographic paper to light to create a “radiant effect”, manifest as much in photography as in the diodes of a television set.60 In “Painting with Light—A New Medium of Expression” (1939), Moholy-Nagy argues for new, artificial ways to use light and color, such as the thick impasto technique of Van Gogh, which changes the way light and shadow reflect off the surface of the canvas, or Cézanne’s use of color to introduce movement and new spatial relationships.61 Quatre nuits reveals a parallel effort that is not focused on depicting Jacques and Marthe, but rather in capturing a particular blue tint that surrounds and holds them in suspended animation. Such use of color saturation is contextualized by Brian Price as a historical struggle in art history between line and color, in which color is viewed with suspicion as morally inferior.62 Line translates into a classical Hollywood, realistic style, while color emphasizes a style that is allowed to meander into abstraction. Price turns to a similar Matisse canvas, The Joy of Life (1905-1906), to argue that color is erotically and joyously preferred over line in the way colors extend and overtake line.63 In other 57 Isabelle Ewig, “L’outrenoir ou le fonctionnement de la peinture,” Soulages (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2009), 101-102. 58 Quoted in Ibid., 102. A discussion of the glass Soulages had fabricated to bathe the space in blue light can be found in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Entretien avec Pierre Soulages,” Soulages (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2009), 121. 59 Ewig, “L’outrenoir ou le fonctionnement de la peinture,” 96. 60 Ibid., 96-97. 61 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, “Painting with Light: A New Medium of Expression,” Architectural Forum LXX (May 1939). 62 Brian Price, “Color, the Formless, and Cinematic Eros,” 25. See also Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. 63 Ibid., 27.


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Fig. 2.13. The door to Jacques’s art studio alludes to the canvases of Yves Klein in the use of the same shade of electric ultramarine blue.

words, the colors go beyond the fixed limits established by line, instead celebrating the reconfiguration of all form. Bresson provides an obvious allusion to the work of Klein as Jacques enters the door to his studio. Instead of a match on action that follows Jacques into the room, the camera remains in the hall while Jacques disappears behind a door. At this point, the viewer seems directly to confront a Klein canvas in the form of a large ultramarine door (Figure 2.13). The door replicates the rectangular dimensions of a canvas, and its blue paint is applied in an uneven and rapid manner to reinforce the notion of the painter’s hand at work. The uneven, sloppy brushstrokes seem, in turn, to recall the blue rectangle of the movie poster. Perhaps the most obvious parallel between Bresson and Klein is that both artists insist upon maintaining strict control over their models and their work. For his first anthropometry performance at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporaine in Paris, Klein insisted on “exacting rehearsal” to choreograph the gestures, behavior, and movements of his female nude models as they applied paint to their bodies and to the canvas, and such an “extraordinary degree of control over a seemingly playful, even frivolous event was characteristic of Klein”.64 Bresson was equally known for imperious control over his models, repeating a take as many 60 times to produce the 64 Paul Schimmel, “Leap into the Void: Performance and the Object,” Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 35.

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appropriate response. He claimed to be so exacting to ensure that the model would produce completely spontaneous gestures and movements, with no trace of premeditation or conscious thought. Both artists thus believed in a spontaneity that can only emerge through painstaking rehearsal and attention to detail. An example can be seen in Klein’s promotional control over the now famous photograph Leap into the Void (1960), which depicts himself leaping from a second-story window fifteen feet above the asphalt street, and was later discovered to have been a carefully assembled photomontage.65 Both Bresson and Klein are therefore keenly aware of the tension between control and spontaneity, stasis and movement as a central force of their work. Bresson and Klein are thus aggressively opposed to the ego-driven flamboyance characterized by work within an Abstract Expressionist tradition.66 However, important distinctions between these artists must also be stressed. For one, Bresson remains committed in his work to the primacy of the material world, while Klein prefers a utopian, immaterial art that carries one beyond the immediate, physical, lived space. For another, Klein rejects prevalent forms of L’Art Informel, and tends to veer away “from the angst, existentialism and humanism of postwar painting”,67 while Bresson’s late films share a good deal in form, style, and vision with these more nihilistic tendencies. For that reason, the dark tones of Quatre nuits do not lead to the kind of spiritual liberation suggested by Klein. Because the vibrant shade of IKB seems buoyant when compared to Quatre nuits’s night scenes, Bresson’s use of color might also be compared to that of Pierre Soulages, who was also affiliated with Tachism and L’Art Informel. Work created by Soulages in the late 1960s and early 1970s combines black forms and lines with color, preferring a similar shade of aquamarine blue. A work such as Peintre 21 septembre 1971, created while Quatre nuits was in production, features the same irregular edges, brush marks, and gradations of blue as Jacques’s door, although, in this case, it would be a series of blue doors hung together like clothes dangling from a laundry line. Another work, Peinture, 14 août, 1966 (Figure 2.14), also presents brush strokes, irregular edges, and washed out areas of deep blue. In this work, however, the top black layer has been stripped away to reveal the grainy smear of blue and white horizontal lines just beneath the surface. Through the process of removing paint, the deep blue seems to pass through the small visible gaps in the black, which gives depth and 65 Ibid., 36. 66 Charlet, Yves Klein, 170-173. 67 Brougher, “Involuntary Painting,” 25.


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Fig. 2.14. Pierre Soulages, Peinture, 14 août, 1966.

dimensionality to the canvas. The black simultaneously obfuscates and reveals underlying layers. Through the dynamic conflict between black and blue, the work springs to life. Soulages’s work thus adds an ominous undertone to Klein’s buoyancy, much as Bresson contrasts somber black tones with bright reflective colors throughout Quatre nuits. Both Bresson and Soulages are especially interested in the way black illuminates other shapes and colors. Thus, Soulages doesn’t separate his use of black from his use of light; for him, black allows for the investigation of reflection in the way the colored light interacts with a variety of surfaces.

Quatre nuits’s Cosmic Light Show: The Tradition of the CineNocturne Following Scott Macdonald’s insight that the nocturne emerges in contemporary avant-garde cinema, I claim in this section that Bresson’s emphasis on reflections, illuminations, and patterns of light not only connects to the postwar avant-garde, but has a longer shared history in European painting. In thinking about a type of experimental cinema that is especially attentive to the material conditions of light and color, Macdonald introduces the

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concept of the “cine-nocturne”, briefly tracing its history in music and painting from the early 1800s to recent manifestations in photography and cinema.68 His focus is from the early 1970s to the present when filmmakers concentrated on “the idea of capturing the serenity and visual beauty of a nocturnal scene”.69 In the visual arts, the term was first employed by the American nineteenth-century painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who inspired by musical nocturnes, depicts scenes of twilight, or landscapes shrouded in a veil of light. Macdonald catalogs some of the characteristics of the cine-nocturne through Matthias Müller’s experimental f ilm Sleepy Haven (1993): saturating the landscape with blue tones or tints; creating a “sensuous, romantic, nighttime world”, along with nostalgia for such an idealized past; maintaining a slow, “serene” pace; and, finally, developing relationships characterized by erotic flirtation.70 While each of these characteristics aptly describes Quatre nuits, perhaps the most important parallel is in the way the spectator oscillates between making narrative sense of a scene and fully immersing oneself in the surface texture, reflective light, and ambient color. By Whistler’s own admission, a principle motivation for developing the nocturne was to shift the focus in painting from representational concerns to the pure, formal play of color, light, and form on the canvas: “By using the word ‘nocturne,’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first.”71 As a result, the nocturne has a natural affinity with the body, evident in Macdonald’s discussion of Abbas Kirastami’s Five (for Ozu) (2003), in which five, single-shot films are each set next to a body of water, forcing the viewer to abandon making sense of a scene in favor of the way one physically engages with and responds to that environment. Macdonald discusses this shift in the final “Moon and Swamp” chapter: “Kirostami asks that we become the protagonist who gradually slows down and learns to enjoy a complex moment-to-moment experience of nature.”72 68 Scott Macdonald, “Gardens of the Moon: The Modern Cine-Nocturne,” Technology and the Garden, ed. Michael Lee and Kenneth Helphand (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2014), 201-229. 69 Ibid., 208. 70 Ibid., 213. 71 Quoted in ibid., 205. Original in a letter from James McNeill Whistler to Frederick Layland in Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 144. 72 Ibid., 212.


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One of Whistler’s most famous night scenes, Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket (1875), is composed of impressionist reflections of color and light set against a night sky, a gesture toward abstraction. Whistler explores the way individual red, yellow, and green lights dot the sky, imitating a field of stars set against a dark cosmos. The work indicates to what extent postwar artists like Soulages and Bresson borrow from the tradition of the nocturne, given their respective interest in black as a foundation that permits contrasting colored light to extend out toward the viewer, much like the explosion of colored fireworks depicted in Whistler’s canvas (Figure 2.15). Of course, the natural world plays a central role in achieving such an illuminated state. While the most common trope in the nocturne is the luminous glow of the moon, in Nocturne in Black and Gold, the fog instead amplifies gold reflections of light off the surface of the water. Bresson’s work would, in this respect, parallel another American painter of the nocturne, Ralph Albert Blakelock, who created numerous studies of moonlight, which Macdonald describes as “solitude over a moonlit night”, and Blakelock terms “Moonlights”, created using a thick impasto style to emphasize texture and color.73 In the dramatic final encounter between Jacques and Marthe, Jacques is transfixed by the yellow glow of the moon set against the blue-black sky, while Marthe instead looks in the opposite direction at the ex-lover she has patiently waited for throughout the film. Jacques maintains the same forlorn and upturned expression with which he looks at the rain as it splashes against his apartment window earlier in the film. This parallel melancholic gaze directed at either moon or rain supports Macdonald’s insight that painted nocturnes often feature the moon reflected in the night sky and in water, since both are “evocative of the motion of reflected light”.74 A careful look at Quatre nuits shows a film preoccupied with such reflections, whether refracted off the moon, off a window as it deflects the rain, or off the Seine from a street lamp or a passing bateau-mouche. Jacques’s romantic final words spoken into his tape recorder as the film draws to a close seem to encapsulate Bresson’s own approach to this film: “It is a luminous, marvelous night, the kind of night you only experience once in a lifetime.” If, following the suggestion of Jacques Aumont, the cinema image simulates the contrast between the dark interior theater and the directed illumination of the projector bulb, then, in Quatre nuits, that bulb would no doubt be represented by the bateaux-mouches that effortlessly glide up and down the 73 Ibid., 205. 74 Ibid., 211.

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Fig. 2.15. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket (1875). Much like Bresson’s approach to Quatre nuits, Whistler is preoccupied with the way bursts of colored light (fireworks in this case) illuminate the night sky.

Seine throughout the film.75 Dunoyer describes Bresson’s bateau-mouche as a “sparking monster” that floats above the silent and dark Seine, bringing a flood of light, color, and warm Brazilian music to an otherwise cold, desolate 75 Aumont, Matière d’images, 102.


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space.76 Rather than projector bulb or monster, Michael Dempsey instead compares Bresson’s bateau-mouche to the representation of the spaceship in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).77 Given the extent to which Quatre nuits is a nocturne that transcends the human realm by invoking higher cosmic forces, the comparison seems apt. Much as the protagonists in Close Encounters are transfixed by Devil’s Tower, the site of the impending arrival of the alien spacecraft, Jacques and Marthe are temporarily immobilized whenever the bateau-mouche floats past, amplified by the light of the passing boat illuminating their faces with the intensity of a spotlight, and by the fact that passersby move behind them at normal speed (Figure 2.16). Much like viewers, Jacques and Marthe are pulled away from the film’s plot and toward the memorizing color, light, music, and cosmic energy of the bateau-mouche. Bresson’s preoccupation with an otherworldly realm reaches beyond the purview of the nocturne. He reveals affinities, for example, in the early 1930s with such Surrealist-inspired photographs as Lunar Landscape (1934), which employs chiaroscuro lighting to depict a remote and desolate moon landscape. Earth becomes foreign and desolate when observed from the dark and remote regions of the moon. Bresson’s set designer, the Surrealist painter Pierre Charbonnier, was equally drawn to cosmic light as a vehicle for artistic creation. Charbonnier began his training with the Surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew, who was the set and costume designer for the ballet Ode (1928) performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris.78 Tchelitchew’s interest in the celestial play of light and color was no doubt what drew him to Charbonnier, since he wanted to harness cinema’s ability to transform the more staid conventions of the ballet into what he called “phosphorescent kinetics”.79 Reviewers were most impressed with the final spectacular tribute to Aurora Borealis, and the great bursts of light suggesting the sudden animation of pyrotechnical set-pieces.”80 Charbonnier used five film projectors to recreate the dramatic 76 Dunoyer, “Les nuits bleues,” 11. 77 Michael Dempsey, “Despair Abounding: The Recent Films of Robert Bresson,” ed. James Quandt, Robert Bresson (Revised) (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1999), 389. Bresson begins his subsequent film, Le diable probablement, with a similar focus on reflections on the Seine and a bateau-mouche that moves past the camera. 78 Lynn Garafola, “Dance, Film, and the Ballets Russes,” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, 16(1) (Summer 1998): 17-18. 79 Parker Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew: A Biography (Wolverhampton, United Kingdom: Fleet Publishing, 1967), 336. 80 Alexander Schouvaloff, The Art of Ballets Russes: The Serge Lifar Collection of Theatre Designs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 323; A. V. Coton, A Prejudice for Ballet (London: Methuen,

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Fig. 2.16. Jacques and Marthe become frozen in space and time as they stare transfixed at the bateau-mouche.

birth of the planet when light emerges out of pure blackness to inaugurate life, presented in the tableau “Let there be light”. This project stands uncannily close to Bresson’s long-term, but ultimately unrealized plan to create La Genèse, a film based on the book of Genesis. Bresson’s Quatre nuits is no less concerned with reflections, illuminations, and patterns of light; the film might be best described as a study in luminescence on par with the public work of Charbonnier. In speaking of his editing style, Bresson discusses the “phosphorus that suddenly emanates from your models, floats outside of them, and connects them to objects”, providing an equivalent example in Cézanne’s use of blue and Greco’s use of gray.81 It is not only the editing style of Quatre nuits that produces phosphorescence, but literally in the way that a Cézanne blue encircles Bresson’s characters. Additional examples of such luminescence would include the green, blue, and yellow blurred reflections that provide the initial images of the film; the glowing rooftop taxi signs that float through the nightscapes of Paris; and the extreme close-up of a brightly illuminated traffic light as it changes from yellow to red. For Jean-Marie Dunoyer, the film’s tone is established by a repeated shot of the “Pont Neuf” sign, which he

1938), 86-87. 81 Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, 86.


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calls a “geometric space of encounters and reunions”.82 Dunoyer suggests that the luminescent, rectangular box of blue letters on a white neon background seems just as significant as an autonomous art object as the fact that it is the lover’s rendezvous spot throughout the film. The most obvious example, however, are the repeated long takes of bateaux-mouches floating along the Seine. In these scenes, water and air are flooded with a battery of high-powered artificial light, as if they hold the boat suspended in space by highlighting it as an object, much as Jacques’s body is suspended by being highlighted in white and placed in a field of blue on the movie poster. Quatre nuits might be seen as the construction of an otherworld of reflections, lights, and illuminations from streetlights, cars, surrounding buildings, and the shimmering surface of the Seine. James Quandt discovers much the same interest in illumination in Bresson’s Un diable probablement, especially as it involves machines: “The film is full of winking, blinking mechanical signals—the red light by the elevator, the yellow signals on the convertible, the string of red dots that light up the métro map, the ‘stop requested’ sign on the bus, the flickering blue of the television set.”83 Bresson’s interest in the machine will require additional discussion in chapter four; suffice it to say for now that both Bresson and other postwar French abstract painters tap into stylistic and thematic aspects of an established nocturne tradition, given the central importance of luminescence in their work.

The Dead Body of Une femme douce: Jean Fautrier and L’Art Informel Haunting Une femme douce is the wife’s dead body, which, after her suicide, is placed on full display for the remainder of the film. Unlike Thérèse in Les anges du péché (1943), Jeanne in Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc, or the priest in Journal d’un curé de campagne, each of whom abandon the material world for a higher spiritual calling, the gentle woman’s death lacks any greater significance, and Bresson depicts her as he would any other inanimate object in the room.84 Such treatment can be traced back to a strand of Surrealism that trades in bodily abjection (to be discussed in chapter three). A parallel gentle woman might therefore be someone like Balthus’s La victime (1939-1946), in which a naked, pubescent, and presumably 82 Dunoyer, “Les nuits bleues,” 11. 83 Quandt, Robert Bresson (Revised), 503-504. 84 Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, 205.

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dead girl is sprawled out on the white sheet of a bed. But insofar as Bresson stresses the wife’s dead body, rather than any meaning that may be imposed on that body, he shows an even closer affiliation with L’Art Informel, the French artistic collective of the 1940s and 1950s. Jean-Pierre Oudart arrives at a similar conclusion, remarking that Bresson had a predilection for “painters of the paste” such as Wols, since both artists stress the materiality of the surface, an insistence on corporality, and an effort to reach the object rather than the symbolism that object may generate.85 In my view, it is not Wols to whom we should turn to gain insight into Bresson’s aesthetic, however, but Wols’s colleague Jean Fautrier. Unlike other L´Art Informel artists, Fautrier was distrustful of improvisation and insisted that form be taken into account, which parallels Bresson’s belief that improvisation could only emerge through strict repetition and severe bodily control. As a result, neither artist believed in formlessness as much as carefully controlled form. Fautrier is known for developing a high impasto method in which paper and glue are slowly layered to build threedimensional sculptural forms. His best-known work, Les otages (1943-1945), depicts approximately 40 paintings of prisoners of war in Nazi occupied France. These paintings feature the deformed heads of tormented inmates, and anticipate subsequent work involving dismembered and decaying bodies. Fautrier’s art is “in part silent painterly records of a damaged life, of human dereliction and despair, and of the widespread speechlessness of the period”.86 Bresson’s films might be similarly characterized by human speechlessness in the face of a protagonist’s palpable martyrdom, as if the director is instead forcing the depicted body to speak for itself. In Benjamin Buchloh’s view, Fautrier’s innovation was to move beyond the automatisms of Abstract Expressionism to textures, “anonymous and desiccated ruins of gestures from which both the subject’s intentionality and its unconscious desire seem to have evaporated altogether”.87 Bresson’s own style is thus closely aligned with Fautrier’s retreat from subjectivity 85 Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Bresson et la vérité,” Cahiers du cinéma 216 (1969): 54. The reference to Wols most likely stems from Weyergans’s documentary Robert Bresson ni vu ni connu (1965). Curtis L. Carter provides a useful definition of L’Art Informel: “Philosophically [it] reflects the artists’ practices of working directly with the immediate empirical properties of materials rather than abstract concepts. Nonfiguration (but not exclusively), antigeometry, gestural improvisation, and an antipathy to any predetermined form.” Curtis L. Carter, “Fautrier’s Fortunes: A Paradox of Success and Failure,” Jean Fautrier 1898-1964 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 27. 86 Karl Ruhrberg, Klaus Honnef, Manfred Schneckenburger, and Christiane Fricke, Art of the Twentieth Century, Part 1 (Bonn: Tachen, 2000), 254. 87 Benjamin Buchloh “Fautrier’s Natures Mortes,” Jean Fautrier 1898-1964 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 65.


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Fig. 2.17. Jean Fautrier, Femme douce (1946).

and the spectacular, and a return to a materiality determined by color, shape, bodily form, and texture.88 Given these stylistic parallels, it seems significant that Bresson gives his film the same name as a Fautrier painting: Femme douce (1946, Figure 2.17). Bresson perhaps directly alludes to Fautrier’s gentle woman in his cinematic version. Much as the pawnbroker’s wife remains opaque to the viewer, shifting between statue and human, Fautrier’s woman is reduced to the green and brown mask that she wears, barely distinguishable by a closed eye and the outline of a nose. Except for craggy impasto lines, her face vanishes into the blue and green background, much as Bresson’s femme douce fades into the background as she encounters a series of inanimate art objects. Both artists thus make the woman’s identity contingent on an active confrontation between foreground and background space. If Fautrier and Bresson are concerned with acts of brutality, moral depravity, and even murder, then they, at the same time, deprive the viewer of seeing such acts, which is the organizing logic behind Fautrier’s Otages and Bresson’s L’a rgent. One expresses more, these works suggest, in representing less. These works also reveal a profound disassociation between surface and 88 In this respect, the wife’s furor at the performance of Hamlet, in which he scolds his players to “o’erstep not the modesty of nature”, seems to mirror Bresson’s own aesthetic, which is based on stripping actors of all embellishment.

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depth, as if the lighter and more beautiful the image, the more disturbing its underlying depths. The poet Francis Ponge describes this contrast in Fautrier as a disquieting partnership between rapture and horror, a relationship even more pronounced post-Otages, in which textures intimate physical deformity, but are often dusted with pinks, purples, and other pastel hues, leading to the claim that Fautrier was “part plasterer, part pastry-cook”.89 If critics resort to such metaphors as birthday cake to describe the color and thick, impasto style of Fautrier’s Trapèze à 4 cotes (1958), then Une femme douce would be an equally decadent dessert, colored in soft tones of brown and gold, and adorned with angelic images of Dominique Sanda enveloped within her bourgeois Parisian home. Such captivating shots ultimately serve to chronicle the disintegration and desperation of a woman on her way to suicide. Ponge observes a parallel stylistic tension in Otages, which depicts “tortured bodies and faces, deformed, truncated, disfigured by bullets”, and yet, in the paintings themselves, “there is no unsightliness, no intolerable or unpleasant experience; on the contrary, there is an impression of serene, eternal beauty”.90 Bresson and Fautrier suggest that the more superficially beautiful and pleasing the image, the more hideous the elements that cannot be represented. If Fautrier focuses on what Suzanne Pagé terms “excremental excess”, then Bresson instead dissolves, fragments, or cripples the figure by turning to the overlooked, unoccupied regions of the frame beyond recognition or narrative sense.91 Hence, the representational dilemma for both artists is how one can arrive at the thing, rather than the exchange between spectator and artist that replaces that thing? How can one escape the paradox of using a representational system to arrive at authentic “thingness”? It is for this reason that Oudart calls Une femme douce “the representation of a mask, of specular vacillation”.92 The film is above all concerned with the various layers of concealment and revelation on the way to the object. The accumulation of works of art, cultural events, and Parisian landmarks ultimately constructs the woman as much as the film Une femme douce, not unlike Fautrier’s texture of icing to construct works like Trapèze à 4 cotes. By repeatedly alternating between scenes of the living wife in the past 89 Yves-Alain Bois, “The Falling Trapeze,” Jean Fautrier 1898-1964 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 58. 90 Francis Ponge, “Note on the Otages,” Jean Fautrier 1898-1964 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 170. 91 Suzanne Pagé, “Pourquoi Fautrier, aujourd’hui?,” Fautrier 1898-1964 (Paris: Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989), 9. 92 Oudart, “Bresson et la vérité,” 53.


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and the dead wife in the present, Bresson emphasizes how little separates these two bodies, since the wife displays precisely the same mask in life as she does in death. The development of such representational strategies no doubt has its roots in Bresson’s interest in painting and the plastic arts, since the canvases that appear in Une femme douce comment on the relationship between artist and female model, much as the wife is framed and immobilized as object in imitation of the methods of Manet, Watteau, Vermeer, and Chardin. But, in contrast to the way the canvas restricts human movement, the use of light in Une femme douce instead suggests a mobile and shifting frame, again imitating the way light is used in religious painting to transcend the limits of visibility. Bresson also draws upon avant-garde thresholds either to suggest space beyond the limits of the frame (Constructivism); to move into interactive, three-dimensional space (gestural art, kinetic light art); or to open up to unknown and often erotic spatial configurations (Surrealism). Behind these and other such practices, Bresson’s impulse, equally found in Jean Fautrier, is to jettison all framing practices and return to the material body itself, even if such a goal is, as Oudart indicates, ultimately yet one more constructed frame. It nevertheless becomes clear, from a close look at Une femme douce, that framing decisions are not an ornamental afterthought, but are key to determining the meaning of a Robert Bresson film.

The Body as Machine: Robert Bresson’s Automatic Art Yves Klein’s efforts to move painting into surrounding space in the Galerie Apollinaire exhibit is extended in his anthropometry paintings, in which female performers become “living brushes” by walking, rolling, and sprawling on blank canvases after applying blue paint to their nude bodies. Klein moved toward a style that increasingly permitted him to distance himself from the physical process of creation, from the use of paint rollers in his early monochrome paintings, to industrial flame throwers to create burn patterns in his work. The canvas thus becomes a record of the indexical traces of the human body or machine as it makes contact with the canvas. Such experiments in bodily automatism resemble the work of Nikki de Saint-Phalle, a fellow member of Le Nouveau Réalisme. She began her career in the early 1960s by creating the series Les tirs (Shooting Pictures). In these works, Saint-Phalle attached polythene bags filled with various colors of paint to a canvas, or enclosed them within layers of plaster. Other artists, spectators, or Saint-Phalle herself would then shoot a .22 caliber rifle at the

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Fig. 2.18. Niki de Saint-Phalle as performer at Galerie Becker, creating the “rifle-shot” painting Drôle de mort ou Gambrinus (Funny Corpse or Gambrinus, Munich, 1963).

canvas, and the explosion would create abstract drip patterns. For some performances, Saint-Phalle dressed in an all-white jumpsuit designed for such events (Figure 2.18). Saint-Phalle’s own performance thus became indistinguishable from the finished work on the canvas. For 20 years, Bresson insisted on casting Saint-Phalle as Guenièvre in his film Lancelot du lac.93 Given the repeated allusions to action painting and performance in his late films, could Bresson’s long-term interest in Saint-Phalle have been related to her approach to the canvas, specifically Les tirs? If Bresson blurs the distinction between art object and surrounding space, then selecting Saint-Phalle would generate much the same kind of ambiguity between actor and artwork as the immobile body of Dominique Sanda as she reflects the shifting light and colors of Nicolas Schöffer’s kinetic light sculpture Lux 1 in Une femme douce. While Saint-Phalle expands the canvas into a live shooting gallery, a collective of Japanese artists known as the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai, or the Gutai Art Association were organizing comparable events. The Gutai group were influenced by American Abstract Expressionism and L’Art Informel, 93 Because Saint-Phalle was pregnant when Bresson finally secured funding in 1974, it was instead her daughter who took the starring role.


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Fig. 2.19. Shozo Shimamoto, Holes (1954), created by gluing multiple sheets of paper together and tearing small roundish holes into the surface.

especially the performative theatrics of George Mathieu, who had a direct influence on Gutai performers.94 The work of Shozo Shimamoto perhaps most closely resembles the approach of Saint-Phalle. In one event, Shimamato placed different colors of paint in plastic bags and then placed the bags in a five-meter-long cannon to be shot at the canvas. The result is Cannon (1956), a wash of green, yellow, and black paint splattered across a beige background. Shimamoto also organized a series of events involving paint being dropped from a crane, paint colors naturally separating according to their specific density in a series called Uzumaki (Whirlpool), and helicopter performances.95 Such emphasis on the nonhuman, involuntary production 94 Schimmel, “Leap into the Void,” 31. Mathieu’s performative style is on full display in La bataille de bouvines (1954), which was performed in Tokyo one year before Gutai was formed. 95 Ibid.

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Fig. 2.20. Two photographs of paintings by Jacques’s classmate at the École des Beaux Arts: a white, otherworldly background punctuated by black spots on the surface.

of art brings his work quite close to that of Bresson. Shimamoto’s early Holes series (1949-1950s), for example, presents an otherworldly landscape with unusually shaped black holes that dot the surface. Critics have described these paintings as lunar landscapes in their depiction of desolate, crater-like surfaces. Such a description recalls a parallel interest in celestial forms in Quatre nuits, an influence that can be traced back to Bresson’s 1930s photographic work, such as the similarly alien and inhospitable moon surface depicted in Lunar Landscape. But what the canvases in Shimamoto’s Holes series most resemble, especially Holes (1954, Figure 2.19), are the paintings that Jacques’s classmate guardedly reveals during his disquisition on modern art (Figure 2.20). Both works depict a similarly alien, barren space characterized by a light background and several irregular, black splotches of paint distributed across the canvas. Shimamoto takes the process further toward three-dimensionality than Jacques’s classmate by tearing holes in the surface to create his black splotches. Much like the previously discussed impasto constructions of Jean Fautrier, which are so close to the aesthetic of Une femme douce, Shimamoto contrasts the delicate, moon-like pastel surface with the underlying emptiness and blackness of ripped holes. One of the characteristics of gestural art as it emerges after the war is the importance of photography. Georges Mathieu, for example, had photographs


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taken while creating his canvases. He occasionally destroyed the artworks themselves, but preserved the photographs of these works, suggesting that photographic documentation was more essential to him than the original work. Members of the Gutai group similarly viewed artistic creation in its dynamic relationship with the act of mechanically documenting such events with a camera. In the United States, Hans Namuth’s dramatic photographs of Jackson Pollock in the process of creating a drip painting serve a similar role, and have become just as celebrated as the paintings in shaping the mythology of Pollock.96 Bresson similarly emphasizes the mechanical documentation of Jacques’s artistic creation throughout Quatre nuits, whether through the camera that captures Jacques’s movement as he applies paint to the canvas, or through the fact that the classmate´s paintings are presented to us through photographs. The mechanical apparatus creates a distance from direct human engagement with the artistic process, quite literally through the invention of a machine—whether gun or camera—that shoots the event. The focus of Quatre nuits is therefore not Jacques’s completed paintings, but rather the process in which he interacts with colored paint, brushes, and containers of water on the floor of his loft. Even the end of the film is devoid of human exchange, focusing instead on the sounds of Jacques’s paintbrush as it moves across the surface of a canvas. Quatre nuits is less interested in the human relationship between Jacques and Marthe than in the mechanical exchange between camera, artist, and surrounding space in documenting Jacques’s languid performances.97 Bresson’s intention is instead to distance or even remove the human from the work of art. The Nouveau Réaliste collective of artists might even be defined in the way they discard the notion of artist as supreme creator, and instead conceive of the artwork as an autonomous, self-regulating machine. Jean Tinguely began his career by creating mechanical rotating machines, occasionally in collaboration with Yves Klein. Tinguely’s Méta-matics series (Drawing Machines, 1959) were automated robots programmed to create their own works of art, stressing nonhuman forms of expression. At about the same time, Daniel Spoerri created his Tableaux pièges series (Trap Paintings), assemblages that immortalize a diner’s meal by fixing the area where the meal occurred 96 Ibid., 18. 97 Bresson’s Quatre nuits d’un rêveur can be compared to Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991) in this respect. In the latter film, the process of creation is emphasized through stretches in which all we hear is Frenhofer’s abrasive scratching of pen and ink on paper. See Thomas Elsaesser, “Around Painting and the ‘End of Cinema’: A Propos Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse,” Sight and Sound (April 1992): 20-23.

The Turn to Post war Abstrac tion


and hanging it vertically like a painting.98 Like other members of Nouveau Réalism, Spoerri’s art focused on the indexical traces of the human. Much as an archaeological site might reveal the behavior, lifestyle, and artifacts of a prehistoric family, Spoerri presents the remains of a Delbeck family meal in Le lieu de repos de la famille Delbeck (1960). From the use of robotic models to highly controlled sets, Bresson might be seen as employing a similar strategy to deemphasize human agency in favor of presenting long-forgotten vestiges of authentic human engagement, keeping the spectator at a secondary remove. Allusions to painting often acknowledge such stylistic tendencies in Quatre nuits. Jacques’s classmate insists, in a line that could be uttered by Bresson himself, that the object no longer matters to the painter; what instead becomes of critical importance is “the gesture that removes the object and its presence”. By using mechanical methods to capture such artistic gestures, interactions are stripped of human intentionality to become a documentation of pattern and movement, whether that machine is a gun (Saint-Phalle), a cannon (Shimamoto), a kinetic light machine (Schöffer), an art machine (Tinguely), a photographic camera (Namuth), or a cinema camera (Bresson). Jean Collet approaches this same insight from another perspective in noting that, rather than “filling the space of desire”, Quatre nuits is instead “constructed with the aim of expressing an emptiness”.99 Bresson’s films are, in this way, positioned between the human and the machine, insofar as they are constructed around a human gaze that looks back at itself, only to find a machine instead returning the gaze. We have seen much the same divine intervention in this section among a wide range of postwar painters. In his anthropometry paintings, Yves Klein leaves the imprint of parts of the female body. His series of fire paintings, beginning with A tableau de feu bleu d’une minute (1957) involves positioning a nude model in front of a canvas and spraying water around her body. He then chars the canvas with a blowtorch, which leaves the outline of her body based on the spray of water. Much like the three-dimensional molds of Jean Fautrier, which appear as archaeological artifacts shaped by natural processes of decomposition, such Nouveau Réaliste painters as Klein rely on natural processes involving water, fire, and the human body to eliminate intentionality from the artistic process. Privileging machine aesthetics over the human in Bresson’s work has been most extensively explored through Bresson’s innovative use of sound. His films are especially rich investigations into the wide spectrum of noises 98 Schimmel, “Leap into the Void” 43. 99 Collet, “Choix de films: Quatre nuits d’un rêveur,” 430.


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made by machines, from the hum that emanates from Nicolas Schöffer’s Lux 1 sculpture in the Musée des Beaux Arts scene of Une femme douce, to the purr of the floating bateaux-mouches in Quatre nuits.100 Through a careful look at Bresson’s Le diable probablement (1977), Serge Daney observes that Bresson almost never provides a shot of a mouth when words are being spoken, detaching the body from the sounds it makes and minimizing human agency.101 A parallel example in Quatre nuits occurs when Jacques listens to a tape recorder of himself speaking. In these scenes, Jacques’s voice is dramatically severed from his body; he becomes a detached observer of his own bodily desires, such as his passion for Marthe when he repeats her name repeatedly into the recorder. For Daney, such a disconnect between voice and body provides evidence of Bresson’s phenomenological project, since it demonstrates the inability of the voice to “bear the violence of the world” in the way that the body must.102 The polarization between body and voice thus provides another strategy, along with the mechanization of models and allusions to the mute landscape of painting, to emphasize the body’s direct engagement with the surrounding world.

100 Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 84. 101 Serge Daney, “The Organ and the Vacuum Cleaner,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2011), 479-491. Daney distinguishes between the voice-over and what he calls the “voice in” that is the organizing logic of the film. 102 Ibid., 481.

Part 2 Avant-Garde Experiment


Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism Sexual Desire, Masochism, and Abjection Abstract Chapter three focuses on Surrealist themes and styles that emerge in Bresson’s color films. I examine commonalities between Bresson and his art director, the Surrealist painter Pierre Charbonnier. I also discuss the way eroticism is represented in Bresson’s films, comparing it to the way surrealist artists use layered depth, fluctuating between disclosure and concealment. I claim that the protagonist Jacques in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur is the Surrealist flâneur in pursuit of the “marvelous”, in much the same way as characters in the novels of Louis Aragon and André Breton. Finally, I compare Bresson’s ascetic style to two “dissident surrealists”: the writer Pierre Klossowski and the painter Balthus, focusing on scenes of abjection and torture as a way to denigrate the body. Keywords: abjection, Balthus, Pierre Charbonnier, Pierre Klossowski, Surrealism, masochism

Bresson’s relationship to Surrealism began to be discussed in the late 1980s when the Cinémathèque française discovered a negative of his first short, Affaires publiques (1934), a film long thought to be lost. Most commentators conclude that, although this slapstick comedy has a clear avant-garde style, it stands as an anomaly before Bresson’s full maturity.1 Recent studies, however, have stressed shared commonalities between Bresson and Surrealism. Brian Price argues that Bresson developed a distinctive Surrealist aesthetic with Affaires publiques, surrounding himself with a group of like-minded artists and publishing Surrealist-influenced photographs during the 1930s. Even a later film such as Pickpocket explores the world of illicit 1 Colin Burnett, “Bresson in the 1930s: Photography, Cinema, Milieu,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinémathèque, 2011), 204.

Watkins, R., Late Bresson and the Visual Arts. Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment, Amsterdam University Press, 2018 doi 10.5117/9789462983649/ch03


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criminal activity, and expresses the kind of antisocial impulse celebrated by the Surrealists in Louis Feuillade’s early crime serials.2 Acknowledging that, “the proximity between Bresson and the surrealists is too often neglected”, Amiel similarly argues that Lancelot du lac follows the Surrealist dictum to rebel against societal mores by focusing on the disbandment and demise of the Knights of the Round Table.3 Amiel describes additional Surrealist characteristics in Lancelot, with an emphasis on chance meetings, apparent contradictions, logical impasses, and improbable relationships. 4 Furthermore, Colin Burnett examines Bresson’s friendships in the 1930s with such Surrealist artists and writers as Jean Aurenche, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau, and Louis Aragon.5 This study builds on these recent insights to offer a more complete picture of Surrealism’s stylistic influence on Bresson.

The Surrealist Threshold and the Erotics of Vision Especially attractive to the European avant-garde was cinema’s ability to expand into multidimensional space, serving as an “escape hatch from the flat routine of twentieth century industrialized life and death”.6 At the end of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Jean Börlin suggests precisely such a connection between cinematic editing and the methods of Dada collage by using a pair of scissors to puncture through the screen that announces the film’s end. After then jumping through the paper screen, Börlin allows viewers to see the limitless skyline of Paris. The same shot projected in reverse then restores the image to its original flatness. Such play with the opening and closing of cinematic space is subsequently explored by a number of Surrealists, especially Jean Cocteau, whose innovative use of mirrors in his Orphic Trilogy (1930-1960) in particular suggests traveling through thresholds to experience alternate spaces beyond the ordinary, limited dimensions of human experience. While Bresson openly admits to Cocteau’s influence, another Surrealist provides even more insight into this technique: Pierre Charbonnier, who was not only a painter, but was also art director for eight of Bresson’s thirteen films. An obvious parallel is the fascination both Charbonnier and Bresson share with windows, mirrors, and doorways: thresholds that both open onto and 2 Price, Neither God Nor Master, 20-22. 3 Amiel, Lancelot du lac de Robert Bresson, 72-73. 4 Ibid, 72-74, 98. 5 Burnett, “Bresson in the 1930s,” 203-207. 6 Andrew, What Cinema Is!, 85.

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Fig. 3.1. Pierre Charbonnier, Fenêtre (Window 1955-1960).

invite the viewer into another world, even while preventing full access to that world. In a number of Charbonnier’s paintings, the canvas is framed as a window in which the viewer looks from an elevated position through geometrical bars to the buildings, sea, or city below.7 Charbonnier’s work builds on the canvases of Henri Matisse, who includes a number of partially closed windows or doors that create small apertures through which an exterior landscape can be seen from an interior room.8 In La fenêtre ouverte à Nice (1919), for example, massive blue shutters enclose a solitary woman inside a room as she reads a book, except for one small panel through which we can glimpse vaguely human forms reclining on a 7 Many of these paintings are reproduced in Pierre Charbonnier: Peintures 1955-1965 (Geneva: Galerie D. Benador), 1965. 8 René Percheron, Christian Brouder, Matisse: De la couleur à l’architecture (Paris: Éditions Buchet-Chastel, 2002), 16.


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beach. Such play between inside and out is replicated in an untitled work by Charbonnier in which a narrow sliver between the shutters of a window allows the nebulous outline of the sea and a schooner to be seen in the far distance (Figure 3.1). Charbonnier’s frames extend Matisse to suggest that the human subject is no more important than the windows, doors, walls, and corners that obstruct our view of that subject, making the visible necessarily contingent and incomplete.9 In this way, both Charbonnier and Bresson conceive of their work as simultaneously a transmission of the visible and a barrier that restricts visual information; opening up new space necessarily implies a closing off of the unlimited panorama and a denial of the possibilities of vision. Charbonnier and Bresson’s work thus becomes an inquiry into the artist’s control over the viewing experience. Charbonnier’s interest in framing is particularly evident in Le souci de peintre (The Painter’s Concern, 1947), which consists of three carefully organized frames: a painting that rests on an easel in the center foreground, a mirror on the wall in the right background, and a curtained, open window on the left through which the viewer can see a cityscape (Figure 3.2). Each frame of this painting presents a more elaborate version of the real: a painting that focuses on a small abstract piece of a building outside the window, the window that depicts several buildings, and the mirror that—in a mise-en-abîme—captures the other two representations: the corner of the canvas and easel, the window, shutter, and curtains, and several buildings outside the window. By titling the work “The Painter’s Concern”, Charbonnier comments on the degree to which his work is about the representational process, making the viewer conscious of the way the world has been framed. As this study has emphasized, Bresson’s films are equally concerned with creating meaning through the contrast between frames. Charbonnier’s windows might in this respect be compared to the condemned man in Bresson’s Un condamné à mort s’est echappé, who struggles to escape the confines of his small prison cell and emerge through a skylight into the free world.10 Fontaine’s heroic efforts to reach offscreen space reflect the viewer’s equal desire to achieve a more comprehensive perspective, 9 Gabaston compares another painting of doors, Matisse’s La porte-fenêtre à Collioure (1914), to shots of Michel’s apartment in Pickpocket, evidence perhaps that Bresson’s style borrows directly from Matisse. Gabaston also mentions that Charbonnier was close friends with Matisse’s son Jean. See Gabeston, Pickpocket de Robert Bresson, 100-101. 10 Yvon Taillandier argues that the window, painting, and mirror in Le souci de peintre can be read as increasingly more successful routes of escape that can be mapped onto Fontaine’s escape in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé. I focus instead on Charbonnier’s decision to place

Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism


Fig. 3.2. Pierre Charbonnier, Le souci de peintre (The Painter’s Concern, 1947).

rather than a series of claustrophobic views. Bresson’s surrogate in Une femme douce would in this respect be the maid Anna, whose primary job is to regulate the way people and light filter inside the home through the opening and closing of doors, curtains, and windows. Controlling space by regulating frames thus not only becomes Bresson’s signature style, but the central conflict facing many of his protagonists in their effort to escape their physical or psychological imprisonment within the diegesis. In much the same fashion as Le souci de peintre, Bresson frequently comments on the tension between concealment and revelation. An extreme close-up of an ATM during the opening credits of L’a rgent offers a characteristic example: a steel window slides across the screen and prevents the spectator from lingering on the green computer screen beneath it, three versions next to one another and in the way Bresson juxtaposes frames in a comparable way. See Yvon Taillandier, “Introduction,” Pierre Charbonnier (Paris: J. C. de Chaudun, 1958).


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becoming instead a hard, reflective surface for the steely, blue-green hues of passing cars. Bresson thus ironically opens his film with a closure: a screen shutting out another screen, as if informing the viewer that access to any unmediated “real” will not be permitted; images will instead be carefully regulated for the rest of the film.11 In contrast, the carefully constructed opening credit sequence in Lancelot du lac achieves something quite different. The fixed camera is set in the forest, but peers through a tangle of foreground branches to a white building within the village of Escalot. A stream of light travels across the forest floor to illuminate the white building. The sunlight places the branches, leaves, and trunks of the trees in relief, so that there seems to be a great density of green foliage filling the frame. Because the foliage stretches from the extreme foreground in blurry outline to clusters of trees in the extreme background, the shot is visually chaotic. The play with depth and light gives the shot a profound depth, perhaps illustrating what Gilles Deleuze had in mind when he called Bresson’s locale a “forest-aquarium”, in the way the space is completely filled with green.12 Jean Collet observes that the space of the tournament scenes in Lancelot is characterized by a camera turned toward the ground to provide a closed, limited perspective, while the forest is instead a space of opening and forbidden liberation. In this way, we see the same interest in rhythmically oscillating between open and closed shots in Bresson as a way of controlling the viewer’s emotional response.13 This tension between concealment and disclosure is most frequently linked to eroticism or violence, since many of Bresson’s scenes are constructed around a dramatic contrast in texture between the soft flesh of the human body and the impenetrability of faceless shots, machinic surfaces, closed doors, and blocked passageways. The scene in which Marthe explores her nude body in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, for example, occurs after she and the male border are repeatedly thwarted from direct physical contact by corridors, walls, locked bedroom doors, and the steel doors of an elevator. Similarly, Queen Guenvière suddenly appears nude in the bathtub being bathed by a team of chambermaids in Lancelot du lac

11 Bresson filmed this scene on a makeshift set rather than on location, perhaps to ensure that the reflections were appropriately captured on the metal surface. See Colin Burnett, “Inside Bresson’s L’Argent: An Interview With Crew-Member Jonathan Hourigan,” Offscreen (31 August 2004), accessed 12 July 2017, html. 12 Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 1. L’image-mouvement (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983), 154. 13 Jean Collet, “Lancelot du lac de Robert Bresson,” Études 341 (November 1974): 594.

Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism


Fig. 3.3. Jeanne from the point of view of a soldier looking through the keyhole in Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc.

after numerous sequences of feet, legs, or Lancelot and his knights hidden within full body armor.14 In these examples, eroticism emerges in the contrast between the extended denial of sensorial or visual pleasure, followed by a highly constructed scene that allows for a viewer’s visual satiation. Bresson thus shifts between two contrasting functions of the threshold: short-circuiting vision and withholding psychic identification, or allowing the viewer’s sudden access to the nude body. Jean-Michel Frodon arrives at a similar point in his discussion of Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc, noting that we often observe Joan of Arc through a series of fixed keyhole shots set directly in front of a closed door. Frodon terms this erotics of looking the “ejaculatory power of the eye”, borrowing Bresson’s own turn of phrase from his Notes.15 The camera is repeatedly positioned to observe Jeanne’s behavior secretly, as if the viewer is one of the English soldiers who want to rape her (Figure 3.3).16 14 The bathroom (shower or bathtub) is almost always the locus for the staging of the nude body in Bresson, representing a “private” space in contrast to the film’s predominant public spaces. In addition to the aforementioned examples, Jacques, the protagonist of Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, is shown in the shower; Charles, the lead in Le diable, probablement, is shown nude in a lover’s bathroom while trying to commit suicide by drowning himself; and the wife in Une femme douce runs jauntily from the bathroom in her towel, preparing for her nude scene in front of the television. 15 Jean-Michel Frodon, “The ‘Being There’ of the Physical World and the Ejaculatory Power of the Eye: Eroticism in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 187-201. 16 Ibid.


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The nude in Bresson thus only makes sense in terms of all the obstacles— ranging from walls, elevator doors, Medieval armor, and clothing in Une femme douce—that have first been placed in the sight line. Bresson’s play between revelation and concealment grows directly out of the Surrealist fascination with the manipulation of depth of field. Haim Finkelstein argues that the Surrealists were so taken with Louis Feuillade’s serial adventures Fantômas (1913-1914) and Les vampires (1915-1916) because of his complex “planimetric patterning”, which relies on deep space staging within a frame.17 In other words, Feuillade creates a sense of layered depth through the use of apertures (windows, doors, doorways, and other thresholds) that both restrict the spectator’s vision and allow it to move deeper into the image. As a result, the viewer experiences a greater sense of depth, even as each plane provides an “enhanced sense of flatness”.18 Such play with layered depth can be seen as central to the Surrealist aesthetic: in the reflective surfaces of Louis Aragon; in the play with surface and depth in René Magritte; in the windows of André Breton; in Joan Miró’s oscillation between opacity and transparency; and in André Masson’s staging of illusion. Finkelstein adds that curtains are frequently employed by Surrealist painters as another method of invoking this notion of layered depth, just as the fascination with Giorgio de Chirico grows out of complex architectural relationships between foreground and background. De Chirico’s II bambino cervello (The Child’s Brain, 1914), for example, presents a sightless man who is framed by a curtain on the left, and a window above him on the right that leads to a series of additional frames of arched and rectangular openings (Figure 3.4). In “The X …, Y … Exhibit” (1929), André Breton explores de Chirico’s use of the curtain precisely for its distinctive ability to hide or reveal.19 Breton had been previously drawn to Paul Cézanne’s Jeune homme à la tête de mort (Young Man before a Skull, 1896-1898) for many of the same reasons, since the use of background curtain pleats seems to envelop the head of the man in the foreground, and transmits what Breton terms a “metaphysical unease” throughout the painting; by employing what Breton terms the “gauze of curtains”, the artist capitalizes on the contradictory movement between a curtain’s closing off of vision, and its simultaneous opening 17 Finkelstein takes the term “planimetric patterning” from David Bordwell’s reading of Feuillade in On the History of Film Style (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). Bordwell himself draws from Heinrich Wölfflin’s concept of “planimetric patterns” and a tradition of painterly theatricality in European cinema as an alternative to Hollywood continuity. See Haim Finkelstein, The Screen in Surrealist Art and Thought (London: Ashgate, 2007), 46. 18 Ibid. 19 Ibid, 102.

Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism


Fig. 3.4. Giorgio de Chirico II bambino cervello (The Child’s Brain, 1914).

up of new possibilities through the fabric´s folds and crevices.20 Such an interpretation is not unlike Bresson’s own juxtaposition between denying the viewer any visual information, followed by the opening of previously closed passageways to a more encompassing view. In Une femme douce, Bresson is not only preoccupied with windows, frames, and doors, but he in fact employs a green curtain in a way that works particularly well with Breton’s analysis of curtains. Bresson continuously relocates the curtains in order to redefine the space of the pawnbroker’s apartment. In Figure 3.5, for example, the dark green window curtains extend in a highly impractical fashion into the center of the room, adding an additional barrier, but also new inventive space for the spectator. The fact that the wife wears a trench coat that is the same shade of green as the curtains adds to the way she is modeled, making her blend into 20 Ibid., 99-103.


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Fig. 3.5. Bresson’s manipulation of pleated green curtains has echoes of de Chirico and in the creation of additional spaces that both hide and reveal the wife.

the background world from which she emerges. Much like the artificial prosceniums used in many of Magritte’s canvases, or the curtain in de Chirico’s The Child’s Brain, Bresson’s curtain creates unknowable offscreen space. The wife appears from behind the curtain, moves slowly toward the camera until, in extreme close-up, she points a gun at her husband as he sleeps, slowly retreats backward, and again disappears behind the curtain. The crossing of planes thus brings with it a dangerous force from one space to another that physically threatens the husband. By constantly creating new divisions between foreground and background, Bresson plays with the relationship between spectator and surrounding space, so the quite small living quarters of Une femme douce feel enormous, especially due to the relocation of a Chinese folding screen to separate the wife’s bed from the master bed, an ideal prop for the way fabric or cloth walls are continuously repositioned throughout the film.

Jacques, Surrealist Flâneur If the cine-nocturne is characterized by an elegiac mode that drifts from reality to the romantic world of sensuality, fantasy, and erotic desire, then Bresson’s Quatre nuits d’un rêveur recounts a parallel negotiation

Bresson’s Flirtation with Surrealism


between reality and the imaginative worlds of its protagonists, Marthe and Jacques. The root of this shift can be traced to Bresson’s early engagement with Surrealism, especially the interest in tapping into the unconscious, automatic processes of artistic creation. As André Bazin observed, Surrealism discovers in the photograph the same mix between indexical art and a distinctive human subjectivity that artists strove to recreate in a variety of fields.21 One of the most obvious ways the Surrealist fascination with the interweaving of objective and subjective worlds emerges in Bresson’s work is through Jacques’s role as surrealist flâneur. Building on Charles Baudelaire’s celebration of the flâneur as one whose internal, private life is projected onto the public, urban landscape, the narrator in such works as Louis Aragon’s Le paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928) wanders through remote, abandoned streets of Paris in search of hidden clues, archaic treasures, and chance encounters that will reveal the internal self, what Breton defines as the “marvelous”. Quatre nuits might be viewed as a similar adventure for the protagonist, who wanders unknown through the streets of Paris hunting for clues to his interior, psychic life in a series of urban spaces. The plot of Quatre nuits often turns on the ambiguity over whether an event is a personal, unique experience to Jacques, or whether it is instead part of a larger communal experience. Jacques begins to see Marthe’s name, for example, displayed in public spaces, whether written in gold lettering on the window of a Parisian storefront, or painted on the sides of a barge’s bow as it moves toward him on the Seine. In a park scene, Jacques stares voyeuristically at two sets of lovers who intimately embrace. Jacques’s deepest emotions are, in this way, projected in the most impersonal of public settings, although Bresson’s flâneur is more self-consciously identified with mechanical reproducibility than that of the Surrealists. Perhaps the best example is when Jacques plays a tape recording of himself reciting Marthe’s name on a public bus as two elderly women look on in bewilderment. Jacques’s lack of facial expression and physical detachment is contrasted with the increasing excitement and frenzy of his recorded voice. The irony is that Jacques can only display emotion when it is detached from his own body through the mediation of a machine. Another Surrealist characteristic is the emphasis on vision and the exchanging of looks (or, more often, the withholding of looks) between actors in Quatre nuits. Kent Jones argues that the secret organizing logic of

21 André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What is Cinema, Volume 1, 15-16.


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Quatre nuits is, in fact, the act of looking.22 Marthe’s relationship with the lodger, for example, is predicated on the absence of sight. Bresson observes that Marthe is so enamored with the lodger precisely because she never sees him early in the film.23 Marthe falls in love, in other words, because her relationship is based on a series of barely missed encounters due to objects that physically separate them: elevator doors, the walls of their respective bedrooms that they tap on to communicate with one another, the doors of their bedrooms that the other silently stands outside in an effort to detect some sound or trace, and a hallway where Marthe momentarily glimpses the back of the lodger as he returns to his room. In contrast, Jacques is overwhelmed by scopophilic events, whether large glass reflective surfaces, small shop windows, or the rush of cars and people in the streets of Paris. Despite the fact that Jacques suffers from a surplus of the visual while Marthe is deprived of it, both characters crave a direct bodily experience rather than one mediated by visual impressions. The way that Jacques’s view of the world is refracted through shop windows and glass surfaces can be paralleled with the experience of the narrator in Louis Aragon’s novella Le paysan de Paris (1926). Aragon sets the first section, “Passage de l’opéra”, in a nineteenth-century arcade constructed primarily of fin-de-siècle cast iron beams that support an endless expanse of windows. The narrator’s vision fluctuates between expanding the depth of the visual field, which allows for an experience of the Surrealist marvelous, and a sudden closing down or complete shuttering of such depth to a flat, uninviting surface. As the narrator ambles through forgotten hallways and hidden back entrances of the neighborhood, for example, he sees the apparition of a woman framed in the window of a cane shop, “bathed in a greenish, almost submarine light”, suggesting that he has been transported to an otherworldly location.24 The event triggers an extended memory of a relationship he had with a prostitute that he cannot differentiate from the woman he now watches, blurring fact and fantasy. As the green light dies away, a row of canes in the window forms an impenetrable barrier that completely blocks his vision.25 It is therefore the way in which the protagonist’s scopic vision traverses the picture window that instigates the fantasy, as well as definitively ends it. In a parallel scene later in the novella, 22 Kent Jones, “Four Nights of a Dreamer,” Film Comment 35(4) (July-August 1999): 45: “Few films have ever been so devoted to secretive gazing, and visualized it so well.” 23 Ronald Hayman, “Robert Bresson in Conversation with Ronald Hayman,” Transatlantic Review 46-47 (Summer 1973): 22. 24 Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: Exact Change, 1994), 22. 25 Ibid, 23.

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Fig. 3.6: Jacques peers into the window at a woman he voyeuristically observes, as if imitating the dynamics of the narrator in Louis Aragon’s Le paysan de Paris.

the narrator watches a saleswoman in a handkerchief store through a store window decorated with “a display of symmetrically arranged handkerchiefs suspended above somber-hued petticoats which prevent the idle gaze from roaming over the shop’s contents with ease”.26 The protagonist’s sexual desire for this woman is again represented through his struggle to see through the crowded display window. Bresson seems to have such scenes specifically in mind in Quatre nuits when the protagonist Jacques looks at a woman through a narrow aperture created by brightly colored, handkerchief-like strips of material that drape the window from above, and several women’s velvet vests that hang just below them (Figure 3.6). Jacques’s experience with the woman he spies on through this clothing shop window has much the same structure as the windows in Aragon’s novella, which function as thresholds into the imaginary realm that nonetheless leave their mark on the “real”. Bresson thus consciously follows Aragon and other Surrealists in emphasizing the mechanisms of scopophilia in the way a character’s vision is framed through peepholes, windows, doors, and other thresholds. Such a fascination with framing characterizes the narrator’s movement between closed doorways and corridors in contrast to the “human aquarium” of Passage de l’Opéra, where everything remains on full display.27 26 Ibid., 83. 27 Ibid, 14.


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Given the central importance of the clandestine, erotic gaze in constructing Quatre nuits, it is not surprising that Bresson substitutes an actual physical encounter between Marthe and the lodger with a book. When the lodger disappears, Marthe picks up and begins to read one of the pornographic books he has left in a stack in the living room: Louis Aragon’s novella Irène (1928). Bresson thus replaces the romantic adventure novels by Alexander Pushkin and Sir Walter Scott in Dostoevsky’s original with a Surrealist, erotic text. Aragon’s work is similarly structured around the narrator’s voyeuristic observation of neighborhood activities, even if the activities are much more overtly focused on sexual acts. The emphasis, however, is not on the sex act, but rather on the thresholds through which the voyeuristic gaze is channeled: through a keyhole in a brothel; through a secret peephole in the wall of the same building; through the reader who views these events through a “periscope”; or through the narrator as an older man who is paralyzed, mute, and whose only pleasure comes from observing his granddaughter Irène’s sexual activity from a wheelchair.28 Much like a cinema spectator, the narrator is an immobile body who can do nothing more than observe. Like the spectator’s transportation through the proscenium, the narrator describes his voyeuristic pleasure in viewing Irène’s vagina as a transformative journey through thresholds. Bresson thus suggests that the relationship between Marthe and the lodger and between Aragon’s narrator and granddaughter are parallel studies in the way voyeuristic fantasy is constructed. The narrator of Irène contrasts his own talent at the romantic fabrication of words to the much less satisfying physical aspects of desire, much as Jacques and Marthe are consumed by a romantic vision of spiritual love rather than any of its base manifestations. As meditations on the way desire is visually constructed, Irène and Une femme douce have much in common with Marcel Duchamp’s Etants donnés (1946-1966), an installation piece of a weathered wooden door containing two small peepholes. The peepholes provide a view of a three-dimensional diorama featuring a headless, naked woman with her legs spread and vagina in the center of the display. In the tradition of the uncanny automaton who shifts between machine and human, the woman’s body has been painstakingly detailed to look real, even as she appears lifeless and artificial. 28 See Louis Aragon, Irène, trans. Lowell Bair (New York: Grove Press, 1969), originally published under the pseudonym Albert de Routisie in 1928. Tony Pipolo hints at the present argument in observing that Aragon’s book, “not only arouses [Marthe’s] interest in the lodger, but also possibly alludes to Bresson’s reflections on his treatment of eroticism”. Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, 269.

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Similarly to Irène, Duchamp positions the spectator as a voyeur who invades the woman’s private space in a moment of extreme vulnerability for her. Although less scatological, Bresson nonetheless interrogates the erotics of voyeurism in a similar fashion. Jean-Michel Frodon highlights the central importance of such acts in Bresson’s films, including the scene in which a group of knights gazes up to Guenièvre’s window, which he terms an “orifice” that gives them access to the Queen’s body in Lancelot du lac.29 Not only is this organization of the gaze in Une femme douce a defining characteristic of Bresson’s work and Surrealist art, but Bresson seems to acknowledge the connection overtly in Quatre nuits through direct allusion to Aragon. In the subsequent chapter, I investigate Bresson’s oscillation between a deep space construction and a flat, closed space in greater detail by exploring the way it is manifest, not through the influence of Surrealism, but rather through the geometric forms of Constructivism.

Pierre Klossowski: The Denigration of the Body In light of Bresson’s Surrealist proclivities, it is not surprising that his work bears striking, if almost entirely unacknowledged, parallels to Pierre Klossowski, a postwar French philosopher and artist influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade. Klossowski’s preoccupation in his novels with the quest for a Christian, spiritual absolute, sadistic punishment of the body, and the contrast between stasis and movement, especially by turning to the history of painterly representation, are uncannily close to Bresson’s own constellation of artistic interests. Klossowski and Bresson emerge from a tradition that can be traced to the Collège de Sociologie, a collective of French writers and artists led by Georges Bataille and termed “dissident surrealism” for its emphasis on transgressive acts performed on the body, sadomasochism, and death.30 Not only would Bresson have been familiar with Klossowski’s influential essays on Nietzsche written in the late 1960s, but the filmmaker even casts Klossowski as the grain merchant in Au hasard Balthazar (Figure 3.7). 29 Jean-Michel Frodon, “The ‘Being There’ of the Physical World and the Ejaculatory Power of the Eye: Eroticism in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 200. 30 Jean-Pierre Oudart suggests such a link in his comparison between carnal desire for both the living and dead wife in Une femme douce and Pierre Molinier’s fetishistic paintings of sexualized, nude women. See Oudart, “Bresson et la vérité,” Cahiers du cinéma, 216 (1969): 55.


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Fig. 3.7. Pierre Klossowski as the miserly grain merchant in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar.

The grain merchant’s sadistic treatment of both Marie and Balthazar illustrate key tenets of Klossowski’s philosophy, reinforcing the notion that Bresson sought stylistic affinities in choosing Klossowski for the role.31 In La monnaie vivant (1970), for example, Klossowski describes the libidinal energy that an industrial economy necessarily ignores in order to reduce the living body to currency.32 The tension of Au hasard Balthazar hinges on precisely this question of whether Marie and Balthazar should be reduced to their economic use value, or be valued as emotional creatures. Balthazar’s body, for example, is viewed exclusively as a tool of measurable value. He is whipped, beaten, and abused by neighboring farmers. He is equipped with horseshoes and put to work on a nearby farm. The community quite literally strives to “either reduce the living object, the source of emotion, to the level of livestock, a stud farm, or identify it as a work of art, even as a diamond”.33 Balthazar retreats to the property of his youth, now in a state of disrepair and neglect by Jacques’s father, suggesting an existence beyond 31 Klossowski equally recognized affinities between himself and the grain merchant: “The grain merchant in Au hasard Balthazar is a miser, which is a defiant act. He carries a certain defiance at societies’ hypocrisy. It is his cynicism that grows out of such defiance, paralleled in myself. He glorifies that which others hide.” Pierre Klossowski, “Entretien avec Anne Capelle,” Arts et loisirs (8-14 June 1966): 10. 32 Pierre Klossowski, Pierre Zucca, La monnaie vivante (Paris: Éric Losfeld, 1970). This edition does not include page numbers. 33 Ibid.

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the limits of usability. In this respect, the farm is in the same expired state as Balthazar, a form of “retrograde ridicule”, in the words of Marie’s father. The functional farm becomes a protected, perverse incubator for non-commodified production, where Marie announces to her father that nothing belongs to anyone.34 Other Bresson films are similarly organized around a protagonist who struggles to incorporate emotional surplus into the closed system of monetary exchange. In Pickpocket, the protagonist Michel and his gang of thieves introduce forbidden, erotic choreographies that resemble synchronized theatrical performances in order to subvert established economic relationships. In L’a rgent, a counterfeit bill leads to Yvon’s gradual renunciation of a society that refuses to value the “instinctual impulses”, and leads to such criminal activities as murder. Michel or Yvon’s activities might be positively defined within Klossowski’s system as wasteful, nonproductive, and nonexchangeable—quite literally in the case of L’a rgent’s counterfeit money.35 At the heart of Klossowski’s noncapitalist model is the role played by simulacra in artistic creation, especially the discrepancy between the simulacra’s perpetual production of images and an underlying essential image that cannot be revealed. Much like the simulacra staged by de Sade’s libertines in the form of tableaux vivants, Klossowski stresses that in a work of art, “everything is represented and nothing is real”.36 Klossowski’s novels are organized around such fixed images, whether the impossible photograph in Roberte ce soir (1953), or the canvases of naked women that trigger Octavo’s reflections and memories in La révocation de l’édit de Nantes (1959). The tension between Octavo and Roberte might even be seen as the tension between his phantasmic view of her, and her representation as the simulacrum.37 Bresson’s Une femme douce and Klossowski’s La 34 Klossowski’s focus on the “voluptuous emotions”, surplus, or expenditure that goes beyond the economic system has clear links to George Bataille, a fellow member of the Collège de Sociologie. Bataille’s theory of the dépense, or “use-value” of the spendthrift seems especially fitting given the personality of the grain merchant. See Georges Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39, ed. Allen Stoekel (Minneapolis: University of Mineapolis Press, 1985), 116-129. 35 Bresson’s emphasis on non-productivity directly parallels Walter Benjamin’s outmoded aesthetic, as well as Giorgio Agamben’s notion of, “impotentiality as a mode of resistance to the current imperative to be productive, compliant and identifiable as subjects in a system”. See Janet Harbord, Ex-centric Cinema, 25. 36 Gilles Deleuze, “Klossowski, or Bodies-Language,” Logic of Sense (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 299. 37 Klossowski takes the word simulacra from the Latin simulare (to copy, represent, feign), which, during the late Roman empire, referred to the statues of the gods that lined the entrance to the city, directly linking simulacra to reproduced statuary. See Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), xi.


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révindication both invoke the history of the female nude in painting to present this conflict between sadistic male and masochistic female simulacra on display. For both artists, the female model’s stasis is a manifestation of the male protagonist’s effort to “fix” her, while she resists such efforts. The film becomes a series of representations of the wife, just as she is hyperaware of the various ways she is falsely categorized by the husband. What MacLeod describes as the “citational fervor” of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870), equally characterizes Une femme douce, in the way both works comment on the representational process in an effort to capture a series of static images as tableaux vivants.38 Bresson, however, seems less aligned with Klossowski’s interest in Sadean punishment than in Masoch’s frozen gestures that reveal, in Deleuze’s gloss, both a profound sense of waiting, and a desire to reduce the body to the condition of material object. To understand Klossowski’s interest in the relationship between stasis and sexuality, Deleuze turns to SacherMasoch’s concept of “supersensualism”, the idea that desire is expressed through highly theatrical and artificial forms of art: “The scenes in Masoch have of necessity a frozen quality; they are replicas of works of art, or else they duplicate themselves in mirrors.”39 The first section of Venus in Furs presents a series of tableaux vivants featuring a single female figure being observed, such as a recreation of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555). The Bresson protagonist is similarly aware of the way her representation is contrasted to other such simulacra, such as the Venus and Cupid painting that appears behind her in several scenes in Une femme douce. In this respect, we might see Une femme douce as an expression of the various simulacra of the gentle woman’s own body contrasted to one another throughout the film.

Scenes of Possession: Perversion, Torture, and the Suffering Body Because painting functions as an ideal venue for simulacra, it is often drawn upon in the work of both Bresson and Klossowski. Deleuze employs the term “pantomime” to describe Klossowski’s approach to art: painting is the domain

38 Catriona MacLeod, “Still Alive: Tableau Vivant and Narrative Suspension in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz,” Deutsche Vierteljahrs Scrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 4 (December 2006): 648. 39 Gilles Deleuze, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Masochism (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 69.

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of the gestural or “speaking body” outside of language.40 The Klossowski body “is capable of gestures which prompt an understanding contrary to what they indicate”, revealing the tensions that move beyond a productive system of exchange.41 Octave’s collection of paintings by the fictional artist Tonnerre in La révocation de l’edict de Nantes, for example, presents ambiguous gestures that provide no stable meaning. 42 What Marie, the pawnbroker’s wife, and the other Bresson protagonists similarly struggle to escape is a preconceived idea of the world detached from the body’s actual movement and activity. Bresson’s films and Klossowski’s novels are organized around examples of several souls inhabiting one body, or one soul possessing several bodies. In Klossowski’s Roberte ce soir, Octave projects his own desires onto Roberte through a gang rape scene with several male suitors, based on his belief in the “hospitality laws” that structure the trilogy. Rather than one essential identity, the body presents a series of roles, reflections or simulacra that project a parade of shifting identities. A perversion, therefore, is that which exists outside the circuit of exchange and ownership, and allows a body to be controlled by another: “Abolishing property ownership over one’s own body and over the body of others is an operation inherent in the pervert’s imagination; he inhabits the bodies of others as if they were his own, and thus attributes his own to others.”43 In this light, Bresson himself can be seen, not on a rarefied mission to represent a higher spiritual calling, as many critics claim, but rather as someone transfixed by the smallest physical changes in the human body. The f irst edition of La monnaie vivante is illustrated with a series of photographic stills taken by the filmmaker Pierre Zucca that function in much the same way as Tonnere’s paintings. Klossowski’s wife is dressed in black leather and positioned in various poses that recreate scenes from the Roberte trilogy, as well as other tableaux vivants of her dressed in tunic, metal breastplate, crown, and brandishing a sword as mostly naked adolescent characters look on. The photographs hold the character spellbound in much the same way as the artist freezes them on stage. Such scenes illustrate the way the body is controlled by another person’s imaginative fantasy of the way a character should behave. Bresson’s work can similarly be organized according to what Deleuze terms “scenes of possession”: the minds of the

40 Gilles Deleuze, “Klossowski, or Bodies-Language,” 281. 41 Ibid. 42 Ibid. 43 Pierre Klossowski, Pierre Zucca, La monnaie vivante (Paris: Éric Losfeld, 1970).


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actors are possessed by the artist’s own vision, and the work of art emerges through the tension between one actor’s active manipulation and the other’s passivity.44 The visible possession of the body is in this way more significant than physical possession: “These reflections offer the voyeur a more intense participation that if he had himself experienced these passions, the double or reflection of which he now surveys in the faces of others.”45 The suspended scenes in the Roberte trilogy are evidence of the female body being controlled by the artist so that it no longer belongs to a singular name, but rather is given over to a wide spectrum of anonymous intensities. The way that Bresson isolates Anne Wiazemsky from others creates a close bond that similarly allows his ideas to flow directly to her during filming. Wiazemsky speaks of their partnership as a kind of telepathy such that simply through a hand gesture or a certain blink, she understood what Bresson wanted from her.46 In examining Klossowski’s aesthetic, Jean-François Lyotard introduces the term “acinema”, which is characterized by an effort to disrupt the normal perception of events through the use of extreme slownesses or speeds to create imaginative “blissful intensities” that are signs of a misspending of productive use value.47 Drawing on Georges Bataille’s notion of expenditure, Lyotard claims that Klossowski’s art expresses the frittering away of energy in an act of perverse jouissance that goes beyond productive channels of economic or social behavior. 48 Just as Sadean indulgence in the pleasure of sex goes beyond reproduction or normalcy, so too does the cinematic representation slow itself down to the point of resisting all “good, unifying, and reasonable forms proposed for identification […] through its fascinating paralysis”.49 The immobilization of the model in Bresson and Klossowski is thus not only an aesthetic choice, but a political strategy to create a sexual surplus that transcends all healthy forms of expression. Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar functions as a near perfect allegory for such slownesses. While Gérard and his gang of blousons noirs are interested in the newest technologies that can transport them at greater speeds (bicycles, motor scooters), or through more efficient technologies (Gérard’s portable radio), Balthazar instead moves at such an antiquated crawl that any such relationships of production are impossible. Bresson dramatizes this 44 Deleuze, “Klossowski, or Bodies-Language,” 289-291. 45 Ibid., 282. 46 Anne Wiazemsky, Jeune fille (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2007), 187. 47 Jean-François Lyotard, “Acinema,” ed. Philip Rosen, Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 351. 48 Ibid. 49 Ibid., 357.

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contrast when Gérard’s gang surrounds Balthazar’s slow-moving carriage with their motor scooters and bicycles. Gerard and Louis sarcastically announce their contempt for the outmoded donkey. Gérard: Chouette un âne. Louis: C’est rapide. Gérard: Moderne. Bresson’s emphasis on the human body is therefore a method to subvert a capitalist exchange of objects in favor of the rhythm and movement of the body itself. Vivian Sobchack’s notion of the “suffering body” follows a similar trajectory.50 She notes that, although films that emphasize abjection often develop an “overdetermined language of religious salvation and ecstasy”, on a deeper level, they present a character’s grace when faced with a harsh object-world.51 The unrelenting hereness and nowness of such films permits a new understanding of “something ultimately unfathomable, uncontained, and uncontainable”.52 Bresson’s protagonists can be seen to demonstrate Sobchack’s notion of the suffering body, insofar as oppressive external forces gradually strip them of all subjective will. The external force in Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne is cancer, which shows the way the curate’s own intentionality is destroyed by an illness that invades his body and gradually forces him to relinquish physical control.53 But, more often in Bresson, physical cruelty inflicted by another character diminishes the Bresson hero to little more than object status, such as the increasingly cruel physical and psychological punishment inflicted on Marie in Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, Jeanne d’Arc, and the female protagonist of Une femme douce. Each of these films chronicles a woman’s humiliating denigration as her human identity is violently removed through torture, rape, extreme isolation, or being burned at the stake. The very point of torture is to insist upon the human body as another passive, mute, and inanimate object of the world, since the torturer “provoke[s] and intensif[ies] the body-subject’s re-cognition of their existential vulnerability as a merely objective ‘thing’”.54

50 Vivian Sobchack, “The Passion of the Material: Toward a Phenomenology of Interobjectivity,” Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 286-318. 51 Ibid., 301. 52 Ibid., 298. 53 Ibid. 54 Ibid., 288.


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For Sobchack, it is precisely through such denigration to object status that permits a spiritual or “religious” experience of the world, since the individual loses his ego enough to “feel ‘graced’ by the fleeting facticity of existence”.55 Ironically, we reach the spiritual realm through the hard-fought realization of our ultimate condition as physical objects in the world. In an insight that largely reformulates Sobchack, Klossoswki discusses the contradiction of the slave, a living body reduced to an inert object, whose “attraction consists in being humiliated or able to be humiliated (deliberately or otherwise), in their dignity, integrity, and aptitude to possess their own good, to possess themselves”.56 Perversion enters when the living being is treated as a utensil in order to increase production, and through the subject’s lack of will that denies any reciprocity in the system of exchange. In Au hasard Balthazar, for example, Gérard lights Balthazar’s tail on fire so he will deliver more bread, Balthazar is whipped and denied grain, and the grain merchant initially denies Marie preserves. Marie is sexually exploited by both Gérard and the grain merchant. Such deprivation makes us aware of the extent to which the “voluptuous emotions” are involved in institutional production, despite societies’ efforts to partition them off, since the body is no longer owned by anyone.57 Marie refuses the grain merchant’s money for sex because what she seeks is not money, but, in her words, friendship. Given her lack of interest in money, Marie’s body therefore becomes living currency. As a result, the body is released through deprivation, punishment, and abuse from a single, univocal meaning, and enters a f ield of multiplicity. This movement is related to the Christian spirit/ body divide for both Klossowski and Bresson, in which the human body is a vessel for intensities, rather than belonging to any one individual as a material possession. Such denigration can be observed not only in the depiction of characters in Balthazar, but equally in Bresson’s treatment of his models. According to cast and crew members, Bresson humiliated Anne Wiazemsky as much on set as Gérard abuses Marie in the story. Bresson insisted, for example, on reshooting the rape scene between Marie and Gérard four times, even though Wiazemsky had to throw herself to the ground when pursued by Gérard, resulting in badly skinned knees. The cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet, violently protested to Anne: “What just took place is scandalous. 55 Ibid., 296. 56 Klossowski, Zucca, La monnaie vivante. 57 Ibid.

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It was perfect the f irst time and [Bresson] made you do it again out of pure sadism, in order to punish you.”58 In another scene, Gérard is instructed to slap Marie across the face. Although Bresson announces to the actor François Lafarge that he should not hit Anne hard, Lafarge nevertheless administers an extremely violent slap. Cloquet calls the slap “sadistic” and suggests a secret pact orchestrated between Bresson and Lafarge beforehand.59 Wiazemsky describes Bresson’s equally humiliating treatment of Pierre Klossowski, through verbal abuse (naming him “the crab”), and spending an inordinate amount of time reshooting a short scene in an effort to force Klossowski to stand upright rather than lean to the side.60 One can measure the close connection between Bresson and Klossowski through the way the relationship between Wiazemsky and Bresson provides the source material for scenes between the grain merchant and Marie. On her first day with Bresson, Wiazemsky met Bresson at his car during a fierce thunderstorm in which she was drenched. Once inside his car, Bresson tried to persuade her to take off her wet blouse, but she refused. He then tried to unbutton her blouse, telling her not to be a prude. At that moment, she opened the car door and threatened to bolt into the street. He relented, but decided that she would wear the same blouse and blue marine skirt in a scene with the grain merchant, played by Pierre Klossowski. In the scene, she is the victim of a rainstorm, and takes off her clothes, which leads to an unseen but assumed sexual encounter between them. The parallels between the real rain scene with Bresson, and the subsequent f ictional scene with the grain merchant suggest that Klossowski, who was about the same age as Bresson, becomes the surrogate for Bresson’s relationship with Anne. In Anne’s words, her lines to Klossowski, which focus on how old and decrepit he is, “became very intimate, as if I was addressing them directly to Bresson. I could have perhaps said [these words] to Bresson at the beginning when he desired to kiss me certain evenings in the park”.61 Such evidence suggests that Bresson’s work has a largely overlooked sadomasochistic dimension that Ehrenstein terms “polymorphous perversity” and that directly connects to the work of Bataille and Klossowski.62 58 Wiazemsky, Jeune fille, 119. 59 Ibid., 155. 60 Ibid., 203. 61 Ibid., 204-205. 62 David Ehrenstein, “Pretty Young Thing,” Film Comment 45(6) (November–December 2009): 50.


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Balthus: Automatism and the Adolescent Body Bresson’s Surrealist tendencies can be measured not only through Pierre Klossowski, but equally through his brother, the painter Balthus, since both Bresson and Balthus mature as artists within a similar Surrealist milieu, and develop a repertoire of remarkably similar themes, including sadomasochism, a fascination with stasis and movement, and the use of adolescent female models. Bresson and Balthus construct austere, alien spaces characterized by highly simplified compositions and unadorned rooms, with a focus on windows, doors, and mirrors.63 This emphasis on surface is reminiscent of the Surrealist fascination with the body as machine or automaton. In La rue (1933-1935, Figure 3.8), for example, Balthus depicts a community of people engaged in a series of solitary, isolated pursuits that have little connection or relationship to one other. At the center of this painting, and facing the viewer, is a young boy with mechanized movements and an inexpressive, robotic stare that calls to mind the Surrealist automaton.64 Such contrived, frozen performances are equally reproduced in Bresson’s actors, who are manipulated in highly regimented ways, so their behavior seems mechanized, artificial, and autonomous from the behavior of others. Bresson and Balthus’s models equally lack almost all facial expression. Jean Clair equates the vacant, somnambulant, or closed eyes of many Balthus portraits to the depiction of the five guards in Giotto’s fresco Noli me tangere (1304-1306).65 The guards are depicted in various states of sleep, and their lack of body control stands in stark contrast to the elongated body of Christ that towers over them at the moment of the resurrection. This movement between conscious awareness and the comatose, passive body leads Clair to describe the characters as, “anesthesized, sluggish, drowsy, or disfigured 63 Beneath the tranquil surface, both Bresson and Balthus suggest highly transgressive, violent acts involving rape, suicide, self-flagellation, and murder. Jean Clair links such themes in Balthus’s work to the following articles from Minotaure 9 (1936): André Masson’s Massacres drawings (1933-1934); engravings of various forms of torture from Sade’s Histoire de Juliette (1797-1801); Lucas Cranach’s Lucretia (1529), depicting Lucretia stabbing herself with a knife; and examples from the Jean Cassou exhibition “L’art cruel” (1937). Jean Clair, “From the Rue to the Chambre: A Mythology of the Passage,” Balthus (New York: Rizzoli, 2001), 21-25. 64 Ibid., 24. On the relationship between Balthus’s depiction of such “frozen and jerky figures” as the young boy and the Surrealist interest in automatism, see Benjamin Péret, “Au Paradis des fantômes,” Minotaure 3/4 (December 1933): 29, an article on the “automaton men” who performed on Paris streets. 65 Jean Clair, Balthus: Les métamorphoses d’Éros (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1996), 17-27.

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Fig. 3.8. In Balthus’s La rue (1933-1935) human beings are isolated from one another, and appear as robotic automatons, much in the style of Bresson’s models.

subjects [who] contemplate their reflection¨.66 Such an emphasis on sleep is equally apparent in such Balthus works as Les trois soeurs (1965), in which three women recline, hunch over, or lay supine, with their heads turned or bent in various angles to suggest the heavy weight of slumber.67 Clair’s comparison equally applies to Bresson’s models, who are often captured in controlled poses, frozen gestures, or awkward postures. Gravity is so oppressive within the Balthus canvas or the Bresson film that its models are pulled downward, as if they cannot escape the weight of their own bodies, whether encumbered by sleep, sex, or various forms of physical punishment. In investigating why Balthus focuses on adolescent women almost exclusively, Clair describes the unique pubescent body, which finds itself in a transitional state between childhood and an adult sexuality that “distinctively accentuates the proportions”.68 Many Bresson characters find themselves in such an intermediate state characterized by elasticity and 66 Ibid., 17. 67 Ibid. 68 Ibid., 43.


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androgyny. In Le diable probablement, the collective of young hippies have similar physiognomies irrespective of gender, including long hair, lanky, hard bodies, and few curves. This concept of the adolescent “possible body” reflects Pierre Klossowski’s philosophical and literary project of depicting the body as a field of potentialities based on the intensities that pass through it, rather than as a stable, fixed form.69 Both Bresson and Balthus choose the pubescent body primarily due to their own interest in the plasticity of the human form, and for the suggestion that their adolescent characters have been prematurely removed from a carefree childhood, especially evident for the protagonists of Mouchette and Une femme douce. Both artists thus insist upon the contrast between innocent adolescent figures and a highly dangerous, modern world that they are forced to endure.

The Human Animal in Lancelot du lac By comparing Pierre Klossowski’s writings to Bresson’s films, a masochistic reading holds the promise of radically new approaches to Bresson’s work that allow for the brutal animal figure to emerge. I would therefore like to end this chapter by suggesting affinities between Bresson and a group of contemporary French filmmakers variously termed Cinema of Evil, Cinema of Terror, or Cinema of the Abject. This movement is characterized by “the violence, subjugation and butchery that the on-screen human body has to endure; a body rendered animal, inchoate and inhuman”.70 A description of the work of Phillip Grandrieux applies equally well to the work of Bresson, especially as seen through Klossowski’s work: “the very possibility of a self-owned body-subject is undone in the fearsome exposure and subjugation of bodies”.71 The use of abjection and violence to reduce the body to a nonhuman state is a repeated theme in Bresson’s work, beginning with the torture of the resistance prisoner Fontaine in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé. Furthermore, butchery does not seem too strong of a word for the rivers of blood that flow during fight scenes of Lancelot du lac, especially the opening montage sequence, which consists of five gruesome murder scenes: a man decapitated by a sword as blood gushes from his 69 Klossowski’s “possible body” similarly emerges in his depiction of hermaphrodites in his drawings, which blurs sexual difference by keeping open the possibility of being simultaneously male and female. 70 Jenny Chamarette, Phenomenology and the Future of Film: Rethinking Subjectivity Beyond French Cinema (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 192. 71 Ibid., 193.

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neck; a man stabbed in the groin; the top of a man’s head bashed in with a sword; a cluster of human skeletons dangling from nooses as crows peck at the remains; and finally, the charred remains of two bodies sprawled in a field. The ending of L’a rgent is equally violent: the protagonist Yvon uses an ax to brutally murder a family inside their country house. I argue elsewhere that Bresson’s work paves the way for the contemporary depiction of extreme violence in French cinema.72 In its emphasis on the human body, on religious themes, on sadomasochism, and on painterly traditions of figuration, such filmmakers as Bruno Dumont and Philip Grandrieux build on Bresson’s style and approach. Martine Beugnet observes that such films emphasize bodily sensation and the felt experiences of the world over a cohesive plot or narrative structure, which leads her to name this tendency “cinema of sensation”.73 She claims that such films oscillate between either “the pleasures of sensuous communion [or] the terror of self-integrity decomposing”, and she marks these two directions as best exemplified by the philosophy of either Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze (pleasure), or Georges Bataille (terror).74 A film that illustrates the thin line between these two poles is Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001). Encounters between the protagonist Shane and the hotel maid express the characters’ mutually desirable sexual fantasies. However, the mood shifts from seductive desire to horror when Shane brutally murders her. Such shifts equally occur between Coré and a teenage boy who breaks into her house. In both cases, Denis plays with the viewer’s genre expectations that are just as shocking for the victim as for the spectator when the film suddenly shifts from romance to horror. I would argue that Bresson equally moves between pleasure and terror to intensify sensation, and viscerally engage the spectator. In Bresson, the fluctuations between these two limit conditions can often be charted through the use of hands. In Au hasard Balthazar, for example, Marie strokes Balthazar with a great deal of sensitivity and care, especially in the Cocteau dreamlike sequence in which she puts a crown of flowers on Balthazar’s head. When Gérard or the miser touches Balthazar, however, it is with the intention of inflicting as much pain as possible. The mystical night scene in which Marie gently pets Balthazar and places flowers on his head 72 Raymond Watkins, “Robert Bresson’s Heirs: Bruno Dumont, Philippe Grandrieux, and French Cinema of Sensation,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 33(8) (July 2016): 761-776. 73 Martine Beugnet, Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012). 74 Ibid., 68.


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is directly followed by Gérard and his accomplice beating and kicking him. Bresson in this way directly contrasts the sensual moment with Marie, to Balthazar being physically pummeled. Au hasard Balthazar is in this way about the limit conditions of human touch, directly juxtaposing a sensitive exchange with a harsh, violent one as if to elicit the spectator’s response. Vincent Amiel examines this same tendency through Bresson’s depiction of older women. Lancelot exchanges a tender moment with an older woman in the forest who helps him heal from his wounds, which functions as a reprieve before he returns to the violence of the Round Table. Similarly, in a mysterious ceremony involving sharing nuts picked from a hazelnut tree in L’a rgent, Yvon engages in the same kind of attentiveness and care with an older woman who he will murder the following night. Although Yvon is a cold-blooded killer, Bresson depicts him in a compassionate light. He picks hazelnuts and offers them to the widow, he helps her hang laundry, he carries her basket of potatoes into the house, he listens to her complaints about her father’s drinking, and he points out the unfair conditions in which she exhausts herself in household chores. Yvon’s humanity is especially evident in his relationship with the family dog, who sits next to him while he eats soup, or when he sits in the corner of the kitchen. All of these acts are preparations for the violent murder scene. Bresson makes clear that Yvon’s problem is with the human world and not with animals. In contrast, the human characters hardly move, except for the young handicapped boy lying upright in bed, who cries into his hands in a highly artificial scene. In both cases, the gentle, maternal care of the woman is set in stark contrast to the subsequent murderous rampage of the protagonists. In speaking of the older woman’s efforts to heal Lancelot’s wounds, Amiel concludes that her “hands provide an enigmatic haven, distracting the hero for an instant from his bloody destiny”, much as Yvon’s highly codified and sensitive ritual with the nut tree stands as a reprieve before he begins his murder spree.75 Much of Bresson’s work is characterized by intimate attention to the animal world, in contrast to the mute and artificial human sphere. Much like the flags and shields that appear in the background of scenes and escape the foregrounded narrative plot, the horses, jackdaws, and blackbirds in Lancelot du lac add a visceral, immediate body to the film that is missing among the human population. If vivid color is confined to the edges or corners of a frame, then the horses occupy this same periphery, either in offscreen space revealed through the soundtrack, or passing through the background of a shot, and almost always presented in fragments through a 75 Amiel, Lancelot du lac de Robert Bresson, 49.

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shot of hindquarters, a close-up of an eyeball, a pan across a horse’s neck, or the sound of hooves tapping across the ground. Bresson comments on his use of horses in Lancelot, suggesting that it is precisely because they are relegated to the margins that they are so central to the viewer’s experience: “Horses are music and rhythm. They brought me spontaneous movement from life, and everything that I love, the new and unexpected […] their eye which does not let anything pierce through their non-obedience.”76 Although animals plays a supplementary role – because the soundtrack of Lancelot du lac is so densely layered with animal sounds, especially horse neighs, whinnies, snorts, gallops, bird chirps, and squawks – their sounds reinforce the central importance of the animal body to the film. In Lancelot du lac, both animals and the forest are seen as mysterious, unknown objects that Lancelot and the queen observe from their window, but that can’t be fully explained or understood. At the end of the film, a blackbird circles in the sky as Artus and his men lay dying in the forest. This shot calls to mind the end of Bresson’s other medieval tale, Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc, when Jeanne is burned alive at the stake. During her immolation, the camera tilts upward to show two white pigeons that land on a roof. A dog is similarly shown trotting toward her and then stopping in fear in front of Jeanne’s pyre. Such animals often emerge at the very end of a Bresson film, as if leaving the human world and joining the animal sphere is paralleled to a release from a physical to a spiritual realm. Such animals are also more emotive than the humans around them. Amiel argues that the close-ups of the eyes of horses in Lancelot often depict the animal in a state of extreme fear, shock, and bewilderment. Similarly, the dog at the end of L’a rgent is the sole witness to the brutal murder of his owners. He frantically scurries up and down the stairs and through the house, while his mournful wails are often the only noise on the soundtrack. Finally, in the forest death scene at the end of Lancelot du lac, the spectator cannot identify any human parts; instead, the last shot captures an inanimate collection of steel armor in a pile, suggesting that the men are nothing more than empty carcasses. Just as Paolo Uccello presents his warriors as “steel mummies” in contrast to the virile and fiercely animated horses of The Battle of San Romano (1438-1440),77 Bresson does something quite similar in focusing on the sculptural, inanimate qualities of the human body, especially juxtaposed to the intensely alive close-ups of horse heads.

76 Baby, “Du fer qui fait du bruit,” 15. 77 Pudelko, “Paolo Uccello peintre lunaire,” 34.


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The knights’ savagery, in contrast, suggests little of the emotion or tenderness of the horses. The hunt for the grail is comprised of acts of wanton brutality, symbolized in the opening scene when a sword knocks sacred objects from a church alter. Bresson suggests that the knights feel like idol failures when they aren’t actively engaged in plunder and murder, witnessed in their elevated spirits when told about a jousting tournament. Guinièvre even mocks such exploits when she reminds Lancelot that, “God is not a trophy to carry home”, a comment that contradicts the purpose of the grail quest for Lancelot and his men. Jean Collet observes that this extreme violence in Lancelot directly touches the spectator, so that distanced contemplation is no longer possible: “the violence burns us, it reaches our five senses at the same time, it is of the order of the complete body, not only the eyes. Bresson’s cinema is a physical aggression. It is a discourse of the body (of the animal) and those who speak to the body. It is not surprising that animals play such a large role!”78 Collet’s insights identify Bresson’s effort to move beyond the limits of visual representation and spectacle through the visceral animal body. Bresson’s treatment of animals can be traced as far back as the representation of animals in the work of the Italian artist Paolo Uccello, whose work was particular important to the Surrealists. Bresson discusses Uccello in François Weyergans’s documentary Robert Bresson ni vu ni connu (1965). During the interview, the camera zooms in on Uccello’s first version of the painting St. George and the Dragon (c. 1455) hanging behind Bresson. As Bresson describes the events in the painting, the camera pans left across the scene, beginning with the dragon in the center and moving to a solitary aristocratic woman praying on the left. On the right, St. George uses his spear to pierce the dragon’s lower jaw. Tony Pipolo parallels this painting’s iconography to the depiction of the donkey Balthazar in Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, which was being shot at the time.79 Uccello painted a later, more dramatic version of St. George and the Dragon (c. 1470), in which gothic influences are even more overt. In this version, St. George drives the spear through the dragon’s eye, and blood drips in a puddle below the dragon’s jaw. A central iconographic parallel is that the dragon is wounded and drips blood, much as Balthazar is shot at the end of the film, and blood drips down the side of his body.80 Another parallel emerges in Lancelot du lac in the conflation between the dragon’s enucleation and being stabbed by 78 Collet, “Lancelot du lac de Robert Bresson,” 593. 79 Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, 200-201. 80 Ibid. Pipolo suggests precisely this point in mentioning Balthazar’s “spilt blood”.

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a spear, which parallels one of the last shots of the film: a close-up of the eyeball of Lancelot’s horse in the center of the frame next to an arrow that has pierced his skull, while bright red blood that runs down the side of its head. Just as death is associated with a loss of sight for Uccello’s dragon, Bresson depicts the killing of the horse as a loss of sight in Lancelot du lac, and parallels that death to the death of King Artus and his knights. Uccello’s representation of the dragon therefore has direct parallels to the way Bresson depicts animal characters in two of his films. Not surprisingly, many Surrealists were particularly enthusiastic about Uccello’s work. André Breton praised Uccello’s depiction of military conflict in The Battle of San Romano, and argued that contemporary art needs to return to Uccello’s revolutionary, concrete depictions of life.81 Antonin Artaud penned a prose poem in tribute to Uccello’s hair, entitled, “Uccello, le poil” (1926).82 In an essay appearing in the Surrealist journal Minotaure, Georges Pudelko claimed that Uccello develops a “gothic constructivist” style that has much in common with Cubism and Surrealist painting of the 1930s in the movement toward abstraction and the unconscious.83 I maintain that, because Bresson was friends with a group of Surrealist writers and artists in the 1930s, Surrealist tropes and themes seep into his films. The close-up of a dead horse’s eye whose head has been pierced by an arrow, for example, echoes the Surrealist preoccupation with the denigration of vision and the release of rational control in favor of the physical or animal body.84

81 André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (New York: Icon Editions, 1972), 8. 82 Antonin Artaud, “Uccello le poil,” La révolution surréaliste 8 (1 December 1926): 22-23. 83 Pudelko, “Paolo Uccello peintre lunaire,” 32. 84 On the denigration of sight in Surrealism, see Martin Jay, “The Disenchantment of the Eye: Bataille and the Surrealists,” Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 211-262.

4. The Design and Pattern of the Whole Constructivist Painting and Theater Abstract Chapter four explores Bresson’s indebtedness to Russian Constructivist painting and theatre from the 1920s. I examine the way Kasimir Malevich’s Supremacist emphasis on geometrical forms emerges in Bresson’s Lancelot du lac. I also discuss Piet Mondrian’s neo-plasticism, with a focus on geometric form, whiteness, the emphasis on primary colors, and the formal arrangement of shapes. I compare Mondrian’s style to particular shots in Lancelot, focusing on the knight’s shields and flags, and to the complex use of primary color patterns in L’argent. Finally, I compare Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Constructivist theatre direction to Bresson’s style in L’a rgent (1983), focusing on such parallels as the treatment of actors through biomechanical gestures, poses, glances and silence, and the emphasis on anonymity and uniformity. Keywords: anonymity, Constructivism, geometric form, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, Vsevolod Meyerhold

I have previously alluded to Constructivist influences in Bresson’s work, through Alexander Rodchenko’s photographic defamiliarization techniques that emerge in Une femme douce, through Sergei Diaghilev’s experiments with light in his Ballets Russes performance of Ode (1928), and through the kinetic light sculpture of Nicolas Schöffer that appears in Une femme douce. In this chapter, I continue this line of inquiry, examining the influence of the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich and the neoplasticism of Piet Mondrian in Lancelot du lac, and through Vsevolod Meyerhold’s innovative approach to the theater in relationship to Bresson’s style in L’a rgent. The chapter builds on two scholars who have suggested an affiliation between Bresson and Constructivism. Jean-Pierre Provoyeur traces Bresson’s concept of the actor as “model” back to the writings of Russian

Watkins, R., Late Bresson and the Visual Arts. Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment, Amsterdam University Press, 2018 doi 10.5117/9789462983649/ch04


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filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who uses Constructivist principles to argue for the actor as an inexpressive, neutral vessel for the larger composition.1 David Bordwell similarly links Bresson and Kuleshov in their shared method of building a film from shots of unimportant details, which Bordwell terms “slices of space and instants of time”.2 Bordwell compares Kuleshov’s student Vsevolod Pudovkin’s instructions for creating an auto accident by assembling fragments of action to the way Bresson similarly builds a scene through close-ups of body parts. Vsevolod Meyerhold’s concept of the “new theatre” focuses on training actors using biomechanical exercises to establish a repertoire of gesture and movement, montage to juxtapose stasis with movement, uniforms to emphasize anonymity and cohesion, and a privileging of rhythm and color over narrative concerns. Much like Bresson’s ascetic style, Meyerhold creates, “a drama purged of all external action, in depicting the ‘inner dialogue’ of the spirit through the means of static poses and rhythmical movements”.3 Because montage emerges as a way to record and regulate the rhythms and movement of the body, it becomes a method for both Meyerhold and Bresson to capture the mechanical behavior of the human body accurately, a strategy especially evident in Kuleshov’s recordings of dance performances. The development of montage therefore cannot be separated from experiments on the human body taking place at the time, in which actors submit to unconscious automatism through rhythmic movement.4 Mikhail Yampolsky provides a concise formulation for the connection between the body and the emergence of montage style: “Montage was now the expression of the new conception of man and derived literally from the human body, as a record of its movement, as the mechanical expression of its natural rhythm, as the embodiment of the concept of the body analytically dismembered.”5 An instructive example of the parallels between Bresson’s work and Constructivism emerges in a scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s The General Line (1929) in which the character of Marfa modestly volunteers a piece of 1 Provoyeur, Le cinéma de Robert Bresson, 152-156. 2 David Bordwell, “Sound of Silents,” Artforum 38.8 (2000), 123. 3 Edward Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold: Revolution on the Modern Stage (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1979), 145. 4 Kuleshov’s concept of montage is influenced not only through his mentor Vladimir Gardin, but also through the kinesthetic practices of the French musician and acting teacher François Delsarte, who developed popular self-improvement classes for upper-class women in the United States and Europe that involved modeling specific classical poses. See Carrie Preston, Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 87. 5 Mikhail Yampolsky, “Kuleshov’s Experiments and the New Anthropology of the Actor,” Silent Film, ed. Richard Abel (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 63.

The Design and Pat tern of the Whole


her skirt to replace the belt on a tractor. For Jacques Rancière, this scene offers an “enormous rerouting of energies that invests the communist tractor with affects normally found in the relationship between one human body and another”.6 In the way that mechanical circuits replace the dynamics of human desire, Rancière finds a remarkable equivalent in communist utopian promise and the cinema’s automation of human movement.7 Bresson draws, in this fashion, on interwar avant-garde practices that focus on the mechanical behavior of the human body and proposes a new model for the relationship between man and machine. A scene on a moving city bus in Le diable probablement, for example, is composed of a series of oblique close-ups of a ticket machine, the driver’s control panel, the bus’ mirrors and door, and an illuminated “stop requested” sign. Human figures are much less important than the spectacle created by the buttons, lights, sounds, and machinery of the bus, especially high-angle shots that only capture the top of passengers’ heads. Instead of developing a utopian union between man and machine that leads to a liberation from agrarian practices, which is the subtext of The General Line, Bresson remains suspicious of a technologically oriented society. As mentioned in the introduction, no scene could be more overt in this respect than the found-footage documentary in Le diable probablement, which presents a montage of ecological disasters as a result of industrial pollution, echoed in Bresson’s public statements at the time.8 While Bresson levels a powerful critique against environmental degradation and the dangers of technology, his film is nonetheless built on Constructivist montage sequences that depict a strong alliance with the machine. My aim in this chapter, however, is not to explore similarities in cinematic editing to such Russian avant-garde f ilmmakers as Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, Esfir Shub, or Dziga Vertov, but rather to approach Bresson’s work through the father of Soviet montage, Lev Kuleshov, who arrives at his understanding of cinema in part by adapting theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s concern with rhythm and gesture.9

6 Jacques Rancière, Film Fables (New York: Berg, 2006), 30. 7 Ibid., 26. 8 During a discussion of suicide in his films, Bresson confesses, “more deeply I feel the rotten way [people] are spoiling the earth”. See Paul Schrader, “Robert Bresson, Possibly,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinémathèque, 2011), 697. 9 Jay Leyda establishes Meyerhold’s importance to Kuleshov and montage theory in Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 43.


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Paolo Uccello’s Gothic Constructivism in Lancelot du lac Although I discuss Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano in its connections to Surrealism in the previous chapter, I mine Uccello’s work in this chapter for its Constructivist qualities as they overlap with Bresson’s approach. The starting point is Georges Pudelko’s analysis of Uccello’s “gothic constructivism”, which initially establishes Surrealist influences, but then turns to Constructivism. A comparison between Bresson’s Lancelot du lac and Uccello’s final panel (now housed at the Louvre), Micheletto Attendolo da Cotignola interviene con le proprie milizie in soccorso del Tolentino (The Counter-Attack by Micheletto da Cotignola, c. 1440), reveals the way the human has been concealed behind thick metal surfaces, especially through the darkness of a night scene (Figure 4.1). Since Bresson openly admired Uccello’s work, The Battle at San Romano certainly appears to have been a significant influence on the iconography, formal sense of design, and the costumes of Lancelot. Sémolué arrives at much the same conclusion, describing Uccello’s battle scenes as “a hydra with a thousand bodies, the combatants [displaying their] articulated armor like monstrous and destructive beetles”.10 The strangely configured helmets conceal the knight’s heads except for small holes or gaps that suggest alien creatures. Instead of beetles, Pudelko calls the warriors “steel mummies”, and compares such inhuman forms to the mechanical assemblages of Fernand Léger: “Man becomes a formal object just as easily as the lance or the breastplate. He is born out of construction, and mathematical forms are stripped of all subjective, arbitrary elements to the greater effect of the whole.”11 A good example of “man as formal object” can be seen in the knight on the far left side of the painting. At first glance, he appears as one body, but, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that he is constructed from a diverse assemblage of parts, including three bulbous heads, four lances, and a composite of other metal forms that suggest the overlapping geometrical forms of a Cubist composition. Throughout the triptych, Uccello repeatedly asks the viewer to determine which armored body belongs to which body. The way that the human is minimized or removed from the image in favor of the interrelation of inanimate parts is precisely the character of Robert Bresson’s films. Bresson himself promotes the idea of objects being given the same attention as animate objects in his praise of the painter Paul Cézanne: “Equality to all things. Cézanne painting with the same eye a fruit 10 Sémolué, Bresson ou l’acte pur, 217. 11 Pudelko, “Paolo Uccello peintre lunaire,” 34.

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Fig. 4.1. Paolo Uccello, Battaglia di San Romano: Micheletto Attendolo da Cotignola interviene con le proprie milizie in soccorso del Tolentino (The Battle of San Romano: The Counter-Attack by Micheletto da Cotignola, c. 1440).

bowl, his son, the mountain Sainte-Victoire.”12 All three artists thus engage in a similar operation: for Uccello, man is interchangeable with a lance or a breastplate, while, for Cézanne, the human is interchangeable with a fruit bowl or a mountain. Bresson’s use of medieval armor in Lancelot du lac has much the same effect of dehumanizing the knights by concealing their faces. As I discuss in chapter three, the knights equally transform into “steel mummies” whose armor functions as an empty carcass, especially in a series of gory clashes that open and close the film in which arms and heads are severed from their bodies, or metal forms are piled upon one another. Uccello’s Battle of San Romano explains a good deal in terms of Bresson’s own Constructivist approach to Lancelot du lac, through the nocturnal use of color and light, as well as through the use of geometrical shapes of lances and bodies. In a comment that seems to apply just as much to Uccello’s San Romano, Amiel observes that, in Lancelot du lac, “plastic values obey a strictly internal composition, without any external conventions appearing to constrain the representation”.13 In other words, the arrangement of individual parts—and the way they formally interact with one another, whether lances, shields, horses, armor, or body parts—supersedes all conventional forms of representation. Bresson makes the viewer conscious of the way 12 Bresson, Notes sur le cinematographe, 135. 13 Vincent Amiel, “Des jambes de fourmis à l’infini: Fragmentation et representation chez Bresson,” Positif 430 (December 1996): 86.


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a scene has been artificially constructed, especially the way it has been lit and staged. In contrast to Uccello’s previous frescoes, The Battle of San Romano similarly has an artificial feel to it. Pudelko focuses on Uccello’s depiction of horses, which, due to the rigidity of their movement, resemble the inanimate, highly stylized horses of a carousel. As Pudelko phrases the idea, the horses “conserve the rhythm that the larger construction assigns to them, as if they exist independently of their own life”.14 Consequently, the concern for both artists is not with any individual part, but rather the overall rhythm of various parts in relationship to the whole. Much like the decorative arrangement of horses and knights in The Battle of San Romano, the elongated, lithe deer and dogs of The Hunt, the cardboard thinness of humans riding horses, and the use of vivid reds and blues, all give the impression that Uccello is much more concerned with form than naturalistic representation. Even the positions of the legs and tails of dogs, stags, and horses seem based on their form on the canvas, rather than by hewing to any realist code. Like Bresson, Uccello is concerned with intervals, rhythms, densities, and the weight of the entire geometrically organized work, leading Pudelko to conclude that Uccello’s experiments in color and form do not resurface so forcefully until the abstract experiments of the modern period. In stark contrast to Pudelko’s claim that Uccello’s horses are highly stylized, John Pope-Hennessey argues that such depictions, in conjunction with Leon Battista Alberti’s well-regarded treatise on the horse, provide a detailed account of equine posture and behavior, since the horse was so important to Renaissance artists.15 Such ostensibly contradictory interpretations are, on closer inspection, both possible, since the form of the horse can be highly stylized as Pudelko observes, even as individual parts are rendered in a detailed and expressive way. A clear indication of the importance of horses can be seen in Uccello’s Louvre panel (Figure 4.1). On the right side of the canvas are five horses with their heads assembled in a row, suggesting various studies of horse expression, in contrast to the concealed faces of the human figures above them. Pope-Hennessey provides a colorful inventory of some of the ways Uccello conceals his knights, calling to mind similar methods in which Bresson hides a knight´s identity, transforming them in both cases into robotic machines: “The menacing horseman, faces invisible beneath their helmets, necks shielded by circular rondels, shoulders protected by curved pauldrons, forearms encased in vambraces, knees sheathed in floriated

14 Ibid. 15 Pope-Hennessey, The Complete Work of Paolo Uccello, 34.

The Design and Pat tern of the Whole


Fig. 4.2. Paolo Uccello, Caccia notturna (The Hunt in the Forest, 1470).

genouillères, are crowned with orchidaceaous plumes.”16 Uccello brings a humanity to his horses, even as the knights are transformed into beetles or mummies. Likewise, by populating his soundtrack with the refrain of horse neighs, whinnies, and cries, Bresson suggests that the horse is much more responsive to surrounding activity than its emotionless human owners. In Uccello and Bresson, human feeling and emotion is transferred from human figures to the expressive behavior of horses. While The Battle of San Romano demonstrates clear parallels to Bresson’s Lancelot du lac in the interest in inanimate or nonhuman objects, the dehumanization of knights, and the formalist attention to rhythm and pattern, Uccello’s Caccia notturna (The Hunt in the Forest, 1470, Figure 4.2) reveals an additional set of commonalities, especially in the use of a nocturnal setting, and the way small areas of vivid color are incorporated into the overall design. I argue in chapter two that Quatre nuits d’un rêveur shares characteristics with the nineteenth-century nocturne. That Bresson might be attracted to Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest should not be surprising, given the concern with reflections, illumination, and bursts of color in a night setting, leading Pudelko to coin the epithet “moon painter” in the title of his article to describe Uccello. For both artists, the forest is the locus of a mysterious power over human forms, offering an opportunity for violent, transformative encounters. Other critics arrive at much the same point in claiming that Uccello uses color in The Hunt, “to render the continual changes of light that occur under the canopy of the forest”.17 He employs patches of cinnabar red, the color in abundance in the six-episode Miracolo 16 Ibid., 22. 17 Borsi and Borsi, Paolo Uccelo, 268.


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dell’ostia profanata (Miracle of the Desecrated Host, 1465-1469) painted on the Urbino predella. In the same way that the rich hues are used on the clothing of the characters as contrast with the predominant yellows and oranges of the walls and floors in the Urbino, The Hunt judiciously deploys the same deep red hue in small splotches on the hunters’ clothing to contrast with the darkness of the surrounding forest. Pudelko even suggests this contrast between darkness and light by claiming that, “forms and figures dance like a bright arabesque on the somber forest décor”.18 Such a use might be compared to the way Bresson bookends his film with pools of scarlet blood that stand out from the dense green forest background. This judicious use of primary color scattered across the canvas or screen emphasizes the way Bresson and Uccello have an eye on the larger design of the whole, rather than on any individual element. I will return to Bresson’s use of selective color later in the chapter as it ties into Constructivist concerns.

The Gesture Beyond the Frame: On Set at Le Musée National d’Art Moderne Bresson alludes most overtly to the dynamic between the fine arts and cinema in a scene shot at the Musée national d’art moderne in Une femme douce, as if the increasing lack of communication between pawnbroker and wife—bordering on silent fury in this scene—increasingly permits the background artwork to take a more active role in the narrative. Central to the sequence is a series of oblique shots of Nicolas Schöffer’s Lux 1 (1957) kinetic light installation. In the first shot within the museum, the viewer is positioned inside the machine, directly facing a lozenge-shaped screen of purple, red, yellow, and orange squares of light, and next to a rotating metal sculpture whose parts are projected onto the screen.19 In the subsequent shot, the machine’s perforated brass disk rotates into the frame, partially blocking the view of a large gestural painting on the back wall. The disk continues to turn to reveal Georges Mathieu’s Les capétiens partout (1954). The wife is centered directly in front of the painting and behind the brass 18 Ibid. 19 The lozenge or diamond-shaped screen in the Lux series calls to mind the similarly shaped canvases of De Stijl, especially those of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, who, in the words of Hans Jaffé, turned to this shape to expand, “the rhythm beyond the surface of the picture, outside its edges, since the contrast of vertical and horizontal lines in the lozenge form is less cramped and restricted by the frame”. See Hans L. C. Jaffé, Piet Mondrian (New York: Abrams, 1969), 110.

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Fig. 4.3: The wife transfixed by Nicholas Schöffer’s Lux 1 (1957) in the extreme foreground, with Georges Mathieu’s Les capétiens partout (1954) on display in the background.

disk, while the husband stands slightly off to the left and says dismissively, “Between painting and this [light sculpture], there is a complete rupture.” The wife defiantly replies: “No.” The man walks away, while she stares into the machine for an additional 10 seconds, as various disks turn to conceal or reveal her face to the audience in alternating yellow, red, and white colors. Her fixed gaze into Lux 1 suggests that the machine is her escape from the pawnbroker’s control (Figure 4.3). Why does Bresson organize the Musée national d’art moderne scene around the sights and sounds of Schöffer’s Lux 1, and what might the light sculpture indicate about Bresson’s own approach to creating Une femme douce? The most obvious influence on Schöffer is the Constructivist, Bauhaus artist and fellow Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who first explores the artistic potential of light sculpture with his Licht-Raum-Modulator (Light-Space-Modulator, 1930), a work that closely resembles individual sculptures in the Lux series. Moholy-Nagy was especially interested in the way the static space of the museum and gallery could be transformed into a more immersive experience for the viewer, which he termed “living cinema”.20 The Light-Space-Modulator was created for the six-minute film 20 For a discussion of Moholy-Nagy’s efforts to create a new light space that breaks down the fixed relationship between spectator and screen, see Noam Elcott, “Rooms of Our Times: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Cinema between Theatre and Museum,” Expanded Cinema: Activating


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Ein Lichtspiel Schwarz Weiss Grau (Light Spill: Black-White-Gray, 1930), which brings the sculpture to life through a proliferation of thresholds created through the use of superimposition, split screens, multiple-exposure, and dissolves. Light Spill similarly emphasizes discordant shots, highly oblique angles, and disorienting perspectives, all in an effort to suggest a larger, multidimensional whole. Bresson is equally invested in what might be termed spatial mapping: a heightened attention to the constructed nature of the frame, and an impulse to represent additional dimensions beyond the limited, singular, and visible point of view provided. Although MoholyNagy reaches from art toward a fully interactive cinema, while Bresson’s cinema mimics the immersive experience of kinetic art, stylistically, Light Spill: Black-White-Gray closely resembles the way Bresson captures Lux 1 through a series of fragmented, disconnected shots. As previously suggested, a precursor for Bresson’s approach might be Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which is organized around the suggestion of additional spaces and stories hidden behind or beyond the theater screen or camera lens. Although Bresson reveals previously hidden, overlapping, or built spaces within the Constructivist tradition, he also introduces elements of performance. A more accurate term than Moholy-Nagy’s “living cinema” for Bresson might therefore be Nicolas Schöffer’s concept of “spatiodynamism”, which argues for the expansion of sculpture into surrounding space through rhythmic patterns of light that interact with the audience.21 Bresson promotes spatiodynamism in Une femme douce in part by selecting the work of artists who minimize the divide between artwork and audience, such as Georges Mathieu’s Les capétians partout, which hangs behind Dominique Sanda. Mathieu specialized in live-action paintings, and his work cannot be separated from him as performer, reminiscent to many of Salvador Dalí in his theatrical delivery, showmanship, and elaborate costumes.22 Athletic choreography, musical accompaniment, period dress, and dancing routines the Space of Reception (Tate Conference, London, 17-19 April 2009), accessed 28 December 2017, 21 Schöffer was equally drawn to cinema’s—and television’s—potential for combining light, color, and rhythm. He created a ten-minute abstract film that ends Claude Lelouch’s Le propre de l’homme (1960), made an abstract commercial for the aperitif Dubonnet, and created the first experimental video to be broadcast on French television. The latter was part of his Variations luminodynamiques series, which projected colored images that adjusted in rhythm to musical compositions, often using human body parts as percussive instruments. Examples of all three can be found at, accessed 12 July 2016. 22 Ruhrberg,et. al., Art of the Twentieth Century, 254.

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were frequently used to simulate French historical events, such as Battle of the Bouvines (painted in 1954, the same year as Les capétians partout) in which Mathieu dressed in a “thirteenth-century period costume of black silk, a white bonnet, leggings, and paintbrushes the length of halberds.”23 Bresson’s inclusion of Les capétians partout would have reminded French viewers of Mathieu’s live performances, many of which were televised in the 1950s. Mathieu saw “art as movement”, and turned to the third dimension in order to “integrate art into the urban environment to create a more intense and existential experience for the citizen”.24 The finished canvas might therefore be seen as documenting Mathieu’s theatrical reenactments in the process of creating it, placing his work closest to Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism in the United States.25 Bresson has thus sandwiched his female protagonist between works by artists who extend artistic creation beyond the limits of the work itself. Rotating in the extreme foreground is Lux 1, which implicates Dominique Sanda (and, by extension, the viewer) within the “rhythmic” space of the machine, upsetting any easy distinction between inside and out. On display in the background is Les capétians partout, where we might imagine Mathieu himself in frenzied performance, occupying much the same space as the wife. Both works are thus characterized by the way they reach out and transform surrounding space, much as Bresson’s work gestures toward a beyond that cannot be represented within the limits of the frame.

Kazimir Malevich’s Use of Geometric Forms In his review of Lancelot du lac, Amengual discusses the central importance of painting for Bresson in the color films: “Bresson was always vigilant in his use of painting, but filming in color seems, now for the last three films, to have particularly mobilized these interests.”26 Amengual suggests that one way to arrive at a better understanding of Lancelot du lac is to examine the attention paid to painterly concerns, with a focus on color. It is therefore unsurprising that Bresson should respond to a question 23 Dore Ashton, “Mathieu et les autres,” Georges Mathieu (Paris: Éditions du Jeu de Paume, 2003), 57. 24 Lydia Harambourg, Georges Mathieu (Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Éditions Ides et Calendes, 2001), 124. 25 Ibid., 53. That Mathieu emphasized event over finished work is clear from the fact that he destroyed some works after they were photographed. 26 Amengual, “Lancelot du lac,” 55.


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about the way painting influences the style of Lancelot by emphasizing form and especially color: But it is certain that painting, which chases me and from which I flee, still acts upon me [on the level of] color and form. Form probably imposes a certain construction of the image. No doubt color provides an image’s power, but color is an imperfect instrument that easily leads to postcardism. That being said, there is always a way to use an imperfect instrument well, if one knows that it is imperfect. In any case, it pushes us to simplify ourselves.27

Bresson seems to say that, in order to avoid “postcardism”, color must be used in a restrained fashion, which forces him to simplify his compositions and, as a result, simplify himself. In Lancelot du lac we see precisely such a judicious, if not Minimalist, use of color in which vivid primary color is often used very sparingly and indirectly within a larger neutral or white landscape. A point of departure is Kristin Thompson’s discussion of the way splashes of color are used in the leggings, reins, saddle blankets, flags, and shields in Lancelot du lac. She refers to such moments as “a Mondrian-like composition dropped into the middle of a narrative film” in which “coloured elements become part of an abstract formal pattern largely independent of any narrative function”.28 I deepen and expand Thompson’s insight in this chapter, arguing that Bresson aims for something very Mondrian-like in his selective contrast between “muted brown, white and grey tones”, and strong swatches of primary color that swiftly appear and disappear from a frame, whether the bright pastel hues of a chevalier’s leggings, the geometrical forms of a banner flying above the tournament, or the simplified patterns of heraldry on a knight’s shield. However, Bresson also invokes other early 20th-century avant-garde practitioners – especially Kasimir Malevich’s emphasis on such geometrical forms as circles, rectangles, squares, crosses, and arrows – to suggest that simplified colors and shapes are self-contained. Such images can be added to the list of anachronisms in Lancelot, since they bear little resemblance to the highly ornate and complex examples found in medieval heraldry, which often rely on representations of animals 27 Baby, “Du fer qui fait du bruit,” 15. 28 Kristen Thompson, “The Sheen of Armour, the Whinnies of Horses: Sparse Parametric Style in Lancelot du lac,” Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1998), 351.

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Fig. 4.4. Six representative examples of knight shields in Lancelot du lac.

or other symbolic objects. Instead, Bresson prefers simple abstract symbols in combination with bold primary colors. Figure 4.4 provides a sample of six such miniature shields that appear in Lancelot du lac and hang over the entrance to the knights’ tents. In each image, the taut, white tent surface fills the background like a canvas and provides sharp relief to the colored shapes that appear on the shields. The shields are almost always in the spectator’s peripheral vision, either in the background behind a knight who directly faces the camera in close-up, or near the upper or lower edge of the image, thus positioned in contrast to narrative events occurring in the foreground. Each shield reveals a fascination with geometrical form, including – from left to right down the page – either a yellow X or a yellow arrow set against a black background; a dark blue square on an aqua background (or vice versa on the opposite side of the shield); three blue balls inside a black horizontal stripe surrounded by yellow lines; a rectangular yellow form bookended


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with two black diamonds; a blue triangle on a black background with two black and two blue lines that look like the number one; and, finally, a white ornamental design positioned on a blue and black horizontal stripe on a green shield. Such concern with color, shape, and line is clearly modern rather than medieval, insofar as such geometrical forms have no larger significance beyond that which exists within the graphic manipulation of shape and color itself. Such a collection of circles, squares, arrows, lines, and Xs, along with these particular color patterns, brings to mind the geometrical forms of the Soviet avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, who develops the avant-garde movement of Suprematism based on a grammar of abstract geometrical shapes, privileging artistic feeling over the objective, material world.29 Suprematism can also be defined as the effort to incorporate cinematic strategies of perception and movement into more static representational forms, especially in works like El Lissitzky’s Raum für konsruktive Kunst (Room for Constructivist Art 1926), which presents multimedia artifacts in a progressive sequence, creating a film-like immersive experience as the spectator travels from room to room to establish relationships between paintings based on the ways they have been placed on display, as well as the patterns, lighting, and color of the walls on which they are placed.30 Geometric forms take on strong value as “objectless” forms without function or figurative value, such as the depiction of Lenin, who becomes a simple black cube. If Malevich wants to bring sequentiality into the museum, then Bresson achieves something similar in his experimentation with medieval flags and shields. Both artists shift attention away from representation or narrative event in favor of the development of abstract geometrical forms. As Bresson puts it in one of his directives in the Notes: “See your film as a combination of lines and volumes in movement, apart from what it represents and signifies.”31 29 I am not the first to note Bresson’s incorporation of Suprematist elements. Pierre Gabaston’s Pickpocket de Robert Bresson, 101-105, compares the way simple geometric forms, such as the way a door is framed as a rectangle turned on its side, or an envelope placed under protagonist Michel’s apartment door creates a triangle with the same angle and shape as Kasimir Malevich’s Suprématisme jaune (1917). For Gabeston, Malevich’s interest in the way geometric form can be rearranged into dynamic, spatial constructions (called “architectons”) in order to express the sensation of speed, flight, and rhythm parallels Bresson’s geometrical arrangements. 30 Margarita Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 17. A central claim of Tupitsyn’s project is that cinema’s sequential nature plays a fundamental role in Suprematist art’s shift from static shapes to dynamic movement, as well as presenting multiple points of view simultaneously. 31 Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, 90.

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In his film script “Artistic and Scientific Film—Painting and Architectural Concerns—Approaching the New Plastic Architectural System” (1927), Malevich discusses the three basic elements of Suprematist art: the square, the circle, and the cross. He was especially interested in the ways one geometrical form transforms into another, through what he termed “shifting”.32 His film would thus examine the way a square, for example, could “roll” on its side to become a circle by splitting internally into black-and-white squares, or by being broken into horizontal and vertical stripes to become a cross.33 Bresson’s approach is equally dependent on this concept of transformation. In a passage that sounds like it came from Malevich himself, Bresson asserts that, “An image must be transformed by contact with other images as a color in contact with other colors [….] No art without transformation.”34 Although, by “image”, Bresson speaks of something more than just geometric form, both artists are nevertheless concerned with the way cinema introduces a transformative process through sequentiality. In “0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting”, in Petrograde, Russia in 1915-1916, Malevich unveils his Corner Counter-Reliefs, which depict black triangles, circles, crosses, and rectangles of various sizes and configurations on a white background (Figure 4.5). Margarita Tupitysn describes this exhibition as an “expanded hanging”, not only because Malevich’s famous painting Black Square (1923-1930) was hung high in a corner of the room, resembling a screen, but also because the vertical arrangement of canvases suggests a sequential filmstrip.35 From his earliest Suprematist work, Malevich’s forms closely resemble those of Bresson in Lancelot du lac, especially the two parallel rectangles depicted on the canvas closest to the floor in Figure 4.5. These forms are very similar in position and shape to two rectangles on a knight’s shield in the tournament sequence in Lancelot, also reproduced in a smaller blue shield that is half viewable in the top right frame in Figure 4.4. In Bresson’s version, however, two contrasting shades of blue have been added, which transforms the rectangles to a new level of color experimentation that does not emerge in Malevich’s own work until the 1920s. Malevich was not alone in his aggressive exploration of movement. Other Suprematists, such as El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis, combine photographic reproduction with abstract shape, especially circles and squares. For example, Klutsis’s Children and Lenin (1921), a photomontage of 32 Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film, 58-59. 33 Ibid. 34 Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, 22. 35 Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film, 15.


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Fig. 4.5. Detail of Malevich’s contribution to “0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting” (19151916): the vertical arrangement of a series of black geometrical forms, each on a white canvas.

photographs of children arranged around a wheel-like configuration with Lenin at the center. Because the composition resembles a film reel, Tupitsyn compares it to the spinning editing table in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. The Suprematist interest in the way static geometrical forms can be mechanically activated is comparable to the way Bresson interjects static shapes, images, and paintings into a moving film. In Lancelot du lac, such tension can be seen in the form of a constant emphasis on fixed shields, flags, and other decorative details in the background of a shot that are glimpsed as the camera moves through space. Suprematism is therefore especially interested in the way fixed images can be activated, placed in dynamic movement through collage techniques, while Bresson is instead concerned with introducing objects, signs, and an acting style that instead slows the moving image down to near stasis.

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Fig. 4.6. Hans Richter sample storyboard for a Malevich film script.

Despite Malevich’s theoretical interest in movement, he was much less invested in bringing his geometric forms to life through cinema. For such experiments, one must turn to the German avant-garde filmmaker Hans Richter, especially his extensive efforts to animate Malevich’s 1927 three-page script.36 Tupitsyn terms the correspondence between Richter’s Rhythmus (1921-1925) series and Malevich’s compositions “staggering”, as if the two artists strove toward the same artistic goal through two different media, and suggests that, if Malevich had the technical skill in cinema, he would have produced something very similar to Richter’s work.37 Richter’s film animation was, in fact, never completed, in large part because he 36 Timothy O. Benson and Aleksandra Shatskikh, “Malevich and Richter: An Indeterminate Encounter,” October 143 (Winter 2013): 52-68. 37 Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film, 57.


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Fig. 4.7. Flags depicted during the tournament sequence in Lancelot du lac, which bear strong iconographic parallels to Hans Richter’s storyboard for a Malevich film.

had difficulty remaining true to Malevich’s initial vision. As is clear from the storyboards, the film consists of colored squares, circles, crosses, and rectangles that change color and transform into other shapes by moving around on the screen (Figure 4.6). In composition, color, and geometrical form, the storyboards resemble nothing so much as the war banners, shields, and insignia that occupy many shots of Lancelot du lac. Richter's three columns of filmstrip on the left side closely resemble the series of medieval flags in variously colored stripes, lines, and configurations that are shown during the tournament sequence (Figure 4.7), whether a tripartite green, white, and red flag; a tripartite orange, blue, and green flag; a flag with vertical stripes in pale yellow, aqua blue, and purple, using almost the same yellow hues as Richter; a powder blue flag adorned with two white diamonds; a green, white, red, and purple flag; or a purple flag with three yellow squares spaced equally in the middle.

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Richter uses the same black, green, red, and white color scheme in column five of his storyboard (Figure 4.6), as many of Bresson’s flags. Although toward the right side of the storyboard Richter transitions into more complex geometric configurations, while Bresson’s flags adhere to symmetrical, rectangular patterns – more closely resembling the red, green, and white frames in columns two and three of Richter’s version – the colors are nearly identical, and reveal remarkable iconographic parallels.

Piet Mondrian: Flashes of Color on a Pure White Background Although Bresson’s shields and flags suggest the Supremacist style of Malevich, the attention to geometrical form, the use of color, and the formal organization of elements even more strongly invoke Piet Mondrian. One shield in particular provides an explicit link, as a squire leads two horses past a tent (Figure 4.8 top). The shield on the right side of the frame consists of a small red square of color enclosed by a thick black line, and surrounded by a solid blue tone. The two shields are dwarfed by the expansive white swaths of tent that fill the majority of the frame, suggesting a relationship between blue, red, black, and white that is nearly identical to many Mondrian canvases during the post-World War I Paris period, especially Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1930, Figure 4.8 bottom). Due to the nearly identical composition, color, and style, it is difficult not to conclude that Mondrian had a direct influence on Bresson, especially in constructing the knights’ shields. What was it about Mondrian’s approach that Bresson may have found attractive? Emerging out of the Dutch avantgarde movement of De Stijl, or “the style”, Mondrian termed his innovative approach neoplasticism to stress artificial, plastic values that transcend the natural world. Neoplasticism is not simply an artistic style for Mondrian, however, but a concrete transformation of the world such that painting ultimately creates a new lived space. Although Mondrian took issue with De Stijl architects who claimed to be artists, it was nevertheless through this group that he recognized the need to bring painting and architecture together, and make the abstract canvas a lived reality: “the new cities and streets will be a reality, then painting will be one with the environment, […] a perfect equilibrium of relationships in all areas”.38 It is for this reason that the two Paris studios where Mondrian lived between the wars – 26 rue de 38 Carel Blotkamp, Mondrian: The Art of Destruction (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 144.


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Fig. 4.8. Shields on display in the knight’s camp of Lancelot du lac on the top, and Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue on the bottom (1930), which reveals a similar concern with form, color, and shape.

Départ in 1919 and from 1921, and 5 rue de Coulmiers in between – became important staging grounds for his development as an artist, since Mondrian was able to extend color, line, symmetry, and form beyond the canvas and into the surrounding landscape. It was precisely after decorating his studio in neoplastic style at rue de Départ that Mondrian began to realize his mature style.39 Mondrian covered every wall with variously sized, often overlapping, colored 39 Ibid., 170.

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cardboard rectangles, painted pieces of furniture, and carefully rearranged miscellaneous objects, creating a three-dimensional painting that was sensitive to the relationship of color and form. Painting extends outward to include the viewer, with the ultimate aim to “abolish the opposition of figure and ground”. 40 In “Natuurlijke en abstracte realiteit” (“Natural and Abstract Reality”, 1919-1920), Mondrian creates a threeperson dramatic dialogue between naturalist painter X, layman Y, and abstract painter Z (Mondrian himself) to explain the characteristics of this new approach of painting. In the last section of the dialogue, X, Y, and Z return to Z’s studio to discuss methods to bring the canvas into Z’s studio, in a reference to Mondrian’s own new understanding of his new studio space: Z. The curtains form a rectangular plane that divides the wall surrounding the window. To continue the division, I added those red, grey and white planes on the wall. Even the white shelf with the grey box and the white cylindrical jar also contribute [to the arrangement]. Y. The jar appears as a rectangular plane! Z. The grey cupboard in the corner is also significant. Y. Also, the orange-red paint chest below the curtain… Z. …seen against the white and grey plane behind it. Y. The ivory chair looks well against them. Z. Notice next to it the gray-white work table, and on it a chalk-white jar at one end and a light red box at the other, seen against the black and white planes on the wall below the window. And next to the table, the black upholstered bench against the dark-red plane on the wall next to the window. Y. The yellow stool looks fine in front of the black bench. Z. We could continue in this way throughout the entire studio, but one thing I must point out: there is still a lack of unity. […] an even better solution would be to stop making separate paintings. 41

What separates abstract painter Z from conventional painter X is the attentiveness to form, color, and dimension in the room, which transcends X’s nineteenth-century naturalistic, religious, and emotional approach to 40 Yves-Alain Bois, “The Iconoclast,” Piet Mondrian 1872-1944 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 314-315. 41 Piet Mondrian, The New Art—The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, ed. and trans. Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986), 111.


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the canvas. As is clear from the exchange, Mondrian seeks just the right proportion between elements to bring painting to three-dimensional life. Much the same concern with detail can be seen in Lancelot du lac, a film in which color, pattern, sound, and light are orchestrated into a larger whole. In the chapter two discussion of Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, I argue that Bresson frequently comments on the similarities between his and the protagonist and painter Jacques’s act of creating images, as if Bresson is equally engaged in the very Mondrian-like occupation of expanding the limits of the canvas by projecting pattern, light, and color in moving, three-dimensional space. Such is the task continued—and even accelerated—with Lancelot du lac. After 1919, Mondrian became preoccupied with finding the appropriate equilibrium between the use of black lines, large swaths of solid white, and red, blue, and yellow rectangles. We might compare this approach to Bresson’s three starkly contrasting sets and lighting schemes in Lancelot: the oversaturated white day scenes and use of a completely white background, including sand, the queen’s castle, and tents; the use of red and orange reflective hues in night scenes, which resemble the nocturnal canvases of Georges de La Tour in the use of chiaroscuro lighting and illuminated tents; and the dense green forest scenes that recall Uccello’s layered forest in Hunt in the Forest. By alternating between these three radically distinctive settings in terms of color, light, and mood, Bresson creates a f ilm based on rhythmic alternation. In describing the way Mondrian’s work is based on either integrating or contrasting melody and countermelody, Carel Blotkamp explores parallels between Mondrian and music, which is apt considering how frequently Mondrian himself drew on music in the development of his visual style. His f inal works, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943) and Victory Boogie Woogie (1942-1944), for example, are tributes to American jazz created after moving to New York City, and reveal the influence of jazz on Mondrian's style in the use of syncopation, idiosyncratic melodies, and improvisation. Even as early as 1919, long before Mondrian’s overt interest in music, his character X refers to artist Z’s compositions as “symphonies” while discussing the importance of rhythm to artistic creation. 42 One might similarly describe Lancelot du lac as a symphony, insofar as it is a composition of light, color, and sound elements rhythmically brought together by Bresson as conductor. For both Mondrian and Bresson, the constructed whole is more important than any individual details or 42 Ibid., 84.

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Fig. 4.9. Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1922.

isolated segments. Again, naturalistic painter X discusses abstract art as spokesperson for Mondrian himself: “Yes, all things are part of the whole: each part obtains its visual value from the whole and the whole from its parts. Everything is expressed through relationship.”43 In a parallel way, Bresson introduces the notion of the “cinématographe”, obtained by using images that, “like words in the dictionary only have power and value by their position and relationship”. 44 An individual image only has value based on its position relative to previous and subsequent images, so that the remnants of a previous image still remain in a subsequent one. Although, for Mondrian, the relationship between parts and the whole is not nearly so sequential or temporal, he nevertheless strives to make the individual painting correspond to a larger space beyond its delimited state. Both Bresson and Mondrian are therefore committed to drawing attention to that which takes place beyond the frame, in part by evacuating the 43 Ibid., 86. 44 Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, 21-22.


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contents of significant events or viewer interest. Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1922), for example, is dominated by an imposing white square that occupies the majority of the canvas, characteristic of many such paintings of the 1920s (Figure 4.9). Color is relegated to the margins of the work, which, in this case, is composed of a thin strip of red at the bottom, a thin strip of yellow on the upper right, and a blue box in the upper left corner. Such placement of color suggests an additional expanse that goes beyond the limits of the frame. This use of space and color parallels Bresson in two ways. First, Bresson’s films are characterized by evacuating the filmed scene of almost all action, and alluding to important events not only in a fragmentary way, but often from an oblique or peripheral point of view. The tournament scene in Lancelot du lac, for example, consists of rapid shots of various battle activities—the racing feet of a horse, a lance being handed to Lancelot, a flag flying above against a green background of trees, a knight being knocked to the ground, the crowd looking silently and intently on—but in such a disjunctive and truncated way that the audience has almost no sense of what is happening in the tournament, or even who is participating. We almost never see a participating knight’s head; instead, shots focus on the feet and legs of horses. As a result, small strips of color from the saddles enter the very top of the frame, again alluding to that which exists beyond the frame. By placing a white square in the center of his canvas, Mondrian achieves something similar, relegating visually important material to edges or corners. Secondly, much as Mondrian catches the spectator’s eye through sudden, brief bursts of primary color, so too does Bresson sprinkle his film with snippets of bright color that grab the viewer’s attention and just as suddenly disappear. It is the dynamic tension between empty expanses of white or gray punctuated by small, saturated areas of color that characterize both Mondrian’s post-World War I canvases and Bresson’s Lancelot du lac. The first indications of such a color strategy can be identified in Bresson’s Une femme douce, in which a range of bright primary color has been carefully arranged within a shot. The most self-conscious example occurs when the female protagonist leaves the university, opens the pawnbroker’s car door, and throws her books on top of a Le monde newspaper that has been spread out on the back seat. The four books evenly spread apart as they hit the newspaper to reveal that each is a different color: bright orange, yellow, and blue, with a red textbook on top. Rather than provide a shot of either of the protagonists or the car as it drives away, the camera instead remains fixed on the four books for the remainder of the scene. The stark contrast between a rainbow of color on a background of white seat covers and a newspaper is perhaps the first indication of a Mondrian-like interest in compositional

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form. The fact that the camera remains fixed on the arrangement of books rather than on the relationship between the two central characters, or in providing background information to the viewer, clearly reveals Bresson’s interest in creating a vibrant composition over the concerns of psychological intrigue or narrative development. Such use of color is more systematically explored in Lancelot du lac, in a way that brings Mondrian and Bresson together even more directly. Bresson insists on the central importance of a film’s surface; building on an insight of Leonardo, Bresson observes that, just as a painter’s material is paint and canvas, and the sculptor’s media is marble or bronze, so the filmmaker’s medium is the screen.45 The successful filmmaker is thus obliged to submit to the screen’s white materiality, as aphorisms scattered through Notes sur le cinématographe make clear: “Build your film on whiteness, silence, and stillness”, and, “everything ends up on a rectangle of white fabric hung on a wall”. 46 Lancelot du lac appears to be in the forefront of Bresson’s mind in penning such lines, since the film relies on the screen’s whiteness to accentuate color and pattern, abiding by Bresson’s own dictate that Lancelot “be a film of white and beige”, whether the reliance on white sand to place the knights’ camp, the white and gray stone walls of the queen’s castle that looms over them, the large swaths of bleached tents that function as a “screen”, or the use of oversaturation in filming the day scenes. 47 One telling example of the way Bresson introduces color into a white background occurs at the start of the tournament scene. Like many shots, the camera is pointed down at the hooves of horses as a knight walks away from the camera to reveal his exposed leggings. Each shot cuts just as a knight is hoisted by a squire onto a horse in a sequence of five rapid shots. All we can make out in each shot is the color of the knight’s leggings as he sits on a contrasting color of a horse’s saddle blanket. Each color combination between leggings and saddle blanket is distinct, and designed to contrast with each other: Gauwain’s salmon leggings and green horse blanket, followed by red leggings and teal blanket, light blue and pink, pale yellow and pinkish-white, green and blue-purple, and dark blue and yellow. Much in the way that books are filmed in the back seat of Une femme douce, in this sequence, the camera is not at all drawn to the behavior of the knights (most of whom 45 Ibid, 117. 46 Ibid., 135, 36-37. 47 Patrick Thévenon, “Bresson; sur la piste du graal,” L’express 1134-1146 (13 August 1973), 44. One can find traces of Mondrian’s style scattered throughout Bresson’s color films. Jean Sémolué claims that it is not Lancelot du lac, but rather L’argent in which particular isolated shots, “evoke certain research close to Mondrian”. Sémolué, Bresson ou l’acte pur, 283.


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Fig. 4.10. Bresson constructs a Mondrian artwork: an almost entirely white composition with small areas of bright primary color appearing on the upper edges of the frame.

the viewer cannot even identify, with the exception of Gauvain’s leggings and Lancelot’s orange saddle blanket), but rather to the contrasting colors introduced in each shot. A subsequent sequence shows the same processional of horses traveling to the tournament. The shot begins with several white tents stationed directly in front of the camera, which fill the screen. A series of five horses then move past, with the camera again turned toward the ground so the knights can only be seen from the thigh down. The viewer can still make out small pieces of colored leggings that peek out through space between sections of armor, along with the blankets and reins of the horses, in a parade that travels to the tournament arena to display—and just as quickly remove—some of the same color combinations. Once the horses have passed, the shot continues, displaying an almost entirely white composition, except for two partially displayed shields, the one in the upper left corner depicting two vertical red lines surrounding a gray square with a black circle in the center, while the one on the right revealing the light blue and white pattern of another shield (Figure 4.10). This sequence begins and ends with a five second all-white background that is filled with, and just as quickly emptied of, vivid color. In a similar fashion as Mondrian, Bresson fills the frame with white, but adds small areas of vivid color on the periphery to attract the viewer’s attention. In this scene, Bresson makes clear that his goal is not to recount a narrative, but rather to provide a rhythmic dance of contrasting color played out on a pure white background.

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Despite stylistic parallels between Mondrian and Bresson, the former’s notion of transcendence seems quite different from the latter’s foundation in a Christian, phenomenological tradition. Unlike either Mondrian or Malevich, Bresson is not interested in arriving at the artificial through geometrical forms severed from nature; in fact, I argue throughout this project that it is precisely through the natural world that Bresson’s characters attain the spiritual sublime. Bresson and Mondrian nonetheless share an underlying belief in a hidden, spiritual existence that the artist or protagonist can see but others cannot. This difference manifests itself in the chasm between the mutable human world and the immutable spiritual one. As artist Z proclaims, “Now we can see that there is another reality beyond trivial human activity […] in contrast to the changeability of human will, we now contemplate the immutable.”48 Art opens this otherwise closed door, providing access to the riches of a hidden existence. But Bresson is not nearly as utopian as Malevich in terms of a radical transformation of the world; in fact, the late films are quite cynical about the possibility of any spiritual transcendence. Bresson’s work has a shared lineage not only with Mondrian, but with a number of early 20th-century avant-garde artists who seek to return art to its spiritual mandate established during the Middle Ages. The manifestos included in such a project include Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art (1912), Piet Mondrian’s The New Plastic in Painting (1917), and Kasimir Malevitch’s The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism (1927).49 Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich share a belief in art’s sacred mission, and in the spiritual possibilities made available through abstraction. Malevich approaches geometry as a vehicle toward the creation of a more equitable, liberated world. As a follower of theosophy, Mondrian similarly believes in a universal, divine force that pervades the universe, so that matter should not be seen in individual objects, but rather in the way larger forces move through it. One example of Mondrian’s spiritual evolution can be seen in symbols of the Christian cross that appear in early figurative paintings in the form of windmills, but that subsequently transform into such abstract

48 Mondrian, The New Art—The New Life, 89. 49 Alexander Nagel connects these utopian manifestos and others to the medieval desire to anonymously unite art, architecture, and society on the model of the Cathedral and following the architectural ideas of Walter Gropius, Adolf Behne, and Bruno Taut: “The idea was to emulate not the features of Gothic design, but the organization of artistic labor and the social and spiritual integration that Gropius imagined underlay medieval religious buildings.” Nagel, Medieval Modern, 145.


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shapes as rectangles in his post-World War I canvases.50 Bresson evolves in parallel fashion from the use of overt Christian iconography in his early films—such as the shot of an illuminated cross that ends Le Journal d’un curé de campagne—to the use of abstract line, color, and sound in Lancelot du lac. Much like Mondrian, the spiritual becomes sublimated into abstract shape, color, and rhythm.

Constructivist Color and Geometry in L’argent While Une femme douce is characterized by warm brown, yellow, and gold tones, and Quatre nuits d’un rêveur by cold blues and greens, L’a rgent cannot be reduced to one consistent spectrum of color. Bresson instead bases color decisions on the particular space in which a scene is shot, so that scenes in court emphasize reds and browns, prison scenes are navy blue, the widow’s house is decorated in tones of yellow and green, the photography shop relies on blacks and whites, and hospital scenes are predominately white. This approach to color resembles the strategy of Constructivist artists who fill discrete geometric shapes with one bold primary color that doesn’t bleed into or overlap with another, such as a red triangle, a blue rectangle, or a yellow circle. A cut from one setting to another therefore juxtaposes one distinct color scheme with another in a similar way that colored shapes are juxtaposed with one another in a Constructivist composition. Each colored space is viewed in terms of its relationship to the whole, just as Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist sculpture Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) contains four suspended geometric structures (a cube, a pyramid, a cylinder, and a hemisphere) that function in relationship to one another, but that rotate at different speeds.51 Color in L’a rgent most closely resembles that of Lancelot du lac, especially the sudden introduction of vivid blue and red geometrical forms that are placed on a neutral background, including the yellow walls and bars of the prison and the widow’s yellow kitchen, characterized by pale lemon walls and teapot, yellow-and-white plaid tablecloth, and a yellow German shepherd. Changes in clothing are an especially useful way to monitor Bresson’s complex use of color in L’argent, since, as a character moves from one space to another, he or she often changes clothing, as if to sustain the match 50 Blotkamp, Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, 109. 51 Vlada Petric, Constructivism in Film: The Man with a Movie Camera, A Cinematic Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 9.

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between setting and color. Black, for instance, is most often used to highlight a character’s transition from a setting requiring a work uniform to another space. Although Élise wears a blue smock at home, she changes into a black shawl in such public spaces as court, the police station, prison, and she changes into a black blazer at the lawyer’s office. Yvon dons a black jacket and tie after his first release from prison. Additionally, when the widow travels to the village, she first changes out of her blue apron and wears a black dress, black shoes, and a black purse. In contrast to the use of black, a Bresson white often precedes the introduction of a vibrant primary color, much like Mondrian’s Constructivist juxtaposition of a primary color and a white background. Yvon’s white oil truck is contrasted to its flamboyant red and green trim; the all-white ambulance sets off the red cross pictured on the front; the all-white laundry that the widow and Yvon hang up serves as contrast to the surrounding green foliage and blue laundry container; the white uniforms worn by the hospital staff set the scene for the blue machines that surround Yvon; and, finally, a shot is completely filled with the side of a white prison mail truck, before cutting to the blue basket inside the truck. Bresson is sensitive to the way one color effects and influences another. He writes, “A blue is not the same blue next to a green, a yellow, or a red. No art without transformation.”52 He therefore saturates a frame with whiteness before introducing color. Both white and black thus function as transitional colors, whether in the way white functions as relief to the dramatic introduction of a bright tone, or the use of black, which resolves color tensions by integrating a character from the color scheme of one space into that of another. Discussions of color in L’a rgent invariably focus on a shot of the vermillion robe worn by the judge, presented in close-up when Yvon makes a court appearance for armed robbery. For Sémolué, this shot remains memorable because a voice yells “la cour” at just the moment that the robes appear, as if the intensity of the human cry is matched by the vibrant excess of color, so that a similar violence is enacted on visual and aural levels.53 Such a strategy is paralleled in the series of impassioned proclamations in the cathedral scene in Le diable probablement, emphasized by the piercing notes of an organ, except that, in L’a rgent, the scream is equated with a color rather than another sound. To push Sémolué’s idea further, many of the scenes involving red in L’a rgent startle the viewer due to the sudden emergence of such bright tones, and thus function like the visual equivalent of a scream. 52 Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, 22. 53 Sémolué, Bresson ou l’acte pur, 283.


L ate Bresson and the Visual Arts

Fig. 4.11. Bresson’s distinctive use of red and green to announce the first appearance of Yvon in L’argent.

Because red is used so judiciously in L’a rgent, its appearance also indicates a character’s sudden realization. A large red “SALE” sign and wide vertical banner in the same color are affixed to the front of a store window behind the wife of the photography store owner when she recognizes Norbert, the boy who gave her the counterfeit bill. The red color thus seems to register the wife’s shock at suddenly encountering the counterfeiter on the street. The first shot of the film functions as a preliminary cue to the spectator of the way red will be introduced: as an ATM door slides closed, a red keyboard key can barely be glimpsed behind it. This strategy of introducing a small splash of red in an otherwise neutral composition to attract the viewer’s eye closely corresponds to the color strategy of Lancelot du lac, in which a small area of bright primary color is positioned within a neutral background. The best example of this approach in L’a rgent is when Yvon is in solitary confinement, and, as he lays on the floor, an extreme low-angle shot from a fixed camera frames him through the yellow bars of the prison cell. Everything in the shot is yellow or light brown, except for a segment of one bar on the lower left side that has been painted bright red, drawing the viewer’s attention to one interesting color detail, and providing contrast to the pale yellow walls and bars that surround Yvon. The first significant use of red functions in a similar fashion to the red fragment on the prison bars: as Yvon winds the hose back onto the oil truck, the viewer is introduced to him through a shot in which fragments of dark vermillion have been strategically distributed in order to draw the viewer’s eye through the image.

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The viewer sees Yvon’s red gloves in the upper left corner of the frame, a red rectangular toolbox in the middle on the far right, and a red circular bucket in the lower central portion (Figure 4.11). The lack of shots of Yvon’s face is compensated for with a shot that offers more saturated color than perhaps any other in the film, as if Yvon’s entrance into the film is announced through color cues rather than a shot of Yvon himself. Bresson’s oil truck consists of a color composition of red rectangles and circles, white flat panels, and variously sized green lines and tubes, all of which is reminiscent of Lyubov Popova’s Constructivist apparatus in The Magnaminous Cuckold, which is similarly characterized by red, green, black, and white rectangular and circular forms. Bresson uses color in two distinct ways in L’a rgent: as an ambient radiation that infuses and saturates a space with a particular hue, usually a blue or green; or, in direct contrast, as an intense concentration of a primary color within a contained, geometric shape, such as the rectangular red velvet cover placed over the judge’s table in Yvon’s first visit to court. I compare the latter use of color in Lancelot du lac to Mondrian’s method of incorporating primary color into his canvases, which has a clear lineage from Russian Constructivist art. As discussed in chapter two, Bresson’s goal with Quatre nuits is to use blue in the manner of Yves Klein as an outward radiation that envelops his actors and occupies all surrounding space. On several occasions in L’a rgent, Bresson employs red in much the same way. When the owner of the photography store enters the darkroom to fire Lucien for changing the price on a camera, both characters are saturated in a pinkish red light, especially the top of the owner’s head, which is illuminated by the photography lamp. Despite the exchange of benign pleasantries, the red glow communicates a palpable malevolence emanating from these two men. The red color radiates through space much in the way that Matisse saturates L’atelier rouge (1911) with a vibrant orange-red tone that consumes other objects in the space.54 Signs of blue radiation are equally present in the flashing blue police lights on top of police vans that flicker against the black night, but are sparse compared to their proliferation in Quatre nuits. Red and blue, however, are more typically confined to discrete geometrical objects within a shot, and it is instead green that more typically radiates outward to fill the entire frame, much like shots within the green forest in 54 Brian Price turns to an earlier Matisse canvas, Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life, 1905-1906), to make a similar point about color “radiation”, arguing that it extends a long historical battle between line and color in art history in which color is preferred to line. See Price, “Color, the Formless, and Cinematic Eros,” 27-28.


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Lancelot. From the moment the widow crosses a wooden footbridge and sets foot on her property, indicated by the sound of rushing water, Bresson emphasizes a proliferation of green in nature: the father walks through the family garden, Yvon picks hazelnuts, Yvon and the widow sit next to a green pond, and every shot looking out through the windows of the house are of vegetable gardens and lush foliage. Green is used to convey stillness, solitude, and isolation, whether in the pastoral remove of the widow’s house or in urban Parisian scenes. The dull green matching curtains in Norbert’s house intensify the father’s bourgeois isolation when Norbert asks for money, just as the wife’s extreme isolation in Une femme douce is conveyed by the thick green curtains that surround her. Furthermore, after Yvon tosses his ax in the water after the murder sequence, a long take of him is quite similar in color and mood to the greenish shot of the two nude lovers embracing in Quatre nuits: a motionless, silent shot entirely in green as the light reflects on the walls behind Yvon who stares vacantly into the water. Yvon is frozen in a tableau vivant, and he blends into the background in part because a white tree hides his face; he even appears to be underwater in the way the light undulates behind him. This shot is similar to the extended 30-second shot of the greenish-yellow back door of the widow’s house when Yvon breaks the lock. The murder sequence is thus framed by two long takes of motionless shots filmed in green light, as if the extended still shot immobilizes forward movement. Bresson thus inundates a shot or scene with green in many of his long-take tableaux vivants, in which models or objects seem frozen in space, whether the shot of Yvon after the murder, the back door of the widow’s house, or the storage room of green blankets. In contrast to the use of radiant green, the blues in L’a rgent are almost always contained and clearly delineated from surrounding space, such that the color is associated with a distinct geometrical shape. The film is especially characterized by a proliferation of blue objects and containers, including rectangular objects such as vans, buses, mail baskets, envelopes, the widow’s tub for holding laundry, the square light-blue contraband pack of cigarettes exchanged in the prison cafeteria, the square machinery attached to the hospital ventilator, and the handicapped boy’s blue notebook that the widow picks up off the floor. Circular objects include Yvon’s collection of blue Valium pills and a bottle of perfume with a dark blue cap exchanged at mass. The color scheme is reminiscent of a Popova costume design for actor number 5 in The Magnaminous Cuckold in subject matter, color, and use of geometrical forms (Figure 4.12). If it were possible to concentrate the 81 minutes of L’a rgent into one image, then the result would no doubt resemble this Popova sketch, not only

The Design and Pat tern of the Whole


Fig. 4.12. Popova’s work uniform design for Actor No. 5 in The Magnaminous Cuckold (1921).

in its close resemblance to the color and pattern of dresses worn by the female inmates (all female actors would have worn this same design in Meyerhold’s play), but also in the way the sketch has been organized in terms of color and space. The use of bright red lettering, the navy blue uniform, and the black apron can be deconstructed into a series of rectangular forms, distributed throughout the image against a neutral white beckground. Even though it is a costume drawing, Popova entertains formalist concerns involving geometrical form and the distribution of color, so that it has abstract value as an arrangement of forms in space much like Bresson’s film. The placement of red in fact corresponds almost exactly to the way Bresson distributes red across the shot that introduces Yvon in Figure 4.11, the red encircling the faceless human form in a similar way in both images, but the blue and black geometric forms replaced with green and white in Bresson’s version. Perhaps the film’s heavy emphasis on navy blue objects is connected to the role played by blue uniformed police in the film, who often emerge from the margins of the frame as an event unfolds to startle a character. Navy blue objects appear and disappear from a shot as swiftly as the police. The widow’s trip into the village is characterized by such encounters: two police officers try to enter a boulangerie at exactly the moment when she tries to


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leave. After walking out, she passes two more police standing next to two dark blue police vehicles. The two police from the boulangerie then follow her back to the two police waiting by the curb, again entering the frame as she walks away. A similar state of surveillance is communicated by a night scene that divides the bright evening and morning kitchen scenes at the widow’s house. The camera is positioned close to the edge of a deserted road as three blue police vans pass the camera at close range, then continue into the dark night. The subtext, reinforced by the polarized contrast between dark and light, is that the police continue to hunt for the criminal at all hours and in the most remote locations. The police are depicted in a similar way in the bank heist scene: they arrive before Bresson’s camera, immediately corner the bank robbers, and a police car identifies Yvon as the getaway driver. Finally, in the last scene of the film, Bresson multiplies the number of police visible in mirrors inside the café: in the large mirror behind Yvon, one can see approximately seven police officers facing away from Yvon, as well as in mirrors to either side of the passageway through which Yvon passes to confess to another policeman. Although few policemen are directly seen, the mirrors are packed with them. In each example, Bresson uses offscreen space (or mirrors) to generate anxiety, as if large numbers of police are stationed at the edges of the screen, are perpetually in motion, and are ready to appear at any moment. This representation of the police is uncannily similar to the way they appear in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1935).

The Static Gesture in Vsevolod Meyerhold Bresson’s approach to acting has a number of parallels stemming from Soviet cinema culture of the 1920s. Vladimir Gardin and Lev Kuleshov, for example, treat the actor as a prop manipulated by the director, evident in their use of the term “model”, the same term used by Bresson.55 Clear parallels are also evident between Dziga Vertov and Bresson in their repudiation of theatrical techniques and effort to capture authentic behavior on screen. Such attitudes were not confined to the cinema; Vsevolod Meyerhold has an equally strong contempt of the “merely depictive or decorative”, and 55 In response to a question by Georges Sadoul about the influence of Soviet montage on his work, Bresson’s silence suggests that he consciously draws on Kuleshov’s concept of “model”: “Kuleshov […] also refused actors and systematically employed living models on screen (naturtchiki), to create an extreme theatricality. But, of course, you already know this.” See Georges Sadoul, “Conversation plutôt qu’interview avec Robert Bresson sur Mouchette,” Les lettres françaises 1174 (16 March 1967): 18.

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Fig. 4.13. A still from Meyerhold’s biomechanical exercise “Stab with a dagger”.

rejects superfluous movement that distracts a spectator’s attraction from such nearly imperceptible motions as a “rustle, a pause, a break in the voice, or a tear which clouds the eye of the actor”, all of which signal an actor’s emotional transformation.56 As a result, an actor must display rigorous bodily control so that even the smallest gesture or movement contains significance, since “restrained gestures and economy of movement are preferable to overt public declamation”.57 Meyerhold ultimately wants to coordinate the events of a play with the same authorial control that an orchestra conductor uses to lead a musical performance, except that Meyerhold’s instrument is the human body.58 Both Meyerhold and Bresson thus force the audience to concentrate on the body’s “gestures, poses, glances, and silences” by eliminating theatrical acting.59 Part of this emphasis is due to Meyerhold’s belief that external movement creates the actor’s internal emotional state, rather than the reverse. Bresson mirrors this belief in his insistence that 56 Vsevolod Meyerhold, Meyerhold on Theater, trans. and ed. Edward Braun (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969), 36. 57 Ibid. 58 Alma Law and Mel Gordon, Meyerhold, Eisenstein and Biomechanics (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1996), 50. 59 Hoover, Meyerhold: The Art of Conscious Theater, 24.


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Fig. 4.14. Yvon threatens the prison guard with a soup skimmer, and the guard responds by grabbing Yvon’s collar in a ritualized manner.

the actor abandon internal feeling in favor of bodily automatism, even if such an unrehearsed state requires a debilitating number of takes. Another strategy to emphasize the spectator’s concentrated focus on the body is that both artists reduce the reliance on spoken words, and those that are spoken are stripped of all intonation or feeling. Meyerhold creates a sequence of biomechanical exercises that were rehearsed until they could be effortlessly performed, modeled on such events as shooting a bow and arrow, hitting someone on the nose, or pushing down a kneeling figure with a foot. These exercises consist of fluid movements that were performed in rhythm with the set design and music. Composed of a series of immobile poses that Meyerhold terms an actor’s “statuary plasticity”, these exercises evolve from popular Delsartian poses of the time.60 Amiel argues that Bresson’s work can similarly be viewed as a series of immobile tableaux, comparing his style to Auguste Rodin’s play between stillness and movement, cohesion and fragmentation. A sculpture such as Saint Jean-Baptiste (1878) might be approached as a collection of still images that create a composite of movement. For instance, Jean-Baptiste’s feet indicate stasis, “as if all the expanses of the world are inside him”, even as the total work seems to march forward.”61 Rodin and Bresson thus provide still fragments of lived states that the viewer assembles into a totality. A still 60 Braun, The Theater of Meyerhold, 85. 61 Amiel, Le corps au cinéma, 104-105.

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from the two-person exercise “Stab with a Dagger” (Figure 4.13) illustrates the similar way a Meyerhold exercise contains an assemblage of posed tableaux connected through a series of stages to represent a particular activity. In Figure 4.13, the man—Meyerhold himself—looms over the woman with fists clenched and an imaginary dagger raised above his head, while, in an extraordinary display of flexibility, the woman bends backward in an extended arch with arms fully extended toward the ground to receive the blow. Body gestures are so exaggerated and posed that the exercise feels like a collection of discrete stills stitched together like a photographic essay such as Pierre Zucca’s illustrations for La monnaie vivante discussed in chapter three. Such a shot might be compared to the highly stylized way in which a guard grabs the back of Yvon’s jacket collar with his fist when Yvon dramatically raises the soup skimmer above his head in L’argent (Figure 4.14). The gestures between guard and prisoner suggest a ritualized and posed theatrical performance, and, like such Meyerhold’s exercises as “Stab with a Dagger”, also suggest potential violence. But the violence of the skimmer scene, like many such gestures in L’a rgent, occurs offscreen. When the widow’s father violently slaps her for allowing Yvon to stay with them, for example, the action is heard in a violent smack, but the corresponding image is a close-up of the widow’s hands as she cradles a bowl of coffee, which spills across her fingers. Emotion is, in this way, displaced from the widow to an image of her trembling hands. Bresson uses a similar structure when Yvon pushes the restaurant owner into a table. While the soundtrack captures the sustained roar of breaking glass and china, the viewer sees nothing more than Yvon’s hand grabbing the man’s shirt, followed by a four-second close-up of Yvon’s fully splayed hand as he releases the man. Next, a fixed shot directed toward the floor captures a table as it falls over into the frame and the man stumbles into it. This event therefore does not unfold as one continuous activity, but, like Meyerhold’s exercises, as a series of isolated, nearly still fragments pieced together to form a narrative. Yvon grabs the restaurant owner’s shirt in much the same way that the prison guard twists the back of Yvon’s jacket when he raises the soup skimmer, suggesting that acts of violence are similarly represented through preestablished gestural codes in the fashion of Meyerhold’s biodynamic poses, Sergei Volonsky’s belief in the use of “gestural combinations”, and François Delsarte’s “precise record of gesture”, on par with musical notation.62 Bresson thus sublimates 62 Yampolsky, “Kuleshov’s Experiments,” 47-48. In Volkonsky’s pre-Constructivist model, man is both a machine that obeys general laws of mechanics, and a feeling, sentient being, a


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violent action into a series of anodyne gestures, focusing on the hand and the amplification of sounds made by objects. Bresson is especially reliant on such a gestural approach in the depiction of murder in L’a rgent. He depicts Yvon’s killing of the widow metonymically by substituting a bedside lamp for the widow’s body, so that Yvon instead swings the ax into a lamp, resulting in blood that splatters across the flowered wallpaper. The killing of the proprietors of the Hotel Moderne is similarly conveyed, not through violence, but rather through an extreme close-up of a sink as reddish water swirls around the drain. In a discussion that reflects this indirect strategy in L’a rgent, Eisenstein claims that the best way to represent murder through montage is to convey the feeling of murder by reconstructing the event for emotional effect.63 Eisenstein’s concept of intellectual montage aims at the same associative connections between unrelated images. In October (1928), for example, Kerensky stands in front of the door to the Czar’s chambers and a series of cuts compare him to a gold, rotating, mechanical peacock. The two images are never shown together or linked through the space of the Winter Palace, but the viewer establishes the connection between them: that Kerensky is as vain as a peacock, and his vanity is activated by the gears of the old regime. Although Bresson resorts neither to ideology nor non-diegetic inserts, he nevertheless conveys the widow’s murder through a similar associative editing style. Meyerhold and Bresson both approach the artwork from the perspective of absence: the less the spectator is shown, the more he or she will project memories and imagined events onto the characters. As Meyerhold phrases the idea, “the spectator is compelled to employ his imagination creatively in order to fill in the details intimated by the action on the stage”.64 Bresson’s elliptical style similarly provides tantalizing shards of a story, but no certainty as to the way the parts interrelate, making plot summaries of his films notoriously unreliable. Using performers with expressionless faces compounds the problem, since a blank demeanor allows the spectator to project his or her own emotions and activities onto the character. Meyerhold coins the phrase “theatre of masks” to describe the use of passivity, emotional detachment, and neutral expressions to conceal an actor’s intentions. Noa Steimatsky similarly argues that Bresson’s opaque, reticent faces function contradiction equally present in Bresson’s use of mechanical models pushed to such extremes of depravity that they produce something authentically human. 63 Sergei Eisenstein, “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949), 61. 64 Qtd. in Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold, 78.

The Design and Pat tern of the Whole


as a mask, since Bresson either films unoccupied spaces that do not return the gaze, or substitutes the face for the material surface of the world.65 Meyerhold instructs his actors to present “an exterior calm which covers volcanic emotions”, much like Bresson’s notoriously inexpressive models who move like marionettes, speak as if reading lines, and seem controlled by an offscreen directorial force.66 In Meyerhold’s 1906 production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the actress and theater owner Komissarzhevskaya and her partner Bravich could have been models taken directly from a Bresson set, since they “recited their lines in rhythmic monotones, gazing straight ahead without movement”.67 Such techniques are a method for Bresson and Meyerhold to redirect attention from plot concerns to foreground the body. Meyerhold rearranges chronology and breaks scenes into a series of nonsequential, truncated tableaux in order to increase tempo, create tension between scenes of stasis and movement, and emphasize the mise en scène, a characteristic mirrored in Eisenstein’s demand that a narrative be reduced to a series of visually immersive attractions. Yuri Tsivian notes that, within Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, the word “cinematograph” did not develop within the exclusive domain of cinema, but rather designated, “a show that presented the audience with a sequence of fragmented excerpts instead of a single action”.68 Such an insight is key to understanding the close relationship between theater, dance, and cinema in the development of montage. Meyerhold stages Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s The Forest (1922), for example, according to montage principles, so that the five acts were transformed into, “thirty-three episodes shuffled and demarcated with pantomime interludes” to provide contrast in mood and pace between active and static tableaux.69 Bresson manipulates chronology in much the same way. By revealing, in the first scene of both Une femme douce and Le diable probablement, that the protagonist commits suicide, Bresson dissolves dramatic tension, shifting 65 Noa Steimatsky, “Of the Face, In Reticence,” Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls?, ed. Angela Dalle Vacche (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 161, 171-72. 66 Meyerhold, Meyerhold on Theater, 37. 67 Hoover, Meyerhold: The Art of Conscious Theatre, 43-44. 68 Yuri Tsivian, “Early Russian Cinema: Some Observations,” Inside the Film Factory, eds. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (London: Routledge, 1991), 9. Tsivian also discusses the “aesthetics of immobility” that characterized early Russian silent film of the 1910s, and no doubt influenced later montage styles. 69 Petric, Constructivism in Film, 7. Meyerhold himself compares the contrast in The Forest between the slow tempo of the actors on the catwalk who fish, catch insects, or engage in other leisure activities to the hustle and bustle on the domestic stage below them to Eisenstein’s notion of “collision montage”. See Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold, 197.


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one’s attention to such normally ancillary concerns as rhythmic patterns between scenes. The impulse to create a contrapuntal structure between stasis and movement powerfully emerges in a sequence in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur: a completely naked Marthes and lodger are locked in an embrace in an extended silent, immobile shot that is dramatically contrasted to the mother’s frenetic movement through the apartment as her high heels are heard rhythmically clicking against the floor. This scene can best be described using Meyerhold’s term “music”, which explains the way individual parts are orchestrated into the larger whole, paying attention to such details as speech rhythms, pauses, gestures, and movements to express the rhythm between people and objects on stage.70

Meyerhold’s Constructivist Style on Display in L’argent Meyerhold’s prerevolutionary theater experiments provide a rich resource for understanding Breson’s aesthetic, but additional connections to L’a rgent emerge in Meyerhold’s Constructivist collaborations. In Meyerhold’s production of Fernand Crommelynck’s The Magnamious Cuckold (1922), the human body is reduced to a series of mechanical operations that are integrated into the operation of the larger machine towering above it, emphasizing the factory setting and anonymity of performers. The play overtly displays a number of Constructivist themes: the use of matching work overalls in place of theatrical costumes, which were worn even while rehearsing the exercises; a large number of performers onstage at the same time; chiaroscuro lighting that projects giant shadows on the back wall to amplify the importance of the machine; and the use of red, black, and white circular and rectangular forms to decorate the ladder, wheels, and doors of the apparatus. Each performer holds a pose that is unique, but each gesture also seems to function in calculated response to every other gesture, as if capturing the various moments in a continuum. The performance is thus simultaneously individual and collective, the individual always positioned within the totality of all the other actors and events occurring on stage. Bresson’s attention to insignificant details equally suggests that each component of the film extends and reformulates the whole, rather than already belonging to a preestablished structure. Sémolué’s description of Bresson’s approach even suggests such an alliance with Constructivism:

70 Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold, 95.

The Design and Pat tern of the Whole


The film’s wholeness exists and has value only according to the connections between parts; parts only have value according to their position in the whole. Still shots only reveal the beauty of their framing and composition: Bresson says that they are “frozen.” Warmth, life itself, circulates in the relationships, and in the joints.71

Sémolué unknowingly formulates a definition of Soviet montage precisely as I present Kuleshov’s work in this chapter: individual, static film shots are only important insofar as they are brought together into a larger, dynamic whole. The act of juxtaposing such images in the editing process brings the various still shots to life. By using the word “joints” to describe Bresson’s technique, Sémolué also invokes François Delsarte, who views the body’s joints as important energy centers when deciding on appropriate poses. The word equally invokes Kuleshov’s method of cutting the body into a series of individual parts, quite literally in his “created man” experiment in which the parts of different bodies are stitched together to create one model actor. By 1917, Vladimir Gardin, the director of fiction film at the Russian state film school (VFKO), introduces a new type of actor, who is not influenced by theatrical techniques and allows for new experiment in cinema. Gardin stresses the actor’s physiognomy, and on fragmenting the body into a series of shots to emphasize the “independence of limbs from one another”.72 Montage thus emerges as an effort to convert theatrical performance into “the expressive movements of the parts of the actor’s body and to the condition of objects symbolizing the actions of man”.73 The montage strategies of Bresson and Kuleshov are designed to strip the body of intentionality or affect, so that it becomes interchangeable with any other object: “[Kuleshov] hoped montage would transform the body into the condition of a still object, like any other prop on the screen.”74 Bresson’s L’argent shares a number of stylistic commonalities with Meyerhold’s foray into Constructivism. Most noticeably, Bresson’s characters are frequently dressed either in overalls, industrial work suits, or uniforms. A character’s individuality is removed such that he or she is viewed in terms of the work’s impersonal rhythms and movement. When Yvon is first seen, 71 Sémolué, Bresson ou l’acte pure, 277. 72 Quoted in Yampolsky, “Kuleshov’s Experiment,” 38. 73 Ibid. 74 Preston, Modernism’s Mythic Pose, 59, 93. Delsartism (1880-1920) was viewed as a form of self-improvement for upper-class women that involved assuming various classical poses drawn from sculpture and painting. Preston argues for a genealogy from Delsartian semiotics of gesture to modern dance and film technologies of posed bodies.


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he delivers oil in a green jumpsuit, and is subsequently seen in the same green uniform as other prison inmates. Even when he is unemployed or out of prison, Yvon is clad in a blue shirt and brown khaki pants, which suggests a uniform. Other characters are dressed similarly: Yvon’s wife Élise is introduced wearing a light blue maid’s smock; Lucien is in a white lab coat; the police and prison guards are dressed in blue caps and matching uniforms; male inmates wear green wool suits often over a blue shirt, while female inmates wear identical one-piece blue smocks; and the nurses and doctors wear white uniforms. The jobs held by characters in L’a rgent are almost always indicated by what they wear. A character’s clothing is one of the most important themes of L’a rgent. Bourgeois characters wear bright colors and distinctive patterns, such as the striped, floral dress with a large red and yellow broach and matching earrings worn by the woman who visits the photography store, and who would seem to have no other function in the film than to display her outfit. While bourgeois characters wear haute couture, working-class characters and prisoners are almost always seen in interchangeable uniforms. In contrast to previous Bresson films in which the central characters almost never change clothes, L’a rgent is rife with scenes in which characters change or have just changed. The viewer is provided no images of Yvon’s act of murder at the Hotel Moderne, but Bresson instead captures Yvon’s elaborate act of folding and packing his bloody pants into a small satchel, suggesting that such an act enables him to remain free. Lucien’s reward for falsely accusing Yvon in court is an envelope of money from his boss to purchase that “new attractive suit” he has long wanted. Lucien’s predilection for fine clothing is sarcastically brought up later by the judge when Lucien returns to court for thievery. His deceit is connected to his obsession with elegant clothing, suggesting that – to remain bourgeois – one must buy expensive clothes with money that has been dishonestly obtained. Such examples illustrate the way Bresson links the changing of clothes to a character’s transformation in identity. Meyerhold shares Bresson’s emphasis on clothing, and especially the desire to dress his actors in matching clothes.75 Terming this tendency “multiple uniformity”, Marjorie Hoover discusses a scene from Gerhart Hauptmann’s Schluck and Jau performed in 1905, in which Meyerhold, “offered not a crowd of differentiated individuals [...] but instead a bevy of court ladies, dressed alike and seated in a straight line across the forestage 75 Meyerhold’s prerevolutionary work exhibits many Constructivist attributes avant le lettre. Braun mentions that Meyerhold’s “style in the ‘twenties had its roots far back in his studio experiments in Petersburg before 1917”. See Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold, 130.

The Design and Pat tern of the Whole


Fig. 4.15. A Constructivist performance: six women in matching blue smocks in L’argent simulta­neously reach into the blue laundry basket in a coordinated exercise of movement, gesture, and color.

[...] each in an identical bower, all embroidering on the same broad ribbon”.76 One can see a similar principle at work in the prison mess hall sequence of L’a rgent, in which a group of prisoners of nearly the same size and dress enter with the same choreographed movement and sit down at the same time.77 By minimizing character differences in dress and behavior, both directors shift attention from such classical concerns as character development to compositional concerns including movement, gesture, line, color, and costume. The f irst prison mail room scene in L’argent emphasizes “multiple uniformity” just as emphatically as the prison mess hall scene. The scene begins when a blue mail basket in the center of the previous scene is placed in the center of the table, where six women dressed in matching blue smocks sit equidistant from one another. At this moment, all six women stand up, reach into the basket simultaneously with one hand, then sit back down, as if performing an orchestrated dance performance (Figure 4.15). Each woman places one hand flat on the table, leans forward, and lowers the other hand into the blue basket. Most of the women on the left side 76 Hoover, Meyerhold: The Art of Conscious Theatre, 24. 77 This scene alludes to the mess hall prison scene in Chaplin’s Modern Times, which is equally structured around the coordinated rhythm and mechanical movement of prisoners. Especially similar between L’argent and Modern Times is the way prisoners march into and out of the mess hall in single file, and the way the Tramp tricks the bully into giving up the piece of bread by changing the expected repetition.


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of the frame use their left hands to reach in, while most of the women on the right use their right hands. Such rhythmic coordination of body and hand movement ensures that the complex action can be captured in one instantaneous moment. Price accurately observes that “Bresson makes no effort to describe or individualize the women in the mail room. Their uniforms are the same, and their heads and legs are clipped by the edges of the frame”.78 As a result, the viewer focuses much more exclusively on the blue basket, on the circulation of mail, and on the women’s movements and gestures, rather than on any of them as distinct beings. For Price, such dehumanization is a way to illustrate the exploitative nature of the prison complex. However, Bresson’s tendency to film only part of a character’s body, or to privilege such objects as laundry baskets over people, is hardly unique to this scene or film, any more than his propensity to sequester a character in a real or metaphorical prison. As Susan Sontag presciently phrases it in 1964, Bresson’s films all “have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty”.79 Another Bresson strategy to achieve a pervasive sense of anonymity and uniformity is to orchestrate a crowd scene in which every member seems to share the same political or philosophical belief. An actor takes a highly scripted, polemical position in a series of outbursts between strangers in a public space, as if the crowd functions like the chorus of a Greek play in collectively expressing the plight of the protagonist. Two such scenes occur in Le diable probablement. The first takes place inside a cathedral when several members of an immobile tableau of parishioners argue about the Catholic Church’s relevance to a representative standing before them. Sharp, emphatic notes are played on the church organ to punctuate each outburst, as if the words and sounds have been choreographed together. The second incident occurs on a bus, in which, in response to an argument between Charles and Michel about the way governments deceive the general populace, other passengers hijack the debate, emphatically exclaiming their lines like orators at a political rally. It is unsurprising that such crowd scenes are most pronounced in the Bresson film that provides the strongest critique of modern society’s self-destructive tendencies. Just as it is no longer clear who is directing society in a world that places profits over the guardianship of the earth, Bresson uses anonymous voices to testify to how misguided modern society has become. 78 Price, Neither God nor Master, 203. 79 Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinémathèque, 1998), 63.

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A variation on the city bus scene occurs in L’a rgent in a scene involving prisoners eating together in the mess hall. A series of five men each comment in turn upon Élise’s decision to leave Yvon and speculate on a woman’s propensity to cheat. The inmates, like the public crowds in Le diable probablement, share one collective view concerning Yvon’s relationship with his wife. Each prisoner expresses his opinion with head bowed, while the camera remains at such a distance that the viewer cannot tell who is speaking among the unmoving rows of prisoners. A description of the chorus of nuns in Meyerhold’s 1906 production of Sister Beatrice might just as aptly describe the function of the crowd in Bresson’s film: Here was a crowd, a mass in which no individual led a separate life or constituted a separate character which might disrupt the essential idea and impression of the mass. Here was a unity which by its unity, by the rhythm of all its movements, poses and gestures, produced a far deeper impression than a naturalistic crowd split up into separate elements.80

The emphasis on the unity of the crowd redirects attention from the unique individual to a collective that all share the same “essential idea”. The act of dressing characters in L’a rgent in matching uniforms has this same leveling effect in which an individual is viewed in terms of the behavior of the larger collective, whether police officer, guard, or prisoner. Such crowd scenes emerge just as forcefully in Meyerhold’s orchestrated tableaux, such as the posed grief tableau found in Sister Beatrice, in which each of five women in white Grecian gowns takes on a different pose that collectively captures the emotional state of grief, as a way of emphasizing the idea of grief over the individuality of any of the women.81 Bresson stages a comparable moment in L’a rgent when the police escort Yvon out of the café. The immobile crowd of onlookers has a uniform, shared response to the event, rather than one in which individuals are given any autonomy or individuality from one another.

80 Qtd. in Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold, 65-66. 81 Ibid.


Between Constructivism and Minimalism Bresson’s Ambivalence Toward the Modern

Abstract Chapter five explores Bresson’s ambivalent attitude toward technology through the themes of Mouchette (1967), which I parallel to Walter Benjamin’s concept of technological innervation. Bresson develops a machine aesthetic that privileges the incidental rhythms, colors, and sounds of nonhuman objects over human beings in L’a rgent. I examine similarities between American Minimalist art of the 1960s and Bresson’s late films, especially the shared interest in the figure of the hand, repetition, the everyday, the inversion of public and private space, and anonymity. Such themes emerge in Bresson’s work, in the short films of Richard Serra, and in the films and dance choreography of Yvonne Rainer. I argue that Rainer and Bresson develop an anti-theatrical, anti-expressive style that has its origins in Minimalist art. Keywords: anti-theatrical, machine aesthetic, Minimalism, public vs. private space, Richard Serra, Yvonne Rainer

Despite numerous indications of a Constructivist style in Bresson’s late films discussed in chapter four, Bresson’s work equally shows a close affiliation with American Minimalism. While French critics have tended to focus on Bresson’s embodied style, Anglo-American critics have instead stressed Bresson’s ascetic, Minimalist qualities. Susan Sontag’s seminal essay on Bresson’s spiritual style, for example, argues that his work is one of the most successful examples of the reflective mode in art, which stresses emotional detachment and a contemplative temperament. Although Sontag never uses the word Minimalist—instead preferring Bertold Brecht’s concept of “alienation effect”—her description closely corresponds to such

Watkins, R., Late Bresson and the Visual Arts. Cinema, Painting and Avant-Garde Experiment, Amsterdam University Press, 2018 doi 10.5117/9789462983649/ch05


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a style: reflective, passive, ascetic, and stripped of dramatic tension and the anecdotal.1 Subsequent links between Bresson and Minimalism have predominantly traveled by way of Andy Warhol. Paul Schrader finds, in both Bresson and Warhol, an interest in the everyday, a drive toward stasis, and an emphasis on boredom that prevents the spectator from becoming emotionally invested in the work. Steven Shaviro concludes that both Warhol and Bresson are “literalists of the body” because they sacrifice signification in favor of the actions and reactions of the flesh itself.2 If previous chapters have privileged the French view of Bresson as a filmmaker of the body, then this chapter instead takes up the American view of Bresson through his affiliations with the avant-garde movement of Minimalism. My comparison does not focus on Andy Warhol, however, but rather on Yvonne Rainer, whose films and dance choreographies are surprisingly close to Bresson’s constellation of interests. My claim is that, while Bresson’s films borrow from a Constructivist way of approaching art, such influences are transformed within a postwar context in which Western society has become much less sanguine about the benefits and rewards of industrial progress. Bresson’s late films and American Minimalism have a surprisingly similar response to this quintessentially modern condition. In fact, it is by exploring Bresson’s contradictory attitude toward the modern world and technology that one can see how he negotiates between Constructivism and Minimalism. This chapter therefore begins by exploring Bresson’s attitude toward the modern, before turning to his affinities with Minimalist artists of the 1960s.

Mouchette: Return to the Preindustrial, or Celebration of the New? Considerable uncertainty persists regarding Bresson’s attitude toward technology, as evident in a 2010 Bresson symposium. For Kent Jones, a technologically enhanced modern world is, “all but nonexistent in Bresson’s work [since his] films are as close as one can get to handmade”, while James Quandt counters that Bresson’s Le diable probablement is, “full of conveyances of all kinds, appliances and equipment, all very modern”.3 Jones might highlight the use of such devices as dissolves, antiquated costumes, and 1 Sontag, “Spiritual Style,” 57-71. 2 Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, 70; Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993), 241. 3 “Robert Bresson: A Symposium,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinémathèque, 2011), 621-622.

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preindustrial lanterns and lavoirs to transport the viewer to the nineteenth century. But, as Quandt points out in his response, this antiquated world coexists with a proliferation of modern tools, machines, and technologies. Bresson’s work can be read just as easily as a Luddite-like return to the preindustrial as it can be seen to document new configurations between man and machine in the modern world. In this section, I attempt to understand Bresson’s paradoxical movement between old and new better, argue that his attitude toward technology and automatism plays a significant role in what he draws from the European avant-garde, and provide several models to explain how and why he draws on the history of figuration in painting. Anti-modern tropes in Bresson’s work are amplified by a French postwar milieu in which anxieties ran high over rapid modernization and the disappearance of buildings, history, and established ways of life. Kristin Ross describes a country virulently opposed to dirt, filth, and germs orchestrated as much by an emerging cadre of French housewives, as by French soldiers who were “decontaminating” the streets of Algiers. 4 Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle (1958) satirizes this obsession with cleanliness through the character of Madame Arpel, who dusts her husband’s car even while he is driving it, or manically sanitizes her son’s body when he returns from a visit with his uncle. Bresson’s counter to this obsession with cleanliness might best be found in a figure like Mouchette, the plodding protagonist of his eponymous 1967 film, who wears tattered clothes, stomps in puddles with her oversize wooden clogs, and throws mud at the other girls in the village, the very incarnation of the anti-modern impulse. Mouchette has certainly lost what Marie-Claire refers to in 1955 as “the hygiene battle”: the one who cannot be cleaned up, anymore than the Algerian foreigner can be improved.5 Mouchette thus provides a portrait of recalcitrance against the streamlined efficiency of modern production. On the surface, such examples suggest that Bresson’s work clings as tenaciously as Mouchette to an agrarian past in the face of tumultuous change. Connected to the obsession with cleanliness is a new focus on privatization, since commodities are increasingly used in the privacy of the home at the expense of communication with one’s neighbors. For Ross, such privatization leads to the destruction of an individual’s political socialization, “such that one experiences public or even social matters not only as hostile or foreign but also as out of one’s grasp, unlikely to be affected by 4 Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996). 5 Ibid., 86.


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one’s actions”.6 Bresson’s protagonists find themselves precisely in this predicament: outcasts crippled by a modern world that no longer allows for any access to public exchange. The wife in Une femme douce increasingly withdraws into monastic isolation, leading to her eventual suicide. Michel in Pickpocket channels his desire for money into risky acts of public exchange, as if hijacking the capitalist project by creating a space for his own private desires. Kent Jones compares the behavior of Bresson’s models to the way people interact in all modern, urban settings: The way that Bresson films the man who walks up and down the prison courtyard in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé is so temperamentally and physically close to the way that people hold one another’s images as they walk through the streets of Manhattan or Paris or Los Angeles— discreetly, secretively, yet fully.7

Bresson’s imperturbable models thus depict the alienation that every individual faces in navigating the lack of privacy, anonymity, and sensory excess that characterizes modern public space. Bresson’s films, however, are just as invested in the premodern as they are in the promise and spectacle of the machine, and Mouchette functions as a particularly instructive example of such contradiction. Bresson seems to encourage an anti-modern reading of the film, especially evident in the flash of headlights and roar of trucks that rumble past Mouchette’s home during the night, depicting the world of industry as a perpetual danger to her and her family. The bumper car sequence would seem to present a similar moment of dehumanization: a montage of electric cars that violently collide with her car from a series of unexpected angles, with counter-shots of her agitated face. However, that event instead produces Mouchette’s only smile in the film, and leads to a rare tender moment between her and a young boy. It is as if the fierce impact between metal surfaces leads to the temporary relaxation of Mouchette’s otherwise impenetrable shell. The juxtaposition between metallic surface and human flesh is a repeated trope in Bresson’s work as a way of highlighting the imbrication of human and mechanical realms. Other such examples would include the large reflective elevator doors in Le diable probablement; the elevator doors in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur that prevent a physical encounter between Marthe and the 6 Ibid., 106. 7 Kent Jones, “A Stranger’s Posture: Notes on Bresson’s Late Films,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinémathèque, 2011), 518.

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lodger; and the extreme close-up of an ATM during the opening credits of L’argent, in which a steel window shuts just as the film begins. Lancelot du lac provides the most sustained exploration of this theme, since the film is built on contrasting texture between hard armored surface and hidden soft flesh beneath. This dynamic indicates the extent to which Bresson draws on avant-garde interwar art to conceive of his model as a human-machine hybrid as discussed by Hal Foster in Prosthetic Gods, positioned as it is between organic and mechanical worlds.8 Bresson’s preoccupation with the machine is evident, not only in the model as automaton, but equally in the attention to the noise that machines make, especially the sound of electric motors, vehicles, boats, and other mechanical apparatuses that drown out human voices. The soundtrack in the Musée national d’art moderne scene in Une femme douce consists of the sustained, monotonous drone of Nicholas Schöffer’s Lux 1 kinetic sculpture. A shot of the hallway outside Yvonne’s prison cell in L’a rgent is constructed around the loud hum of an electric floor buffer. Michel Chion describes a similar low muffled engine noise emanating from the bateau-mouche tourist boats that travel up and down the Seine in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, which he terms the “voice of the Ancestor”, equating the boat’s whale-like animistic moans to the rhombus, an African ceremonial instrument used in religious ceremonies.9 Not only are such sounds made by nonhuman objects much more captivating than human voices, but, as Chion notes, it is in fact the inhuman, machine frequencies that lead to higher spiritual awareness.

Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Technological Innervation How do we explain the contradiction in Bresson’s work between a strong attraction to automatism and a distrust of the modern? Walter Benjamin struggled with this same contradiction in the 1920s. Through his notion of technological innervation, Benjamin focuses on an individual’s neurophysiological adaptations to the modern world to extend the human sensorium.10 8 I discuss Bresson’s relationship to the avant-garde through Foster’s notion of “prosthesis” in the introduction to this book. See Foster, Prosthetic Gods. 9 Chion, The Voice in Cinema, 84. 10 Hansen, Cinema and Experience, 132. In Hansen’s view, Benjamin’s concept of innervation partly originates in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics and the idea of producing emotion through movement. See Miriam Hansen, “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street,” Critical Inquiry 25 (Winter 1999): 318. Rutherford builds on Hansen’s reading of mimetic innervation to


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Any return to the preindustrial self is therefore impossible because the apparatus has already been integrated into human consciousness. As a result, the path to overcome the alienation and anesthetization of modern society is not to avoid new technologies, but rather to point out the ways they have become incorporated into the human psyche.11 The cinema holds particular promise because the relationship between man and machine is not expressed in the destructive fashion of war or capitalist-industrial society, but rather in empowering, imaginative manifestations. By making visible our technologically altered and expanded physis, film creates a new form of consciousness, evident, for example, in the way Charlie Chaplin internalizes the apparatus to reveal both modernity’s repressed pathologies and its artistic possibilities.12 One example of mimetic innervation is the child’s relationship to his or her surroundings, since children do not distinguish between human and nonhuman forms, or animate and inanimate objects: “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher, but also a windmill and a train.”13 Children remove objects from an instrumental destination and reconfigure them according to a new logic that closely resembles the defamiliarization process of the Surrealist fetish.14 Bresson’s work is similarly based on animating the inanimate object, whether Yvon’s ax, soup skimmer, or drinking cup in L’argent, such that it becomes an extension of human bodily perception. In this respect, Bresson’s project is substantially the same as Eisenstein’s belief in the mystical qualities of the machine, which leads to a “direct appeal to sensation, touch, and life”.15 Eisenstein’s ecstatic montage style in The General Line has the most in common with the primitive superstitions to which they are ostensibly being contrasted. The pyrotechnical spectacle of Nicolas Schöffer’s Lux 1 might be compared to the magical cream-separator sequence in The General Line, which includes shots of water jets, waterfalls, and flashes of lightening. The marvels of technology ironically resemble the supernatural miracles of the ancient world. Through the magic of sound and montage editing, both Bresson and move beyond the irreconcilable contradictions presented by embodied approaches to cinema. See Anne Rutherford, What Makes a Film Tick?: Cinematic Affect, Materiality and Mimetic Innervation (Pieterlen, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2011), 37-141. 11 Ibid., 325. 12 Ibid., 151, 159. 13 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, ed. Michael Jennings, et. al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 720. 14 Hansen, Cinema and Experience, 150. 15 Rancière, Film Fables, 43.

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Eisenstein indicate the degree to which mechanical processes are indivisible from human perception. Bresson describes a similar process in the way he regulates a model’s behavior such that all emotion is so internalized that the person moves and acts as a machine. Such constriction ironically brings the model back to life, because “the mechanical makes living [ faire vivre]”.16 The fluid interchange between human and machine thus permits a new human consciousness to emerge. Paralleling Benjamin’s notion of innervation, Bresson aggressively rejects the capitalist-imperialist project to master nature—evident in the themes of Le diable probablement—but views cinema as the venue for alternative representations of man and technology. Bresson thus reimagines existing commodified relationships by focusing on the relationship between sound, light, color, rhythm, and form as produced by the machine, whether a bateau-mouche, floor waxer, city bus, or kinetic light sculpture. In this way, technology is not necessarily sterile or harmful, but rather playful and therapeutic through the integration of man and machine. Benjamin might therefore interpret the modern windshield wipers described by André Bazin in Les dames de Bois de Boulogne as being freed from their instrumental role within the film through rhythm, sound, repetition, and form to reveal a secret, fetishistic life. In this way, Bresson shifts attention from the efficiency and productivity of the modern machine to its aesthetic beauty as a sound and light display in an austere environment stripped of capitalist fantasy or dream.

The Machine Aesthetic: Body as Inanimate Object in L’argent Constructivists ascribe poetry and beauty to the process of creating mechanical, mass-produced objects. Such a utilitarian attitude is on display in what Vlada Petric terms the “machine aesthetic” of Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1926), especially in “shots of stopping and starting machines, handles being pulled, levers falling, cigarettes being packaged, and ore being mined”.17 Vertov parallels the rhythmic movements of the machine to those of the human being, evident in the scene in which a factory worker molds cigarette labels around a wooden box at an increasingly faster rate, her movements synchronized to a montage of assembly lines as a cog in the new industrial Soviet Union. Vertov’s marriage of human and machine is 16 Weyergans, Robert Bresson ni vu ni connu, 1965. 17 Petric, Constructivism in Film, 7.


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mirrored in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s The Magnanimous Cuckold, in the way Lyubov Popova transforms a watermill into an ungainly apparatus in which the giant wheels, disk and windmill sail, “all revolved at varying speeds as a kinetic accompaniment to the fluctuating passions of the characters”.18 Much as Bresson shifts the focus from a person to an object in order to amplify a character’s emotional state – for example, when Yvon’s anger is projected onto the frenetic movement of a soup skimmer in L’a rgent as it slides across the floor – Meyerhold matches the intensity of human passion to the movement and speed of the apparatus. The rhythms of the working man are thus not only synchronized to that of the machine, as Vertov insists, but, in an even more radical gesture, human emotion is reflected in the degree of activity of surrounding objects. Bresson provides his most literal example of human as machine when Yvon is transported to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Price perceptively notes that it is not Yvon, but rather “the apparatus itself that becomes important in this scene”.19 Rather than providing shots of Yvon when the scene begins, the camera focuses on the activity and sounds of the machines that keep him alive: the high-pitched beeping of the electrocardiograph monitor, the ventilator that rhythmically gasps as it pumps oxygen, and a disembodied nurse’s hand that adjust knobs on a control panel from below the frame. Much like the light and sound spectacle of Nicolas Schöffer’s Lux 1 in Une femme douce, these machines are charged with dynamic energy, color, and sound, while the humans either appear to have been sedated, or quite literally are in the case of Yvon, who recovers from a valium overdose. While, for Price, the scene illustrates, “the biopolitical control of the lower classes” in the way Yvon’s life is autocratically controlled, the representation is very much in keeping with Bresson’s other depictions of interactions between man and machine.20 The hospital scene therefore seems less of a polemic about societal control as Price suggests than one effort among many in Bresson’s oeuvre to shift attention from living body to inanimate object. Bresson either focuses on objects that have a tenuous connection to the human in L’argent, such as suitcases and blankets, or he presents the human as being a component of a larger machinic process. Yvon is first introduced to the spectator, for example, not through shots of his face, but rather through elliptical body shots that participate in the activity of delivering oil, much like shots of the woman who assembles cigarette cartons in The Man with 18 Meyerhold, Meyerhold on Theater, 184. 19 Price, Neither God Nor Master, 203. 20 Ibid.

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a Movie Camera. What remains important is how a body part contributes to a particular activity being performed, rather than an intact, autonomous body independent of such activity. Bresson provides a similarly organized sequence of shots when the widow digs potatoes: only shots of her feet and hands are provided as she pushes the pitchfork into the furrowed ground. In both scenes, neither Yvon’s face nor the widow’s is revealed until the actor moves into an interior space, whether it is the photographer’s shop, or the widow’s house. This filmmaking style reinforces the Constructivist idea that the human is a component of a larger process, and encourages a direct experience of delivering oil or of digging potatoes as feet and hands engage in that event, rather than the way that event might be subsequently organized or understood. The way to think about L’argent is therefore not in terms of Yvon’s relationships with other people, but rather through his relationship to a series of inanimate objects, including soup skimmer, drinking cup, getaway car, and ax, which create the dramatic moments of the film. When Yvon reacts to the taunts of other inmates by grabbing the soup skimmer, the camera no longer remains with him, despite a heated confrontation with the prison guard, but rather follows the skimmer as Yvon slings it across the room. Bresson privileges the ambient sounds and movement of the object, especially the scraping noises of the skimmer as it slides across the surface of the concrete floor, wobbles back and forth, and comes to a complete rest. A similar pattern is followed when Yvon is placed in solitary confinement. The viewer hears a rhythmic, intermittent grinding of what seems to be a mechanical process, but Bresson provides neither a counter-shot of Yvon nor a shot of the source of the sound. In the subsequent ten-second shot, Yvon is shown dragging a metal cup back and forth across the concrete floor through long sweeping movements of his arm. In the case of both the skimmer and the cup, Bresson conveys Yvon’s emotional state through his relationship to an object. In commenting on the skimmer scene, Pipolo observes that, “an object reverberat[es] with the inchoate rage that consumes the character”, suggesting that Yvon’s explosive anger is displaced onto the frenzied activity of the skimmer.21 Kuleshov identifies a related process of transference when a viewer’s emotion is projected onto the face of Ivan Mosjoukine as he gazes at objects or people in a series of eyeline matches. In a montage process that reverses the direction of the transference, such that, instead of an emotion such as joy, hunger, or lust traveling toward the character and being projected onto 21 Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, 344.


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Mosjoukine’s face, Yvon’s anger is instead displaced in a subsequent shot away from him and onto the skimmer, or his anguish is transferred to the sound and movement of a metal cup. Bresson thus suggests that the spectator creates connections between shots even when no counter-shot of a human face is provided. This approach is not confined to the depiction of Yvon, since all characters in L’argent are defined by their relationships to the objects they handle. The widow’s pain and humiliation at being slapped by her father is expressed through a bowl of coffee that splashes over her fingers. Emotion is in this way anchored in the materiality of objects. When a glass of wine falls off the piano while the widow’s father plays Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Bresson explores the materiality of the space through a close-up of the wood floor, and the amplified sound the soft sponge makes as it moves across a hard surface to pick up pieces of glass. Between the shot of the shattering glass and the close-up of the floor, Bresson provides little narrative explication, organizing the scene instead according to the “music, rhythm, [and] sensation” of objects themselves.22 What remains important are the incidental rhythms, colors, and sounds that objects make beyond all human involvement. Minimalist artists express much the same fascination as Constructivists with the dynamic between man, the object world, and the machine, especially the notion that the work of art should be guided according to the machine’s rhythmic regularity, efficiency, and lack of interiority. Such concerns were immediately evident for reviewers of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, in which dancers were described as displaying a “rocking, ticktock motion”, and the piece was seen as a “simulation of cogs-and-gears, cams-and-levers”.23 Thin wooden slats were dropped from a balcony to add what Rainer called a “metronome-like regularity”, focusing attention on the mechanized rhythm of the whole rather than any individual component.24 If Rainer’s work shares common themes with Constructivism, then Richard Serra’s preoccupation with the machine makes such links even more obvious. Because his father worked for commercial shipbuilders, Serra developed a fascination with the laboring 22 Michel Ciment, “Robert Bresson on L’argent,” Projections 9: French Film-makers on Filmmaking, ed. Michel Ciment, Noël Herpe, trans. Pierre Hodson (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 8. Meyerhold uses the term “music” to describe the relationship between an actor and the objects he or she grasps. In a quote that sounds very much like Bresson’s use of armor in Lancelot du lac, Meyerhold writes that objects are not as important as “the rhythmical structure and sound patterns created by the use of these objects. In the hands of the performers, these objects take on the role of musical instruments”. See Law and Gordon, Meyerhold, Eisenstein and Biomechanics, 52. 23 Carrie Lambert, “Moving Still: Mediating Rainer’s Trio A,” October 89 (Summer 1999), 90. 24 Ibid.

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body, especially as it moves on the assembly line. One of the objectives of his and Clara Weyergraf’s Steelmill/Stahlwerk (1979), a documentary on the operation of a German steel mill, is to emphasize the relationship between a product and the labor involved in making it. Steelmill’s depictions of the factory worker can be compared to Sergei Eisenstein’s last theatrical production, Gas Masks (1924), which takes place in a gas factory amidst turbines, catwalks, and machinery manned by actual workers.25 Both movements replace outdated values with a fresh perspective made possible by being as impartial and detached as the machine.26 According to Lucy Lippard, the trope of the machine is employed in Minimalist art because artists, “find in modern industrial techniques an admirable disassociation from sentimentality, from the pretty, the petty, the decadent ‘sensitivity’ and ‘good taste’ of much informal abstraction”.27 Bresson’s aesthetic shares many of these same traits, which can be summarized as the impulse to eradicate artifice in order to arrive at the fundamental relationship between a body and the objects that it uses. But, if Constructivists are optimistic about the utopian potential of joining man to machine, then the dangers of industrial society have become all too clear by the 1960s for Minimalist artists, creating much the same contradiction that emerges in Bresson’s work between a critique of industrialization and a stylistic embrace of the machine aesthetic. It is as if the stubborn obstinacy with which the Minimalist work remains unalterably wedded to the machinic harbors the very seeds of a critique.

The Hand The meeting point between human body and machine is the human hand, and both Constructivists and Minimalists frequently organize their work around the image of the hand performing work-related tasks. Petric provides a close analysis of the “Working Hands” sequence in Vertov’s Man with a 25 Law and Gordon, Meyerhold, Eisenstein and Biomechanics, 84. The failure of this play led Eisenstein to cinema and to his first film Strike (1925), much of which equally takes place in a factory. 26 Building on the insights of Enno Develing, Meyer notes that both movements, despite political differences, share a rejection of the Western classical tradition: “Just as constructivist forms implied a toppling of social hierarchy during the revolutionary period in Soviet Russia, minimal ‘wholeness’ reflected the anti-establishment impulse of ‘68.” See James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 262. 27 Lucy R. Lippard, “10 Structurists in 20 Paragraphs,” A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968, ed. Ann Goldstein (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 27.


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Movie Camera, a montage of 73 shots of hands engaged in various types of industrial labor, which he terms, “one of the major poetic, emotional, and ideological points of the entire film.”28 Vertov’s use of hands is a key indicator of a character’s relationship to the immediate surrounding world, the community, and the state. The hand might equally be viewed as the hero of Serra’s early films, many of which focus on repetitive hand tasks. The focus of Color Aid (1970-1971) is the sound and movement of the palm and fingers of a hand as it swiftly drags pieces of colored paper below the screen. The fingers then reappear atop the stack to repeat the same action. Hands Scraping (1968) is composed around the hands of Serra and Phillip Glass as they gather steel fillings from the ground in an increasingly meticulous way and transport them away until no fillings remain. In Hands Tied (1968), two wrists are wrapped together in twine, and the film captures the hands’ strenuous efforts to free themselves. In China Girl (1972), a hand repeatedly draws a thick, white, horizontal chalk line in the center of a piece of paper, drags the paper below the screen, and then creates another chalk line on a new page, closely resembling the hand’s movement in Color Aid. Because only hands are shown in each of these films, they seem detached from the rest of the body. Although it may have been helpful, for example, to use either a mouth or leg to help disentangle the twine from around the wrists in Hands Tied, only hands participate in the frantic action of trying to free themselves. The most famous Serra film is Hand Catching Lead (1968), which features a close-up of a disembodied hand that tries to catch irregular squares of lead as they are dropped into the frame from above. This hand closely resembles the extended close-up of Yvon’s hand in L’argent just after he pushes the restaurant owner into a table, as can be seen by comparing these two images (Figure 5.1). In both still shots, a hand reaches from the right side of the frame into open space with f ingers splayed, and with a similar distance between camera, hand, and far wall. Both shots highlight the hand, an observation confirmed by the insight that the light around Yvon’s hand is, “devoted to sculpting and defining the hand in space”.29 Serra’s hand is black and grimy, indicating the kind of industrial practice that interests him, while, in sharp contrast, Yvon’s hand is immaculately clean; however, Yvon’s greasy red gloves in the previous scene and his occupation as an oil deliveryman indicate a parallel concern with manual labor. The power of Hand Catching Lead lies in the contrast in texture between the hardness of falling pieces of lead and the softness of the human hand as it tries to grab them, a similar 28 Petric, Constructivism in Film, 155. 29 Kent Jones, L’argent (London: British Film Institute, 1999), 50.

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Fig. 5.1. A still from Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead (1968) above, and below, a still of Yvon’s hand in L’argent after he pushes the restaurant owner into a table.

incongruity favored by Bresson between smooth, steel surfaces, such as the ATM in L’a rgent, or the elevator doors in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur and Le diable probablement, and the vulnerability and softness of a character’s exposed flesh. Such iconographic parallels between Serra and Bresson are equally on view in the work of Yvonne Rainer. Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966), for example, consists of an extreme close-up of a human hand shown from the wrist up, and on the expressive relationship and exchange between individual fingers of that hand, much in the way that a group of five human performers might interact in a dance piece. Rainer’s Volleyball (Foot Film) (1967) captures the relationship between a volleyball, as the ball rolls, slowly rocks, or ricochets off the walls of the empty studio, and two feet in white socks and sneakers patiently track the ball through the room. Because the camera in Volleyball is pointed at the floor, it captures the body from the calves down in the same manner as many of Bresson’s shots of his models. Much like Serra’s depiction of the disembodied hand, Rainer’s human body is understood as an object of


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pure “weights and forces” that interacts with the movement of the ball, just as Yvon’s story is told through his relationship to various inanimate objects.30 It is hardly necessary to say that the hand is equally central to Bresson’s work. Gilles Deleuze insists on the unique role played by the Bresson hand in his discussion of the train station scene in Pickpocket, which, “goes infinitely beyond the sensory-motor demands of the action, even replacing the face for the purposes of affects, and becoming the mode of construction of a space adequate to the decisions of the spirit”.31 The face as the locus of affect in the movement-image has been replaced by a montage of hands in the Bressonian time-image, creating new spaces that more accurately reflect the human spirit through the movement of body parts. The way that the Bresson body controls the mind is illustrated in Michel’s inability in Pickpocket to prevent himself from stealing “a very beautiful watch”, even if it means abandoning Jeanne and Jacques at the café. The results are Michel’s bloody hands and a torn pant leg, the consequence when the desires of the hands are given free reign over the mind. As Bresson phrases it, as if commenting on this scene, “Hands are like people. They have their own intelligence and willpower. They (often) carry themselves where we do not send them. It is possible that they lead the pickpocket to places that he does not want to go.”32 It is not Pickpocket, however, but L’argent that provides the most developed interrogation of what Bresson describes as “the intelligence and willpower” of hands. Rachel Moore observes that, after murdering the widow and her family, Yvon sits in the café staring oddly at his hands as if they “have a life of their own”.33 Hands take the body to new places to perform illicit, unconscious acts that the mind contemplates with both fascination and horror, whether stealing a watch or murdering a family. For Shikehito Hasumi, L’a rgent is shot from the felt experience of hands rather than eyes, whether through money exchanges, or the frequent close-ups of handcuffs, doorknobs, tabletops, and pockets. Such shots lead him to conclude that the film is, “a story of hands and wrists revealing themselves from the ends of sleeves”.34 In L’a rgent, the emphasis is on the experience of touch over sight, especially in the way money is delicately grasped by the edges, combined 30 Lambert, “Moving Still,” 104. 31 Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2. L’image-temps (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985), 22. 32 Bresson, Bresson par Bresson: Entretiens, 103. 33 Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 114. 34 Shikehito Hasumi, “Led by the Scarlet Pleats: Bresson’s L’argent,” Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinémathèque, 2011), 540.

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with exaggerated crinkling, folding, and crunching sounds. What is unique about L’a rgent is that this privileging of hands is almost always tied to proletarian work, directly linking it to both a Constructivist aesthetic and the material basis of Minimalist art.

Yvonne Rainer’s Minimalist Aesthetic Perhaps the legitimate heir to Bresson in the 1960s is the filmmaker and dance choreographer Yvonne Rainer.35 These two artists develop a remarkably similar Minimalist approach. Rainer’s “no manifesto” articulates her early artistic aims with dance choreography: NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.36

Although Rainer attenuates the rigidity of these proclamations, her approach is remarkably close to that of Bresson as he outlines it in Notes sur le cinématographe. Erin Brannigan distills the ways in which Rainer eliminates “magic and make-believe” to four characteristics: “a suppression of spectacle in the dancer’s activity on stage, a kinetic familiarity with the corporeal performance, challenging phrasing that even[s] out dramatic crescendos and an aversion of the dancer’s gaze”.37 Bresson employs a surprisingly similar catalog of traits, especially his instructions to his models to maintain an anti-theatrical, anti-expressive style, not to consciously “act” but allow the body to react to situations, to avoid eye contact with the spectator, and to eliminate moments of drama in favor of the rhythm of the larger work. Such 35 Charlie Fox, for example, notes that the “sculptural entanglements of [Rainer’s] sleepwalking bodies betray a chronic infatuation with Robert Bresson’s f ilms”. He continues: “The longer you look at Rainer’s work, the more Bresson seems like a spectral presence stalking through it, sanctioning the wintry asceticism, the insistence on expressionless faces and the meticulous choreography of commonplace movements.¨ Charlie Fox, “Yvonne Rainer,” Frieze Magazine 166 (October 2014), (accessed 22 April 2015). 36 Yvon Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes,” Tulane Drama Review 10(2) (1965): 178. 37 Erin Brannigan, “Yvonne Rainer,” senses of cinema 27 (July 2003) http://sensesofcinema. com/2003/great-directors/rainer/ (accessed 27 January 2015).


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similarities stem in large part from the way both artists view narrative as a tyranny to be actively avoided by presenting a body stripped, not only of drama, but of all psychological motivation. Rainer’s work translates a high-art aesthetic to the realm of the everyday. Her dancers wear street clothes, incorporate such bodily noises as grunting or mumbling, and reenact such quotidian activities as speaking, walking, or running (in We Shall Run, 1963), with common household props such as swings, steps, pillows, chairs, cardboard boxes, or mattresses (in Room Service (1963) and Parts of Some Sextets (1965)).38 For Alain Bergala, the uniqueness of L’a rgent is to be found precisely in the way Bresson integrates the everyday in a novel fashion: “One cannot help but be struck […] by all the objects and gestures that one has the impression of never having seen before at the cinema: a moped, an ATM machine, the gesture of removing a label from a camera, or of handing over a bill.”39 Gestures and objects that would normally appear as background décor, in an advertisement, or in a television show, instead take center stage. Bresson’s style not only suggests the everydayness of Rainer, but, by bringing attention to mass-produced objects, he reveals a Constructivist impulse equally on display in Andy Warhol’s effort to bring into the public eye the range of neglected objects that Abstract Expressionists ignore, including, “comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles”.40 Bresson and Rainer, however, resist Warhol’s fascination with the icon as fetish, since their objects are instead sites of emptiness and absence. Just as Rainer shifts attention to a mattress being taken off and on set during a performance, or a suitcase being carried across the stage in Lives of Performers (1972), Bresson seems especially interested in L’argent in containers that hold personal effects, especially suitcases, briefcases, leather satchels, woven baskets, pocketbooks, wheelbarrows, and plastic bins. In the prison bus debarkation scene, suitcases are placed in the center of the shot and remain by themselves for an extended time before being reunited with their owners. A suitcase is at the center of another scene when Lucien and his two friends transport a large brown suitcase through Parisian subway tunnels. The power of the scene is based on the discrepancy between the 38 Moore compares the widow’s repetitive daily chores in L’argent to the behavior of dancers in Rainer’s “The Mind is a Muscle” dance piece Trio A. See Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic, 117. 39 Alain Bergala, “Bresson, L’argent et son spectateur,” Cahiers du cinéma 348-349 (June-July 1983): 8. 40 Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980): 3.

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Fig. 5.2. Outside human time: the clothing and personal effects of Yvon placed in a room with the effects of other prisoners, underscoring the importance of objects and containers detached from human life.

viewer’s knowledge of the stolen contraband in the suitcase, and public passersby who have no idea what is inside, emphasizing the tenuous link between public and private, as well as between an inanimate object and its human owner. Blankets play a similar role to suitcases in a 36-second sequence in which a guard wraps Yvon’s personal effects into a green blanket and carries it through the prison to a storage room. The long take of rows of personal effects inside identical green blankets suggests that they are also waiting in this abandoned room, much as the suitcases wait for their owners in the courtyard. In an exploration of the public-private dichotomy that haunts L’a rgent, Bresson presents traces of the human through the objects that prisoners handle, rather than presenting the prisoners themselves (Figure 5.2). Barbara Rose’s discussion of the central characteristics of the Minimalist movement reveals close parallels to Bresson. Minimalist artists rely on repetition to establish “a measured, rhythmic beat in the work”. 41 Rose’s example of such repetition is Andy Warhol’s silk screen reproductions of such objects as a Brillo soap pad box, which creates exact replicas through mechanical reproduction, paralleling the Constructivist interest in artwork produced by the machine. Bresson’s work is similarly based on staging the 41 Barbara Rose, “ABC Art,” Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 289.


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same event multiple times, with slight variations in each iteration. The concern with repetition and rhythm originates in Constructivism, and, even more specifically, in Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of vertical montage, in which scenes do not follow one another in a logical or temporal order, but are rather layered on top of one another to highlight patterns of repetition. The spectator therefore establishes a “relationship of resemblance and difference between shots and sequences, rather than one of connections and continuity”.42 Au hasard Balthazar, for example, consists of five parallel stories loosely based on the Christian concept of the seven capital sins, each of which focuses on a different sin.43 The tournament scene in Lancelot du lac is similarly built on eight mini-sequences, each of which is composed of eight to twelve shots organized according to the same sequence of shots: a bagpipe plays the opening refrain, the war banner is hoisted on a white pole to reveal the colors of Lancelot’s adversary, Lancelot’s horse is positioned at the edge of the field, two knights gallop toward each other, Lancelot’s adversary is thrown from his horse, and Gauvain and Artus pronounce Lancelot’s name. Bresson thus creates a rhythm based on iterations of nearly the same event. 44 While repetition resembles Eisenstein’s vertical montage, it can be even more closely linked to American Minimalist art, since the work is not seen as a forward-progressing narrative, but rather as a collection of nearly identical parts that insists upon a perpetual return to the same location. Secondly, Rose notes that the banal and the everyday are emphasized over the exotic or unusual. As part of this movement, the personal and the public become inverted, such that what was once private (“nudity or sex” for example) becomes public, and what was once in the public arena of art (including “emotions, opinions, intentions”), is now private.45 Bresson similarly inverts the realms of public and private, such as a scene in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur in which Jacques plays a tape-recording on a public bus of himself erotically repeating his lover’s name as two strangers look on in bewilderment. Rose also observes that Minimalist works of art are often preoccupied with death, even functioning as a memento mori for the viewer. Perhaps the theme of death is a way to underscore the pure materiality of the artistic object, such as a Robert Morris sculpture of a rotating iron coffin 42 Provoyeur, Le cinéma de Robert Bresson, 89. 43 Ibid., 90. 44 Colin Burnett discusses a handful of additional Bresson examples of what he describes as slight rhythmic variations in repeated “archetypal rituals”. See Burnett, The Invention of Robert Bresson, 216-233. 45 Rose, “ABC Art,” 293.

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created for his own death. Because Une femme douce is organized around the dead body of the gentle woman, the film functions as a memento mori for the viewer. The dead body becomes the ultimate indication of a return to the materiality of the object itself rather than an idea of that object, a connection evident in the way Bresson’s gentle woman can be compared to Jean Fautrier’s death masks. Finally, Minimalism provides a renunciation of the world that connects to the mission of the mystic: “detachment, renunciation, and annihilation of ego and personality”. 46 Rose turns to the example of Dan Flavin, a Minimalist artist who trained for the priesthood, terms his work “icons,” gives them explicitly religious titles, and illuminates them using fluorescent colored light. 47 Bresson’s work equally invokes a strong connection to religious and spiritual renunciation, evident in previously discussed parallels to Byzantine icons. Rather than attempt to explore all of Rose’s characteristics of Minimalism in relationship to Bresson, I concentrate on the reversal of intimate private and anonymous public space, which is a key strategy in both Rainer’s work and Bresson’s films. Bresson’s films chronicle the loss of a protagonist’s private life as he or she becomes increasingly absorbed in the public realm, which is especially evident in the case of Yvon who loses his family and has nothing “private” left in his life once released from prison. And it is the unclear separation between private and public when Lucien and the store owner claim that they have never previously met Yvon that triggers a sequence of increasingly desperate events, so that Yvon’s fate hangs on the question of whether he can prove he has met people who pretend to be strangers. Lambert-Beatty discovers much the same theme in Rainer’s choreography, since Minimalism, “address[es] itself to subjects understood not as private, internal consciousnesses, but as temporal, public, intersubjective subject-bodies”.48 The Minimalist response is as free of human judgment as the objects and processes that it depicts. Perhaps the clearest example in Bresson’s work of inserting private thoughts into the public sphere can be seen in the way he employs a crowd of people who engage in the same conversation, share the same set of beliefs, and stand as one collective voice, whether strangers on a bus, in a church, or in prison. Such scenes project the private belief of one individual onto an anonymous collective, thus transforming it into public spectacle. 46 Ibid., 296. 47 Ibid. 48 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Lives of Performers and the Trouble with Empathy,” Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema, ed. Ted Perry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 304-305.


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Bresson also dismantles Yvon’s private realm by preventing him from forming private relationships with other characters, since authentic interactions are replaced at important moments in the plot with the transmission and reading of letters. 49 Much of L’a rgent, in fact, is concerned with the circulation of letters, second only to money in changing hands: Lucien’s letter to the photography shop returning the money that he stole, and greeted with an anger that no doubt leads to his imprisonment; Yvon’s “return to sender” letters to Élise that accumulate while he is in solitary confinement; letters that are forwarded to the hospital after his suicide attempt; and finally, the two letters that are actually read, detailing such wrenching acts as the death of his daughter and Élise’s decision to leave him. The inmates, along with the spectator, are privy to the most intimate details of Yvon’s private life that he does not yet know. The display of envelopes and letters, whether placed on a hold shelf, propped up next to a hospital bed, or revealed in an over the shoulder shot, mobilizes one of Bresson’s key themes in L’a rgent, which is the use of an object that contains traces or remnants of the human, equally evident in Bresson’s shots of blankets and suitcases. The coordinated activities of the female mail room inmates not only suggest the anonymity and uniformity of Constructivism, but equally reveal the Minimalist interest in repetition. In a rare pan that takes place after the initial mail sorting scene, one women picks up a blue envelope addressed to Yvon, and hands it to a second women, who gives it to a third woman, who then passes it to a fourth woman. Bresson includes this full chain of exchanges between letter and hands, as if capturing the movement, dislocation, and storage of the letter, as well as the repetition of the same action as it touches a new hand, is more important than its contents. The camera follows another activity that is also repeated four times. A fixed camera has been positioned between a blue bus and the steps of a prison building. A series of four men in handcuffs then disembark from the bus in single file, led by a different prison guard who pulls on a black leash attached to a prisoner’s handcuffs. On his way into the prison, each prisoner picks up a suitcase, satchel bag, or cardboard box that has been placed between the van and building. This same activity is later repeated three times when Lucien arrives at the prison, and Bresson uses the same camera angle. Price is right to describe the first disembarkation scene as a performance that has 49 Bresson uses the written document to deflate narrative tension in a handful of f ilms, especially Le Journal d’un curé de campagne, in which viewers watch the priest document in his journal what is equally witnessed.

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a mechanized quality “reminiscent of an assembly line”,50 especially in the way the repetition of the same act suggests the mechanization of the human body. But I do not go as far as Price by concluding that Bresson equates the catching and feeding of criminals to the exploitation characteristic of the meat-packing industry. Instead, such sequences maintain a Minimalist, nonjudgmental tone by building a scene through a series of nearly identical activities, relying on the minute details of human gesture, and treating the intimate aspects of Yvon’s life as communal knowledge. The courtyard scene indicates a transitional space between a private realm in which the men have individuality and privacy represented by suitcases and their own clothes, to the highly public realm of prison in which everyone dresses the same, underscoring the link between clothing and communal space in L’a rgent.

“Failing to Keep the Face Together”: Striking the Minimalist Pose Yvonne Rainer provides a list of useful strategies that she employs to draw attention from narrative concerns: Where narrative seems to break down in my films is simply where it has been subsumed by other concerns, such as the resonances created by repetition, stillness, allusion, prolonged duration, fragmented speech and framing, ¨self-conscious¨ camera movement, etc. Rather than being integrated into the story, these things at times replace the story.51

Rainer and Bresson slow cinema’s forward progression to turn the work into a meditation on stillness and movement. Both artists suspend the moving image’s uninterrupted flow by presenting material from a remove that distances the viewer, whether by introducing letters, paintings, photographic portraits, tableaux vivants, or by having a character read in a monotone voice. Even Rainer’s decision to turn from dance to filmmaking reflects her desire to provide additional mediation between spectator and performer. One of the leading actresses schooled in Delsartian performance was Louise Brooks, who develops a restrained, gestural style of acting reminiscent of statue posing, on full display in her role as Lulu in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928).52 Rainer’s 50 Price, Neither God nor Master, 202. 51 Yvonne Rainer, A Woman Who… Essays, Interviews, Scripts (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 156. 52 Preston, Modernism’s Mythic Pose, 89-90.


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dance piece “In the College” (1972) and her film The Lives of Performers (1972) use production stills from Pandora’s Box to create a series of tableaux vivants based on Brook’s character, alluding to Delsarte and the dynamic between posing and spontaneous movement. The final twelve minutes of the film features 35 tableaux vivants, each about 20 seconds in duration. Unlike the flatly lit scenes and ordinary clothing that characterize the rest of the film, the tableaux vivants shots use carefully defined chiaroscuro lighting and elaborate period costumes. Similarly, Rainer’s Film of a Woman Who (1974) relies on photographs and tableaux vivants of actors in fixed poses. Shots at the ocean are characterized by a series of 30-second posed still shots of a husband, wife, and daughter, who shift from one pose to the next. Bresson has the same anti-narrative approach as Rainer, and employs many of the same techniques, including self-conscious strategies of framing, the use of sparse, fragmented or artificial speech, repetition, stillness, and allusion to other artworks. In this section, I examine parallels between Rainer and Bresson in the way they allude to other works of art in order to draw attention away from story. While such allusions are transparent in Rainer’s work, Bresson is less overt. When Martial offers Norbert the forged five hundred Franc bill at the start of L’a rgent, for example, a rather unlikely sequence is inserted: Norbert examines Martial’s photo album of artworks of famous nudes in the history of art. In the next scene, the boys travel to the photography store, as if Norbert’s collection of nude portraits influences their decision to purchase a picture frame because they are thinking about the framed body. In this scene, Bresson suggests a connection between the theme of counterfeiting and that of the framed, posed photograph. It is for this reason unsurprising that Bresson chooses a photography store as the site for the exchange of counterfeit money. That particular store happens to be a magnet for forgeries, since the owner rejected one false bill, but accepted two false ones, in addition to the 500 Franc bill accepted by the wife. When Lucien is fired, he brags to his friends about making identical copies of the store and safe keys, suggesting that he is just as skilled at making copies in the darkroom as reproducing keys. Bresson thus seems especially attentive to the theme of reproduction, whether of money, photographic portraits of women, or of the store’s keys. Every late Bresson film has at least one scene devoted to the artistic nude. In Une femme douce, the pawnbroker’s wife pages through a book of nudes in the history of art much like the book given to Norbert, with the difference that Lucien has placed these images in a photo album. The first church scene in Le diable probablement is structured around a stack of pornographic photographs surreptitiously inserted inside church publications. Bresson

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provides numerous examples of the female portrait in L’a rgent. When Yvon enters the back room of a café to plot a bank robbery, a young woman reclines on the couch with copies of Paris Match carefully propped against the sofa. A story about Romi Schneider directly faces the viewer, as if contrasting earlier models in the history of art to images from popular culture. The photographs of wives and girlfriends attached to the prison walls above Yvon and his roommates’ beds equally suggest the importance of photographic reproduction. Yvon has lost his wife and daughter, but a collage of their images continues to be displayed. They thus continue as reproductions, yet another strategy to distance the viewer from direct experience. One might say that each of these examples is an exploration of the constructed female pose in a variety of media. A series of scenes that take place inside the photography store in L’argent provides perhaps the most insight into Bresson’s attitude toward the art model. Bresson decorates the store with three framed photographs of semi-nude women in highly staged poses. Previous shots of the store have been organized to avoid revealing these framed portraits, as if Bresson only wants the viewer to see them at a particular moment in the narrative. When Yvon first enters the store, for example, a white pillar is strategically placed in the middle of the frame, blocking a view of the portrait. When Norbert and Martial visit, the camera is positioned between two such portraits to escape notice. The first photograph is seen only after Lucien changes the price tag on a camera in order to make money off a customer. As Lucien stands at the front desk, the first framed photograph is placed directly behind him on an all-black background, with the model’s face turned toward the camera and her body turned away. This photo is hung above a cabinet on which sits a stack of boxes in distinctive Kodak yellow, emphasizing the image as a product of reproduction. A second photograph is placed to the right of the darkroom door, of another partially nude woman who looks directly at the camera with the left side of her face in shadow and the right side fully illuminated. When Lucien emerges from the darkroom to falsely claim that he has never before seen Yvon, we see the photograph directly behind his shoulder on the far wall. The third portrait appears when Lucien and his accomplices steal money from the safe. The owners race up the staircase, and the viewer confronts a framed photograph of yet another woman in profile (Figure 5.3). The portrait in Figure 5.3 attracts the viewer’s attention for several reasons: it is the only object that decorates the landing, the woman’s head is placed at eye level and is about the same size as the other actors in the foreground, and the similar white tone between the walls and the background of the photograph make the model appear as a tableau vivant rather than a


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Fig. 5.3. The third framed photograph of a female nude performer in the photography shop, which corresponds to acts of deception, thievery, and counterfeiting.

photograph. In each of these examples, Bresson associates deception and thievery with framed portraits of women, since, at each moment that the viewer sees one of these images, Lucien is involved in a deceitful act: he lies about never before seeing Yvon; he skims money from the cash register and hides in the darkroom; and finally, he robs the owner’s safe. These photos underscore the camera’s facility at modeling and shaping the “performer”, whether that performer is Lucien, or the female actresses whose images have been reproduced as photographs. The photograph is presented as an object that is as constructed and false as forged money. Ironically, Rainer and Bresson prefer the mediated image even through they gesture toward a full return to the indexical body. Slowing down or stopping the image allows the focus to return to the body, rather than being perpetually displaced through the plentitudes of the moving image. Borrowing from Roland Barthes, Lambert argues that the ontological structure of photography allows for an indexical state in which the photo cannot be divided up into signs; it simply exists as an immediate physical presence in time. Lambert puts this idea another way in describing Rainer’s approach to Trio A: “the body’s obdurant physicality is meant to act as ballast in a ‘disintegrating’ world of insubstantial images”.53 Perhaps the best example of a Barthes’s photograph emerges as the last shot of L’a rgent when Yvon is escorted out of the bar. About fifteen people, with their heads turned 53 Lambert, Moving Still, 100.

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toward the door, stare directly at him as he walks past. But rather than turn their heads to follow Yvon’s movement, the crowd instead stays immobile, staring at the open door for an additional fifteen seconds. This last shot is a tableau vivant, with the crowd in a static, fixed pose, as if Bresson ends his own cinematic journey by gesturing to the still photograph. For Bresson and Rainer, the body ultimately replaces frenetic efforts at image-making, much in the way that Jean Fautrier creates art objects that resist representation, and, as a result, become indexical objects themselves. Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-1966) can be seen as a parallel investigation into the pose as artifice. He gives explicit instructions to his subjects not to move, speak, or blink, but remain completely immobile for three minutes while being shot in extreme close-up. According to Jonathan Flately, what Warhol actually captures, however, is not the subject’s pose, but rather the way the subject moves into and out of the pose: “What Warhol appears to be interested in is how each sitter deals with the fact that they, too, will fail to keep a coherent face together.”54 In much the same way, Rainer focuses on that moment when her performers in a tableau vivant drop the frozen posture. For Bresson, placing his models in highly constricted, artificial poses forces the actor to break through the pose to reveal his or her authentic self. Despite considerable stylistic differences, Rainer, Warhol, and Bresson are united in their shared Minimalist desire to construct a fixed and static pose, and to capture on the screen the oscillation between the dissolution and reinscription of that pose.

54 Jonathan Flatley, “Allegories of Boredom,” A Minimal Future?: Art as Object 1958-1968, ed. Ann Goldstein (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004), 73.

Illustration Credits

Figure 2.8 Jean Fautrier, Tête d’otage, no. 8 (Head of Hostage, no. 8, 1944). Oil on paper, 36 cm x 28 cm. Private collection in Geneva. Courtesy of the artist’s estate, c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam, 2018. Figure 2.14 Pierre Soulages, Peinture, 14 août, 1966. (Painting, August 14, 1966). Courtesy of the artist’s estate, c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam. Figure 2.17 Jean Fautrier Femme douce (Gentle Woman, 1946). Oil, pastel and enduit on canvas, 97 cm x 145.5 cm. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France. Courtesy of the artist’s estate, c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam, 2018. Figure 2.18 Niki de Saint-Phalle at Galerie Becker in Munich, Germany, creating the “rifle-shot” painting Drôle de mort ou Gambrinus (Funny Corpse or Gambrinus, 1963). Courtesy of the artist’s estate, c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam, 2018. Figure 2.19 Shozo Shimamoto, Holes (1954), created by gluing multiple sheets of newspaper together and tearing small, roundish holes into the surface, 89.2 cm x 69.9 cm. Courtesy of The Shozo Shimamoto Association, Naples, Italy, and Takashi and Hitomi Shimamoto. Figure 3.1 Pierre Charbonnier, Fenêtre (Window, 1955-1960). Drypoint. Courtesy of the artist’s estate, c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam, 2018. Figure 3.2 Pierre Charbonnier, Le souci de peintre (The Painter’s Concern, 1948) paper glued to hardboard, 105 cm x 75 cm. M. A.-C. Gervais, Paris. Courtesy of the artist’s estate, c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam, 2018. Figure 3.4 Giorgio de Chirico, Il bambino cervello (The Child’s Brain, 1914). Oil on canvas, 81.5 cm x 65 cm. Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm. Courtesy of the artist’s estate, c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam, 2018. Figure 3.8 Balthus’ La rue (The Street, 1933-35). Oil on canvas, 195 cm x 240 cm. James Thrall Soby Bequest, Museum of Modern Art and ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of Anna Harumi Klossowska de Rola.


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Figure 4.6 Hans Richter sample storyboard for a Malevich f ilm script. Courtesy of Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (970021).

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About the author

Raymond Watkins currently teaches at the Pennsylvania State University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature and cinema from The University of Iowa, and has published in Cinema Journal, Studies in French Cinema, and The Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Index Index note: Film titles are displayed in small capitals. Page numbers in italic refer to images. Page numbers in the form 83 n.4 refer to footnotes. 24 Hour Psycho (1993): 106 abjection: 116, 149, 154 absorption concept: 16–17 abstract art Au hasard Balthazar and action painting: 82–91 body as machine and Bresson’s automatic art: 120–26 Une femme douce, Fautrier and L’Art Informel: 116–20 Mondrian and color: 187 Quatre nuits, Klein and Soulages: 104–10 Quatre nuits and cine-nocturne: 110–16 Quatre nuits and loft as modern canvas: 91–97 Quatre nuits and tactile expression: 97–104 turn to postwar abstraction: 29, 81–82 Abstract Expressionism: 29, 62, 83 n.4, 84, 109, 117, 122, 171, 222 acinema: 148 acting: 161–62, 194–99, 201–2, 221 action painting: 82–91, 121 active light: 107 Adami, Valerio: 44 adolescent body: 153–54 adoration des bergers, L’ (Nativity) (La Tour): 76, 77–79 affaires publiques, Les (1934): 87 n.18, 129 Agamben, Giorgio: 15, 19, 145 n.35 Alberti, Leon Battista: 166 alienation: 207, 210, 212 Amélie (2001): 53 Amengual, Barthélemy: 70, 171 American Minimalism: 26, 28–31, 207–8, 224; see also Minimalism Amiel, Vincent: 70–72, 100, 130, 156–57, 165, 196 Anachronic Renaissance (Nagel): 17 anachronism: 11–13, 18, 72, 172 Anderson, Paul Thomas: 59 Andrei Rublev (1966): 61 Andrew, Dudley: 53 anges du péché, Les (1943): 116 animals: 30, 41–49, 156, 158–59, 166–67 Annales school: 12–14 année dernière à Marienbad, L’ (1961): 48 Annunication (Piero della Francesca): 38, 64, 64 anonymity: 28, 204, 226 Antonioni, Michelangelo: 36, 57, 92

apparition de l’ange à saint Joseph, L’ (The Dream of Saint Joseph) (La Tour): 78 Aragon, Louis Irène: 142 Le paysan de Paris: 30, 139–41 Surrealism: 130, 136, 143 argent, L’ (1983) avant-garde experiment: 20, 24–25, 28, 30 Bresson’s debt to painting: 37–38 Constructivism: 161, 185 n.47, 188–94, 197–98, 201–5 Constructivist color and geometry: 188–94 figures: 190, 196, 203, 219, 223, 230 the hand: 218–21 machine aesthetic and the body: 214–16 and Meyerhold’s Constructivist style: 201–5 Minimalism: 211–12, 214–16, 218–23, 229–31 Rainer’s Minimalist aesthetic: 222–23, 225–27 striking the Minimalist pose: 229–31 Surrealism: 133–34, 145, 155–57 technological innervation: 212 Aristote, Anne-Elia: 92 Arnaud, Philippe: 83–84 Artaud, Antonin: 159 “art cruel, L’” (Cassou): 152 n.63 art history: 11, 12 n.10, 13, 16, 107 Art Informel, L’: 26, 29, 82, 95, 97, 109, 117, 117 n.85, 122 A tableau de feu bleu d’une minute (Klein): 125 atelier rouge, L’ (Matisse): 107, 191 Au hasard Balthazar (1966) action painting: 82–91 Bresson’s debt to painting: 28–30, 37–39, 41, 43–47, 49 figures: 46, 49, 85, 88, 89, 144 film archeology: 19 repetition: 224 Surrealism: 143–45, 148–50, 155–56, 158 turn to postwar abstraction: 82–91, 101 Aumont, Jacques: 15–16, 38, 61, 63, 112 aura: 17–18, 63 Aurenche, Jean: 130 automatism Bresson’s automatic art: 120 Constructivism: 23, 162, 195 and the machine: 25–28 Minimalism: 31, 209, 211 Surrealism: 23, 142, 152 avant-garde abstract art: 29

250  automatism and the machine: 25–26 Constructivism: 21–22, 24, 30, 187 Didi-Huberman and anachronistic tradition: 10–11 genealogy of: 9 influence of: 21–22, 24, 30 Minimalism: 209 Surrealism: 21–22, 24, 29–30 aventures de Pom et Teddy, Les : 45, 45–48, 48 aveugle, L’ (Chardin): 17 n.27 Bacon, Francis: 44, 91 n.26 Ballets Russes: 114, 161 Balsom, Erika: 21, 24 Balthus automatism and adolescent body: 152, 154 Byzantine art: 70 La rue: 152, 153 Les trois soeurs: 153 La victime: 117 bande dessinée: 37, 48 Barker, Jennifer: 58–59 baroque lighting: 39, 73–79 Barr, Charles: 84 n.7 Barthes, Roland: 230 Bataille, Georges: 143, 145 n.34, 148, 151, 155 Battistello, Caracciolo: 51 n.39 Battle of San Romano, The (Uccello): 23, 58, 157, 159, 164, 165, 165–68 Battle of the Bouvines (Mathieu): 122 n.94, 171 Baudelaire, Charles: 20, 139 Bazin, André: 11, 20, 22, 49, 100, 139, 213 Beckman, Karen: 48 Behne, Adolf: 187 n.49 Belisarius: 17 n.27 belle noiseuse, La (1991): 124 n.97 Bellini, Giovanni: 70 Benjamin, Walter the aura: 17, 63 film archeology: 14, 17, 20–21 outmoded aesthetic: 145 n.35 Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project): 20 technological innervation: 211 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: 63 Bergala, Alain: 222 Bernanos, Georges: 36 Beugnet, Martine: 155 Beylie, Claude: 104 Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The (1972): 49 n.35 Black Square (Malevich): 175 Blake, Jeremy: 59 Blakelock, Ralph Albert: 112 blindness: 17 blonde aux seins nu, La (Manet): 50 Blotkamp, Carel: 182 body automatism and the machine: 25–27

L ate Bresson and the Visual Arts

Balthus, automatism, and adolescent body: 152–54 Bresson’s automatic art: 120–26 Bresson’s debt to painting: 54–61, 74–75 Constructivism: 162–63 Constructivism and Meyerhold: 194–97, 200–1 death: 116–17, 120 embodiment: 54–60 female body: 50 n.36, 51, 120, 142, 146, 148, 229 Une femme douce, Fautrier and L’Art Informel: 116–17, 120 the hand: 217–21 human animal in Lancelot du lac: 154, 157–58 as inanimate object in L’argent: 213–17 Klossowski and denigration of the body: 143–44, 146 as machine: 120–26 machine aesthetic: 213–17 Minimalism: 208, 217–21, 222, 230–31 perversion, torture, and suffering body: 147–50 “possible body”: 19, 154 Quatre nuits: 92, 99–101, 111 sound and voice: 126, 139 Surrealism: 143–44, 146–50, 152–54, 157–58 tactile expression: 99–101 turn to postwar abstraction: 29, 81–82, 92, 99–101, 111, 116–17, 120–26 Bonfand, Alain: 57, 61, 92–93 Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) (Matisse): 40, 107, 191 n.54 Bonitzer, Pascal: 44–45 book illumination: 69 Boorman, John: 72 Bordwell, David: 136 n.17, 161 Börlin, Jean: 130 Brannigan, Erin: 221 Braque, Georges: 37 n.7 Braun, Edward: 202 n.75 Brecht, Bertold: 207 Bresson, Robert avant-garde experiment: 9–31 automatism and the machine: 26–28 Didi-Huberman and anachronistic tradition: 10–11, 13 film archeology: 14, 16–21 influence of avant-garde: 22–25 overview: 9–10, 28–31 Surrealism and Constructivism: 22–25 Constructivism: 161–205 avant-garde experiment: 30 color and geometry in L’argent: 188–94 gesture beyond frame: 168–71 Malevich and geometric forms: 171–79 Meyerhold’s style and L’argent: 200–205 Mondrian and color: 179–87 overview: 161–63


static gesture in Meyerhold: 194–99 Uccello’s gothic constructivism in Lancelot du lac: 164–68 debt to painting: 35–79 deframings in Au hasard Balthazar: 41–49 embodiment: 54–60 framing in Une femme douce: 49–54 La Tour’s baroque lighting effect: 73–79 medieval modern aesthetic in Lancelot du lac: 69–73 overview: 28–29, 35–37 religious painting and iconography in Une femme douce: 60–69 transition from black and white to color: 37–40 Minimalism: 207–31 Benjamin and technological innervation: 211–13 the hand: 219–20 machine aesthetic and body in L’argent: 214–17 Mouchette and technology: 208–11 overview: 207–8 Rainer’s Minimalist aesthetic: 221–27 striking the Minimalist pose: 228–31 Surrealism: 129–59 Balthus, automatism, and adolescent body: 152–54 human animal in Lancelot du lac: 154–59 Klossowski and denigration of the body: 143–46 overview: 129–30 perversion, torture, and suffering body: 146–51 Quatre nuits and Surrealist flâneur: 138–43 surrealist threshold and erotics of vision: 130–38 turn to postwar abstraction: 81–126 Au hasard Balthazar and action painting: 82–91 Bresson’s automatic art: 120–26 Une femme douce, Fautrier and L’Art Informel: 116–20 overview: 81–82 Quatre nuits, Klein and Soulages: 104–10 Quatre nuits and cine-nocturne: 110–16 Quatre nuits and loft as modern canvas: 91–97 Quatre nuits and tactile expression: 97–104 works see Les affaires publiques (1934); L’argent (1983); Au hasard Balthazar (1966); Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956); Les dames de bois de Bologne (1945); Le diable

251 probablement (1977); Une femme douce (1969); Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951); Lancelot du lac (1974); Lunar Landscape; Mouchette (1967); Notes sur le cinématographe; Pickpocket (1959); Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962); Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1972) Breton, André Nadja: 20, 30, 139 Surrealism: 22, 136–37, 159 “The X …, Y … Exhibit”: 136 Broadway Boogie Woogie (Mondrian): 182 Brooks, Louise: 227–28 Buchloh, Benjamin: 117 Buckingham, Matthew: 21 Burnett, Colin: 10–11, 13, 130, 224 n.44 Buzzati, Dino: 44 Byzantine art: 11, 70 Caccia notturna (The Hunt in the Forest) (Uccello): 57, 58 n.57, 166, 167, 167–68, 182 Candlelight Master: 52 n.41 Cannon (Shimamoto): 122 capétiens partout, Les (Mathieu): 168, 169, 170–71 Caravaggio: 73–74, 75 n.112 Caravaggisti: 52, 67 Carter, Curtis L.: 117 n.85 Casarès, Maria: 63 Cassou, Jean: 152 n.63 cathedral lodge: 69 Cavicchioli, Sonia: 52 n.41 cène, La (Giotto): 71 Cézanne, Paul abstraction and Quatre nuits: 91 n.26, 107, 115 avant-garde experiment: 23, 30 Bresson’s debt to painting: 29, 36, 54–56, 59–60 gothic constructivism: 164–65 Jeune homme à la tête de mort (Young Man before a Skull): 136 Nature morte avec l’Amour en plâtre (Still Life with Plaster Cupid): 55, 56, 60 Chaplin, Charlie modernity: 212 Modern Times (1935): 194, 203 n.77 Charbonnier, Pierre Fenêtre (Window): 131 Le souci de peintre: 132, 133 Surrealism: 130–32 turn to postwar abstraction: 114–15 Chardin, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon L’aveugle: 17 n.27 film archeology: 16 framing: 53 Jeune garçon jouant aux cartes (The Card Castle): 77–78 turn to postwar abstraction: 94, 120

252  Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, The (Le tricheur à l’as de trèfle) (La Tour): 75 Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, The (Le tricheur à l’as de carreau) (La Tour): 75 chiaroscuro: 73, 76, 78, 114, 182, 200, 228 Children and Lenin (Klutsis): 175–76 Child’s Brain, The (de Chirico): 136, 137, 138 China Girl (1972): 218 Chion, Michel: 211 choreography: 27, 208, 221, 225 Christian iconography: 60–62, 187 chronology: 19, 199 cinema avant-garde experiment: 9, 14, 22 Benjamin and technological innervation: 212–13 Constructivism: 168, 185, 199 and painting: 36, 63, 70 turn to postwar abstraction: 81, 105–6, 110 cinema of sensation: 30, 155 cine-nocturne: 82, 111, 138 Clair, Jean: 152–53 Clair, René: 130 Cloquet, Ghislain: 150–51 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): 114 clothing: 72, 188, 192, 201–3, 205, 227 Cocteau, Jean: 130, 155 Collège de Sociologie: 143, 145 n.34 Collet, Jean: 98–99, 125, 134, 158 color abstraction and Quatre nuits: 92–94, 97, 104–12 automatism and the machine: 27 black: 109–10, 112, 189 blue: 40, 104–10, 111, 115, 191–93 Bresson’s debt to painting: 28, 40, 69, 73 color films: 25, 38–39, 82 Constructivism: 30, 167 green: 191–92 in L’argent: 188–94, 216 Malevich and geometric form: 171–72, 174–75, 178–79 Mondrian: 179–87 primary colors: 40, 168, 172–73, 184, 191 red: 189, 191 Color Aid (1970–1971): 218 Comedian’s March, The (Pater): 41 Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (Mondrian): 179, 180, 183, 183 condamné à mort s’est échappé, Un (1956) Bresson’s debt to painting: 37, 39, 43, 68, 71, 73, 79 interior space: 94 Minimalism and technology: 210 Surrealism: 132, 154 Conisbee, Philip: 74–75, 77 Constructivism: 161–205 automatism and the machine: 26–28

L ate Bresson and the Visual Arts

Constructivist color and geometry in L’argent: 188–94 gesture beyond frame: 168–71 influence of avant-garde: 21–25, 29–31, 54 Malevich and geometric form: 171–79 Meyerhold’s Constructivist style and L’argent: 200–5 Minimalism and machine aesthetic: 213, 215–17 Minimalism and the hand: 217, 221 Minimalism overview: 207–8 Mondrian and color: 179–87 overview: 161–63 Rainer’s Minimalist aesthetic: 222–24, 226 static gesture in Meyerhold: 194–200 Uccello’s gothic constructivism in Lancelot du lac: 164–68 Corner Counter-Reliefs (Malevich): 175 cosmic light: 114 Courbet, Gustave: 36, 38 Craenhals, François: 45 Cranach, Lucas: 152 n.63 Crary, Jonathan: 54–56 created man: 201 Cremonini, Leonardo: 44 Crommelynck, Fernand: 200 cross symbol: 187 Cubism: 23, 59, 62, 87, 159 Cupid: 51–53, 56, 66–68, 75–76, 92, 146 Cupid and Psyche (Perino del Vaga): 51 n.39 curtains: 136–38, 192 Dada: 23–24, 25 n.54, 26, 130 Dahan, Danielle: 61 n.69 Dalí, Salvador: 170 Dalle Vacche, Angela: 36, 54 n.49 dames de bois de Bologne, Les (1945): 20, 37–39, 64, 213 dance: 27, 31, 162, 199, 208, 216, 221–27 Daney, Serge: 126 dead body: 120, 225 Dean, James: 85 Dean, Tacita: 21 death: 116–17, 120, 224–25 de Champaigne, Philippe: 73 de Chirico, Giorgio, The Child’s Brain: 136, 137, 138 deframings: 44 déjeuner des canotiers, Le (Luncheon of the Boating Party) (Renoir): 53 de Kooning, Willem: 90–91 Delacroix, Eugène: 40 Delaunay, Robert: 37 n.7 Deleuze, Gilles: 134, 146–47, 155, 220 della Francesca, Piero Annunication: 38, 64, 64 as influence: 29 Legend of the True Cross: 64 Le songe de Constantin: 73



del Río, Elena: 60 Delsarte, François: 162 n.4, 197, 201, 228 Delsartism: 201 n.74, 227 Dempsey, Michael: 114 Denis, Claire: 155 depth of field: 136, 140 desire: 142, 146 De Stijl (the style): 168 n.19, 179 Develing, Enno: 217 n.26 diable probablement, Le (1977) automatism and the machine: 26 Constructivism: 24–25, 163, 189, 199, 204–5 Minimalism and the modern: 208, 210, 213, 219, 228 Surrealism: 24–25, 135 n.14, 154 transition from black and white to color: 38 turn to postwar abstraction: 114 n.77, 116, 126 Diaghilev, Sergei: 114, 161 diagrammatic perception: 25 n.54 Diderot, Denis: 16, 17 n.27, 20, 36 Didi-Huberman, Georges: 10–13, 18 diseuse de bonne aventure, La (The FortuneTeller) (La Tour): 75 doorways: 130–33, 135, 141 Dostoevsky, Fyodor: 25, 36, 97, 142 Drôle de mort ou Gambrinus (Funny Corpse or Gambrinus) (Saint-Phalle): 121 Dubuffet, Jean: 91 n.26 Duchamp, Marcel automatism and the machine: 26 n.54 Etants donnés: 142–43 influence of avant-garde: 23–24 Dumont, Bruno: 155 Dunoyer, Jean-Marie: 104, 113, 115–16 Ecstasy of Saint Francis, The (La Tour): 77 Egoyan, Adam: 60 Ehrenstein, David: 151 Eisenstein, Sergei Constructivism: 24, 163, 198–99 Gas Masks play production: 217 The General Line (1929): 162–63, 212 Minimalism and the modern: 212–13, 217, 224 October (1928): 198 Strike (1925): 217 n.25 El Greco: 115 El Lissitsky: 174–75 Elsaesser, Thomas: 15 embodiment: 54–60, 101 Entr’acte (1924): 130 Ernst, Max: 130 eroticism: 134–35, 142–43 Espérance, L’ (Hope) (Puves de Chavannes): 50–51 Estève, Michel: 41 n.18, 72 Etants donnés (Duchamp): 142–43 Ewig, Isabelle: 107 Excaliber (1981): 72

Expressionism: 104; see also Abstract Expressionism fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, Le (Amélie 2001): 53 Fantômas (1913–1914): 136 Fassbinder, Rainer Werner: 49–50 n.35 Fautrier, Jean L’Art Informel and Bresson’s Une femme douce: 117–20 Femme douce: 118, 118 Minimalism and the modern: 225, 231 Otages: 82, 117–19 Tête d’otage, no. 8: 96, 97 Trapèze à 4 cotes: 119–20 turn to postwar abstraction: 82, 96–97, 117–20, 123, 125 Febvre, Lucien: 12 Felleman, Susan: 50 n.36, 54 n.45, 93 n.30 female body: 50 n.36, 51, 120, 142, 146, 148, 229 Femme douce (Fautrier): 118, 118 femme douce, Une (1969) automatism and the machine: 26–27 Bresson’s debt to painting: 28–29, 37, 49–54, 56, 58, 61–62, 65–69, 76 Constructivism: 30, 161, 168–70, 184–85, 188, 192, 199 embodiment: 56, 58 Fautrier and L’Art Informel: 116–20 figures: 52, 65, 67, 68, 138 film archeology: 16, 19, 21 framing: 37, 49–54, 65–66 influence of avant-garde: 23–24, 30 light and shadow: 66–69, 76 Minimalism and the modern: 210–11, 214, 225, 228 religious painting and iconography: 61–62, 65–69 Surrealism and the body: 30, 133, 135–38, 142–43, 145–46, 149, 154 turn to postwar abstraction: 82, 92–94, 116–20, 123, 126 Wiener music: 87 n.18 Fenêtre (Window) (Charbonnier): 131 fenêtre ouverte à Nice, La (Matisse): 131 Ferren, John: 54 n.45 Feuillade, Louis Fantômas (1913–1914): 136 Surrealism: 130, 136 Les vampires (1915–1916): 136 figure and ground: 58–59, 136 film archeology: 9, 14–21, 63 Film of a Woman Who (1974): 228 Finkelstein, Haim: 136 Five (for Ozu) (2003): 111 flâneur: 139 Flatley, Jonathan: 231 Flavin, Dan: 225 fleurs du mal, Les (Baudelaire): 20 Forest, The (Ostrovsky): 199

254  Forged Coupon, The (Tolstoy): 37 form: 97, 111, 117, 172 Fortune-Teller, The (La diseuse de bonne aventure) (La Tour): 75 Foster, Hal: 25–26, 211 Foucault, Michel: 14 Fox, Charlie: 221 n.35 Fra Angelico: 12–13 Frame (1969): 24 framing Bresson’s debt to painting: 37–39, 49–54, 59, 65–66 in Une femme douce: 37, 49–54, 65–66 Minimalism and Rainer: 228 Surrealism: 23–24, 132–33, 141 Francis, Sam: 95 Fricheau, Marianne: 71 Fried, Michael: 16–17, 75, 77 Frodon, Jean Michel: 97, 135, 143 Froman, Wayne: 90–91 futurism: 26 Gabaston, Pierre: 37 n.7, 132 n.9, 174 n.29 Galt, Rosalind: 40 Gardin, Vladimir: 162 n.4, 194, 201 gaze: 141–43, 198 General Line, The (1929): 162–63, 212 geometric form automatism and the machine: 28 cine-nocturne: 116 color and geometry in L’argent: 188–94 Constructivism and Malevich: 172–79 Mondrian and color: 186–87 gestural art: 29, 120, 124 gestures Constructivism and Meyerhold: 163, 194–95, 197–98, 200 Surrealism: 147 turn to postwar abstraction: 86–87, 100, 125 Gilles (Watteau painting): 41–43, 42 Giotto Bresson’s debt to painting: 29, 36, 70 La cène: 71 Noli me tangere: 152 Glass, Phillip: 218 Godard, Jean-Luc: 36, 106 Gordon, Douglas: 106 gothic constructivism: 23, 159, 164–68 Grandrieux, Phillip: 154, 155 Greenaway, Peter: 36, 53 n.43 Greuze, Jean-Baptiste: 17 n.27 Gropius, Walter: 187 n.49 Grünewald, Matthias: 41 guerre, La (de la ligne et de la couleur) ou (vers la proposition monochrome) (Klein): 105 Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association): 27, 121–22, 124 Hand Catching Lead (1968): 218, 219 Hand Movie (1966): 219

L ate Bresson and the Visual Arts

hands Au hasard Balthazar: 86 La Tour’s baroque lighting: 75, 78 Minimalism: 31, 217–21 Quatre nuits d’un rêveur: 98–99 Surrealism: 155–56 Hands Scraping (1968): 218 Hands Tied (1968): 218 Hanlon, Lindley: 100 Hansen, Miriam: 20, 63 n.77, 211 n.10 haptic space: 100–1 Harbord, Janet: 15 Hasumi, Shikehito: 220 Hauptmann, Gerhart: 202 Hayward, Susan: 38 Hedda Gabler (Ibsen): 199 Histoire de Juliette (Sade): 152 n.63 Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–1998): 106 history cinema and visual arts: 9 Didi-Huberman and anachronistic tradition: 11–14 film archeology: 14–16, 18–21 Hitchcock, Alfred Bresson’s debt to painting: 36, 58–60 North by Northwest (1959): 59 Psycho (1960): 106 The Trouble with Harry (1955): 54 n.45 Vertigo (1958): 59 Hoffman, E. T. A.: 23 Holes (Shimamoto): 122, 123 Hoover, Marjorie: 202 Hope (L’Espérance) (Puves de Chavannes): 50–51 horses: 156–57, 166–67 Huhtamo, Erkki: 14–15 human body automatism and the machine: 25–27, 120, 125–26 Constructivism: 162–63, 200 Minimalism and the hand: 217–21 Surrealism: 30, 147, 149–50, 157 turn to postwar abstraction: 81, 92, 100, 120, 125; see also body Hunt in the Forest, The (Caccia notturna) (Uccello): 57, 58 n.57, 166, 167, 167–68, 182 Ibsen, Henrik: 199 iconography Bresson’s debt to painting: 37, 41, 61–63, 69, 71 film archeology: 15–16 Minimalism and Rainer: 222, 225 Mondrian and color: 187 illumination: 70–71, 115–16 improvisation: 117 Ingres, Jean Auguste Dominique abstract art: 88–91, 101 The Valpinçon Bather: 89, 90 innervation: 211–13


International Klein Blue (IKB): 40, 105, 109 “In the College” (Rainer): 228 invisible sublime: 16 Irène (Aragon): 142 Issenheim Altarpiece (Grünewald): 41 Jaffé, Hans: 168 n.19 Jameson, Frederic: 59 Jeune garçon jouant aux cartes (The Card Castle) (Chardin): 77–78 Jeune homme à la tête de mort (Young Man before a Skull) (Cézanne): 136 Jeunet, Jean-Pierre: 53 Jeux interdits (1952): 45 joints: 201 Jones, Kent: 139, 208, 210 Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951): 20, 39, 56, 71, 100, 116, 149, 187, 226 n.49 The Joy of Life (Bonheur de vivre) (Matisse): 40, 107, 191 n.54 Jupiter et Antiope (Watteau painting): 50, 50, 51 Kandinsky, Wassily: 53, 187 Kaufman, Mikhail: 54 Keaton, Buster: 59, 60 kinetic light art: 120–21, 161, 168 Kino-Eye (1924): 54 Kirastami, Abbas: 111 Klein, Yves A tableau de feu bleu d’une minute: 125 automatism and the machine: 26–27 Bresson’s debt to painting: 29, 40, 69 color and geometry in L’argent: 191 La guerre (de la ligne et de la couleur) ou (vers la proposition monochrome): 105 International Klein Blue (IKB): 40, 105, 109 Klein, Soulages and blue radiance: 104–6, 108–10 Leap into the Void: 109 turn to postwar abstraction: 82, 99–100, 104–6, 108–10, 120, 124–25 Untitled: 106 Le vide: 106 Klossowski, Pierre denigration of the body: 143–46 figures: 144 La monnaie vivante: 144, 147, 197 “possible body”: 19, 154 La révocation de l’édict de Nantes: 145, 147 Roberte ce soir: 145, 147–48 Surrealism: 30, 143–46, 147, 150–51, 154 Kluitenberg, Eric: 15 Klutsis, Gustav: 175–76 Krauss, Rosalind: 87 Kuleshov, Lev: 27, 162–63, 194, 201, 215 Labourdette, Élina: 63–64 Lafarge, François: 151 Lambert, Carrie: 230

255 Lambert-Beatty, Carrie: 225 Lancelot du lac (1974) anonymity: 28 Bresson’s automatic art: 121 Bresson’s debt to painting: 17–18, 29, 37–40, 57–58 n.57, 69–74, 76–79 Constructivism: 24, 30, 161, 164–65, 167, 171–76, 178–79, 181–82, 184–86, 188, 190–91 Constructivist color and geometry: 188, 190–91 figures: 78, 173, 178, 180, 186 human animal in: 154–59 Malevich and geometric form: 171–76, 178–79 Minimalism and the modern: 211, 224 Mondrian and color: 179, 181–82, 184–86 Surrealism: 24, 30, 130, 134–35, 143, 154–59 Uccello’s gothic constructivism in: 164–65, 167 Landino, Cristoforo: 12 n.10 Langois, Henri: 25 La Tour, Georges de L’adoration des bergers (Nativity): 76, 77–79 baroque lighting effect: 73–79 Bresson’s debt to painting: 17, 29, 40 La diseuse de bonne aventure (The FortuneTeller): 75 The Ecstasy of Saint Francis: 77 Mondrian and color: 182 The Repentant Magdalene with a Document: 74 Rixe de musiciens (The Musician’s Brawl): 75 Le tricheur à l’as de carreau (The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds): 75 Le tricheur à l’as de trèfle (The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs): 75 Leap into the Void (Klein): 109 Legend of the True Cross (Piero della Francesca): 64 Léger, Fernand: 164 Lelouch, Claude: 170 Leyda, Jay: 163 n.9 Lichtenstein, Roy: 44 Licht-Raum-Modulator (Light-Space-Modulator) (Moholy-Nagy): 169 Lichtspiel Schwarz Weiss Grau, Ein (Light Spill: Black-White-Gray) (1930): 170 lieu de repos de la famille Delbeck, Le (Spoerri): 125 light and lighting baroque lighting: 39, 73–79 Bresson’s debt to painting: 29, 39, 51 n.40, 52, 61, 66–69, 73–79 Constructivism and Lux 1: 30, 168–70 postwar abstraction and Quatre nuits: 95, 97, 107, 110–12, 115–16 Lippard, Lucy: 217 Lives of Performers, The (1972): 222, 228

256  “living brushes”: 99, 120 living cinema: 169 livre d’amour épris, Le (The Book of the LoveSmitten Heart) (Duke René d’Anjou): 69 Louvre: 21, 50–51 Lucretia (Cranach): 152 n.63 luminism: 40, 73 Lunar Landscape (Bresson photograph): 114, 123 Luti, Benedetto: 52 n.41 Lux 1 (Schöffer): 27, 121, 126, 168–71, 169, 211–12, 214 Lyotard, Jean-François: 148 Macdonald, Scott: 110–12 machine aesthetic: 31, 213, 217 machines automatism and the machine: 25–28 body as inanimate object in L’argent: 213–17 body as machine: 120–26 cine-nocturne: 116 Constructivism: 21–23, 163, 166, 197 n.62, 200 Minimalism and the modern: 31, 210–13, 217, 223 Surrealism: 21–23, 139, 152 MacLeod, Catriona: 146 Madone des ombres (Madonna of the Shadows) (Fra Angelico): 12 Magnaminous Cuckold, The (Crommelynk): 191–92, 193, 200, 214 Magritte, René: 136, 138 Malevich, Kazimir “0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting”: 175–76 “Artistic and Scientific Film—Painting and Architectural Concerns—Approaching the New Plastic Architectural System”: 175 Black Square: 175 Constructivism: 30, 161, 172, 174–75, 177–79, 187 Corner Counter-Reliefs: 175 geometric form: 28, 172, 174–75, 177–78 Mondrian and color: 179, 187 The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism: 187 Suprématisme jaune: 174 n.29 Malraux, André: 14 Manessier, Alfred Bresson’s debt to painting: 16, 29, 62–63, 66 Résurrection: 62, 62 Manet, Édouard: 16, 94, 120 La blonde aux seins nu: 50 Olympia: 50 Man with a Movie Camera (1929): 170, 176, 213–15, 217–18 Marey, Jules-Etienne: 55

L ate Bresson and the Visual Arts

mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, La (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) (Duchamp): 23 Marin, Louis: 62–63, 66 Marker, Chris: 48 Marks, Laura: 100 Masson, André: 136, 152 n.63 Mathieu, Georges Battle of the Bouvines: 122 n.94, 171 Bresson’s automatic art: 122, 124 Les capétiens partout: 168, 169, 170–71 Constructivism: 168–71 Matisse, Henri L’atelier rouge: 107, 191 Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life): 40, 107, 191 n.54 Bresson’s debt to painting: 37 n.7, 40, 69 La fenêtre ouverte à Nice: 131 La porte-fenêtre à Collioure: 132 n.9 Surrealism: 131–32 Mazursky, Paul: 93 n.30 medieval art: 16–17, 29, 61, 69–73 Medieval Modern (Nagel): 17 medieval modern aesthetic: 29 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice: 81–82, 90, 101, 155 Méta-matics series (Drawing Machines) (Tinguely): 124 Meyer, James: 31 n.57, 217 n.26 Meyerhold, Vsevelod automatism and the machine: 28 Constructivism: 30, 161, 163, 192, 194–202 figures: 195 and innervation: 211 n.10 and L’argent: 192, 200–202 The Magnaminous Cuckold production: 200, 214 music: 216 n.22 Sister Beatrice production: 205 “Stab with a Dagger” exercise: 195, 196–97 and static gesture: 194–200 Micheletto Attendolo da Cotignola interviene con le proprie milizie in soccorso del Tolentino (The Counter-Attack by Micheletto da Cotignola) (Uccello): 164 Michelson, Annette: 9, 22 migration concept: 15, 63 mimetic innervation: 212 Minimalism: 207–31 automatism and the machine: 26, 28 avant-garde experiment: 29–31 Benjamin and technological innervation: 211–13 the hand: 217–21 machine aesthetic and body in L’argent: 213–17 Mouchette and technology: 208–11 overview: 207–8 Rainer’s Minimalist aesthetic: 221–27 striking the Minimalist pose: 227–31



Minotaure (journal): 23, 152 n.63, 159 Miracolo dell’ostia profanata (Miracle of the Desecrated Host) (Uccello): 167–68 Miró, Joan: 136 Mirror, The (1975): 58 mirrors: 87, 130, 194 Mitterand, François: 24 Mnemosyne Atlas (Warburg): 14 models Constructivism and Meyerhold: 194, 199 Minimalism and the modern: 213, 221, 229 Surrealism and the body: 148, 150, 152–53 turn to postwar abstraction: 108–9, 120 modernity: 31, 209–10, 212 Modern Times (1935): 194, 203 n.77 Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo Constructivism: 169–70 Licht-Raum-Modulator (Light-SpaceModulator): 169 Ein Lichtspiel Schwarz Weiss Grau (Light Spill: Black-White-Gray) (1930): 170 medieval modern aesthetic: 69 “Painting with Light—A New Medium of Expression”: 107 Molinier, Pierre: 143 n.30 Mondrian, Piet Broadway Boogie Woogie: 182 Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue: 179, 180, 183, 183 Constructivism: 30, 161, 168 n.19, 172, 189, 191 geometric form: 28, 172, 189, 191 “Natuurlijke en abstracte realiteit” (“Natural and Abstract Reality”): 181 neoplasticism: 30, 161, 179–80, 187 The New Plastic in Painting: 187 postwar abstraction and Quatre nuits: 29, 93–94 spiritual infinite: 16 Victory Boogie Woogie: 182 monnaie vivante, La (Klossowski): 144, 147, 197 Mon oncle (1958): 209 montage and Cézanne: 56 Constructivism: 22, 162–63, 194 n.55, 198–99, 201 machine aesthetic: 27, 215, 224 Monument to the Third International (Tatlin): 188 moon: 112, 114, 123, 167 Moore, Rachel O.: 220, 222 n.38 Morris, Robert: 31 n.57, 224 Mouchette (1967): 26, 87 n.18, 149, 154, 209–10 Moullet, Luc: 20 Müller, Matthias: 111 multiple uniformity: 202–3 Musée imaginaire (Malraux): 14 Musée national d’art moderne: 21, 62, 168–69, 211

music: 182, 200, 216 n.22 Musician’s Brawl, The (Rixe de musiciens) (La Tour): 75 mute facticity: 21 Nadja (Breton): 20, 30, 139 Nagel, Alexander: 17, 69–70, 73, 187 n.49 Namuth, Hans: 85, 124–25 narrative: 19, 36, 39, 199, 216, 222, 227–28 Nativity (L’adoration des bergers) (La Tour): 76, 77–79 Nature morte avec l’Amour en plâtre (Still Life with Plaster Cupid) (Cézanne): 55, 56, 60 “Natuurlijke en abstracte realiteit” (“Natural and Abstract Reality”) (Mondrian): 181 neoplasticism: 30, 161, 179, 180, 187 Newman, Barnett: 18, 63 n.74 New Plastic in Painting, The (Mondrian): 187 new theatre: 161 new wave: 48, 85 n.8 Nietzsche, Friedrich: 143 Nocturne in Black and Gold (Whistler): 112, 112 nocturne style Bresson’s debt to painting: 39, 74–75, 77–78 cine-nocturne: 82, 111, 138 postwar abstraction and Quatre nuits: 29, 110–12, 114, 116 Uccello’s gothic constructivism in Lancelot du lac: 167 Noli me tangere (Giotto): 152 Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism, The (Malevich): 187 North by Northwest (1959): 59 Notes sur le cinématographe (Bresson): 35, 54, 135, 174, 185, 221 Nouveau Réalisme, Le : 26, 29, 82, 120, 124–25 Nouvelle Vague: 48, 85 n.8 nudes framing in Une femme douce: 50–51, 52 Minimalist pose: 228 postwar abstraction and Quatre nuits: 101–2, 108, 125 Surrealism and the body: 135–36, 146 nuit des prolétaires: Archives du rêve ouvrier, La (Rancière): 12 objects: 215–16, 222–23, 226 October (1928): 198 Ode (ballet): 114, 161 Olympia (Manet): 50 On the Spiritual in Art (Kandinsky): 187 Orphic Trilogy (1930–1960): 130 oscillation effect: 59 Ostrovsky, Aleksandr: 199 Otages (Fautrier): 82, 117–19 Oudart, Jean-Pierre: 117, 119–20, 143 n.30 Pabst, G. W.: 227 Pagé, Suzanne: 119

258  Païni, Dominique: 38, 63, 65 painting action painting: 82–91, 121 avant-garde experiment: 23, 27, 30 body as machine and Bresson’s automatic art: 120–25 Bresson’s debt to painting: 35–37 classical and postwar painting: 28–29 Constructivism: 23, 30, 171–72, 181 deframings in Au hasard Balthazar: 41–49 embodiment: 54–60 film archeology: 16–18 framing in Une femme douce: 49–54 La Tour’s baroque lighting effect: 73–79 medieval modern aesthetic in Lancelot du lac: 69–73 Mondrian: 93–94, 96 painterly gesture: 30 postwar abstraction and Quatre nuits: 91–94, 96–100, 104, 110–11 religious iconography in Une femme douce: 60–69 Surrealism: 23 tactile expression: 97–100 transition from black and white to color: 37–40 turn to postwar abstraction: 82 Pandora’s Box (1928): 227–28 “pantomime”: 146 “Paolo Uccello, peintre lunaire” (Pudelko): 22–23 Parikka, Jussi: 14 Parts of Some Sextets (Rainer): 222 Passagen-Werk, Das (The Arcades Project) (Benjamin): 20 Pater, Jean-Baptiste: 41–42 paysan de Paris, Le (Aragon): 30, 139–41 Pedestrians (Street) (Rodchenko): 54 Peintre 21 septembre 1971 (Soulages): 109 Peinture, 14 août, 1966 (Soulages): 109–10, 110 Perino del Vaga: 51 n.39 perversion: 30, 147, 150–51 Petric, Vlada: 213, 217 Peucker, Brigitte: 49 n.35, 50 n.36, 58 n.59, 59 phenomenology: 59, 82, 126 phosphorescence: 114–15 photography: 54, 103–4, 107, 124, 228–31 Picabia, Francis: 25 n.54 Picasso, Pablo: 104 Pickpocket (1959): 37, 43, 70, 75, 129, 132 n.9, 145, 210, 220 Pipolo, Tony: 41 n.17, 97, 98, 142 n.28, 158 Pollock, Jackson abstract art: 29, 82, 124 action painting: 84–87, 89, 91 Constructivism: 171 Didi-Huberman and anachronistic tradition: 13

L ate Bresson and the Visual Arts

“No. 14”: 84 religious painting: 62 n.74 Pom et Teddy: 45, 45–48, 48, 92 Ponge, Francis: 119 Pop art: 44–45 Pope-Hennessey, John: 58, 166 Popova, Lyubov: 190–93, 193, 214 porte-fenêtre à Collioure, La (Matisse): 132 n.9 posed portraits: 31, 231 Posner, Donald: 41 possession: 147–48 “possible body”: 19, 154 Prédal, René: 87 n.20 Preston, Carrie: 202 Price, Brian Bresson’s debt to painting: 40, 59, 60 n.67 Constructivism: 191 n.54, 204 influence of avant-garde: 24–25 line and color: 107 Minimalism: 214, 226–27 Surrealism: 129 private and public space: 224–27 procès de Jeanne d’Arc, Le (1962): 18, 37, 39, 116, 135, 135, 157 propre de l’homme, Le (1960): 170 Prosthetic Gods (Foster): 211 Provoyeur, Jean-Pierre: 36, 57, 58 n.57, 161 Psyche: 51–53, 66–68, 75–76, 92 Psycho (1960): 106 pubescent body: 153–54 public and private space: 224–27 Pudelko, Georges: 22–23, 159, 164, 166–68 Pudovkin, Vsevolod: 161, 163 Punch Drunk Love (2002): 59 Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre, L’Espérance (Hope): 50–51 Quandt, James: 116, 208–9 Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1972) avant-garde experiment: 26, 28 Bresson’s automatic art: 123–26 Constructivism: 167, 181–82, 188, 191–92, 199–200 figures: 93, 95, 99, 102–3, 105, 108, 115, 123, 141 Klein, Soulages and blue radiance: 104–10 loft as modern canvas: 91–97 Minimalism and the modern: 210–11, 219, 224 Surrealism: 30, 134, 135 n.14, 138–43 tactile expression in painting and sculpture: 97–104 transition from black and white to color: 39–40 turn to postwar abstraction: 29, 82–83 radiance principle: 66, 106–7 Railroad Turnbridge (1976): 24 Rainer, Yvonne automatism and the machine: 27–28


“In the College”: 228 Film of a Woman Who (1974): 228 Hand Movie (1966): 219 The Lives of Performers (1972): 222, 228 Minimalism: 31, 208, 216, 219 Minimalist aesthetic: 221–27 Parts of Some Sextets: 222 Room Service: 222 striking the Minimalist pose: 227–28, 230–31 Trio A: 216, 222 n.38, 230 Volleyball (Foot Film) (1967): 219 We Shall Run: 222 Rancière, Jacques: 12–13, 163 Raum für konsruktive Kunst (Room for Constructivist Art) (El Lissitsky): 174 Reader, Keith: 41 n.17 Rebel Without a Cause (1955): 85 Reefs (Francis): 95 reflections: 39, 112, 115–16 religious painting: 16–17, 29, 37, 41, 60–69, 70, 77 Renaissance art: 16–17, 29, 38, 66, 90 Renoir, Pierre-Auguste: 53 Repentant Magdalene with a Document, The (La Tour): 74 repetition: 223–24, 226 Resnais, Alain: 48–49 Résurrection (Manessier): 62, 62 révocation de l’édict de Nantes, La (Klossowski): 145, 147 rhythm: 163, 166, 182, 200, 216, 224 Rhythmus (1921–1925): 177 Richter, Hans Constructivism: 177, 177, 178–79 Rhythmus (1921–1925): 177 Rijke, Jerome de: 21 Rivette, Jacques: 124 n.97 Rixe de musiciens (The Musician’s Brawl) (La Tour): 75 Robert Bresson ni vu, ni connu (1965): 158 Roberte ce soir (Klossowski): 145, 147–48 robots: 27, 124 Rodchenko, Alexander: 54, 161 Rodin, Auguste: 196 Rooji, Willem de: 21 Room Service (Rainer): 222 Rose, Barbara: 31 n.57, 86, 223–25 Rosenberg, Harold: 86 Ross, Kristin: 209 Rothko, Mark: 63 n.74 Rousseau, Jean-Claude: 43–44 rue, La (Balthus): 152, 153 Russian Constructivism: 24–25, 27, 29, 191; see also Constructivism Rutherford, Anne: 211 n.10 Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von: 146 Sade, Marquis de: 143, 145, 152 n.63 sadomasochism: 143, 151–52

259 Sadoul, Georges: 11, 194 n.55 Saint Jean-Baptiste (Rodin): 196 Saint-Phalle, Nikki de abstract art: 29, 82, 120–22, 125 automatism and the machine: 27 Drôle de mort ou Gambrinus (Funny Corpse or Gambrinus): 121 Les tirs (Shooting Pictures): 27, 120–21 Salachas, Gilbert: 86 Sanda, Dominique: 67, 119, 121, 170–71 “Sandmann, Der ” (Hoffman): 23 Schluck and Jau (Hauptmann): 202 Schneider, Romi: 229 Schöffer, Nicolas Constructivism: 30, 161, 168, 170 Lux 1: 27, 121, 126, 168–71, 169, 211–12, 214 turn to postwar abstraction: 115, 125–26 Variations luminodynamiques series: 170 Schrader, Paul: 11, 70, 208 Screen Tests (1964–1966): 231 sculpture: 102, 103 Sémolué, Jean: 52, 69, 73, 76, 164, 185 n.47, 189, 200–201 Serra, Richard China Girl (1972): 218 Color Aid (1970–1971): 218 Frame (1969): 24 the hand: 218–19 Hand Catching Lead (1968): 218, 219 Hands Scraping (1968): 218 Hands Tied (1968): 218 Minimalism: 216–19 Railroad Turnbridge (1976): 24 Steelmill/Stahlwerk (1979): 217 sexuality: 24, 142, 143 n.30, 146, 148, 153, 155 shadow: 39, 66–67, 68, 107 Shaviro, Steven: 208 Sherlock, Jr. (1928): 59 Shimamoto, Shozo body and machine: 27, 122–25 Cannon: 122 Holes: 122, 123 Uzumaki (Whirlpool): 122 Shlovsky, Viktor: 54 Shub, Esfir: 163 simulacra: 145–46 Sister Beatrice (Maeterlinck): 205 Sleeping Cupid (Caracciolo Battistello): 51 n.39 Sleepy Haven (1993): 111 Sloan, Jane: 84 n.5 Smith, Patty: 84–86 Snow, Michael: 23 Sobchack, Vivian: 60 n.67, 149, 150 songe de Constantin, Le (Piero della Francesca): 73 Sontag, Susan: 11, 204, 207 souci de peintre, Le (Charbonnier): 132, 133 Soulages, Pierre Peintre 21 septembre 1: 109

260  Peinture, 14 août, 1966: 109–10, 110 turn to postwar abstraction: 82, 106–7, 109–10, 112 sound: 71, 126, 157, 167, 211, 214, 216 Spatiodynamic Tower (Schöffer): 27 spatiodynamism: 170 Speaking Parts (1989): 60 spectators: 17, 23–24 speech: 126, 195, 200, 228 Spielberg, Steven: 114 Spielmann, Yvonne: 53 n.43 spirituality: 62–63, 69, 187 Spoerri, Daniel Le lieu de repos de la famille Delbeck: 125 Tableaux pièges series (Trap Paintings): 125 Staël, Nicolas de: 104 stained glass: 69 Stalker (1979): 61 Stanislavsky, Konstantin: 199 stasis: 102, 146, 196 Steelmill/Stahlwerk (1979): 217 Steimatsky, Noa: 198 Stella, Frank: 28, 31 St. George and the Dragon (Uccello): 41, 158 Still Life with Plaster Cupid (Nature morte avec l’Amour en plâtre) (Cézanne): 55, 56, 60 Strike (1925): 217 n.25 sublime: 16, 37, 63 “Sublime is Now, The ” (Newman): 18 supersensualism: 146 Suprematism: 30, 161, 174–76 Suprématisme jaune (Malevich): 174 n.29 Surrealism: 129–59 automatism and the machine: 26 avant-garde experiment: 21–23, 29–30 Balthus, automatism, and adolescent body: 152–54 Didi-Huberman and anachronistic tradition: 13 film archeology: 19–21 human animal in Lancelot du lac: 154–59 Klossowski and denigration of the body: 143–46 overview: 129–30 perversion, torture, and suffering body: 146–51 Quatre nuits and Surrealist flâneur: 138–43 surrealist threshold and erotics of vision: 130–38 technological innervation: 212 turn to postwar abstraction: 114, 116, 120 Tableaux pièges series (Trap Paintings) (Spoerri): 125 tableaux vivants: 145–47, 192, 196, 227–29, 231 Tachism: 29, 83 n.4, 109 Taillandier, Yvon: 132 n.10 Tarkovsky, Andreï

L ate Bresson and the Visual Arts

Andrei Rublev (1966): 61 Bresson’s debt to painting: 58, 61, 66, 69–70 The Mirror (1975): 58 Stalker (1979): 61 Tati, Jacques: 209 Tatlin, Vladimir: 188 Taut, Bruno: 187 n.49 Tchelitchew, Pavel: 114 technological innervation: 211 technology: 26, 208–9, 211–13 Tête d’otage, no. 8 (Fautrier): 96, 97 theater: 28, 30, 161, 198–99 Thiher, Alain: 39, 73 Thompson, Kristin: 72 n.101, 172 thresholds: 15, 37, 39, 53, 68, 130, 136, 141 time: 17–20, 23 Tinguely, Jean: 27, 124–25 tirs, Les (Shooting Pictures) (Saint-Phalle): 27, 120–21 Titian: 146 Tolstoy, Leo: 25, 36–37 torture: 149, 154 Toute le mémoire du monde (1956): 48 transcendence: 186–87 Trapèze à 4 cotes (Fautrier): 119–20 tricheur à l’as de carreau, Le (The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds) (La Tour): 75 tricheur à l’as de trèfle, Le (The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs) (La Tour): 75 Trio A (Rainer): 216, 222 n.38, 230 trois soeurs, Les (Balthus): 153 Trouble Every Day (2001): 155 Trouble with Harry, The (1955): 54 n.45 Tsivian, Yuri: 54, 199 Tupitsyn, Margarita: 174 n.30, 175–77 Turim, Maureen: 86 Uccello, Paolo The Battle of San Romano: 23, 58, 157, 159, 164, 165–68, 165 Bresson’s debt to painting: 36, 41 Caccia notturna (The Hunt in the Forest): 57, 58 n.57, 166, 167, 167–68, 182 gothic constructivism: 23, 159, 164–67 Micheletto Attendolo da Cotignola interviene con le proprie milizie in soccorso del Tolentino (The Counter-Attack by Micheletto da Cotignola): 164 Miracolo dell’ostia profanata (Miracle of the Desecrated Host): 167–68 Pudelko on: 22–23, 159, 164, 166–68 St. George and the Dragon: 41, 158 Surrealism and animal world: 23, 157–59 “Uccello, le poil” (Artaud): 159 uncanny: 23 uniformity: 202–5, 226 Unmarried Woman, An (1978): 93 n.30 Untitled (Klein): 106 Uzumaki (Whirlpool) (Shimamoto): 122



Valpinçon Bather, The (Ingres): 89, 90 vampires, Les (1915–1916): 136 Vancheri, Luc: 105–6 van Doesburg, Theo: 168 n.19 Van Gogh, Vincent: 94, 107 vanitas still life painting: 61, 74 Venus in Furs (Sacher-Masoch): 146 Venus with a Mirror (Titian): 146 Vermeer, Johannes: 36, 43–44, 53, 120 vertical montage: 224 Vertigo (1958): 59 Vertov, Dziga Constructivism: 24, 163, 170, 194 Man with a Movie Camera (1929): 170, 176, 213–15, 217–18 Minimalism: 213–14, 217–18 victime, La (Balthus): 117 Victory Boogie Woogie (Mondrian): 182 vide, Le (Klein): 106 video art: 67 n.87 violence: 30, 134, 154–55, 158, 197–98 vision: 90, 100–1, 135–36, 139–40, 159 voice: 126, 139 voice-over: 71, 126 n.101 Volleyball (Foot Film) (1967): 219 Volonsky, Sergei: 197 Vorticism: 26 Vouet, Simon: 52 n.41 voyeurism: 142–43, 148 Warburg, Aby: 14–15 Warhol, Andy

Minimalism: 31, 208, 222–23, 231 Screen Tests (1964–1966): 231 War (of line and color) or toward a monochrome proposition, The (Klein): 40 Watteau, Jean-Antoine Bresson’s debt to painting: 29, 41, 120 Gilles: 41, 42, 42–43, Jupiter et Antiope: 50, 50, 51 Wavelength (1967): 24 We Shall Run (Rainer): 222 Weyergans, François: 117 n.85, 158 Weyergraf, Clara: 217 Whirlpool (Uzumaki) (Shimamoto): 122 Whistler, James Abbott McNeill Bresson’s debt to painting: 29, 39, 82, 111–12 Nocturne in Black and Gold: 112, 113 “White Nights” (Dostoevsky): 97 Wiazemsky, Anne: 89, 148, 150–51 Wiener, Jean: 87 Wild, Jennifer: 25 n.54 windows: 130–33, 136, 140 Wölfflin, Heinrich: 136 n.17 Wood, Christopher: 17 “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, The ” (Benjamin): 63 “X …, Y … Exhibit, The ” (Breton): 136 Yampolsky, Mikhail: 162 Zimmer, Christian: 92, 101 n.42 Zucca, Pierre: 147, 197

Film Culture in Transition

General Editor: Thomas Elsaesser Thomas Elsaesser, Robert Kievit and Jan Simons (eds.) Double Trouble: Chiem van Houweninge on Writing and Filming, 1994 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 025 9 Thomas Elsaesser, Jan Simons and Lucette Bronk (eds.) Writing for the Medium: Television in Transition, 1994 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 054 9 Karel Dibbets and Bert Hogenkamp (eds.) Film and the First World War, 1994 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 064 8 Warren Buckland (ed.) The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind, 1995 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 131 7; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 170 6 Egil Törnqvist Between Stage and Screen: Ingmar Bergman Directs, 1996 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 137 9; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 171 3 Thomas Elsaesser (ed.) A Second Life: German Cinema’s First Decades, 1996 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 172 0; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 183 6 Thomas Elsaesser Fassbinder’s Germany: History Identity Subject, 1996 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 059 4; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 184 3 Thomas Elsaesser and Kay Hoffmann (eds.) Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? The Screen Arts in the Digital Age, 1998 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 282 6; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 312 0 Siegfried Zielinski Audiovisions: Cinema and Television as Entr’Actes in History, 1999 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 313 7; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 303 8

Kees Bakker (ed.) Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context, 1999 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 389 2; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 425 7 Egil Törnqvist Ibsen, Strindberg and the Intimate Theatre: Studies in TV Presentation, 1999 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 350 2; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 371 7 Michael Temple and James S. Williams (eds.) The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard 1985-2000, 2000 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 455 4; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 456 1 Patricia Pisters and Catherine M. Lord (eds.) Micropolitics of Media Culture: Reading the Rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari, 2001 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 472 1; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 473 8 William van der Heide Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film: Border Crossings and National Cultures, 2002 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 519 3; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 580 3 Bernadette Kester Film Front Weimar: Representations of the First World War in German Films of the Weimar Period (1919-1933), 2002 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 597 1; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 598 8 Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (eds.) Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, 2003 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 494 3 Ivo Blom Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade, 2003 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 463 9; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 570 4 Alastair Phillips City of Darkness, City of Light: Émigré Filmmakers in Paris 1929-1939, 2003 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 634 3; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 633 6

Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath and Noel King (eds.) The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, 2004 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 631 2; isbn hardcover 978 905356 493 6 Thomas Elsaesser (ed.) Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, 2004 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 635 0; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 636 7 Kristin Thompson Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I, 2005 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 708 1; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 709 8 Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (eds.) Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory, 2005 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 768 5; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 769 2 Thomas Elsaesser European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, 2005 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 594 0; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 602 2 Michael Walker Hitchcock’s Motifs, 2005 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 772 2; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 773 9 Nanna Verhoeff The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning, 2006 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 831 6; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 832 3 Anat Zanger Film Remakes as Ritual and Disguise: From Carmen to Ripley, 2006 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 784 5; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 785 2 Wanda Strauven The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, 2006 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 944 3; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 945 0

Malte Hagener Moving Forward, Looking Back: The European Avant-garde and the Invention of Film Culture, 1919-1939, 2007 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 960 3; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 961 0 Tim Bergfelder, Sue Harris and Sarah Street Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema, 2007 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 984 9; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 980 1 Jan Simons Playing the Waves: Lars von Trier’s Game Cinema, 2007 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 991 7; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 979 5 Marijke de Valck Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia, 2007 isbn paperback 978 90 5356 192 8; isbn hardcover 978 90 5356 216 1 Asbjørn Grønstad Transfigurations: Violence, Death, and Masculinity in American Cinema, 2008 isbn paperback 978 90 8964 010 9; isbn hardcover 978 90 8964 030 7 Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau (eds.) Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media, 2009 isbn paperback 978 90 8964 013 0; isbn hardcover 978 90 8964 012 3 François Albera and Maria Tortajada (eds.) Cinema beyond Film: Media Epistemology in the Modern Era, 2010 isbn paperback 978 90 8964 083 3; isbn hardcover 978 90 8964 084 0 Pasi Väliaho Mapping the Moving Image: Gesture, Thought and Cinema circa 1900, 2010 isbn paperback 978 90 8964 140 3; isbn hardcover 978 90 8964 141 0 Pietsie Feenstra New Mythological Figures in Spanish Cinema: Dissident Bodies under Franco, 2011 isbn paperback 978 90 8964 304 9; isbn hardcover 978 90 8964 303 2

Eivind Røssaak (ed.) Between Stillness and Motion: Film, Photography, Algorithms, 2011 isbn paperback 978 90 8964 212 7; isbn hardcover 978 90 8964 213 4 Tara Forrest Alexander Kluge: Raw Materials for the Imagination, 2011 isbn paperback 978 90 8964 272 1; isbn hardcover 978 90 8964 273 8 Belén Vidal Figuring the Past: Period Film and the Mannerist Aesthetic, 2012 isbn 978 90 8964 282 0 Bo Florin Transition and Transformation: Victor Sjöström in Hollywood 1923-1930, 2012 isbn 978 90 8964 504 3 Erika Balsom Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art, 2013 isbn 978 90 8964 471 8 Gilles Mouëllic Improvising Cinema, 2013 isbn 978 90 8964 4551 7 Christian Jungen Hollywood in Canne$: The History of a Love-Hate Relationship, 2014 isbn 978 90 8964 566 1 Michael Cowan Walter Ruttmann and the Cinema of Multiplicity: Avant-Garde Film ‒ Advertising ‒ Modernity, 2014 isbn 978 90 8964 585 2 Temenuga Trifonova Warped Minds: Cinema and Psychopathology, 2014 isbn 978 90 8964 632 3

Christine N. Brinckmann Color and Empathy: Essays on Two Aspects of Film, 2014 isbn 978 90 8964 656 9 François Albera and Maria Tortajada (eds.) Cine-Dispositives: Essays in Epistemology Across Media, 2015 isbn 978 90 8964 666 8 Volker Pantenburg Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory, 2015 isbn 978 90 8964 891 4 Paul Cuff A Revolution for the Screen: Abel Gance’s Napoléon, 2015 isbn 978 90 8964 734 4 Scott Loren and Jörg Metelmann (eds.) Melodrama After the Tears: New Perspectives on the Politics of Victimhood, 2015 isbn 978 90 8964 673 6 Steve Choe Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium, 2016 isbn 978 90 8964 638 5 Melis Behlil Hollywood is Everywhere: Global Directors in the Blockbuster Era, 2016 isbn 978 90 8964 739 9 Thomas Elsaesser Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema, 2016 isbn 978 94 6298 057 0 Michael Walker Modern Ghost Melodramas: ‘What Lies Beneath’, 2017 isbn 978 94 6298 016 7

Steffen Hven Cinema and Narrative Complexity: Embodying the Fabula, 2017 isbn 978 94 6298 077 8 Alexandra Seibel Visions of Vienna: Narrating the City in 1920s and 1930s Cinema, 2017 isbn 978 94 6298 189 8 Rossella Catanese Futurist Cinema: Studies on Italian Avant-garde Film, 2018 isbn 978 90 8964 752 8 Adrian Martin Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, 2018 isbn 978 94 6298 683 1 Paula Albuquerque The Webcam as an Emerging Cinematic Medium, 2018 isbn 978 94 6298 558 2 Ilka Brasch Film Serials and the American Cinema, 1910-1940, 2018 isbn 978 94 6298 652 7 Jessica Balanzategui The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema: Ghosts of Futurity at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, 2018 isbn 978 94 6298 651 0