On viewing Au hasard Balthazar (1966) at the Robert Bresson retrospective here in New York I noticed this interesting edit:
What's going on here? François Lafarge's miscreant teen Gérard, after insolently facing one of the only characters in the film sympathetic to him, his landlady and boss (or wife of his boss), seems almost to pass through her between the space of one shot (her wiping her tears away) and the next (him walking directly away from her).
What's actually going on here is that in the shot of the woman wiping away her tear, Gérard walks across the frame from left to right, but is so close to the camera he simply seems nearly to fill the frame rather than just move across it. Thus the next shot seems like a 180-degree reverse cut, as if the camera's view point is that of the woman. Actually it's more like a 90-degree cut, with Gérard's back perpendicular to the direction the woman is facing.
A lot of technical detail there, but the effect is that, nearly, it seems in this moment not just of profound empathy but of, seemingly, Gérard being unmoved by it, he walks into and magically passes through this woman. I found this effect, totally artificial and constructed by Bresson's unique disruption of space, very moving—yet another of the director's spontaneous gestures, like the crying: sudden expressions that break with the continuity of previous shots.
A few days later, watching Une femme douce (1969) I saw not precisely the same thing, but something very similar:
Dominique Sanda is followed home against her instructions by the pawnshop owner (Guy Frangin) with whom she just went on a date. She is outside her apartment door; he is on the landing half a flight down. She steps away from her door to respond to his intrusion and his questions. The shot of her places her in the middle of the frame, boxed in by the flight of stairs going up on the left and her door on the right. Upon his promise of what will happen if she agrees to marry him, which is said during a reverse shot, roughly from her point of view, of him down on the landing, Sanda crosses from off-screen right to left. While her iconic army-green coat blocks our view of Frangin, Bresson cuts 90-degrees to the left, and Sanda walks out of the camera into her doorway.
The effect here is even more ambiguous. Even though the first of the two shots connected by the edit has Sanda clearly moving across the frame (unlike in Au hasard Balthazar, where this does happen but is much less spatially and compositionally clear), she still seems to pop out of the camera; and in the previous shot, what was at the center of the frame, thus nearly the image she is "popping out" of or passing through, is that of the consternated pressing of her suitor. Thus despite "blocking" his entreaty with, first, a movement (though indeed the movement, compositionally, is "to" him), and then filling the frame with her body (and closing the door on him), there's something weirdly chemical going on here, some complex combination of bodies and spirits, resistances and acceptances—told spatially through the combination of these precise movements and edits.
Neither sequence has a one-to-one meaning created by the form; yet the use of space and the simple complexity of the suggestions that come from these two edits are at once super ambiguous and super charged. It is a disruption and a unity at once, and such sophisticated and rich evocations from a honed technique is, I think, at the core of what makes Bresson's films so incredible to watch and think about.
The Details is a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.