- Neither God nor Master: Robert Bresson & Radical Politics
In his introductory chapter, Brian Price presents a compelling and unorthodox thesis. Critical writings on Robert Bresson’s films over the past thirty years have stressed the filmmaker’s preoccupation with “questions of grace and predestination, election and salvation” (3); hence the prevailing view of Bresson as a religious filmmaker. Price convincingly takes issue with what he perceives as an oversimplification. He states that Bresson’s films go beyond questions of grace to take up a much more radical political critique of life under capitalism and develops this interpretation in a detailed discussion of the majority of Bresson’s films (only thirteen over a fifty-year period). Price enters into dialog with previous Bresson criticism as he demonstrates a sophisticated knowledge of various twentieth-century French theorists, including Foucault, Derrida and Lacan. The breadth of work discussed within its historical context makes Price’s dense volume an intellectual delight. His reading “against the grain” of Bresson scholarship motivated me to go back and review all the Bresson films I could get my hands on. [End Page 90]
In his chapter on “Crime as a Form of Liberation,” Price makes a rather startling statement: “Despite the religious orientation of Bresson criticism, the films themselves are more concerned with crime than they are with religion” (15). Perceiving similarities between Pickpocket (1959) and A Man Escaped (1956), Price uses Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to examine how Bresson represents prisons and prison cells as both religious and social spaces: “a site of social engineering,” where crime may function as a form of social liberation. Bresson arrives at this radical viewpoint, Price asserts, via his early participation in Surrealism and his interest in Jean Genet’s novels and single film, Un Chant d’amour (1950), which brings out the erotic possibilities of confinement. Price points out that Bresson’s first film was not Les Anges du péché (1943) as commonly thought—although this is also a film that links religious cells to prison cells—but Affaires publiques (1934), “an anarchic comedy about an inept chancellor of an imaginary country” that draws heavily from Chaplin, Sennet, and Keaton (17). In that initial film, Bresson investigates the relationship between sound, image and social organization, examining the role of radio and its tendency to manipulate and homogenize its listeners. These early revolutionary tendencies carry over into the 1950s films that Price claims “are more closely involved in a practice of monstration, in a series of visual instructions” (22). Bresson’s famous method of using non-actors who serve more as models instructed not to act, his frequent use of voice-overs, his characteristic fragmentation of the human body and privileging close-ups of hands and the work they do—whether to escape a barbed-wire prisoner of war camp (as Bresson himself did) or to learn the skill of pickpocketing—all reinforce Price’s argument and complicate a narrowly religious reading of the films. Rather than interpreting the end of Pickpocket as a scene of redemption for its protagonist Michel, Price claims it is better understood in terms of irony because of the anti-hero’s lack of expression and the use of Lully’s Atys as background music, which was composed by the openly gay musician at a moment when the prison system under Louis XIV “began to conflate moral correction with the prosperity of the aristocracy” (32). Price goes on to note the homoerotic relationship that develops between teacher and student in the act and art of pickpocketing. In other words, Bresson’s cinema makes visible that which had to remain hidden—theft and homoerotic desire— because they are outside the law.
Next Price employs Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology to demonstrate Bresson’s desire “to open a space between the image and the thing itself” (42). Like Derrida, Bresson finds interest in the “trace” rather than in “presence,” refusing to find a causal link between word and image. He demonstrates the violence done by the metaphysics of self-presence in films ostensibly more religious. For...