Robert Bresson Brian Davies - Essay

Brian Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is only in the last century that heroes like Stephen Dedalus, Paul Morel, Yury Zhivago and the priest of Journal d'un Curé de Campagne have regularly emerged. They are from novels in which the hero is an analysable combination of artistic creation, autobiography and public confessional. The task of deciding whether the author is commentating, revealing or committing becomes almost impossible. This is particularly true of Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, written in diary form as a purely first person narrative…. Bernanos has foresaken the advantages of distance for the equally great advantages of intimacy…. The limitations of the structure of the novel reduces its meaning to ambiguities; Bernanos gives us no indication of the way he feels about the priest.

The film provides an ideal solution to this problem. Bresson chose a most unfilmlike form in which the priest reads for long periods out of his diary, whilst on the screen we merely see him writing in the diary or engaged in some task of housework, or sometimes moving towards the next piece of conversation in the film. None of the direct, personal communion between the priest and the audience was lost; yet at the same time we could stand away from the priest observing him in his day-to-day encounters with people…. Bresson has used [the visuals] to reinforce the priest's monologue at all times to provide the atmosphere tone in which the drama is to unfold and to modulate that tone. The relationship between the visuals and the sound track is symptomatic of Bresson's whole approach to the priest's tale. It is the approach of complete simplicity as compared to the relative complexity of Bernanos' priest….

Bresson has used these visual techniques to create the atmosphere of the isolation and disturbance through which his priest is to tell his story. Just as important to note, however, is the way that these visual techniques become part and parcel of the whole change in the nature of the priest's story as it appears in the film. The extreme economy of the visual content with its sparse use of object serves to constantly centre our attention on the drama within the priest. The subjective is made more intense by removing all but the sketched outline of the objective world. Not only are irrelevant objects and lighting removed but the recurrent images of the gate, the cart, and even that of the diary help to create an almost classical unity of place.

As with the visuals, the characters of Bresson's Journal d'un Curé de Campagne become subservient to the central and dominating figure of the priest. In the Bernanos novel the characters, although existing for us only through the eyes of the priest, have an existence of their own. The priest's...

(The entire section is 1138 words.)