Robert Bresson Jonathan Baumbach - Essay

Jonathan Baumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The severity of Bresson's style has earned his films the reputation, depending on whom you read, of being exquisitely or pretentiously boring. In fact, in my sense of it, the opposite is true. There is hardly an uncharged moment in Bresson's meticulous and provocative mise en scène. My sense is that certain audiences experience Bresson as boring because his films, while appearing simple, demand so much of the eye. Boredom serves as a means of deflecting pressure.

In Four Nights of a Dreamer, it is as if Bresson's influence on Godard had filtered back to him in a kind of circular pollination. A comedy … adapted and updated from the Dostoevsky story "White Nights," Four Nights of a Dreamer is Bresson's most contemporary film in style and setting. It is also the austere filmmaker's most ungrudgingly beautiful and accessible work. (p. 450)

Whereas in the tragic films, Bresson's isolated, self-imprisoned figures (the curate, the pickpocket, Fontaine, Marie), seeking freedom, make contact at the last extreme with another, Four Nights of a Dreamer deals with the romantic charge of hopeless pursuit. Jacques loves Marthe—it is the nature of romantic love, of course—because he is doomed not to have her. The dreamer, committed to loss, pursues only illusory hopes. To make real contact, to love, is to lose the fantasy of loving, which is central to the dreamer's life, the romantic, really masturbatory stuff of his art. Although their romance is dependent on the blindness of mutual self-dramatization, Jacques's loss of Marthe, her rejection of him for her former lover, touches us somehow at the end. Throughout the body of the film, Bresson denies us the least of our illusions about his characters, distances us from them as if a glass door separated our feelings from theirs. Withheld from us unreasonably long, Jacques's pain and isolation—the price he pays for his dreaming—breaks through at the last, releasing us into brief recognition, and the film is over. Jacques retreats into old patterns of survival, does what we've seen him do a number of times before, but for a moment we see him with extraordinary clarity, recognize him as if he were transparent or luminous. (p. 451)

Jonathan Baumbach, "Medium and Message," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 3, 1973, pp. 445-54.∗