Transcendental Style in Cinema: The Legacy of Robert Bresson
The fact that Dumont only made six films over the course of almost fifteen years – The Life of Jesus, Humanity [L’Humanité] (1999), Twenty-Nine Palms (2003), Flanders [Flandres] (2006), Hadewijch, and his latest film Outside Satan [Hors Satan], premiered at Cannes in 2011 – may be due to his strict, and fairly unique, working methods. He does not write screenplays with their usual shorthand indications like ‘close-up’, ‘long shot’, etc. but instead he turns his ideas into a text which comes close to a literary novel, including all kinds of deliberations on the part of the characters. This text is impossible to adapt, Dumont seems to say. Since he does not have a regular script, he is not constrained by its imperatives. A text only functions as a rough guideline, for the process of shooting, to him, basically entails stripping away all the superfluous ornaments to the bare necessities. Four pages of text may ultimately be reduced to a simple twenty-second shot. To give a concrete example, Hadewijch was originally meant to have a conversation with David on their first encounter in the film but, while shooting, Dumont decided, after more than twenty takes, to cut down the dialogue to a faint ‘hello’. If one were to object that all these previous, worn-out takes are wasted efforts, Dumont will disagree. To him, the fatigue and frustration of all the failed attempts show in the eyes and the facial expression of the characters and thus benefit their appearance. His starting point is not only a wordy text, but the takes may also require some verbal play in order to end up with a film scene with hardly any dialogue.
Dumont does not work with professional actors, since he dislikes the deceit of their ‘performance tricks’. He casts his actors solely on the basis of their outward appearance, sometimes combined with their regional origin. He also adheres to the uncommon practical principle of giving his actors little information about the film as a whole. They only receive detailed instructions on how to behave and how to move in a particular scene. In doing so, he hopes that the actors will bring some spontaneity to the scene which may compensate for the fact that his overly thorough preparation of the whole project has partly ‘blinded’ him. Dumont is therefore never certain of the outcome and takes a special delight in being surprised by what is happening at the very moment the camera is running. He does not shy away from on-the-spot decisions and from last-minute adjustments. Dumont tends to push his actors to their limits, and the anecdote that he forbade his main actress in Hadewijch to eat or sleep before shooting to get the correct outlook speaks for itself. At the same time, he imposes rules on himself. As usual, he did not want to change anything about the locations, since in his opinion the scenes had to adjust to the chosen set. Furthermore, he used mono-sound for Hadewijch so that it ‘stays right in the picture’ and the sound is always contained within the frame. Last but not least, he chose an aspect ratio of 1:66 instead of the more spectacular widescreen format which is more common today. This relatively modest aspect ratio suited the humbleness practiced by the mystics. Such self-imposed constraints, Dumont says, enable him to keep a sharp focus on the essence of the project at hand.
Amongst contemporary filmmakers, Dumont can be considered as the main heir to Robert Bresson’s legacy, even more so than Michael Haneke. Like Dumont, Bresson hated theatricality in acting. Bresson tended to work with non-actors as well, although he was strict about not using them in more than one film. Like Dumont, he preferred mediocre and flat images over overly aestheticized shots and, here again, it has to be noted that Bresson was more rigid than Dumont. Whilst the latter allows himself relatively flamboyant film techniques like high angle perspectives, pans or tracking shots, the camera in Bresson’s cinema is nearly always static and he had the unshakeable habit of placing the camera at chest level of a standing person. Such differences are not crucial, mainly a matter of degree in austerity. Because the similarities are much more important than these minor divergences, I will take the liberty to elaborate on Bresson’s influence in order to frame Dumont’s poetics as a manifestation of a ‘transcendental style’ in cinema.
In his study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972), Paul Schrader states that this style in art/cinema ‘strives toward the ineffable and invisible’ in an attempt to ‘express the Holy’. He claims that elements of the transcendental style can be found in the work of several directors – such as Roberto Rossellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Kenji Mizoguchi, Andy Warhol – but only two can be called ‘prescriptive’ on account of their formal rigidity: Yasujiro Ozu in the East, and Robert Bresson in the West. One of the most astute and self-critical of film directors, Bresson insisted that for him the subject matter was nothing more but the vehicle through which the form operates. He prefers to downplay the importance of the plot, since it is merely a ‘novelist’s trick’, used to elicit quite predictable audience empathy. In conventional films, formal elements are a means for expressing content. Acting, camerawork, editing and music are all clues to ‘understanding’ the events and/or the state of mind of the characters. The story manipulates the dramatic events to such an extent that the viewer’s emotional involvement is being steered in a certain direction. In psychologically motivated cinema, the actors already decide for the viewer what attitude he should adopt towards the film (scenes).
Bresson resisted this kind of conventional cinema by carefully instructing his actors in non-expressiveness. They had to behave in an automatic manner, as if unaware of themselves. They had to deliver their lines in an extremely flat tone and resist the tendency to perform emotion. Not surprisingly, all other formal aspects were synchronized with this ‘cold’ approach: no camera movements, deadpan editing, a soundtrack consisting primarily of natural sounds and a rare use of music. He applied the same ascetic style to every single scene, whether filming the distress of a priest, a ballroom sequence or a couple making love.
The stylistic consistency of Bresson has two consequences. Firstly, as Schrader suggests, his rigid formalism may be inspired by spiritual feelings. In religion, repeated rituals like liturgy, mass, prayers and incantations are all formalistic methods designed to honour the Lord. Secondly, and more importantly, the net result of such extreme stylization and cool detachment is that the viewer lacks any clues or guidance as to how to respond emotionally to the scenes. In the end, Bresson’s anti-dramatic style only succeeds in eroding any sympathy for the characters, because identification with them, ‘deeply conceived, is an impertinence – an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart’.
In her article on the ‘spiritual style’ in Bresson’s films, Susan Sontag takes the view that his rigid form is designed ‘to discipline the emotions at the same time that it arouses them’. In a film with a detached style, the spectator is emotionally distanced from the story. At the same time, such an exploration of the ‘limit of the unexpressive’, as Sontag calls it, is a ‘source of great emotional power’. The emotions in a dramatic film, filled with passionate subjective matter, accompanied by a soundtrack of violins during sentimental scenes, are immediately exhausted, the argument runs. Paradoxically, an anti-dramatic style which works to hold back one’s emotions is an appropriate way to intensify them, according to Sontag.
Its cool detachment notwithstanding, every Bresson film has what Schrader calls a ‘moment of transformation’, a decisive action. His stylistic rules create a particular universe in which his characters are parachuted at will. Tension grows, since his characters, Schrader argues, always respond to a ‘special call’ and they obsessively stick to this call, at the cost of their own well-being. Their inflexibility makes them unable to adapt to the rigid order of their environment. In Diary of a Country Priest [Le journal d’un curé de campagne] (1951), which happens to be Dumont’s favourite Bresson film, a young priest (Claude Laydu) is a newcomer to the small town where he is met with hostility by his parishioners. His all-consuming spiritual passion does not find fertile ground in this narrow-minded community. Apart from his social solitude he suffers from poor health. The vicar of Torcy (Adrien Borel) accuses him of following too strict a diet, but he replies that his stomach only digests dry bread, fruit and wine. Realizing that he ultimately is a ‘prisoner of the Lord’, his sole option for overcoming the estrangement from his surroundings is to escape that other prison, his body. His martyrdom will culminate in a final, decisive action, acceptance of his own death from stomach cancer. The characters in Bresson’s cinema appear to transgress a personal barrier, no matter how minimal the breakthrough may seem at times – it can also be an ‘inexplicable expression of love’ for a girl by an imprisoned protagonist, as in Pickpocket (1959).
The decisive action in a Bresson film has a unique effect upon the viewer, according to Schrader. Because of the aesthetic film style, the spectator has been offered no emotional signposting at all, although the decisive action ‘demands an emotional commitment from the viewer’. This means that in a film that is at odds with psychologically motivated codes, he will have to construct his own emotional ‘screen’ from scratch. The crowning achievement of the ‘moment of transformation’ is represented on screen by ‘stasis’, defined by Schrader as a ‘quiescent, frozen or hieratic scene which follows the decisive action and closes the film’. Diary of a Country Priest ends with a shot of more than one minute, showing the shadow of a black cross on a white wall, while we hear the vicar in voice-over telling us that the very last words of the priest were: ‘All is grace’. For Dumont, Diary of a Country Priest is the epitome of cinema, since it is all designed to lead the viewer, shot by shot, to an ‘absolutely extraordinary’ final shot. In Schrader’s analysis, this closure reduces the film to stasis, the moment when the image stops and the viewer takes over.
It requires little imagination to find analogies between Bresson’s cinematic principles and Dumont’s Hadewijch. Besides the above-mentioned working methods regarding acting or the aspect ratio, the film features a heroine in line with the protagonists of a Bresson film: estranged from her environment, acting as a prisoner of Minne. The fact that the introverted Céline/Hadewijch is crying a couple of times seems a nod in the direction of psychologically driven cinema, so loathed by Bresson. Nonetheless, her tears are to a great extent non-expressive, since she does not weep in response to a certain event or situation, but to express her general suffering about His absence or about her loathsome existence. In addition to the detached shot compositions, the elliptical cutting is a preeminent formal feature of Hadewijch.
The spectator lacks anchors to answer crucial questions like: Why does Céline join Yassine and his friends in the café – friends, by the way, whom we only see at a brief glance, since the camera shows Céline and Yassine in a lengthy two-shot? Why is she interested in Nassir’s debating group? Why the bomb, and who is the target of the attack? Does the explosion take place at street-level or in the underground perhaps running underneath? Why does she shudder that she exists? Why the suicide attempt? And perhaps most intriguingly, but as unsolvable as the other questions: Has Céline, in the last episode of the film, returned to the convent after the explosion, or do the scenes actually precede the beginning of the film? In the latter case, one might imagine that both Nassir and Céline have blown themselves up with the bomb. All these ‘whys’ are floating in the void and, in withholding clear-cut answers, the plot is riddled with ambiguity.
Due to the elliptical cutting, it is problematic to pinpoint the decisive action. It is tempting to qualify the sunrays on Hadewijch’s face as such, since at that moment the scales tip over in favour of Nassir’s cause. A reading in the spirit of the transcendental style would rather focus on the moment of her distress over the split between her desire for the Beloved and her unworthy, earthly existence. Hence, Hadewijch’s ‘I shudder that I ever was born a human being’, followed by her effort to drown herself, can be taken as the decisive action, in the vein of Bresson’s cinema. The fact that the construction worker comes to her rescue seems to allude to his role as saviour. Tellingly, the frontal shot of David as the final image is accompanied by André Caplet’s musical piece ‘The Mirror of Jesus’ [‘Le miroir de Jésus’]. The overall tone of the film demands that we resist such a seemingly logical option. The succession of scenes is not psychologically coherent, as in conventional cinema. The viewer is constantly invited to fill in the transitions – and hence to provide an answer to all the ‘whys’ – but the clues are too minimal to create clear associative patterns. Seen this way, the film consists of a series of scenes that are too loosely connected to construct a tight narrative. The trick of the film is to offer the promise of a narrative whilst not fulfilling that promise. From this perspective, the final shot, when David holds Céline/Hadewijch in his arms, clearly not at ease with the situation and looking up to the sky, is a supreme example of stasis, as proposed by Schrader. The closure of Hadewijch is not the full-stop at the end of a plot, but it is rather an enigmatic tableau. A story with a clear-cut ending would risk boring the viewer, in the perception of Dumont, for once the riddles seem solved, the film ends. But because a narrative catharsis is ruled out in Hadewijch, the point of stasis – of frozen motion – stirs the viewer into contemplating the film, (also) after the credits. The ideal effect of stasis as the end product of transcendental style is to leave the viewer exalted, if not mesmerized.
To illustrate this preference for mesmerism over reason, the presence of two lengthy musical performances is significant in Dumont’s film. Music is rarely used in his cinema, but here he makes an exception. Music is the art form par excellence which cannot be contained by the rational mind and, hence, it is favoured by mystics ‘to express faith’ in an attempt to ‘obtain a glimpse of the hidden side of the soul’, as Dumont puts it. Moreover, both performances highlight the fact that one can be totally absorbed by the music. During the first musical interlude, the accordionist of the folk punk band seems ecstatic whilst performing a rough version of Bach’s Art of Fugue in the open air. During the second interlude, the camera shows Céline in complete awe whilst listening to a string quartet playing Bach’s Give Me Back My Jesus in a church.