- Bresson and the Bounds of History
If the French auteur Robert Bresson (1901–1999) ever cultivated a robust relationship with the fine art world, it was surely in the 1920s–1930s period, years before he directed his debut feature. Sometime after World War I, Bresson learned to paint at a fairly well-known training ground for modernist artists, the Académie Ranson.1 He soon abandoned painting, but he didn't turn his back on the art world. He found his footing as a publicity photographer, one with ties to the avant-garde.2 As he worked alongside Surrealists, his publicity art became more experimental, veering toward cosmic and antianthropocentric fantasy (figure 1), and his work found its way into art galleries and international exhibitions. His Surrealist connections eventually propelled him to a career in cinema.3 But his offbeat comique fou short Affaires publiques (1934), financed by a Surrealist, stirred controversy when it premiered, guaranteeing that no distributor would touch it and nearly dooming Bresson's prospects of directing feature films in the process.4 By 1940, for one reason or another, Bresson had largely disassociated himself from the avant-garde—at least professionally.
As we learn in Raymond Watkins's new book, the distance Bresson took from the art world—from its web of connections and [End Page 177]
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institutions—did not dissuade him from viewing the fine arts as a source of inspiration. When his directing career took off in the 1940s and 1950s, he tapped the history of painting in particular, often in indirect and eclectic ways. Some of his films obliquely suggested eighteenth-century French forms and modern Japanese styles. For Watkins, shots from 1971's Quatre nuits d'un rêveur recall the lighting of Whistler's 1875 Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket (112–13) and the 1950s nonhuman abstraction of Shōzō Shimamoto (122–23). Other films were less oblique, culling painting strategies directly from contemporary French artists; 1974's Lancelot du lac develops the play of concealment and revelation characteristic of the paintings of Pierre Charbonnier, the film's set designer (130–34). The fine arts influences we see in Bresson's [End Page 178] early Surrealist period thus did not disappear with the failure of Affaires publiques. Rather, as Watkins contends, they took on a new character and mood as Bresson's career progressed, particularly in the late period (1969–1983) when he shifted to color filmmaking and modern themes.
Watkins's book shines when analyzing a recurrent strategy of the color films: the highly symbolic use of twentieth-century art. In Une femme douce (1969), for instance, sophisticated framing and blocking techniques rework the "shot or scene as the construction of a series of layered spaces," eliciting comparisons between figures and the objets d'art around them (40). In a sequence filmed at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Bresson places the film's nameless Parisian pawnbroker in front of Alfred Manessier's Resurrection (1961), creating a rich thematic intertext in which "Manessier's magnificent sublime," its abstract evocation of a "non-representable God," is "transformed into a force of terror and despair" (63). (Watkins might have elaborated on the history of this allegorical figure-ground technique, tracing it at least to 1943's Les anges du péché, where the viewer is invited to associate the film's protagonist with Fra Angelico's Coronation of the Virgin, 1430–1432.)5
As a film set in modern Paris, Une femme douce emerges as a key touchstone in Watkins's account. His discussion of the film's reference to Nicholas Schöffer's sculpture Lux 1 (1957), also of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, is truly eye-opening. But another work, lesser known and often dismissed, Quatre nuits d'un rêveur, is no less significant in orienting the book's study of Bresson...