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FILM: ROBERT BRESSON AND TRANSCENDENTAL STYLE IN CINEMA

A Closer Look at“A Man Escaped”

My first instinct for this essay and its mysterious subject – transcendental style in cinema – was to find a list of films that were classified in that category and then extract a common denominator, which would form the basis of my understanding of transcendental cinema. This shortcut approach failed terribly. In the lists I found titles as THX 1138 and The Tree of Life side by side with Baraka and Clockwork Orange. I couldn’t find the common denominator of these films; especially not when put together with the works of the three directors Paul Schrader talks about in his 1988 book Transcendetal Style in Cinema. So I decided to go through some of its exerts I found online.[1]

To get to this notion of transcendental Style in cinema Schrader combined two existing ideas; Mircea Eliade’s statement that there is expression of the Holy or Transcendent in every culture, and Heinrich Wölfflin’s theory that there are universal artistic forms and styles common to all cultures. The area in which these two theories overlap is the area of Transcendental Art, in which Schrader identifies a series of films belonging to three very distinctive film makers: Dreyer, Ozu and Bresson.

In further dissecting Schrader’s text it all remained quite abstract, and only occasionally did I find I started to see what Schrader saw in Fontaine’s story (A Man Escaped) that he felt was transcendental, and in some sort of relation to Ozu’s filmmaking. Is there a link between Schrader’s transcendental style and Mark Cousin’s idea of Classicism in cinema? Who is transcending what? Is the term mainly referring to a religious Holy? Or does it also refer to the action of transcending certain elements of art in general as well as more specific cinematographic techniques?

Maybe Fontaine - the main characters in A Man Escaped – is the one transcending his fate, overcoming the drama of his situation? He does seem oddly detached from his predicaments, and plays his cards like a cold poker player, following every step of the causal chain his path consists of. Certain sequences in A Man Escaped feel so matter-of-fact that you might feel you are watching an instruction video on how to escape from a prison. Schrader notes that Fontaine’s desire for freedom goes passed the normal prisoners motivation. He does not have a will to escape; he is “nothing but an embodied will to escape. […] In each case Bresson’s protagonists respond to a special call which has no natural place in their environment”.

Another important dynamic these main characters share is that of the development through the different common stages of disparity, transformation  (“without which there cannot be art” Bresson says) via a decisive action, (not to be confused with Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment! Weird coincidence?) resulting in stasis. Schrader writes: “Stasis is the quiescent, frozen, or hieratic scene which succeeds the decisive action and closes the film. It is a still re-view of the external world intended to suggest the oneness of all things. […] In A Man Escaped it is the long shot of the darkened street with Fontaine and Jost receding in the distance.”

Bresson clearly had a very complex analytical vision on how images and narrative work in our minds – almost an Eisensteinian deep exploration of subconscious construction of meaning in cinema. I suspect his “notes on Cinematography” will shed more light on this.

This makes me believe that maybe I was looking in the wrong direction. Maybe it is not Fontaine that is transcending his troubles, or expressing the transcendental, but it could just as well be that it is Mr Robert Bresson himself. Maybe he has found a way to put himself above cinema’s inherent elements and the consequential limitations, break free from conventions and show something that touches upon the transcendental, the Holy and universal.

Bresson was not exaggerating when he said “I am more occupied with the special language of the cinema than with the subject of my films”. This special language operates on a whole different level than its conventional version and was indeed designed to be quite special; A Man Escaped seems to purposely avoid any means by which the viewer could swap places with Fontaine and participate in neither the actions nor the emotions on screen. So the question now becomes; what is Bresson exactly doing to deny us that participation?

He keeps the audience detached from the emotions shown on screen, to a large extent, through a very specific way of directing his actors – he refers to them as models; furthermore his static camerawork and signature framing keeps viewers out of the action on screen. On top of that his films are edited in such a way that no suspense could muddle the narratives causal development. (The biggest editing point could be seen in the tittle of the film, Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé, leaving absolutely no part of the narrative unveiled and thus doing away with every possibility for suspense) Finally, sound is preferred over image, which is even a step further from denying access; here Bresson lets you figure it out for yourself (the guard on the bicycle during the actual escape scene for example)

No actors. (No directing of actors).
No parts. (No learning of parts).
No staging. But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING(models) instead of SEEMING(actors).

 With this less-is-more approach of guiding his models, Bresson places them completely out of the star-centred tradition of cinema, which holds a dominant position throughout most of motion picture history. It also stems from a recurrent desire of Bresson to break with – or transcend above? – one of cinema’s historic forefathers; the theatre. One of the entries into his notes reads: “Nothing rings more false in a movie than the tone natural to the theatre, one of copying life and traced-over studied sentiments”. He wanted his models to act as vessels, carrying a narrative from A to B in a plain and un-dramatic way. Throughout the book Bresson repeatedly makes a case against allowing any trace of theatre in cinema – a phenomenon that had its roots both in cinema’s early presentational forms (vaudeville theatres) as well as in the acquisition of content during its early days in France with companies such as Film d’Art. He comments: “Nothing more inelegant and ineffective than an art conceived in another art form”.

To the ‘model’ playing the pastor in A Man Escaped Bresson’s instructions were; “Forget about tone and meaning. Don’t think about what you’re saying; just speak the words automatically.” The focus in cinema had to be on an exploration within the mind, and emotional involvement can only distract from this; “As far as I can I eliminate anything which may distract from the interior drama.[…] Within the mind, the camera can do anything.

The result is a very recognizable tone and rhythm to the performances in Bresson’s films. Schrader remarks that you could go to dinner with the lead actor in a Bresson film the day after you watched the film, and not even recognize him.

These recognizable performances are captured in even more recognizable camera angles and moves. Bresson wants to keep a certain continuity in the way spaces and people in them are shown. He strips the camera from its editorial power over the reality in front of it. The result is a very unobtrusive camera that stays at the same height – mainly around the height of the subjects eye line – and is mostly static on a tripod. Quite a few shots in A Man Escaped do use a dolly track, but it is mainly used for very small moves to accentuate a close up right after a tilt down, making it barely noticeable. (think for example of the shot in which Fontaine first obtains a spoon by putting it on the floor behind his foot) In these static frames we see either our main character, or the object of his focus. The camera’s focus leaves no compositional alternatives but the focal plane on which this character is active. Our eyes barely go anywhere else but there where Bresson wants them to go.

Schrader remarks that “when each action is handled in essentially the same non-expressive manner, the viewer no longer looks to the angle and composition for “clues” to the action”, which ties in with the observations made above on how Bresson tries to deny the audience any chance to get emotionally involved with the characters and their actions. From flipping through his “notes on cinematography” I get the sense that Bresson is distrustful to the eyes and the way they bring information into our heads. He seems to find them superficial and lazy. Bresson’s camera shows nothing but facts, the editing does nothing but line them up – which could be seen as his camera mimicking this laziness of our eyes, our everyday cameras.

The fanciest editing trick in Bresson’s films are cross-dissolves; we are never in two places simultaneously – parallel editing – never get any flashbacks or dream sequences, no impressionistic sequences. Even more remarkable is the coverage Bresson gives us in a scene; just one lens throughout most scenes (meaning there is no wide-medium-close type of building up of scenes as is very conventional visual language) The majority of the cuts are plain continuity cuts within a scene, and dissolves to go from one scene to the next.

When we listen closely to what sort of information we get through sound we realize Bresson is more generous and trusting to the ears than he is to the eyes; “the ear is more creative than the eye. If I can replace a shot by a sound I prefer the sound. This gives freedom to the imagination of the public. This phenomenon helps you suggest things rather than having to show them.”

To conclude this closer look at Bresson’s form, we can now analyse the opening scene in A Man Escaped and think of the many different ways this action could have been treated – from acting over camera angles to editing and the use of sound. 

The scene begins with Fontaine looking at his hands, realizing he is not handcuffed. (disparity! His fellow prisoners in the car do have cuffs on) He then tries to anticipate the situation on the road to find the right moment to jump out of the car. He does so but is instantly caught, brought back to the car and handcuffed. This is shown a series of close ups; Fontaine’s focused face, his neighbour who feels he is up to something, the hand of the driver gearing down whenever a possible obstacle comes along on the road, and the road, on which two times we think something is going to create an opportunity for Fontaine. First a horse pulled chart with goods pulls out in front of them, later, after sound clips of its ringing bell introduces it, a tram crosses their road and they come to a hold. For Bresson standards this is actually quite a suspenseful sequence. When he does jump out of the car the camera does a very strange thing; it stays in the car, giving away that it knows he will be back very soon - just like the title giving away he will escape eventually; no more suspense there. While Fontaine is out of the car it is mainly sound that tells us what is happening.

How would this have looked if it were directed by lets say Quentin Tarantino on the one hand and Paul Greengrass on the other. I will stereotype both directors (of course this is unlikely to do any honour to their respective crafts and styles, but just to lend more strength to the perspectives on this scene we are trying to lay bare) by saying the first focuses on character while the latter focuses on action.

In my imagined Tarantino version of this scene we would start of on a wider shot of the street on which we are driving. The camera would work its way over from a Nazi symbol on the car to Fontaine’s face, looking calm and cool out of the window. The German officer sitting in the front seat looks focused out of the front window, in a diagonal medium shot of him we see his machine gun with a bayonette sticking out next to his shoulder, the focus shift to Fontaine behind him reaching into his chest pocket. With a set of close ups we see how he takes a pin of some sort out and pushes it into his handcuffs, cunningly undoing them. He winks at the guy sitting next to him who nervously smiles at him while a pearl of sweat runs down his forehead. As he slips his undone handcuffs between the two front seats he now leans forward (we see this in a front on shot from the hood of the car) and asks the driver some sort of confusing question; “say Otto are you sure it wasn’t right at that last cross road back there?” while the driver and the officer next to him get all worked up and angry with him for opening his mouth we see a close up of his hands cuffing the drivers belt to the officers belt. In a medium shot along the length of the back seat we see the other two prisoners’ stressed out faces in the foreground as Fontaine leans back apologising. A close up shows his slight triumphant smirk. We get a shot from behind the driver showing the tram obstructing the road, causing the car to come to a halt. Fontaine gets out in a most slow and calm manner, slipping both handguns of driver and officer out of their holsters as he leaves the car. He gets in front of the car and in a two shot from behind the back seat we see him blow their heads off. He then jumps on the back of the passing tram and disappears.

I am less familiar with Greengrass’ films (less of a fan I guess) but if I had to try to translate this scene to his cinematic language it would probably start with the officers stuffing the prisoners in the car in quite a violent way. Fontaine would use his handcuffs to choke the driver out while the officer in the passenger seat is beating him with the back of his machine gun. The other prisoners would choke him out and as the car crashes into a wall three other cars now come speeding onto the scene, surrounding Fontaine and his adventurous friends. They find cover in the car rubble and with the use of the machinegun from the now dead officers they fire back at the dozen Gestapo officers around them. They crawl into a manhole in the road and come out elsewhere covered in dirt and smelly water, fast pace exchanging vital information for the plot about some conspiring evil government and their dark master plan.

Even Bresson’s “Notes On Cinematography” are completely in line with his film style. The 70 page book does not contain a structural text, it makes no use of persuasive or logically constructed arguments and is void of any form of literary stylization what so ever. You might think it is some sort of check-list he has made for himself, to follow when he is making a film. The eBook document I found online actually has check boxes between the truisms:

Cinematographic film, where the images, like the words in a dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.
An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it.
Your models must not feel they are dramatic.
Radically supress intentions in your models

Finally we might want to see if the transcendental aspects of these films might not lay with the audience and their experience? Maybe they are the one transcending themselves, the cinema and the specific story they are watching. It could be that the minimal depth of the characters and lack of drama creates a sort of passe-partout vessel that conveys a message beyond one persons joy, pain, desires, fears or despair. With Bresson dismissing almost every rule or tradition in filmmaking, how come his films do touch, attract and impress a good part of its viewers?

To be honest, I have come to like Bresson’s films better throughout the course of reading about them while researching for this essay, but at the same time I can also see how one just as well could not go along with all these abstract ideas and rule-breaking experiments. A Man Escapes starts of in a very strange way, almost purposely making you feel Fontaine was teleported into his body the second the camera started rolling on that first shot.  A good friend of mine told me how the film lost him already at that point; nothing in that opening scene was believable or even interesting to him. I can see how for quite a few people Bresson eliminates too many key elements and breaks too many crucial rules of conventional cinema for them to even be able to sit through his films. One thing you can say about the wooden staging and almost robotic performances is that they are consistent, which might explain why some audiences seem to get over it. It fascinates me that he did leave such an influential body of work in the history of cinema – despite his unconventional form –and became a very important film maker for many film lovers. Maybe watching more of his films will bring me more in tune with his style.