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The Comedy Stylings of Robert Bresson

Tracing Bresson’s audio-visual sensibility back to the formally-ambitious film comedies of the early 1930s.

Asked by Sight & Sound to name the ten greatest films of all time, Robert Bresson submitted the following, somewhat notorious list:

1. City Lights
2. City Lights
3. The Gold Rush

There are two ways in which Robert Bresson is rarely spoken about: as a comic filmmaker (though, as the above demonstrates, he could be pretty damn funny) and as someone whose work displays the influence of other directors. 

Let's begin with that second point. Going back to some of the earliest defenses—as well as the earliest dismissals—of his work, Bresson has largely been described as a filmmaker "without precedent;" his detractors from the 1940s to the 1960s complained that his films didn't work the way movies were supposed to, and his supporters were more than happy to praise his films for the exact same reasons (Jacques Becker, for one, took the pages of L'Écran français to defend the poorly-received Les dames du Bois de Boulogne as “whole, new, owing nothing to anyone, nothing to any other film”).

"Owing nothing to any other film" has become, over the decades, the critical party line on Bresson, whose films are more likely to be elucidated through comparisons to Manet than to any filmmaker—owing, in part, to his oft-cited, more-or-less-undocumented background as an "artist" (if Bresson was a painter, where, then, are his paintings?). Bresson, who later in life was prone to using the word "cinema" pejoratively, pretty much constructed this narrative for himself.(1)

However, in reviewing Bresson's first film, Public Affairs, for Esprit in 1934, Roger "Bazin's Bazin" Leenhardt was more than happy to point out several influences, beginning his piece with a comparison to Max Linder; later on he also invokes René Clair and a filmmaker familiar from the "top ten" above: Chaplin. But because Public Affairs spent most of Bresson's career conveniently missing, it has largely been left out of what could be called "the Bresson narrative;" since reappearing in the late 80s, it has been dismissed as an "uncharacteristic" oddity, treated more or less as juvenilia (despite the fact that Bresson was 33 years old and already had experience in the film industry when he made it), and approached as a one-off with no apparent connection to the director's later work. This position is, however, bullshit.  

Shot in the summer of 1934 and released a few months later, Public Affairs is a 25-minute short set in two fictional countries, Crogandia and Miremia. Though Bresson cultivated a sort of outsider reputation later on,(2) the film's production reveals him as anything but; it was funded by one major cultural mover-and-shaker—the wealthy painter, Surrealism expert, and all-around scenester Roland Penrose—and co-written with two minor ones: playwright André Josset and the lawyer, cinephile, and future two-time Cannes jury member Paul Weill. In mentioning these co-writers, we come up against another integral part of the Bresson narrative: a tendency to ignore his collaborators, some of whom he worked with for decades. To find a blatantly obvious through-line to Bresson's later work in Public Affairs, all you have to do is read the credits.

The catchy march tune that plays over the opening of the film is composed by Jean Wiener, who gets a whole title card to himself; Wiener would later compose the music for Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, and Une femme douce. But more importantly, there's the fact that Public Affairs' art direction was handled by Pierre Charbonnier, a key Bresson collaborator who served as the production and set designer on seven Bresson films besides this one: Diary of a Country PriestA Man EscapedPickpocketThe Trial of Joan of ArcAu hasard BalthazarUne femme douce, and Lancelot of the Lake (Pierre Guffroy, who was the art director on Mouchette and L'argent, had earlier been Charbonnier's assistant)

Despite being one of film history's most instantly-identifiable production designers (for proof, just check out one of the few non-Bresson films Charbonnier art-directed, Naked Autumn, the 1961 directorial debut of A Man Escaped star Francois Letterier[3]), Charbonnier is a figure shrouded in mystery; little is known about him aside from the fact that he was born in 1897—which would suggest that the reason he didn't work on either The Devil, Probably or L'argent was because he was either too old or too dead—and that his friendship with Bresson predated Public Affairs.  

Bresson's four-decades with Charbonnier was the longest of the director's working relationships, but it was hardly unusual. Though he preferred working with unknown, mostly non-professional actors, Bresson's crews were the exact opposite: full of regulars (including assistant director Mylène Van der Mersch, script supervisor Françoise Reinberg, composer Jean-Jacques Grunenwald, and camera-operator-turned-cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel) and, despite Bresson's rather low budgets, highly sought-after professionals. 

Besides sharing a couple of collaborators with Bresson's later work, Public Affairs also shares a number of organizing principles, the most prominent of which—not to sound too dry—is a focus on the relationship between sound and image. Public Affairs' first few gags, as a matter of fact, are essentially sound gags: the opening sequence depicts a montage of Crogandians indifferently listening to a stuttering radio announcer—an early film appearance by Marcel Dalio, who plays a total of four roles in the short (who says Bresson never cast the same actor twice?). 

With its subtly-angled framing and Charbonnier's characteristically spare production design, the middle image in the above sequence looks like it could have come from any of Bresson's black-and-white films. Furthermore, his absolute stillness draws attention to the fact that he—like many of the bit players in Public Affairs, and like the "models" of Bresson's later films—has been cast entirely based on his appearance.  

The film's second gag—wherein two bigwigs riding in a car to the sound of cheering crowds are revealed to be listening to a phonograph recording while they ride down an empty country road—is, again, a sound gag. It's also pretty damn funny. 

This is where we finally get to that first point from way up above: Bresson as a comic filmmaker. On set, Bresson had a reputation as a witty charmer. Though none of his films after Public Affairs could be described, by any stretch of the imagination, as comedies, they occasionally display a distinctively world-weary sense of humor—an irony toward human behavior that, like much of this film, betrays the influence of René Clair (in fact, six years after Public Affairs, Bresson would land something of a dream gig, working as Clair's assistant on L'air pur; however, production on the film was abandoned due to the German invasion of France). Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), for example, opens with a gag that wouldn't be out of place in Public Affairs or in one of Clair's early sound films: a man making a strange, repetitive, kinda-masturbatory gesture is revealed to be standing in a long line of people trying to hitch rides along a busy road; when a car pulls up and asks him where he's going, he throws up his hands in a similarly mechanical way.  

The gag from Four Nights of a Dreamer—like most of the gags in Public Affairs—is hardly outside Bresson's usual modus operandi; it does, however, point to the strong comedic influence in Bresson's "unprecedented" style. Bresson's filmmaking methods were predicated on creating a clear boundary between sound and image ("What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear," he wrote in Notes on the Cinematographer), never allowing one to take precedence over or merely support the other. This contrapuntal approach is something Bresson shared with his contemporary Jacques Tati (incidentally, the two shared a sound editor, Jacques Carrère, who also worked extensively with Jean-Pierre Melville), and with Clair's first three sound films, Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct (an obvious point of reference for some of Public Affairs' more flippant scenes), and, of course, the number one and number two on Bresson's "top ten," City Lights

Which is a very long way of saying that, while not overtly comic, Bresson's whole audio-visual sensibility had its roots in comedy—namely, the ambitious film comedies of early 1930s, the "post-silents," which sought to combine the control of the visual achieved by silent comedy with a sparing, expressive use of sound.


This essay is part of Robert Bresson: The Over-Plenty of Life, an ongoing series re-examining the work of Robert Bresson. Next week, I'll be taking a look at Bresson's first proper feature, Les anges du péché.

1. He cannot, however, be blamed for the tendency to refer to his work as "Jansenist," a label he actively resisted. I propose an alternate, fringe theory explanation based, I'll admit, entirely on the title of André Bazin's 1948 essay "William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing": that, having discovered what a Jansenist was, film critics looked for decades—in the style of the opening of Kundun—for a filmmaker who could credibly be called a Jansenist and settled on Bresson.

2. When Bresson would later give accounts of the beginning of his career, he'd usually gloss over everything that happened before Les anges du péché. For example, in a 1970 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, he claimed that after Public Affairs, "for six or seven years, no one would give me a job"—neglecting to mention that, during that time, he'd had at least two screenplays produced: Les jumeaux de Brighton (1936) and the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry adaptation Southern Carrier (1937). Remember: never trust directors about their own work.

3. I like to imagine that Letterier applied the principles he learned from Bresson when he was directing Goodbye Emmanuelle.

This is so good, Ignatiy.
The last scene of The Trial of Joan of Arc seems like as perfect a comic sequence as a Chaplin finale to me (excusing a strange connotation of “comic” with "happy"—Chaplin and Linder probably made as many stories about suicides and botched suicides as Bresson). A pratfall, a magical appearance of a grinning dog out of thin air, a cross used to gauge the smoke of Joan’s immolation—a divine sign turned into a material sign, a weather vane—and then the magic trick out of the montage that as the smoke fades, Joan’s body that she’s spent a film trying to preserve, has disappeared. Not for nothing that that Bresson called Balthazar “Charlot,” the little tramp, and that for the trompe l’oeil of the pickpocket station dance, practically out of Keaton, Bresson hired two circus clowns and magicians to play the pickpockets: Kassugi and Pierre Etaix, at the time just coming off Tati’s assistant. A couple weeks ago a great experimental filmmaker who’s written beautifully on Bresson mentioned burlesque as Bresson’s key influence: “the world of signs” is Bresson’s world as much as Tati, but equally burlesque is the way it’s broken through by presences, comic presences, animals and babies that can’t depict or signify anything other than themselves. For all the step-by-step narratives of the montage, the Keaton-like process-oriented mechanisms and Rube Goldberg dominoes making the anvil fall inexorably (would love to see double feature of Go West and L’Argent), there’s this Chaplin-like sense of presence in the suspended times of a vaudeville act that ruptures narrative, insists the actors belong to the same tense and place as the viewer, that the actor on-stage is just that, a person from the audience playing a role on-stage to parody the farce of societal rules and regulations around him. Watching Lancelot du Lac last night, I kept thinking of Chaplin’s The Idle Class. Mouchette could be the heir to the tramp in City Lights. Great stuff IV, and thank you.
Great piece, Ignatiy. Robert Bresson is almost exclusively discussed with hallowed fervor, reducing him simply to an icon. As the Bressonian drums beat louder than ever (his first complete retrospective in 14 years in North America has already begun in New York and comes soon to LA), it is useful to also be aware of the master filmmaker’s “idiosyncrasies” which serve to remind us of what Pliny the Young once said of Roman Emperor Trajan: “There is no need to flatter him as a God. He is one of us. Remember, although he rules over men, he is himself a man.”
I concur with the above and I look forward to seeing Les Affaires Publiques eventually. SPOILERS*** Having just rewatched Balthazar again last night, I can’t help but think of a moment when Arnold rides away, drunk, from the bar on Balthazar and bids farewell to a milestone, a telephone pole and Balthazar himself before collapsing and dying. It is tragic and yet gently humorous at the same time as he [Arnold] was dismissed by others so often, his final farewells are given to similarly disregarded objects, and the only ones who witness his passing.
How about the gangster sequence in Four Nights of a Dreamer? I can’t watch the hyperbolic conclusion of Le Doulos without recalling it. I was at the National Film Theatre once when Bresson was presenting this film and he somewhat disingenuously denied that any particular director was being parodied but he obviously had Melville in his sights. In any case isn’t the elliptical quality of Bresson’s cinema in which a single object can stand in for so much close to Freud’s conception of the joke?
Excellent writing. This is what I look for in film criticism. And you managed to spark some substantial and interesting comments. Congratulations.
Saw THE DEVIL, PROBABLY last night at the retro: that may be B’s funniest non-comedy film. Consistently filled with gags and disjunctive humor.
And of course it is the great Rene Clair who wrote, back in 1929, that “It is the alternate, not the simultaneous, use of the visual subject and of the sound produced by it that creates the best effects.”
“I was at the National Film Theatre once when Bresson was presenting this film and he somewhat disingenuously denied that any particular director was being parodied but he obviously had Melville in his sights.” And of course, it cut both ways. Melville always bitched about about being Bressonian avant la lettre with La Silence de la Mer. The whole thing should be sent to the Hague for mediation.
Bresson has black humour talent!
Phelps, Yes, Etaix! I completely forgot about his cameo in Pickpocket (which, of course, is another Bresson-Tati connection). And NRH — wish I’d seen that Clair quote when I was putting this together!
(Additionally, on the Melville-Bresson link: the clown Beby, who appears in Public Affairs, is the star of Melville’s first short, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Clown.)
…which is here, with spanish subtitiles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3EN_qT_vE0
When I re-watched Pickpocket a few weeks ago it occurred to me that it was very similar in style, tone and character with Hollywood B-movies of the 40s. This is not to diminish Bresson, B-movies can be just as good as any other film. Watching it back to back with some early film by Phil Karlson for example can be very illuminating. Is it a conscious effort or is it just that the acting styles are similar, due to the lack of experience, and that Bresson’s style of filmmaking resembles the slight awkwardness of many a B-movie?
yess bresson is a funny man, it showed in his films especially une femme douce
Ignatiy – interesting ideas. Just picking up on footnote 1, I agree that RB did not care to be called a Jansenist but he did admit to being a Pascalian.(For good reason: His Notes on the Cinematographer are structured like the Pensees and it is Pascal/Jansenius/Augustine ideas on grace that inform Man Escaped.) Pascal was the polemicist for the Jansenist/Port Royal movement against the Jesuits so it was not unreasonable for Parisians to label him (provocatively) as a Jansenist. I think of Jansenism as a CounterCounterReformation, introducing a bit of Puritan austerity into the Catholic church of the 17th century. I think this sparseness appealed to RB. Long way from Affaires Publiques, I admit! Tim Cawkwell

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