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Bresson and Others

Bresson and Others:

Spiritual Style in the Cinema


Bert Cardullo
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema, by Bert Cardullo

This book first published 2009

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2009 by Bert Cardullo

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-4438-0992-6, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-0992-4


Introduction ............................................................................................... vii

Aesthetic Asceticism: The Films of Robert Bresson

Take Comfort, Take Caution: Tragedy and Homily in Day of Wrath ......... 1

Neorealism of the Spirit: On Rossellini’s Europe ’51 ............................... 11

A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered ................................. 15

God Is Love: On Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle and Fellini’s

La strada.................................................................................................... 27

Early Bergman, or Film and Faith: Winter Light Revisited....................... 37

Saint Cinema: On Cavalier’s Thérèse........................................................ 41

Close Encounters of a Devilish Kind: On Pialat’s

Under the Sun of Satan.............................................................................. 47

Miracle Movie: On Jarmusch’s Mystery Train.......................................... 55

Mirabile visu et dictu: On Loach’s Raining Stones and Rohmer’s

A Tale of Winter......................................................................................... 61

Free Spirit: On Jacquot’s A Single Girl ..................................................... 71

Life and Nothing But: On Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Doillon’s Ponette ... 77

Getting Straight with God and Man: On Lynch’s The Straight Story........ 91

The Space of Time, the Sound of Silence: On Ozon’s Under the Sand
and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?........................................................... 103

Reality Bites: On Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron ................................................... 119

vi Table of Contents

Lower Depths, Higher Planes: On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son,

and L’Enfant ............................................................................................ 127

The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence:

Realism, Reality, and the An-esthetic of the Unreal................................ 143

Conclusion............................................................................................... 159
Dostoyevskian Surges, Bressonian Spirits: On Kerrigan’s Keane
and Bresson’s Une Femme douce

Credits of Bresson’s Films and Others Discussed ................................... 175

Bibliography............................................................................................ 195

Index........................................................................................................ 203


There aren’t many art forms where commercial success is relentlessly

equated with aesthetic worth. In painting, the idea that Walter Keane is a
greater artist than Robert Rauschenberg because many a 1960s tract house
had a Walter Keane painting in it would be laughingly dismissed. And
anyone claiming that Rod McKuen’s “poetry” outranks the work of Ezra
Pound because it sold more might invite censure, even arrest. Among the
major arts, it’s only in film that popular directors—Steven Spielberg and
George Lucas spring immediately to mind—merit innumerable awards,
miles of media exposure, and armies of imitators trying to re-create both
their “artistic” standing and their financial success. This distressing
cultural trend has resulted in some serious cinematic casualties, whose
work is largely unseen because there is no sense of critical proportion in
the film world, no reasonable critical standard. And the most notable
victim in this instance may be the French director Robert Bresson.
It’s my view, however, that Robert Bresson was one of the great film
artists of the twentieth century, one of the great artists of that century. The
viewer who surrenders himself or herself to Bresson’s work is not likely to
remain unaffected by the extreme intensity of the emotions conveyed, the
formal rigor of the style, the utter seriousness of the subjects, or the deep
commitment of the filmmaker to his own artistic conceptions. Still,
Bresson remains little known or appreciated beyond the most discerning of
filmgoers. While the retrospective of his work that traveled throughout the
United States and elsewhere in 1998—organized by the redoubtable James
Quandt, senior programmer of the Cinémathèque Ontario—helped to
change that situation, many viewers still resist Bresson for the very
qualities that define his uniqueness. Focusing less on what he offers than
on what he withholds, even foreign-film aficionados preferred (and prefer)
his flashier contemporaries—Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman—who
embodied their existential angst in the emotive performances of star
personalities (by European standards, anyway). Bresson not only renounced
viii Introduction

the star, he banished professional actors altogether from his increasingly

detheatricalized, spartanly cinematic universe.
For many, a Bresson film is a punishing experience thanks to the
alleged “severity” of his style and the bleakness of his narratives. Yet the
frugality of that style—the exactness of its framing and montage, the
elimination of excess—has undeniably influenced a slew of contemporary
European filmmakers, including Chantal Akerman, Olivier Assayas,
Laurent Cantet, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Eugene Green, and Michael
Haneke, although none of these artists reject actors and expressive
performances. Still, the adjective “Bressonian” is misused and overused;
and, in the end, this filmmaker is inimitable because his style is
inseparable from a stern moral vision. Bresson, as uncompromising as his
filmic style, offered it straight up: no ice and no water on the side, which is
to say without humor, stars, or entertainment in any conventional sense.
Bresson, then, is a true anomaly even by the exacting standards of
intransigent auteurs like Carl Dreyer or Josef von Sternberg. He
supposedly was born on September 25, 1907, but, following his death on
December 18, 1999, obituaries in the press reported that he was born, in
fact, on that day six years earlier, in 1901. If this is indeed the case, then
Bresson lived for all but twenty-one months or so of the twentieth century.
His filmmaking career itself spanned forty years, from 1943 to 1983,
during which time he directed thirteen films. (Bresson disowned his first
film, a medium-length comedy with nods to René Clair and Jean Vigo,
called Les Affaires publiques [Public Affairs, 1934], which was
rediscovered in the late 1980s after long being thought lost.) That he
deserves the title of the most thoroughly twentieth-century artist, simply
by virtue of his birth and death dates if not his filmic production, will
strike some as ironic at first glance. A deeply devout man—one who
paradoxically described himself as a “Christian atheist”—Bresson, in his
attempt in a relatively timeless manner to address good and evil,
redemption, the power of love and self-sacrifice, and other such subjects,
may seem to us, and perhaps was, something of a retrogression. Analysis,
however, might show that he establishes his modernity as an artist
precisely by “retrogressing” in the manner, and under the particular
historical circumstances, that he did.
The details of Bresson’s personal life are not well-documented, for he
was not given to self-promotion or self-revelation. According to the New
York Times obituary, he challenged a potential interviewer in 1983 by
asking, “Have you seen my film?” When the journalist replied that he
had, Bresson continued, “Then you know as much as I do. What do we
have to talk about?” Nonetheless, we know some of the details of Robert
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema ix

Bresson’s biography. He was born in the small town of Bromont-Lamothe

in central France, and first turned to painting after graduating from a
Parisian secondary school, where he excelled in Greek, Latin, and
philosophy. Marrying at age nineteen (and later remarrying after the death
of his first wife), Bresson began in film as a script consultant and
collaborated on several scenarios (C’était un musicien, Jumeaux de
Brighton, Air pur) before the start of World War LL. Soon after joining
the French army, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned for
almost two years (1940-1941)—which turned out to be a signal event in
his artistic, as well as his personal, life.
This formative influence and two others undoubtedly mark Bresson’s
films: in addition to Bresson’s experiences as a prisoner of war, his
Catholicism—which took the form of the predestinarian French strain
known as Jansenism—and his early years as a painter. These influences
manifest themselves respectively in the recurrent theme of free will-
versus-determinism, in the extreme, austere precision with which Bresson
composes each shot, and in the frequent use of the prison motif. Two
films of his are located almost entirely inside prisons: Un Condamné à
mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956) and Le Procès de Jeanne
d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962); and Bresson otherwise often used
prison as a metaphor for spiritual imprisonment as well as release. A
classic case of the latter is Pickpocket (1959), where Michel finds
redemption from his criminal career only by intentionally being caught, as
he tells Jeanne from his prison cell in the famous final scene, “What a
strange road I had to take to find you.”
Three of Bresson’s films take place in a wholly Catholic context: Les
Anges du péché (Angels of the Streets, 1943), a metaphysical thriller set in
a convent; Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest,
1951), a rare instance of a great novel (by Georges Bernanos) being turned
into an even greater film; and Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc. His Jansenism
manifests itself in the way the leading characters are acted upon and
simply surrender themselves to their fate. In Au hasard, Balthazar (By
Chance, Balthazar, 1966), for example, both the donkey Balthazar and his
on-and-off owner Marie passively accept the ill-treatment they both
experience, as opposed to the evil Gérard, who initiates much of what
causes others to suffer. Indeed, Bresson seemed to become increasingly
pessimistic about human nature during his career: his penultimate two
films even suggest that he had more concern for animals and the
environment than for people, while the characters in his astonishing
swansong L’Argent (Money, 1983) are simply the victims of a chain of
x Introduction

circumstances undergirded by the maxim that “the love of money is the

root of all evil.”
One effect of the Jansenist influence is Bresson’s total mistrust of
psychological motives for a character’s actions. The conventional
narrative film—actually, the conventional story of any kind—insists that
people have to have reasons for what they do. A motiveless murder in a
detective story would be unacceptable, for instance. In Bresson, however,
people act for no obvious reason, behave “out of character,” and in general
simply follow the destiny that has been mapped out for them. Often a
character will state an intention, and in the very next scene do the
opposite. Characters who appear to be out-and-out rogues will
unaccountably do something good, an example being the sacked camera-
shop assistant in L’Argent, who gives his ill-gotten gains to charity. At the
same time, Bresson did not predetermine how his films would finally
emerge; instead, it was a process of discovery for him to see what would
finally be revealed, or experienced, by his non-professional actors (or
“models,” as he designated them) after he had trained them for their parts.
Bresson’s second influence, his early experience as a painter, is
manifested in the austerity of his compositions. A painter has to decide
what to put in, a filmmaker what to leave out. And with Bresson nothing
unnecessary is shown; indeed, he goes further, often leaving the viewer to
infer what is happening outside the frame. Thus we often see shots of
hands, doorknobs, even parts of things in instances where any other
filmmaker would show the whole. A Bresson film consequently requires
unbroken concentration on the viewer’s part, and I myself have
occasionally felt literally breathless after watching one because of the
concentration required. It is in fact on account of their economy that many
of Bresson’s films are exceptionally fast-moving in their narrative. (One
exception is the almost contemplative Quatre nuits d’un rêveur [Four
Nights of a Dreamer, 1971], where little actually happens in this story of
unrequited love, whose central character, interestingly, is a painter.) If
L’Argent, for one, were remade as a Hollywood thriller, it would have at
least double the running time and would dwell at length on the brutal
violence in the last section, which is merely elliptically hinted at by
Bresson. The running time of L’Argent is eighty-five minutes, and the
running time of each of Bresson’s other films similarly averages under
ninety minutes, yet the viewer can be surprised at the amount that happens
in that time.
Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé and Pickpocket, for example, may
be first-person narratives of impeccable integrity, yet neither film wastes
time establishing character in a conventional—or convenient—novelistic
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema xi

way. Instead, each relies on economical actions to reveal the psychology

of its protagonist. Thus as we watch Fontaine, condemned prisoner of the
Vichy government, convert the objects of his cell into the means of escape,
we discern the qualities of his character—determination, discipline,
patience, perseverance, and resourcefulness. We are told at the beginning
of Pickpocket, by contrast, that Michel has embarked upon an adventure to
which he is not suited, but the internal conflict this implies is expressed
less in complex dialogue or voice-over narration than in the increasingly
detached, de-dramatized manner in which his thefts are filmed. In both
pictures, then, it is the physical action, meticulously composed and edited,
that consumes most of the screen time, in the process giving the audience
adventures in audio-visual perception as acutely tuned as those of the
Having achieved in Pickpocket and Un Condamné à mort s’est
échappé what he believed was a truly “cinematographic” (more on this
term soon) art, Bresson turned to Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, at sixty-five
minutes his shortest work, in which the dominating principle—ironically
for this artist—is language. Still inadequately appreciated, it is perhaps
the most extraordinary rationale for his style, perfectly suited to the sober
business of presenting the texts of Joan’s two trials—the one that
condemned her and the one that rehabilitated her years after her death—
without drama, excess, or theatrical flair. Next to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s
eloquent, expressionist meditation on the same subject (La Passion de
Jeanne d’Arc, 1928), Bresson’s film, an exercise in control and reserve,
seems as committed to a terse, documentary-like approach to history as
Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966).
Along with Bresson’s painterly eye for what should and should not be
shown, he made exquisite use of sound: off-screen sound itself is of key
importance. The raking of leaves during the intense confrontation
between the priest and the countess in Journal d’un curé de campagne; the
scraping of the guard’s keys along the metal railings and the far-off sound
of trains in Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé; the whinnying of horses
in Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974)—all these sounds serve to
heighten the sense that a time of crisis has arrived for the central
characters. Voice-over narration is also used, in combination with
dialogue—in Journal d’un curé de campagne and Un Condamné à mort
s’est échappé as well as Pickpocket—to underline the impression of an
interior world constantly impinged on, and being impinged upon, by
reality. Music, for its part, is used increasingly sparingly as Bresson’s
career progresses: a specially composed score can be heard in the early
films, but in Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé there are only occasional
xii Introduction

snatches of Mozart, in Pickpocket of Lully, in Au hasard, Balthazar of

Schubert; and in late Bresson, non-diegetic music is dispensed with
A key ingredient of Bresson’s method—indeed, of his ellipticism—is
his view of actors, his “models.” From Journal d’un curé de campagne on
he used only non-professionals, and was even reported to be upset when
two of his actors (Anne Wiazemsky from Au hasard, Balthazar and
Dominique Sanda from Une Femme douce [A Gentle Creature, 1969])
went on to have professional acting careers. Only one actor ever appeared
in two of his films: Jean-Claude Guilbert in Au hasard, Balthazar and
Mouchette (1967). Actors were chosen by Bresson not for their ability but
for their appearance, often for an intense facial asceticism, like Claude
Laydu as the curé d’Ambricourt or Martin Lasalle as Michel the
pickpocket. He then trained them to speak with a fast, monotonic delivery
and to remove all traces of theatricality.
It is for this reason that Bresson rejected the word “cinema,” which he
regarded as merely filmed theater, and instead used the word
“cinematography” (not to be confused with the art of camerawork). As an
integral part of this cinematography, all the movements of the actors were
strictly controlled by the director: when they walked they had to take a
precise number of steps; and eye movements became extremely
important—the lowering of the eyes toward the ground almost becoming a
Bresson trademark. The result of this approach is that the viewer connects
not with a character’s surface appearance but with the core of his being,
his soul. Bresson’s first two features—Les Anges du péché and Les
Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Ladies of the Park, 1945)—do use
professionals, even “stars” (in addition to featuring “literary” scripts, a
certain artificiality in the lighting, and even a baroque quality to some
dramatic sequences), and though they are both excellent films that
anticipate the director’s later thematic concerns, each would probably have
been even more satisfying if “models” had been used in the major roles.
As for their scripts, all of Bresson’s features after Les Anges du péché
have literary antecedents of one form or another, albeit updated. Two are
from Dostoyevsky (Une Femme douce and Quatre nuits d’un rêveur), two
from Bernanos (Mouchette in addition to Journal d’un curé de campagne),
one from Tolstoy (L’Argent), one from Diderot (Les Dames du Bois de
Boulogne), while Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé and Le Procès de
Jeanne d’Arc are based on written accounts of true events. In addition,
Pickpocket is clearly influenced by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
and Au hasard, Balthazar has a premise similar to the same author’s The
Idiot. Lancelot du Lac, for its part, is derived from Sir Thomas Malory’s
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema xiii

Arthurian legends, while Le Diable probablement (The Devil, Probably,

1977) was inspired by a newspaper report, as stated at the start of the film.
Even a longstanding, unrealized film project of Bresson’s was to come
from a literary source—in this case, the Book of Genesis (Genèse)—but
Bresson reportedly said that, unlike his human “models,” animals could
not be trained to do as they were told!
Bresson’s radical reinterpretation of literary material, however,
frequently made it unrecognizable. A superb manipulator of narrative
incident (though he called himself, not a metteur en scène, the ordinary
French term for “director,” but metteur en ordre,” or “one who puts things
in order”), he focused increasingly on slight, seemingly irrelevant details
in a story, often obscuring or hiding major narrative developments.
Bresson’s films are difficult at first (and at last) precisely because they
lack such familiar and reassuring elements as “plot twists” and
establishing shots. “One does not create by adding, but by taking away,”
he asserted. Just so, his films are composed of hundreds of relatively brief
shots, each one fairly “flat,” with the opening shot as likely to be of a foot
or an object as it is of a face or an entire body. Camera movement is kept
to a minimum, for—to repeat—the camera shows only what is important
and nothing more. “Painting taught me that one should not make beautiful
images, but rather necessary images,” Bresson told one interviewer.
Necessary words, as well, for dialogue in his films is extremely limited,
and the performers, though they may bear features of a mesmerizing
intensity, speak “undramatically” or (as I described earlier) “monotonically,”
as if they were talking to themselves; even their movements are subdued
as well as stiff.
Thus, to describe the thirteen films of Robert Bresson and delineate
their themes would probably do little to convey their overall impact. For
Bresson worked at the emotional truth of his films with an almost
unbearable, even ineffable, intensity, out of a deep feeling of responsibility
toward his audience. It was not the aim of his filmmaking to impress
viewers with his brilliance or the brilliance of his performers, but to make
his audience share something of his own simultaneously tragic and ecstatic
vision. “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been
seen,” he wrote. Accordingly, the dramatic elements in Bresson’s films
are built up painstakingly, often through a pattern of repetition-cum-
variation. There are no grand finales, since the truth of any of his works
lies in every single frame. At the conclusion of a Bresson film one feels,
above all else, that one has been brought face to face with an essential
problem or condition, and that whatever the specific nature of this director’s
xiv Introduction

world-view, the overall effect has been a deeply human, finally humane
one—utterly free of condescension and utterly full of seriousness.
Bresson’s subject, despite the lack of reference in his work to
contemporary events, was clearly life in the twentieth century. Yet, in
answer to a question about his attitude toward the realistic treatment of
that subject, he responded: “I wish and make myself as realistic as
possible, using only raw material taken from real life. But I aim at a final
realism that is not ‘realism.’” And who is to say that his holy trinity of
humanity, nature, and the object world did not attain a higher truth than
the one attained through the pragmatic, empirical approach adopted by
most of his contemporaries? Where they saw the operation of freedom of
choice as inevitably joined to the necessity for action, Bresson saw free
will operating in tandem with divine grace. Where his contemporaries in
the film world saw the material interconnection of all things, he saw the
mystical unity of the spiritual and the material. Where they saw man’s
intuition into the fathomable workings of nature, Robert Bresson saw
man’s communion with supernatural forces that are ultimately beyond our
Indeed, his work seems to play out the sentiment once voiced by Léon
Bloy, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century writer who helped bring about the
Catholic renaissance in France that certainly marked Bresson’s life and
thinking: “The only tragedy is not to be a saint.” On the other hand, the
force for Bresson of such a sentiment may have been the product of his
reaction against the Sartrean existentialism that dominated postwar French
cultural life—the very period of Bresson’s emergence as a major
filmmaker. However, although spiritual essence clearly precedes material
existence in his films of that period, it could be argued that the films after
Au hasard, Balthazar incline toward the reverse, that Mouchette, Une
Femme douce, Lancelot du Lac, Le Diable probablement, and L’Argent go
beyond existentialism in their chronicling of a total collapse of moral and
ethical values in a world gone madly materialistic. L’Argent, in fact,
appears to be an endorsement of Bloy’s own early attack on the
corruptibility of money.
Au hasard, Balthazar itself was a radical departure in many ways, not
least because as an allegory of the Christian story, its use of a donkey was
the first indication that Bresson had left behind narratives with noble
figures in the mold of the country priest, Fontaine of Un Condamné à mort
s’est échappé, and Joan of Arc. In addition, as a passive creature—beaten
and broken in, nearly worked to death, then hailed as a saint, only to be
shot to death by an officer of the law—Balthazar prefigured the
protagonists of much of the later work, who, out of indifference or
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema xv

weakness, fail to significantly affect the world around them. Lancelot du

Lac, for example, is an account of the ineluctable collapse of the age of
chivalry, a theme that seems to prefigure the la ronde-like study of the
nefarious effects of capitalism in L’Argent as well as the dissolution of
Western values in Le Diable probablement (where the mockery of all
“solutions” to personal and social ills—whether religious, political, or
psychological—affirms a global, apocalyptic pessimism, symbolized by
the youthful protagonist’s hiring of someone to kill him as a gesture of
protest against humanity as well as society).
For her part, Mouchette, the loveless, abused, humiliated young
daughter of an alcoholic father and a dying mother, leads so relentlessly
oppressive a life (one that includes rape by the village poacher she has
befriended) that, rather than resist it, she drowns herself in shame and
misery. The “femme douce” also commits suicide—at the start of the
film. Having thereby drained the drama from Une Femme douce (as well
as the color, in this his first color film, which is composed almost entirely
of blue and green tones) by beginning it at the end, Bresson then proceeds
to reconstruct the woman and her husband’s impossible relationship
through a series of flashbacks that show the unbridgeable gulf between
Yet this issue of “dark” versus “light” Bresson warrants further
examination. For while we continue to divide the corpus of his work into
the early films that end in redemption and the later ones of increasing
pessimism (even as I earlier did the same), the force of the latter should
inspire us to examine the former more closely. Can we dismiss the
possibility, for instance, that however deeply spiritual the country priest is,
his consumption of bad wine and his poor diet constitute an unconscious
death wish that allows him to feel closer to the sufferings of Christ with
which he identifies? Bresson himself was no less seized by, and
passionate about, his art, every facet of which was infused by his personal
and religious convictions, down to the very shaping and cutting of the
world in his own image—an enactment of the artist as God that exhibits
more control over the filmic universe than the God of most religions exerts
over the actual one.
What closer examination reveals is that, however assured and clear
Bresson’s narratives (early or late) seem—and their lean, uncluttered style
certainly contributes to such an impression—they are never as simple as
critical judgment has often made them appear. The darkness that
characterizes almost every Bresson film from Au hasard, Balthazar to
L’Argent is already discernible, I would argue, in the image of human
nature to be found in Les Anges du péché, where the corruptions of the
xvi Introduction

world outside can barely be contained within the convent. From the
beginning, careful viewing reveals, Bresson’s characters are consumed by
an arrogance and pride that have the capacity to destroy. It is precisely
these flaws or sins that the novice Anne-Marie must overcome in Les
Anges du péché before she can die and redeem the convict Thérèse. By
contrast, Hélène, the femme fatale of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
unrepentantly believes that she has taken revenge on her former lover by
luring him into marriage to a woman who (she later tells him) is a
prostitute, only because, in her all-consuming narcissism, she cannot
fathom the possibility of genuine, all-transcendent love between two
human beings.
Ironically, it was American champions of Bresson who, taking their
cues from the subject matter of the first half of his career, christened his
style “spiritual” (Susan Sontag, among others) or “transcendental,” a term
first used by the critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader. (The great French
Catholic film critic André Bazin, who did not live to see most of Bresson’s
films, himself championed Journal d’un curé de campagne—in an essay
hailed by his English translator as “the most perfectly wrought piece of
film criticism” he had ever read—as “a film in which the only genuine
incidents, the only perceptible movements, are those of the life of the spirit
. . . [offering] us a new dramatic form that is specifically religious, or
better still, specifically theological.”) These terms continue to haunt
anyone writing on Bresson, be it in light of the nascently cynical tone of
the earlier films or the decidedly more cynical one of the later pictures.
For Bresson, in fact, was out of sync with the ecumenical spirit that seized
the Catholic Church in the 1960s, and while many of his films employ
Catholic imagery, they are almost all—early as well as late—characterized
by a particularly harsh strain of religious thinking closer to that of one of
the novelist Georges Bernanos, one of whose novels, as previously
indicated, inspired perhaps Bresson’s best-known film, Journal d’un curé
de campagne. In it, the gray gloom of the French provinces is matched by
an unrelieved focus on bleakness and cruelty. For Bresson’s priest is no
cheery, uplifting humanist but instead a man whose youth belies an
uncanny ability to penetrate the troubled hearts of parishioners who hardly
acknowledge his existence, and whose fierce dedication parallels his own
slow death from cancer.
Tone, theme, and point of view aside, Bresson’s films, from first to
last, trace one of the most disciplined, intricate, and satisfying artistic
achievements in the history of the medium. No less than D. W. Griffith
and Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Bresson sought to advance the art of the
cinema, to create a purely filmic narrative form through a progressive
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema xvii

refinement of this young art’s tools and strategies—through the mastery,

in his words, of “cinematography” over the “cinema.” Like a dutiful
student of Rudolf Arnheim and the theory that called for film to free itself
from the established arts and discover its “inherent” nature, Bresson
discarded, film by film, the inherited conventions—not only the actor but
the dramatic structure of scenes in favor of a series of neutral sequences,
often using sound to avoid visual redundancy. This meant not only later
renouncing such memorable performances as those of Renée Faure and
Sylvie (Louise Sylvain) in Les Anges du péché and Marie Casarès in Les
Dames du Bois de Boulogne, but even L. H. Burel’s atmospheric
cinematography in Journal d’un curé de campagne, which he came to
think was too picturesque. Moreover, the emphasis on precise framing and
editing in the films that followed—Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé,
Pickpocket, and Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc—was a move toward an
increasingly minimal filmmaking style in which every gesture, every
image, every word counted.
For Bresson, getting to the essence of each narrative was synonymous
with getting to the essence of the medium. As he himself declared, “My
films are not made for a stroll with the eyes, but for going right into, for
being totally absorbed in.” So much is this the case that Susan Sontag was
moved to characterize the very watching of Bresson’s films as an
experience requiring a discipline and reflection on the viewer’s part as
demanding as the tests of will his protagonists had to endure. The reward
for such discipline and reflection is the feeling, as Gilbert Adair once
wrote of the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, that “his films are among
those for whose sake the cinema exists” (Flickers [1995], p. 121). Amen.
Writers other than Adair have attempted to capture Robert Bresson’s
style as well as his substance with such terms as “minimalist,” “austere,”
“ascetic,” “elliptical,” “autonomous,” “pure,” even “gentle.” Most
famously, Paul Schrader (in his seminal book Transcendental Style in
Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer [1972]) once called Bresson’s films
“transcendental,” while Sontag described them as “spiritual.” Both these
critics thus extended in anglicized form a tendency that had early been
dominant in Bresson criticism in France: the attempt, made by such
Catholic writers as André Bazin, Henri Agel, Roger Leenhardt, and
Amédée Ayfre, to understand Bresson’s work in divine or religious terms,
seeing his camera as a kind of god and the material world as
(paradoxically) a thing of the spirit. That attempt, in Sontag’s essay, led to
the introduction of Bresson to the New York-based avant-garde of the
1960s and 1970s, whose films—such as Richard Serra’s Hand Catching
Lead (1968), for one—show the influence of the French director’s severe,
xviii Introduction

reductivist style. Jean-Luc Godard, of course, needed no such critical

introduction to Robert Bresson, for, in his iconoclasm and integrity, in his
rejection of the Gallic “Cinéma du Papa” as well as in his embrace of film
as an independent art, Bresson was one of the heroes of the young
directors who constituted the French New Wave in the early 1960s. So
much so that Godard was moved to say in Cahiers du cinéma in 1957 that
“Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and
Mozart is German music.”
The result is that Bresson has influenced a number of contemporary
European filmmakers, other than those previously mentioned, among them
including Alain Cavalier, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Jacques Doillon,
François Ozon, Kim Ki-duk, Benoît Jacquot, Maurice Pialat, David Lynch,
and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the
Cinema is an attempt to document this influence through essays on sixteen
international directors who followed in Bresson’s wake, who
contemporaneously worked veins similar to those found in Bresson’s films
(Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu), who in fact may have influenced him
(e.g., Carl Dreyer), or on whom Bresson had no influence at all (Mel
Gibson)—but perhaps should have had. These essays are preceded by an
introduction to the cinema of Robert Bresson and followed by film credits,
a bibliography of criticism, and an index. The subject of Bresson and
Others, then, may specifically be Bressonian cinema, but, in a general
sense, it could also be said to be spirit and matter—or film and faith.

James Agee was right. One of the attributes of Day of Wrath (Vredens
Dag, 1943) to admire most is “its steep, Lutheran kind of probity—that is,
its absolute recognition of the responsibility of the individual, regardless
of extenuating or compulsive circumstances” (Agee on Film [1958].)
Critics speak often of Dreyer’s austere style and his treatment of religious
themes, but few recognize any tragic intentions on his part. The director
himself, however, writes in the foreword to his Four Screen Plays (1970)
that in the four films Passion of ]oan of Arc (1928), Vampire (1931), Day
of Wrath, and The Word (1955)—those that are generally believed to be
his best—he “ended up with a dramatic form which . . . has characteristics
in common with that of tragedy. This applies particularly to Passion of
]oan of Arc and Day of Wrath.” Dreyer was convinced there was a need
for a “tragic poet of the cinema,” and he felt that this poet’s “first problem
[would] be to find, within the cinema’s framework, the form and style
appropriate to tragedy.”
Insofar as that tragedy is concerned, David Bordwell’s plot summary
of Day of Wrath is characteristic of most writing on the film in that it
ignores the subject of Absalon’s responsibility:
Day of Wrath is the story of how, in seventeenth-century Denmark, Anne
falls in love with the son of Absalon, the old pastor whom she has married.
A subplot involves Herlof’s Marthe, an old woman accused of witchcraft
and persecuted by the church elder Laurentius. After Herlof’s Marthe is
executed, Anne and Martin share a furtive idyll. When Anne tells Absalon
of the affair, the old man dies. The pastor’s elderly mother Merete accuses
Anne of witchcraft. When Martin abandons her, Anne finally confesses to
having been in Satan’s power and is burned as a witch. (The Films of
Carl-Theodor Dreyer [1981])

Because the pastor Absalon is reticent and because we never see him
lust for his wife Anne, it is easy to fail to consider Day of Wrath as his
tragedy. But Dreyer begins the film with the ferreting out and burning of
Herlof’s Marthe as a witch precisely so that attention will focus
immediately on Absalon and his actions. Absalon seems almost to have
forgotten that he pardoned Anne’s mother, also accused of being a witch,
2 Take Comfort, Take Caution: Tragedy and Homily in Day of Wrath

years before when he was widowed so that he might marry Anne, half his
age. But his young wife is no different in function from his first wife: she
is his companion and the mistress of his house, not the object of his sexual
desire. Anne married Absalon out of obligation; and if she does not love
him, she has at least accustomed herself to him.
All is apparently well in Absalon’s world, then, at the start of the film.
The Herlof’s Marthe incident, however, changes matters. It reminds
Absalon of the sin he committed to obtain Anne as his wife, and it places
him in the position of sinning again, for Marthe asks him to pardon her in
the same way that he pardoned Anne’s mother. Absalon is thus faced with
a tragic choice: spare Marthe and sin again in the eyes of God, or let her
go to her death and incur guilt for having spared one witch (for selfish
reasons) and not another. He lets Herlof’s Marthe go to her death, and she
in turn pronounces the curse that he will soon die and prophesies for Anne
a fate similar to her own.
Even though Absalon dies and Anne herself will be burned as a witch,
Day of Wrath is—otherwise set during the worst years of the European
witch hunts—not a testimony to the powers of witchcraft. Witchcraft,
rather, is something Dreyer contrasts with the piety of Absalon.
Witchcraft—setting oneself up as a rival to God—is the gravest sin to
Absalon, just as forgiving witchcraft, which he did for Anne’s mother, is
the gravest sin that he, as a representative of God, can commit. I hesitate to
use the term “tragic inevitability” with regard to this film, for it is not
simply a tragedy of character. There is too much structural “arranging”
going on in it. Absalon to a large extent brings on his own doom, it’s true,
but there is a sense in which Dreyer makes an example of him for all the
world to see and be encouraged by. I stress that Dreyer, not witchcraft or
“fate,” is making an example of him. Or Dreyer the artist is his own witch-
god, which explains the choice of a pastor as tragic figure and of witches
as his antagonists: Dreyer wishes to register the artist’s power in the
universe alongside the forces of evil and the wrath of God.
Let me explain by saying that the view of tragedy I take in this essay is
the one first propounded by Bert States in lrony and Drama: A Poetics
(1971). States writes that
The idea that the victory inherent in tragedy arrives primarily in the earned
nobility of the defeated-victorious hero is actually much overrated as the
key to catharsis; he victory is rather in the poet’s having framed the
definitive fate for his hero-victim. In turning the tables on his hero so
exactly, getting the all into his one, he shows wherein the imagination is a
match for nature in getting her to participate so thoroughly in the fault.
This seems the most complete statement that can be made about
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 3

destructiveness, and when the poet can arrange to make it, as Shakespeare
and Sophocles have, he has posed the unanswerable argument against
reality in his effort to fortify men against the many forms of disaster. In
effect, he has said, “You may destroy me, but I have gone even further. I
have conceived the impossible destruction.” In other words, the force of
tragic catharsis consists in the poet’s having conceived a power beyond
Power itself; as such, it would seem to be not only a purgation but
something of a gorging as well.

Let us not forget, moreover, that Dreyer made Day of Wrath in 1943
during the German occupation of Denmark: surely one huge form of
disaster or destruction for the Danes. Of the film’s immediate historical
context, Ole Storm has noted that while
Vredens Dag can hardly be regarded as a Resistance film, . . . it contained
unmistakable elements of the irrationality that was characteristic of
Nazism: witch-hunting, mass hypnosis, assertion of power, and the
primitive, always latent forces which, in certain conditions, can be
exploited by any authority that knows how to license the gratification of
blood-lust as an act of justice; whereby a judicial process conducted
without witnesses or counsel for the defence culminates in a death
sentence passed on the sole basis of a forced confession. (Introduction,
Four Screen Plays)

The event that clarifies Dreyer’s artistic purpose is the entrance of

Martin, Absalon’s son by his first marriage, into the film. Martin, who has
recently graduated from the seminary, is the favorite of his grandmother,
Merete, just as her son Absalon was once her favorite. (Merete lives with
Absalon and Anne.) Like his father before him, Martin falls in love with
Anne and appears to “choose” her over Merete. It all seems a little too pat:
father and son love the same woman; the woman prefers the son;
disapproving mother-grandmother looks on. In this way Merete is a kind
of chorus to events as she disapproves of Anne from the start, and we find
ourselves sharing her opinion for all her sternness and stridency. But the
deck is stacked in Day of Wrath for good reason, even as it is in
Hippolytus and Phaedra, to whose love-triangle plot the film is indebted.
To wit: Dreyer wants Absalon to go through the worst possible ordeal
before dying; he wants the worst that can happen to him to happen.
Absalon the pastor is thus Dreyer’s sacrificial lamb. Like his Biblical
counterpart, Absalon rebels against his father, God, when he pardons a
witch and marries her daughter, and he must be punished for his sin.
Furthermore, he will be permitted by Dreyer to utter barely a word of
protest throughout his ordeal. This is part of the strategy of outrage:
Absalon committed an outrageous act in marrying the young Anne; he
4 Take Comfort, Take Caution: Tragedy and Homily in Day of Wrath

sincerely repents his sin of pardoning Anne’s mother, but only when he is
confronted, outrageously, with the possibility of committing the same sin
again; and he dies at the outrageous admission by Anne that she has
betrayed him with his own son. Even as he suffers silently the guilt of his
original sin of pardoning Anne’s mother, so too he suffers silently the
revelation of his betrayal: he simply dies.
It was Samuel Johnson, I believe, who first complained of the
improbability of Lear’s proposal to divide his kingdom among his three
daughters according to how much each loved him. The same complaint
could be made about the staid pastor Absalon’s proposing to pardon a
witch and marry her young daughter: nothing in Absalon’s behavior
during the film, and no information Dreyer gives us about him, can
account for his going to such extremes to marry so young a woman,
especially when one considers the time and place in which he lives. But
demands for this kind of believability in a work of art miss the forest for
the trees. Like King Lear, Day of Wrath could be called, in J. Stampfer’s
term, a “tragedy of penance,” in which the enormity of the offending act
provokes the enormity of the punishment. Stampfer makes the important
point that King Lear is not a tragedy of hubris, like Oedipus Rex, but one
of penance:
[The] opening movement [of King Lear] leads not to dissolution,
exposure, and self-recognition, as in Oedipus and Othello, but to
purgation. And Lear’s purgation, by the end of the play’s middle
movement, is so complete as to be archetypal. By the time he enters
prison, he has paid every price and been stripped of everything a man can
lose, even his sanity, in payment for folly and pride. As such he activates
an even profounder fear than the fear of failure, and that is the fear that
whatever penance a man may pay may not be enough once the machinery
of destruction has been set loose, because the partner of his covenant may
be neither grace nor the balance of law, but malignity, intransigence, or
chaos. (Shakespeare Survey, 13 [1960])

Absalon himself repents, but it is too late, and there is no evidence that
matters would be different had he repented long before the film begins.
Marthe would still have dabbled in witchcraft and she would still have
sought sanctuary in Absalon’s home, since she herself had hidden Anne’s
mother and felt that the same favor was due her in return.
Dreyer has Absalon repent only when faced with the possibility of
committing the same sin again, and not earlier, not because this is why he
is being destroyed in the first place—for sinning monumentally and living
peacefully with that sin—but because Absalon’s late repentance, in Bert
States’s words, is what “rescues him from perfection in the process of
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 5

being doomed.” That is, Dreyer singled out the pastor for destruction and
invented his sin but had to have him repent belatedly to remind us of the
seriousness of his transgression. The sin is dim in Absalon’s own memory
at the beginning of the film and in our minds, as well, for having occurred
so long ago and offscreen. (Dreyer keeps it offscreen and in the past, I
think, because of its very improbability). Absalon, in other words, had to
appear flawed beyond his original sin of pardoning a witch and marrying
Anne. And his flaw is his tardiness in repenting, his willingness to tolerate
it in himself but not in his congregation, and least of all in Marthe.
Thus Dreyer makes him appear something less than irreproachable—
no small accomplishment in the case of Absalon, who strikes one at first as
being absolutely irreproachable. This is important, because the less
irreproachable Absalon becomes the easier it is for us to witness, if not
finally condone or participate in, his destruction. The destruction of a
flawless or completely and quickly repentant man is too easily rationalized
as pure accident or pure evil; of a bad man, as poetic justice. Neither is
paid much attention. But the destruction of the man in the middle—the
good man who has done wrong, yet has neither been perverted by his
wrongdoing nor has atoned for it—this is more terrible, precisely because
it is deserved, yet not deserved, and therefore inexplicable. We pay
attention to it.
Ironically, then, even though Absalon chooses God in choosing not to
pardon Marthe for her witchcraft and so could be said to be attempting to
atone for the sin of pardoning Anne’s mother, he still receives the
maximum punishment. He chooses God and dies, unforgiven (but still
loved) by his mother for having married Anne in the first place,
unforgiven by Anne for having robbed her youth, alienated from his son
who loves Anne as much as he does. And he is without a fellow minister at
his side, as he was at Laurentius’s side when the latter died in fulfillment
of another of Marthe’s curses.
Laurentius’s sudden death in itself must not be looked on as a
testimony to the powers of witchcraft. Rather, it should be seen as one
more punishment inflicted upon Absalon, one more price he has to pay for
the folly and pride of coveting a young woman and pardoning her witch-
mother in order to get her. He pays the final price in remaining unforgiven
by God Himself, Whom one might have expected to show some mercy
toward Absalon. That He does not is not an argument against God; it is an
argument, using one of God’s own as an example, for the fallibility of the
human and the inscrutability of the divine. It is an argument that the worst
in man—the worst or the flaw in a good man—is combated by the worst in
God or simply the universe, and as such it is a form of purgation: this is
6 Take Comfort, Take Caution: Tragedy and Homily in Day of Wrath

the worst that can happen, and from that we can take comfort. What will
happen to us cannot be as bad. Dreyer, finally, has been the engineer of all
this, as much to fortify himself against the many forms of disaster, to use
Bert States’s words, as to assert his own imagination’s place as a force in
the universe to be reckoned with.
I should like here to return to King Lear, about which J. Stampfer
remarks that “there is no mitigation in Lear’s death, hence no mitigation in
the ending of the play. . . . King Lear is Shakespeare’s first tragedy in
which the tragic hero dies unreconciled and indifferent to society.” Lear
dies, and there is no one from his family to carry on in his place: with him
have died Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Absalon dies unredeemed and
bewildered, but there is someone from his family to carry on in his place:
his son, who turns on Anne and, with his grandmother, accuses her of
witchcraft in willing the death of his father. Day of Wrath ends with our
knowledge that Anne will burn as a witch and with the suggestion that
Martin will take over his father’s duties as pastor. Martin will occupy the
role Absalon filled after the death of his first wife, before he met Anne and
pardoned her mother: that of pastor, living with his (grand)mother. Anne’s
mother has been dead for some time (presumably of natural causes),
Absalon is dead, and Anne will die: the sin will thus be completely
Matters will be returned to a state of grace, then. But we do not see
them returned to a state of grace. We do not see Anne burn, as we did
Marthe, and we do not see Martin become pastor. Dreyer’s overriding
concern is still with Absalon’s destruction, not his society’s redemption.
Whatever reconciliation we get at the end of the film occurs less in the
sense that wrong is righted than in the sense that wrong is counterpointed.
Absalon yielded to temptation with Anne, whereas Martin ultimately does
not do so; and Dreyer juxtaposes the chaos of Absalon’s life against the
newfound order of Martin’s so as to point up the irrevocability of that
chaos, as well as the tentativeness of that order.
Dreyer uses this technique of counterpoint again when he intercuts the
scene of Absalon returning from the dead Laurentius’s house with the one
of Martin and Anne in the parsonage, where she wishes Absalon dead. The
relationship between these two scenes might seem too obvious, especially
when Absalon remarks at one point on the strength of the wind that “It was
as if death brushed against my sleeve.” But Dreyer is not telling us here
that Anne is willing Absalon’s death, that even as she wishes his death, he
feels it coming. He is portraying Absalon’s own sense of his impending
doom, of his punishment for his sin. He sees trouble coming, or at least
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 7

feels very uneasy, outdoors as well as indoors—indeed, he can find no

peace anywhere.
Earlier Dreyer had intercut a scene of him at home, full of remorse for
having pardoned Anne’s mother to marry her daughter, with a scene of
Anne and Martin wandering blissfully in the fields at night. She feels no
guilt indoors or outdoors for betraying her husband and for wishing him
dead. Absalon can feel guilt for his sins; Anne cannot. She is, in this way,
less the instrument of his doom than its counterpoint. She incarnates evil;
he, good gone wrong. Absalon’s mother, at the other extreme from Anne,
incarnates good, or at least righteousness; while Martin, contrasted with
his father in the middle, incorporates good that is tempted but finally
Even the way in which Anne accepts her witchcraft and her sentence to
burn at the stake, after Martin renounces her, stands in direct counterpoint
to the way that Absalon receives the revelation of his betrayal and her
accusation that he robbed her youth; and this contrast makes the
circumstances of Absalon’s death clearer. He dies immediately of a heart
attack out of guilt and out of shock at the extremity of his punishment.
Anne, by contrast, accepts/chooses death-by-burning coolly. She wants to
die, not so much because she thinks she has played any part in her
husband’s death or that this would matter anyway, not so much out of
guilt, as to spite Martin, who has betrayed her for his grandmother. She
will die out of a spite that is better known as selfishness or self-
consumption, whereas Absalon has died for his sins, for his belief in a
higher law than the law of self.
Day Of Wrath counterpoints witchcraft with piety, indulgence with
abstinence, evil with good. In the process, the film “gorges” itself on
Absalon’s destruction; but all the while it reassures us that what happens
to him cannot happen to us, it warns us that some form of destruction or
misfortune lies in wait for everyone. That is its underpinning: Dreyer not
only takes out his frustrations absolutely on Absalon, he also is sure to
include himself and, by extension, the audience as a potential, if less
serious, victim of a malevolent universe. This he does through the
character of Martin and the film’s visual style. Dreyer is careful not to
have Martin succumb in the end to Anne’s temptations: he must have a
scare but must survive, his virtue, or at least good intentions, intact, as the
character with whom we identify most. Anne herself is too evil, too
devious, to identify with; Absalon’s mother so good as to be a caricature
of goodness, rightness, and caution; and Absalon, of course, is too
victimized. Through Martin, Dreyer posits the existence of two separate
worlds, the one safe, rational, and certain, the other dangerous, irrational,
8 Take Comfort, Take Caution: Tragedy and Homily in Day of Wrath

uncertain; and he shows how simple it is to cross from one world to the
next with a single action. Martin rejects Anne at the last minute and
remains on the safe side of life.
To the visual style itself of Day of Wrath. I said at the start of this
essay that many critics have remarked on the austerity and stateliness of
Dreyer’s style. Paul Schrader, for example, writes that
the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Kammerspiele (literally,
chamber plays) were the immediate stylistic precedents for Dreyer’s films.
. . . In each of Dreyer’s films one can detect elements of Kammerspiele:
intimate family drama, fixed interior settings, unembellished sets, long
takes emphasizing staging, the use of gesture and facial expression to
convey psychological states, plain language, and a thoroughgoing sobriety.
(Transcendental Style in Film [1972])

No one has remarked, however, on how Dreyer contrasts the seeming

sureness and reason of this style in Day of Wrath with the disorientation
and unreason of another style that he puts side by side with it.
Often, for example, Dreyer will shoot a character from one angle and
then cut to a shot of the same character from the reverse angle; or he will
cut from one character to another, then return to the first at an angle that
confuses the viewer as to the place of the characters in the room and their
relation to each other. The effect of this is less to suggest that objective
reality does not exist, that people and things can be looked at and
interpreted in any number of ways, than to give the viewer a sense of the
changeability of affairs from moment to moment, a sense of a world in
which a permanent state or even complete knowledge of oneself is
impossible. In other words, as with his characterization of Martin, so too
with his visual style is Dreyer attempting to posit the existence of two
separate worlds: the one orderly, the other unsettled and possibly chaotic.
Even as the camera can change worlds from shot to shot, so too can a man
change his “world” from one action to the next—except that the camera
can go back, can reclaim the orderly after a plunge into disorder. That is
not so easy for a man. Martin comes as close as possible to doing it at the
end of Day of Wrath when he goes from loving Anne and swearing that
she is not a witch to despising her and swearing that she is.
Dreyer himself has written of his camerawork that
All good films are characterized by a certain rhythmic tension, which is
induced partly by the characters’ movements as revealed in images . . . For
[this] kind of tension, much importance is attached to the lively use of a
moving camera, which even in close shots adroitly follows the characters;
so that the background constantly shifts as it does when we follow
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 9

somebody with our eyes. . . . it is of some significance for the adaptation

of stage plays that in each act of most plays there is as much action
offstage as on, which can yield material for . . . new rhythms. (Four
Screen Plays)

One senses that by “good films” Dreyer means those (like his own
masterpieces) that attempt to create tragedy, where the kind of tension he
speaks of is essential and underlines another kind, which perhaps
constitutes the essence of tragedy: the kind of tension wherein the viewer
feels that the outcome of the action is inevitable at the same time as he
feels a certain measure of control over his own fate, that he himself is not
irrevocably doomed. He feels right up to the end, furthermore, that even
though the outcome of the action is inevitable, something could be done
along the way to alter the course of events. (Hence dramatic terms like
“turning point” and “moment of final suspense.”) Or that alternative
values exist somewhere, along with an alternative world. The alternative
world is peopled by Martin in Day of Wrath, as I have posited. And the
chaotic world of Absalon is suggested not only by the cutting but also by
the moving camera, which, in following clearly one object or person, turns
everything else into a dizzying blur.
Day of Wrath is an adaptation of a play, and Dreyer includes in it
offstage action to which he refers to in the above quotation—scenes that in
the film’s source, the historical drama Anne Pedersdotter by the
Norwegian playwright Hans Wiers-Jenssen, are only reported by
characters. (I want to stress that Anne Pedersdotter was an historical
drama, one concerned with the delusions, superstitions and ignorance that
existed in the past. Dreyer transformed the play into a tragedy.) I am
thinking specifically of Anne and Martin’s meeting in the fields at night
and Absalon’s return home from the dead Laurentius’s house. These
outdoor scenes themselves create a rhythmic tension in the film. But the
tension here does not derive from the intercutting of outdoor and indoor
scenes. It comes from the tilting upward of the camera one moment to the
trees above the lovers Anne and Martin, implying that God is judging their
sinful actions below; and the leveling of the camera the next moment at
the unhappy, fearful, penitent Absalon in the same outdoors to the
exclusion of the heavens above, implying that God is not present and will
not grant mercy to him. In one instance it seems that the world is inhabited
by a just and rational God, in the other that no such God exists. In this
way, the outdoor scenes give Dreyer further opportunity to dramatize the
two separate worlds he demarcated so tellingly indoors.
I have remarked several times in this essay on the reticence of
Absalon: his lack of reflection on, and of exasperation with, what is
10 Take Comfort, Take Caution: Tragedy and Homily in Day of Wrath

happening to him compared with Lear. This is the factor that has, up to
now, caused critics to look outside his character—namely, to witchcraft
and the mysterious—for the key to the film’s intentions. I want now only
to explain more precisely Absalon’s silence, almost his absence, since it is
so unusual a trait in a character so important and so obviously intelligent.
Dreyer makes Absalon silent and passive because we are not so, or we
think we are not. Absalon’s behavior in the face of his misfortune, to us, is
one of the worst things that can happen: he does not object (like Lear); he
does not run (as Oedipus did from Corinth); he does not suspect or seek
counsel (like Othello). We can picture ourselves in all these actions. This
is a comfort: we think that we would fight back and perhaps prevail or
escape, forgetting momentarily what happened to Lear, Oedipus, and
Thus, part of the art of Day of Wrath is that it beguiles us into thinking
we are different, and therefore better off, in a way that Shakespeare and
Sophocles do not; then it reminds us, through the character of Martin as
well as through its visual style, that we are vulnerable. In other words, it
gives us the greatest comfort, and it gives us good caution. If Day of Wrath
was, as Paul Schrader and Robert Warshow before him (in The Immediate
Experience) believe, one of the first films to attempt to create a “religious
system,” it succeeds less in the sense that it evokes God than in the sense
that it does for us what religion at its best, and art only rarely, do for us: it
makes us feel that we are chosen at the same time as it makes us feel we
are expendable or incapable.

I got the chance to see Roberto Rossellini’s Europe ’51 (1952) again
recently, now that it has finally been released on videocassette. And I think
it would be appropriate briefly to discuss this underrated film, since it has
several points of intersection with other films adopting a spiritual style.
The first is the crossroads known as death: a woman is taken unawares by
death in Europe ’51, only to find her spiritual center as a result. The
second point of intersection is children, for the death of a child incites the
psychological transformation along with the moral quest of the heroine in
Rossellini’s film. The final point of intersection more or less subsumes the
second one: the cinematic style known as neorealism. But, unlike some of
the best neorealist films from Italy or (lately) Iran, Europe ’51 does not
have a child as its main character or the lot of children as its chief subject.
Nor, unlike the Italian Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) or the Iranian
Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998), is Rossellini’s film neorealistic
in content. For in it Rossellini does not treat, except tangentially, social,
political, and economic problems—like long-term unemployment,
grinding poverty, and gender discrimination—as they affect common
people in the wake of devastating worldwide war or tumultuous religious
What Europe ’51 adopts, however, is a neorealistic style. Essentially,
this means that its cinematography does not exhibit striking angles,
exhilarating movement, or clever cutting. The composition of shots does
not startle us through its ingenuity; instead, the mise en scène in is clear-
eyed rather than ingenious, detached or reserved rather than flashy. What
Rossellini focuses on at any given point is more significant than the way in
which the director focuses his (and our) attention. Yet reviewers at the
time of this film’s release (to be succeeded by like-minded critics today)
passed judgment on its subject without taking into consideration the
(“styleless”) style that gives it its meaning and aesthetic value. Even as
they wrongly accused De Sica in the same year—1952—of making a
social melodrama with Umberto D., they charged Rossellini with
indulging in a confused, indeed reactionary, political ideology—moreover,
of doing so in an “obvious, slow-moving story.”
12 Neorealism of the Spirit: On Rossellini’s Europe ’51

In Europe ’51, a young, rich, and frivolous American lady living in

Rome loses her only son, who commits suicide one evening when his
mother is so preoccupied with her social life that she sends the boy to bed
rather than be forced to pay attention to him. The poor woman’s moral
shock is so violent that it plunges her into a crisis of conscience that, on
the advice of a cousin of hers who is a Communist intellectual, she
initially tries to resolve by dedicating herself to humanitarian causes. But,
little by little, she gets the feeling that this is only an immediate or
preliminary stage beyond which she must pass if she is to achieve a
mystical magnanimity all her own, one that transcends the boundaries of
politics and even of social or religious morality. Accordingly, she looks
after a sick prostitute until the latter dies, then aids in the escape of a
young criminal from the police. This last initiative causes a small scandal
and, with the complicity of an entire family alarmed by her behavior, the
woman’s husband, who understands her less and less, decides to have her
committed to a sanitarium.
From the perspective of its action, Rossellini’s script, in truth, is not
devoid of naïveté and even of incoherence—or at any rate pretentiousness.
We can see the particulars that the writer-director has borrowed from
Simone Weil’s life, without in fact being able to recapture the strength of
her thinking. But such reservations don’t hold up before the whole of a
film that one must understand and judge on the basis of its mise en scène.
What, for a salient instance, would Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot be worth if it
were to be reduced to a summary of its action? Because Rossellini is a
genuine director, the essence of his film does not consist in the elaboration
of its plot: that essence is supplied by the very transparency of its style.
The auteur of Germany, Year Zero (in which a boy also kills himself)
seems profoundly haunted in a personal way by the death of children, even
more by the horror of their suicide. And it is around his heroine’s authentic
spiritual experience of such a suicide that Europe ’51 is organized. The
eminently modern theme of lay sainthood then naturally emerged, but its
more or less skillful development in the script matters very little. What
counts is that each sequence is a kind of meditation or filmic song on this
fundamental theme as revealed by the mise en scène, whose aim is not to
demonstrate but to show or to revel. Moreover, how could anyone resist
the moving spiritual presence here of Ingrid Bergman? Beyond this
actress, how could the viewer remain insensitive to the intensity of a mise
en scène in which the universe seems to be organized along spiritual lines
of force, to the point that it sets them off as manifestly as the iron filings in
a magnetic field? Seldom has the presence of the spiritual in human beings
and in the world been expressed with such dazzling clarity.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 13

Granted, Rossellini’s neorealism here seems very different from, even

contradictory to, De Sica’s. Indeed, it seems more like the “transcendental
style” of Robert Bresson in such a picture as Diary of a Country Priest,
itself made in 1951. I think it wise, however, to reconcile Rossellini’s and
De Sica’s neorealism as two poles of the same aesthetic school. Whereas
De Sica investigates reality with ever more expansive curiosity in his
neorealist films, Rossellini by contrast seems to strip it down further each
time, to stylize that reality with a painful but nonetheless unrelenting rigor.
In short, he appears to return to a neoclassicism of dramatic expression in
mise en scène as well as in acting.
But, on closer examination, one discovers that this neoclassicism
stems from a common neorealistic revolution. For Rossellini, as for De
Sica (and later for the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami), the aim is to reject the
categories of acting and dramatic expression in order to force reality to
reveal its significance solely through appearances. Rossellini does not
make his actors act—be they professionals or non-professionals—he
doesn’t make them express this or that feeling; he compels them only to be
a certain way before the camera. In such a mise en scène, the respective
places of the characters, their movements on the set, their ways of moving,
and their gestures have much more importance than the feelings they show
on their faces, or even the words they say. Besides, what “feelings” could
Ingrid Bergman “express”? Her drama lies far beyond any psychological
nomenclature, and her face outlines only a certain property of suffering, as
it did in Rossellini’s earlier Stromboli (1949) and his subsequent Voyage
to Italy (1953).
Europe ’51 gives ample indication that such a human presence as
Bergman’s, in such a cinematographic mise en scène, calls for the most
sophisticated stylization possible. A film like this is the opposite of a
realistic one “drawn from life”: it is the equivalent of austere and terse
writing, which is so stripped of ornament that it sometimes verges on the
ascetic. At this point, neorealism returns full circle to neoclassical
abstraction and its generalizing quality. Hence this apparent paradox: the
best version of Europe ’51 is not the dubbed Italian version, but the
English one, which employs the greatest possible number of original
voices among the major characters. At the far reaches of this realism, the
accuracy of exterior social reality becomes unimportant. The children in
the streets of Rossellini’s Rome can therefore speak English without our
even realizing the implausibility of such an occurrence. This is reality
through style, or transcendence through secularity, and thus it is a
reworking of the very conventions of film art.

The worldly life of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was, like that of many
another artist, very worldly. This is especially true of film artists, for no
one can live in a movie environment as in a Buddhist monastery. And no
film director is likely to get the chance to achieve such “purity” as Ozu’s
(more on this term later) unless he can deal with the rather less pure
circumstances that surround the making of all films.
Ozu entered films as an assistant in 1923, when he was twenty years
old, assigned to a director of light comedy. He had been born in Tokyo
but moved away with his mother while quite young. His father had
remained in Tokyo to manage the family business, so Ozu grew up
virtually fatherless—an interesting fact in light of the centrality of father
figures in his later films. Sent to a boarding school, he did badly and was
expelled. When he was in a prefectural (or public) middle school, he was
dispatched to the city of Kobo to apply to a good high school. Instead Ozu
went to a movie. He soon saw other films, by Thomas Ince and Rex
Ingram, and later he said that, if he had not seen them, he might never
have chosen the film profession.
But he did choose it, and, with the help of a friend of his father’s, he
got his first job. Ozu remained an assistant for four years. He had chances
to get ahead, but confessed subsequently, “The real truth is that I didn’t
want to. As an assistant I could drink all I wanted and spend my time
talking. Still, my friends told me to go and try, and finally orders came
through making me a full director.” There is no evidence that Ozu gave
up drinking and talking, but there’s plenty of evidence that he soon got a
reputation for hard work.
In 1927 he made his first film. He wrote the script with Kogo Noda,
with whom he also wrote the script of Tokyo Story in 1953, as well as
many other scripts. Most of Ozu’s early pictures were light comedies, like
the very first movie he worked on as an assistant. I have no intention,
though, of sketching his whole career for more than the obvious reasons:
some of the early films have disappeared, and the remaining ones have not
all been available in the United States. In 1982 the Japan Society of New
York showed the thirty-two extant feature films (out of the fifty-four Ozu
16 A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered

directed, thirty-four of which were silents made before 1936), but few of
them were subsequently released to a wider public. Our Ozu, the Ozu we
know well, is mostly the latter Ozu, of such films, in addition to Tokyo
Story, as An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Floating Weeds (1959), and Late
Spring (1949). This is not an unbearable fate. Late Ozu would not exist
without the experience that preceded it, it’s true; but what we have is a
That treasury is one of at least two that Japanese cinema has
bequeathed to us, the other being from Akira Kurosawa. Even as, in his
own nation, Kurosawa is called the most Western of Japanese directors,
Ozu is called the most Japanese of filmmakers by his countrymen, and an
American like me can see at least a little bit of why this is so. But such a
comment is a defining, not a limiting one. (Who, after all, was more
Swedish a filmmaker than Ingmar Bergman?) Kurosawa, a fine artist, is
an immediately exciting director; Ozu, a fine artist, is not. Kurosawa is
essentially a dramatist, Ozu a lyric poet whose lyrics swell quietly into the
The films of Ozu’s last period, the ones I know, tend toward an adagio
tempo, and are crystallized in loving but austere simplicity. His method is
one of non-drama, but not in any prosy, naturalistic, flattened sense. He
believes, along with many Japanese painters and draftsmen, that if you
select the right details—including words—and present them realistically,
you have created an abstraction that signifies a great deal more than
detailed realism. The drama, for Ozu, is in life itself, and his task is
therefore not to contrive but to reveal. Indeed, everything in an Ozu film
derives from his utter subscription to a view of life as infinitely sacred and
of art as the most sacred exercise in life—one whose purpose is not to
account for or explain life’s sacredness, but to document it. He serves,
then, rather than making anything serve him.
Around 1930, at about the time that Chishu Ryu emerged as a principal
actor for him, Ozu began to become the Ozu we now know, a serious
director chiefly interested in Japanese family life, in middle-class
existence. I underscore that the emergence of Ryu coincided with this
artistic deepening in Ozu; one may infer here that opportunity in this
instance evoked ambition. I underscore also that Ozu worked through
most of his career with three close colleagues: Ryu, the aforementioned
Kogo Noda, and Yuharu Atsuta. Teams of this kind have appeared from
time to time in film history and have usually produced superior results:
Ozu’s “team” is no exception.
Ryu himself appeared in every one of Ozu’s fifty-four films, at first in
small parts and eventually in many leading roles, including the father in
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 17

Tokyo Story. From 1941 (after a stretch of military service) Ozu had
Atsuta as his camera self, or, as Atsuta put it in 1985, as “the caretaker of
the camera”; and Atsuta was to serve as Ozu’s cameraman on a dozen
films. It was he who designed the short tripod to make the camera usable
at a height of three feet, a device that facilitated the now familiar tatami
shot—a hallmark of Ozu films—the perspective, in medium-to-full range
(rarely in close or from afar), of a Japanese seated on a household mat.
From the beginning, Ozu also had Noda as a script collaborator. In 1964,
Ryu said of this writing collaboration that “Mr. Ozu looked happiest when
he was engaged in writing a scenario with Mr. Kogo Noda . . . By the time
he had finished writing a script, he had already made up every image in
every shot. . . . The words were so polished that he would never allow us a
single mistake in the speaking of them.” Other good directors often work
otherwise. With Ozu, however, the result is not mechanical execution of a
blueprint but the fulfillment of aesthetic design.
In his own right Chishu Ryu has an extraordinary place in Ozu’s
oeuvre. He became, one could say, the vicar on screen for Ozu.
According to some critics, this is true in some of the earlier films in the
strictly biographical sense; and it continued, in the later films, in the
psychological and spiritual sense. Those who know all the available films
have said that the so-called Ozu feeling would have been impossible
without the actor who played what became known as the Ozu role. Ryu
was, of course, aware of this. He said in 1958, “Today I cannot think of
my own identity without thinking of him. I heard that Ozu once said,
‘Ryu is not a skillful actor—and that is why I use him.’ And that is very
true.” This also from Ryu—who was in fact close in age to Ozu—in 1985:
“Our relationship was always that of teacher and student, father and son. . . .
From the beginning to the end I was to learn from him.”
I don’t take either of Ryu’s two statements as an instance of modesty
but of affinity. Other directors have used personal vicars on the screen: for
example, the young Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud. Other directors, too,
have wanted actors who were not interested in virtuosity—Bresson, for
prime example. But it is unique that a director should so long have used
an exceptionally talented (if “unskillful,” which I take to mean
uncalculating or unhistrionic) actor who was quite willing, with all the
modesty possible, to put that talent at the director’s disposal. The result is
not subordination but self-expression—of Ozu’s self as well as Ryu’s.
And I know of no better instance of this than Tokyo Story, which is the
most successful of Ozu’s four late films to which I have referred (all of
which have beauty). When it was made, Ozu was fifty years old and Ryu
forty-seven. Ozu, who never married, had been exploring, continued
18 A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered

artistically to explore, the experience of an older husband and father, to

feed into his films what he had observed and imagined about such men;
and Ryu, some twenty years younger than such a character, was again the
consummating yet humble vicar of the exploration.
For reasons I hope to make clear, I now synopsize Tokyo Story. This is
easy to do because, although it is a film of well over two hours, it doesn’t
have a complex narrative. Instead, the reader may find it hard to believe
that a wonderful work of art could be made from this story. A husband
and wife in their late sixties live in a small town called Onomichi on the
southern coast of Japan with their unmarried daughter, a schoolteacher.
The couple decide to visit their two married children and their children in
Tokyo; during their visit, they also intend to see their widowed daughter-
in-law, whose husband was killed in the war eight years before. En route,
moreover, mother and father will stop off to see a younger son who lives
in Osaka. The couple proceed to visit their children and daughter-in-law, a
visit that is pleasant enough but, at least with their own children, a bit
uncomfortable—forced in feeling, if you will. On the way home, the old
woman falls sick and has to stop at her son’s home in Osaka. When she
and her husband at last get home, she sickens further. The family is
summoned. The old woman dies. After the funeral service, the family
leaves; the single daughter goes off to her school; and the old man is left
alone. Thus does Tokyo Story end.
To repeat: this apparently slender material makes a film of two hours
and twenty minutes. It also makes a film that encompasses so much of the
viewer’s life that you are convinced you have been in the presence of
someone who knew you very well. Students of mine were asked recently
to write papers on what they know about Chaplin. One of them began, “I
don’t know how much I know about Chaplin, but he certainly knows a lot
about me.” This seems to me one excellent definition of superior art, and
it also applies to Yasujiro Ozu. As for his Asian or Eastern remoteness,
the most obvious and fundamentally truest point about Ozu is that by
being “most Japanese” in his art, he was simultaneously being most
That art begins with the script. Obviously, if an experienced director
and his equally experienced collaborator decide on the script I have
synopsized—a script with no vivid or sustained dramatic conflict, only a
series of incidents—they have something in mind other than conventional
drama. A lesser director would have thought: “Now that I have ‘located’
the components of my film and its movement—the trip to Tokyo—what
complications can I devise to keep things interesting?” Ozu, with Noda,
thinks only: “What are these lives like? Really like?” And by holding to
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 19

human truth, much more than to dramatic naturalism, he gives us a process

of mutual discovery, the characters’ and our own. This is an act of
aesthetic daring—to choose such a structure for a film—daring that comes
not from ego but, in a way, from the absence of ego, of authorial
tampering, intrusion, or contrivance. The daring is to make what might be
called an invisible film, whose import, as with any other movie, is in what
we see and hear but is not immediately disclosed (or better, “dramatized”),
in Tokyo Story, by what we see and hear.
To achieve this, Ozu naturally had to have the understanding from the
start of Kogo Noda. He also had to have the camera of Yuharu Atsuta,
whose presence is exactly what it ought to be: unnoticeable. We discern
what happens; we don’t float our way to it through gorgeous
cinematography. And Ozu’s three most important actors here seem to
have blossomed out of the original idea into full-blown, corporeal beings.
Bent, faintly ludicrous, somewhat egocentric, Chishu Ryu is nonetheless
truly dignified by his character’s age, and, by some magical act of
imaginative transformation, he manages to act with an old man’s very
bones. (His character, incidentally, has a partiality for drink.) Chieko
Higashiyama, his wife, has a plain, even homely face that, as we see more
and more of her, becomes more and more beautiful; like Eleanor
Roosevelt’s face, that is, Higashiyama’s becomes facially beautiful as her
spirit becomes manifest. Tall, ungainly, and humane, Setsuko Hara, the
daughter-in-law, herself manages to give us tenderness without sugar,
loneliness without self-pity. These, then, are just some of the
instrumentalities that give this film its exquisite cinematic texture.
From the beginning, Ozu sets his tempo, which, again, is an adagio,
and which is dictated by his intent. Tokyo Story opens with three shots: a
ship passing; children passing on their way to school; and a train passing.
The operative image of course is “passing”—the idea of passage, in time
as in life. Then we see the old couple quietly packing their bags for the
trip to Tokyo. They are seated on the floor of their home, so within
seconds or so of the start, we get the film’s first tatami shot. Much of the
subsequent film is seen from this “national” viewpoint, when the
characters are erect as well as when they are sitting: in such compositions
as the stout old woman and her little grandson standing silhouetted on a
hilltop; the old couple seated on a curved sea wall at a beach outside
Tokyo, seen from behind, tiny but together against the visibly immense,
even illimitable sea, and knowing they will soon face other, familial
immensities; or the shot in which the camera moves slowly past the side of
a pavilion in a Tokyo park until, around the corner, we see, again from
behind, the old couple seated, alone on a ledge, eating their lunch. These
20 A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered

are all moments of deep and inexplicable poignancy, such simple and
ordinary sights that, as Tolstoy might have said, they cannot help but be
staggeringly important.
Because of these moments, because they are like stations on an
archetypal pilgrimage, I have often wondered about the tatami shot—
about its double meaning. For Japanese viewers, who were Ozu’s prime
consideration, it clearly has the embrace of the familiar; for them it is
almost essential for credibility, let us say. For foreign viewers like me,
what has come in the West to be known as the “Ozu shot” is an adventure:
not into something wild and strange but into a different species of
ordinariness. Through the power of the film medium, this director forces
us non-Japanese into the physicality of Japanese life, into a view of
existence that is part and parcel of decorum and relationships: the eye-
level of a person seated on the floor. I’m not asserting that sitting on a
tatami mat explains Japanese civilization (though it is the immobile
position of watchful repose from which one sees the Noh drama; from
which one partakes of the tea ceremony; and in which the haiku master sits
in silence and only occasionally reaches essence, in his poetry, through
extreme simplification or distillation). I do maintain, however, that the
tatami shot has a subtly implosive effect on the Western mind, especially
when we remember that it has no such effect on the Japanese mind. That
effect is at once humbling and empowering. It’s as if Ozu were saying,
“These are all tiny atoms I am showing you, from your own ‘tiny’ position
sitting on the floor. Yet in any one of them, enlarged as they are on the
screen, may be found the entire universe.”
Let me move now to Ozu’s treatment of time, as opposed to his
positioning of the camera in space. One side of the old couple’s living
room is a wide window that opens onto the street. A neighbor passes
during the brief opening sequence, stops, chats through the window, and
promises to look after their house while they are away. Then cut to
Tokyo. The cut is sharp, for in the 1930s Ozu gave up dissolves.
Eventually, he declared, “A dissolve is a handy thing, but it’s not
interesting. . . . Generally overlaps and fades aren’t part of cinematic
grammar—they are only attributes of the camera.” Tokyo Story has no
overlaps and almost no fades (there’s one on the old man at a certain point,
and, because of its rarity in Ozu’s oeuvre, the fade adds an elegiac texture
to this character’s plight)—a seeming paradox in a film that has as one of
its themes the passage of time.
Ozu thus seems to be telling us what we should already know: that
time is a mortal invention. Mortality may mark the progress and end of
existence, but time for its part does not move: people do. At any given
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 21

moment—an idea that itself is a human invention—there are children and

parents and grandparents and dying people as well as newborn ones. At
any other given moment, there is the same assortment, yet with the names
changed. For time, as Heraclitus told us, is a stream into which we cannot
step twice. Unlike humans, that is, time is constant, like the sea that Ozu’s
old couple sit down to observe. The movement of time is something that
they (and we along with them) invent as they watch the sea simply be, in
all its permanency, even as we invent such a movement as we watch the
static long takes that comprise much of this film.
In Tokyo we are first at the home of the couple’s son, a physician, who
has two sons of his own from marriage. The old folks arrive and are
greeted, and quickly the atmosphere is established of people who are
inseparably bound to one another—but by bonds deeper than affection. In
fact, very little affection is manifested. The same is true with their other
daughter, a beautician, with whose family they stay later. We see the
pouting of the doctor’s older boy because he has to give up his room to his
grandparents; we see his younger brother’s own reluctance to be near
them; the old couple learn that their doctor-son is not quite the success, nor
quite the man, they had imagined; and they also learn that their married
daughter has been coarsened into a penny-biting, suspicious shopkeeper
who is stingy even with her parents’ dinner.
After these trivia have gone on for a while, and more like them, with
the old folks moving through such incidents like well-meaning disturbers
of family peace, a spine-chilling realization comes to us: Ozu is not going
to dramatize anything in this film; what we see is what he means. What
begins slowly to distinguish Tokyo Story from domestic drama, then, is
precisely that it is not drama. It focuses on the beings of human beings,
not on the artificialities or arrangements of plot. Ozu believes that his
characters’ wishes, responses, concealments, frustrations, and foibles are
themselves more gripping, more unhistrionically engrossing, than anything
that could be carpentered, if only the artist who presents them is
fundamentally free of judgment, reveres the complications of existence,
and interferes in the motions of the lives before him (and us) only enough,
and with enough skill, so as to make those motions seem to flow
This is a tremendous idea, and it raises the subject of scale. For
everything in the film is calibrated with such refinement that feelings are
always restrained but never lost—so much so that when near the end, after
his wife’s death, the old man gives his widowed daughter-in-law the old
woman’s watch as a keepsake and the girl cries quietly, the effect is of a
tremendous emotional climax. As it turns out, the warmest of the young
22 A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered

people whom the old couple see in Tokyo is just this woman: their dead
son’s wife. (Their own children ship them off to the nearby seaside resort
of Atami for a few days, ostensibly as a holiday but really just to get rid of
them for a while.) His parents themselves understand that he was a
difficult person to live with and not the most admirable of fellows;
therefore they urge the still-young widow to remarry and not to follow the
usual custom of remaining a widow.
Many have noted the symmetries—formal, narrative, thematic—in
Tokyo Story, and some comment on them seems apt at this point. Such
symmetries are important to Ozu but never become tiresome. For
example, two pairs of sandals outside a hotel bedroom door, precisely
placed, show that two people, en route through their lives together, are
spending this particular night behind that door. On a larger scale, Ozu
balances sequences. To wit: at the start, the parents go up to Tokyo to
visit their children; at the end, the children come down to Onomichi to see
their parents. The hometown neighbor who stops at the window in the
beginning, to wish the old couple bon voyage, passes the same window at
the close and consoles the bereaved old man.
Perhaps most important among these symmetries is the following: in
Tokyo, the old woman and the widowed daughter-in-law have a scene
alone together, a very moving one in which the old woman gives the
younger a gift and spends the night in her small apartment (on her dead
son’s marital bed, next to his widow), while the old man is out drinking
with some friends from the past. At the conclusion of the film, it is then
the old man who has the scene alone with the daughter-in-law, in which he
gives her the gift of his dead wife’s watch and tells her that the old woman
said her night in the little apartment was her happiest time in Tokyo. The
very last shot of Tokyo Story, like the first, is a passing ship.
But such symmetries can hardly be taken as explanations in
themselves, as symbols of the film’s intent. Like the symmetries in the
novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, they almost seem, partly on
account of their very number, to be the artist’s way of warning us against
symmetries—of telling us that experience abounds in symmetries but they
do not by any means therefore illuminate the ambiguities and darkness that
lie beneath them. Note, too, the signs of Americanization in the film: the
box of soap flakes (Rinso), the baseball uniform hanging on a clothesline,
the Stephen Foster tune to which the schoolteacher-daughter’s class of
children sings Japanese words. These repeated motifs, like the
aforementioned symmetries, themselves appear secondary: unavoidable,
perhaps, but not as a result proof that Tokyo Story is a lament about the
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 23

postwar changes in Japanese culture under the pressure of Allied

Much more pertinent are the visual images of passage to which I
referred earlier, and which buttress the idea of life’s passing, with all the
ache and (if we admit it) the relief that this implies. Out of the loins of
these two old people whom we see sleeping peacefully side by side came
the children who are now turned away from them, and we know that it will
happen to the children themselves, with their children. The old couple
know it, too, yet, without saying so, are content to have had what they
have had and to have been part of the whole familial process. Still, even
in this instance, Ozu may be saying no more than that wistfulness about
passage—time’s passage, life’s passing—is only a human construct, and
for this reason only human vanity, to which nature itself, in all its force
and facticity, is oblivious.
This brings me to Ozu’s use of space, not in its own existence as a fact
and force of nature, but as a subjective experience. Space, for Ozu, is
neither décor nor setting: it is what his characters see and pass through,
have passed through, will pass through. Many have noted, for example,
that he often begins a shot before the characters enter and holds it after
they leave (in what the French call temps mort, or “dead time”). But Ozu
does this not so much to suggest that the world, imperturbable, surrounds
the perturbations of its inhabitants, as nearly to prove that the place in
question has been brought into existence by the expectation and fact of
people’s entry into or visit to it—just as a composer’s rests or held chords
seem to have been brought into being by the expectation and fact of the
musical notes that surround them.
Michelangelo Antonioni himself often, and beautifully, integrated
environment with characterization, in order to show his characters as in
part the products or result of their world. With Ozu, however, I think that
something like the reverse is true: everything we see is determined by an
intense, personal reaction to the idea of space. Rooms, for instance, seem
just large enough in Tokyo to accommodate the people and the objects
which they, the people, have brought there to fill the space further. It is
thus that boundary, sheer rectilinear boundary, reveals itself as the
quintessential mode of Japanese structure: of rooms, of doorways, of
corridors, all of them placed there by human beings.
Further evidence of this is represented by the fact that sometimes Ozu
even gives us a shot of a room or hallway we recognize but which has
nothing to do with the preceding scene or the one to follow. Still, men and
women created that room or hallway, and they have passed through it, will
pass through it. Often in Tokyo Story we see such men and women from a
24 A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered

distance, people who have nothing to do with the events we are

following—yet people who, through their own very being on a street or in
a corridor beyond, help to define or delimit space for the characters in the
foreground as well as for themselves, in the background. In this way Ozu
tells us that, around and among his people, is the physical world as they,
and others, have organized it. If in the process order has been brought out
of chaos in the environment, external order as these Japanese conceive it,
it is at least a palliative for the internal disorder, or inner mystery, that they
(and we) cannot master.
The film itself does not pretend to master that mystery, either. Indeed,
as in the case of the symmetries I have already cited, Ozu seems to be
warning us against understanding Tokyo Story too quickly. Take the scene
quite near the end in which the schoolteacher-daughter and the young
widow say goodbye. “Isn’t life disappointing, though?” the teacher says,
and the other woman agrees. But this exchange is much too easily ironic
to be taken as the point of the picture; it could not represent Ozu’s whole
view. In this film we see parents disappointed in their children, it’s true;
but we also see children disappointed in each other and with themselves.
Still, disappointment in life is no more true than anything else in life; and
for that which is other than life, human or otherwise, we can say nothing.
So the conclusion of “disappointment” is simply too small for Tokyo
Let me elaborate. No such handy consolation as disappointment will
serve, for life may be disappointing, but it is also joyous, bitter,
exhilarating, disgusting, unbearable, and inestimably precious, among
other qualities, and it is all these things for everyone in the course of
existence. And at the moment when one of these qualities is present, it is
unshakably true—only to be supplanted because no one attribute of life is
more unshakably true than another. In other words, everything is true, just
as no one thing is wholly or solely true. It is this view of the equivalence
of responses, the conviction that no response is any more or less true than
any other, the knowledge that sorrow is as undependable as ecstasy as a
summary emotion, which Tokyo Story moves toward.
The true point of Tokyo Story, then, the only point large enough for it,
is that it has no point—no quotable motto or moral to tag it with. A fine
artist at the height of his powers has made a film that avoids such neat
answers; but, like life, Ozu scatters deceptive answers along the way as he
proceeds to non-resolution. If I had to choose one word to describe his
method, it would be “purity.” Like the Dreyer of The Passion of Joan of
Arc (1928), like the Bresson of Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Ozu
gives us the sense that questions of talent and ambition have been settled
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 25

or set aside, that he is now self-centered in what can only be called a

selfless way. Presently, in Tokyo Story, he is placing on the screen the
very least that will fulfill the truth of what he has seen, of what he knows,
of life. There is no brave consciousness of integrity in this; as I stated
toward the start of my essay, Ozu is simply consecrated to serving life,
simply—and proudly.
All these matters are summed up in the film’s title, which may seem
pedestrian but resonates powerfully. I want to emphasize that the title in
English is an exact translation from the Japanese (Tokyo Monogatari).
And it seems to me finally indicative that Ozu called the film Tokyo Story,
since it is neither in any intrinsic sense about Tokyo nor in any formal
sense a story. Two people do go to a place called Tokyo, but it could have
been any other place where space is being defined by more people than
this couple are used to seeing together in one location. Moving through
the space of this world, the old man and old woman help to define it for
themselves. But even the space through which they moved on the way to
their final destination was defined and redefined, by others as well as by
themselves. When they finally arrive in Tokyo, these two are surprised
that it is so near their home; when they are about to leave, it seems so far.
Put another way, Tokyo is nowhere, and it is everywhere.
The story, insofar as there is one in this film, is in a sense only a series
of confirmations, or one big extended confirmation: that everyone is
smaller or different from what we thought or expected, including
ourselves; but that, nonetheless, it is for the most part a privilege to share
in this realization, a privilege to be one of the only group of sentient
beings in the universe, beings who can imagine time and space and self.
Moreover, the story in Tokyo Story is ultimately the same as all other
stories because, ultimately, all things in it have passed; and it ends,
spatially speaking, as all stories must end: in stillness.
As far as Tokyo Story’s reputation among all other “storied” films
goes, the British journal Sight and Sound periodically conducts an
international poll asking critics to list their ten favorite fiction features
ever made; and on my list—along with several others—there is always
Tokyo Story. I saw it for the first time in 1971 in a Japanese retrospective
at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And only in 1972 did the film
have its first theatrical release in the United States. I saw it again at that
time; I’ve screened it several more times over the intervening years; I re-
viewed it twice recently on DVD; and I’m happy, in retrospect, that it was,
and is, on my list. My list aside, I’m happy that this film exists, and that I
was on its list. Even as Ozu’s gravestone (which I once visited in Tokyo)
is inscribed with only the character mu, so too does Tokyo Story finally
26 A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered

seem to be inscribed with this one character. It means, or is usually

translated as, “nothingness,” but mu suggests the nothing that, in Zen
Buddhist philosophy, is everything. Which is all—or null—that I have to
say about Yasujiro Ozu and his Tokyo story.

Prominent in the poetry of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance was
a manifestation of one of the profoundest changes in human thinking: the
spiritualization of man’s attitude toward women. In the poetry of Dante,
for a prime example, physical desire was transformed into an earthly
image of heavenly love; true love still struck through the eye (“love at first
sight”), but it reached to the soul and thereby created a hunger for spiritual
rather than fleshly beauty, for romance rather than sex. The sight of
Dante’s Beatrice (whose name, of course, means “blessed”), in other
words, drove out all foul thoughts, her presence ennobled, and her
discourse was an aid to salvation. This Neo-Platonic optics of love was
explained in such works as the Commentary on Plato’s “Symposium”
(1468), by Marsilio Ficino, and The Philosophy of Love (1502), by Leone
Ebreo; yet such absolute love, we’ve since learned, is clearly the kind that
can be maintained over a long period of time only from a distance or in
In any event, thus did lust become the love we all know, and that love,
either in whole or in part, is the subject of two “classic” films I recently re-
viewed—coincidentally, both in the same week. These two pictures,
Sundays and Cybèle and La strada, point up the distinction, not only
between sexual gratification and divine fulfillment, but also between what
the French auteur Jean Cocteau once called cinema and cinematograph.
Nowadays, as the Hollywood “product” more and more crowds out
American independents as well as European, Asian, and African imports,
it pays (if that is the word) to remember this distinction. Cinema, Cocteau,
said, conceives of film as an art and is as rare as genuine art (or genuine
religiosity, for that matter) always is; while “cinematograph”—literally, a
motion-picture camera or projector, or the material of moviemaking as
opposed to its spirit—concerns itself with commercial entertainment
produced by an industry and anathematizes art (though sometimes falling
28 On Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle and Fellini’s La strada

into artiness, the arch impostor or devil incarnate). It is the familiar

business we see in all our pleasure palaces known today as cineplexes.
No example of the vainglories and inconsequences of cinematograph,
Sundays and Cybèle (1962) might be accused by the inattentive of being
an instance of sentimentality. But the line that divides the honesty of
sentiment from the falseness of sentimentality—yet another distinction—is
always an exceedingly thin one, far too thin for the gross vision of most
moviemakers, or moviegoers, to be able to detect. That the French-made
Sundays and Cybèle is full of the most affecting sentiment, yet never
crosses the line that leads to the sentimental, is a tribute to its director
Serge Bourguignon and to its cast, yet I am not sure that the audience
which applauded this picture (at the revival house where I saw it) was
aware of the difference between the two. As I watched, I became aware
that there was a great deal of what could only be called low-level activity
taking place around me: lots of tongue-clucking, dabbing at the eyes, and
lugubrious sighing of the sort you’d expect at the resuscitation of an early
Judy Garland or Jackie Cooper movie. And the talk I heard outside the
screening room only reinforced my suspicion that the general response to
the film continues to be to its easier, more superficial aspects.
Sundays and Cybèle, in other words, is not sentimental, but the
reaction to it is pretty heavily so. This doesn’t really matter, for the
picture has outlasted those audiences in search of a good cry, or at least
has found the sensitive and appreciative audience it deserves. Indeed, it
has taken its place as one of the most profoundly moving and original of
cinematic achievements, if not as one of the truly epochal masterpieces of
screen history. Masterpieces, after all, are few and far between, and may
not be summoned by journalistic fiat; in any case, a movie as rare as
Sundays and Cybèle is rare enough for us to be indulgent with its faults.
Serge Bourguignon never rid himself of those faults (more on which later)
in his subsequent films—The Reward (1965), Two Weeks in September
(1967), and The Picasso Summer (1969)—which is why most people have
never heard of him.
What is so impressive, however, about this, his very first feature (and
the winner of the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1962,
even as La strada was in 1956), is that besides the risk it takes of
appearing sentimental, it also takes the risk of seeming perverse, its theme
being open to all sorts of vile misconstruction. The mutual love of a
thirty-year-old man and a twelve-year-old girl is just the kind of subject
that is likely to set prurient (as well as puritanical) minds operating at full
speed; there are bound to be any number of viewers, especially today, who
instantly murmur to themselves, “Ah yes, Lolita,” and sit back waiting for
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 29

the titillation to begin. The extent of their disappointment is the measure

of the purity and innocence of this remarkable story (adapted from a novel
titled Les Dimanches de Ville d’Avray, by Bernard Eschassériaux), which
adamantly refuses to be bent to base interpretations or responses.
The narrative unfolds in a small city or town near Paris. Its central
figure is a young man who had been a fighter pilot during the war (the
French involvement in Indochina), had crashed, and suffered total amnesia
as a result—or so the military thinks. But his amnesia, tellingly, is in
reality the result of his having killed a young Vietnamese girl during a
“routine” strafing mission. He is now living a tortured life of emptiness
and lack of connection. There is a young woman—his nurse while he was
hospitalized—with whom he lives and who cares for him, but she cannot
break through the opaque wall that separates this traumatized man from
his past and from existence in the present. The ex-flyer so completely
lacks confidence in life and in himself that when his mistress tells him
how madly she loves him, he appears almost doltishly impassive. But he
is shell-shocked in addition to having lost his memory, and in a sense he
thus becomes a metaphor for the vacuous sterility and ideological
disillusionment of the French nation in the wake not only of its Nazi
occupation-cum-collaboration during World War II, but also of its
subsequent moral-military debacles in Algeria as well as Vietnam.
One night at a train station (where this transient of the mind spends
much of his time) he encounters a little girl, who is being taken by her
father from their home in Paris to a Catholic orphanage in the town; the
man is clearly fleeing his responsibility, while his daughter is frightened
and unhappy. “She must not cry,” the former flyer tells the startled parent,
and his need to put an end to her tears, to do something toward reducing
all the pain and sorrow in the world, as well as to move toward some kind
of true relationship with another human being, is the springboard for the
remainder of this film’s slender action. Not by accident, that action occurs
on Sundays, during which the would-be father takes his girl away from the
orphanage for a few hours, on idyllic walks around lakes and through
woods in Corot’s own Ville d’Avray landscape.
The first time he calls for her, he pretends to the nuns that he is her
father and to the girl that her biological parent (who in fact has fled the
country) sent him. Very soon, however, the girl realizes that her real
father has deserted her and pleads with the injured pilot to keep her with
him. He is not able to do so, but he promises that he will keep up the
paternal pretense and come for her every Sunday (though he never informs
his mistress of these outings). Swiftly they build up a relationship of
complete trust and love, a fantasy world such as children fashion—full of
30 On Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle and Fellini’s La strada

secrets, promises, and bounteousness to come. And in the course of their

Sabbaths together, both child and man poignantly, passionately renew
their faith in life and themselves.
“When I am eighteen, I will marry you,” the girl tells this amnesiac,
and he smiles with as much innocence as hers. Yet, while their
relationship is innocent, it is also complex and sophisticated; she enjoys
teasing him and even playing the coquette, while they are both driven on
occasion to the doubts and jealousies of conventional lovers. But what
these two mean to each other far transcends any conventional love story—
or any sentimental fable of an attachment between two lost souls. In their
direct and childlike love there is bodied forth the agony of loneliness, of
loneness, and the need to overcome it that attaches to us all. There is
something greater than this as well: the suggestion (particularly daring in
the early 1960s) that our categories of love are far too narrow, that even on
the natural, earthly level there is something like a mystical body or union
of which we are all mortal members.
In time the inevitable misunderstanding of the world moves to crush
this unprecedented occurrence, or to prevent the inconceivable from
happening. In the woods on Christmas Eve, where the two are celebrating
the girl’s “first real Nativity,” society, which has gotten wind of this
couple’s friendship, arrives to protect itself against what it cannot
comprehend. The flyer and the girl have already exchanged presents: hers
to him is her real name (the nuns had renamed her Françoise), which she
has never revealed but now writes on a scrap of paper that she puts inside
a tiny box—her way of presenting him with her fate and fullness of being.
(Cybèle may be the goddess of nature in Greek mythology, but one’s
“name day”—particularly in European countries and aptly here, given
what I have suggested is the mystical union of this male and female—is
the day on which one is baptized or the feast day of the saint after whom
one is named; and that day for Cybèle in effect becomes Christmas.)
The man, whose own name is Pierre, gives the little girl the
weathercock from the local church, having overcome his worst, physical
fear—an ironic one for a former pilot, that of ascending heights—in order
to get her something she admired, or to secure himself in her affections (no
fickle weathercock, he), as well as to confirm for himself the progress of
his emotional recovery. And there in the woods, while he watches over
her sleeping form, the police come and kill the “dangerous maniac,”
killing as well, in their great folly, the spirit of the girl whom he loved.
We last see her crying inconsolably, now that she has lost not only her
name, but also the one person ever to show her genuine kindness and love.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 31

And now that, metaphorically speaking, France has rid itself of one more
reminder of its martial and political folly, its collective subconscious guilt.
Such flaws as there are in Sundays and Cybèle stem from its periodic
lack of trust in its own substantial nature as a work of art; at such times as
the film becomes arty, Henri Decaë’s camera turns coy, bathing scenes in
a mistiness that is supposed to suggest mystery if not to make us misty-
eyed, or shooting for no intrinsic reason through keyholes, shutters, and
leaves as well as into the rear-view mirrors of moving cars. (It could be
argued, however, that since Bourgignon’s film announces with its
preliminary “outburst”—the scene of Pierre’s plane, on its strafing
mission, plummeting groundward toward the Vietnamese girl frozen with
fear—the theme of traumatic vertigo with its accompanying dislocation of
this Frenchman’s perspective, these shots may not be so extrinsic after all,
particularly when they involve Pierre’s own point of view.) But the
picture quite survives such moments of cinematic trickery, of self-
conscious aesthetics. This is not only because of Decaë’s otherwise
appositely stark black-and-white cinematography (where there is no room
for the “gray area” of an unconventional romantic relationship).
It is also, indeed in large part, because of the splendid work of the
movie’s central performers: Hardy Krüger (still professionally active today
as an octogenarian) as the man and especially Patricia Gozzi as the girl. If
there were no other reasons to see Sundays and Cybèle, Gozzi, who here
gives a performance of unusual depth and range, would be a compelling
one. She is beyond any doubt the most sensitive and beautiful pre-teen in
the history of the screen (having stopped acting at age twenty), making a
once-famous child star like Patty Duke seem about as authentic and
winning as a television commercial for McDonald’s. But, then again, the
film itself makes most Hollywood movies look like the creations of ad
men at Big Mac’s.
As, to be sure, does La strada (1954), which displays the economy of
means that Federico Fellini was to employ in the most impressive phase of
his career (from Variety Lights [1950] through 8½ [1962]). During this
time he was, above all, an observer, and observation requires a certain
measure of reticence, reserve, or remove. Insofar as he has a style in I
vitelloni (1953) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957), it isn’t narrowly
technical but rather broadly constructive: through juxtaposition, setting the
details of reconstructed reality side by side to point up a common
denominator, or, more often, to expose the ironic relationship between
dissimilar things. Like his neorealist forbears, Fellini tried to present the
world naturally, arranging events as little as possible in order to avoid the
mere creation of plots or entertainments. And since his subject in this
32 On Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle and Fellini’s La strada

early period of his career was the incorrigibility of human hopefulness,

repetition, not progressive plotting, was crucial to his method. The
purpose of such repetition was to illustrate a state of being again and again
rather than to move causally toward a dramatic climax, to react to the
surface of character from the outside rather than to probe deeply into the
psychology of human feeling.
It wouldn’t be too much to say, then, that by the time he made La
strada (1954), Fellini had reached a new stage in the evolution of the
cinema where form itself no longer determines anything, where filmic
language no longer calls attention to itself but, on the contrary, suggests
only as much as any stylistic device that an artist might employ. Put
another way, nothing Fellini shows us in this film has any supplementary
meaning to the manner in which it is shown; if the camera doesn’t see it, it
isn’t in the picture. No lyricism of the image or of montage—the formal
composition of the images in relation to one another—takes it upon itself
to guide our perceptions, to interpret the action for us. It is in this way that
the movies achieved fruition as the art of the real (their fantastic or
abstract component having long since been relegated to a secondary role),
where advances would henceforth be tied less to the originality of the
means of expression than to the substance of the expression itself. Thus,
paradoxically, does a verist film like La strada become cinema at its
transcendent best, rich in imagination, profound in spirit, and pure in tone.
It represents, in a word, the flowering of film possibilities into a new
instrument for converting reality into living myth, for enhancing the
Here’s the “plot” of what I prefer to call a cinematic poem, a song of
love. Zampanò, a whoring, drunken strong-man whose one accomplishment
is to be able to break a chain with his bare chest, pays an old Italian
woman a few lire for her daughter Gelsomina’s services as a “slavey” and
sets off with her in a motorcycle van that is simultaneously strange and
commonplace. The girl (or woman: she is ageless, unidentifiable, without
history) is deranged, but only in the way of one who has broken through
the limitations of conventional feeling into a universe of direct perception
and spontaneous expression. The strong-man himself is a brute, living
below the level of conscience or communication. What he wants of
Gelsomina is merely to help him in his act; what she wants of Zampanò is
to be allowed to remain, in misery and wonder, at his side.
They move through changing landscapes and weathers, but seem
always to be in one desolate provincial town after another (photographed
by Otello Martelli in every shade between the blackness of Zampanò’s
heart and the white of Gelsomina’s goodness, all of these shades
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 33

seemingly devoid of sunlight). What happens to these two, in accordance

with the cinematic style of Fellini that I have noted, is less a narrative than
an unfolding; whatever they do is less important than the self-revelation it
affords. But there are events or occurrences. They join a wedding feast at
which Gelsomina comforts an idiot child with her astonishing compassion.
They meet a gentle clown—better called a fool, a quasi-Shakespearean
one, since he is an artiste who plays the violin and performs on the high
wire in addition to playing the clown—from whom she learns the meaning
of her role, that she has a place in the world and even a destiny, which is to
be indispensable to Zampanò. (“If I don’t stay with Zampanò,” Gelsomina
asks, “who will?”) They spend a night at a convent where she leaves part
of herself behind, anchored in the peace she cannot have with her
Finally, they meet the Fool again and Zampanò kills him, irritated by
his mocking gaiety and baffled by the superiority of his soul, the air of the
marvelous that hovers about him. At the death of the Fool, Gelsomina is
pierced by a sublime pity and reduced humanly to a little whimper, like a
mouse deprived of food: “The Fool is sick, the Fool is sick.” Her
breakdown is, without question, the most powerful event in La strada.
From this point on, she is beset by an agony situated in that instant in
which the Fool, who had virtually conferred her being on her, ceased to
exist. Terrified by the poor girl’s suffering—or, better, unable to bear her
horror of him—and at the end of his patience, Zampanò abandons
Gelsomina asleep in the snow, in her own private Gethsemane.
But just as the death of the Fool had made life unbearable for
Gelsomina, so too will Zampanò’s abandonment of her and then her death
make life unbearable for him. It is only years later that he accidentally
learns of this woman-child’s passing, after which, following a humiliating
beating in a café, Zampanò staggers to the edge of the sea where he at last
breaks down, uttering great hoarse cries that are his inchoate sounds of
recognition. For him, the road ends here, as he instinctively recognizes
that he has repudiated the need for love and that this act has slain his spirit;
that, in his animal existence, he has avoided the breath of God and now
must lie broken and powerless until it should pass over him again. Little
by little, then, this mass of muscles has been reduced to its emotional core,
and Zampanò ends up being crushed by the absence of Gelsomina from his
life. He is crushed not so much by remorse for what he did, however, or
even by his love for her, as by overwhelming, inconsolable, almost
suicidal anguish—which can only be the response of his soul to being
deprived of Gelsomina, who in her innocence, simplicity, and faithfulness
could be said to represent nothing less than the communion of saints.
34 On Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle and Fellini’s La strada

Fellini’s point of view is thus the exact opposite of the one that would
be taken by a psychological realist. The very being of these characters is
precisely in their not having any psychology, or at least in possessing such
a malformed and primitive one that any description of it would hold little
more than pathological interest. But each does have a soul—which reveals
itself here beyond psychological or artistic categories. It reveals itself all
the more because one can’t bedeck it, in Zampanò’s case, with the
trappings of conscience. Where he and the other slow-witted characters in
La strada are concerned, it is impossible to confuse ultimate spiritual
realities with those of intelligent reflection, aesthetic pleasure, or wedded
passion. And this film is nothing but these figures’ experience of their
souls and the revelation of that experience before our eyes. A
phenomenology of the soul, then, one could call La strada, or at the very
least (highest?) a cautionary phenomenology of the reciprocal nature of
salvation, the smallest unit of universal Catholic existence being two
loving souls or one human soul in harmony with the divine Christ.
If you don’t agree with the above interpretation, you have to conclude,
with La strada’s secular detractors, that because we see Zampanò’s
“change” only years after Gelsomina’s death and we haven’t followed him
through those years, we have not seen how his change occurred.
According to this argument, Gelsomina ends up being the protagonist of
La strada through the sheer pathos of her condition, whereas she should
have been the active agent of Zampanò’s internal change, through conflict
between him and her leading to a gradual, or dramatized, recognition on
his part. Everything depends, in a sense, on how convincing Anthony
Quinn (as Zampanò) is in the final revelation of his delayed heartbreak, his
mournful solitude. And, in my view, he is very convincing, giving the
greatest performance of his otherwise inflated career. So convincing is
Quinn that the tears Zampanò sheds for the first time in his sorry life, on
the beach that Gelsomina loved, made me connect their salt with the salt of
the eternal sea—which seems, behind him, to be relieving its own anguish
at the never-ending sufferings of man and beast.
Giulietta Masina, for her part, is infinitely enchanting in the first
starring role given to her by Fellini (her husband). A mime in the tradition
of Barrault, Marceau, and Chaplin, she uses her miming skills here far
more than language—which, after all, in so visual a medium as film can
sometimes mediate between us and our affective response to character—to
create the childlike character of Gelsomina. A loving, trusting, hopeful,
endearing, and enduring person, she has her spirit crushed, finally, not
(like adults) by the cumulative weight of experience but by the provisional
delinquency of grace. That delinquency kills the Fool before it does her,
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 35

and he is played by the American actor Richard Basehart with a brilliant

virtuosity that he rarely displayed in Hollywood movies like The House on
Telegraph Hill (1951) and Titanic (1953). To avoid the pitfalls of
Hollywood stereotyping, or to work with directors who know something
about acting, Basehart escaped to Europe for a time, where he also had a
leading role in Fellini’s Il bidone (1955).
To move from acting to writing, Fellini co-scripted La strada (with
Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano), even as Serge Bourguignon did Sundays
and Cybèle (with Antoine Tudal). And I connect the quality of both films,
in no small measure, to the fact that each one was wholly or partly written
by its director. This may seem a Romantic notion on my part (even after
forty years of auteur theory), the chimerical idea in so collaborative a
medium as film of the director as higher, shaping, and unifying
consciousness, as individual artist-genius apart from the madding, ignoble
crowd. But, then again, such a Romantic notion is especially apt as
applied to two pictures that themselves are implicitly or explicitly about
romance—conceived, that is, as an idealized love affair between two
human beings (maybe even one) and the mind, or camera-eye, of God.

We live in a secular, narcissistic, even hedonistic age. Is there anyone

out there who still doubts this? If you do, have a look at a film made by
Ingmar Bergman over forty-five years ago—Winter Light (1962)—and
you’ll see what I mean. This is not to say that something like Winter Light
couldn’t be made now. We’re dealing here with the rule and not the
exception, the middle, not the extremities. Obviously, none of this is
intended to denigrate Bergman’s film as a mediocrity, or a priori to
privilege contemporary films over it. Still, “men are as the time is,” as
Edmund declares in King Lear, and no artist in any medium—particularly
one so popular, or immediate, as the cinema—can claim exemption.
Winter Light takes place on what used to be a day of rest and
devotion—the Sabbath, in this case one wintry Sunday in a rural
clergyman’s life, between matins and vespers. The middle entry in
Bergman’s “faith” trilogy, Winter Light suffers far less from the defect of
the other two parts, Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence
(1963): such an excess of symbolism that each picture breaks down into a
series of discernible metaphors for spiritual alienation rather than an
aggregation of those metaphors into an organic, affecting work. Though,
apart from its literary-like piling up of symbols, Through a Glass Darkly
relied on almost none of the arty legerdemain that marred The Magician
(1958) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Winter Light is even starker and more
circumscribed. So much so that this film, somewhat more than the one
that immediately followed it, makes one feel that the (ir)religious vision
Bergman had been formulating in all his major pictures up to now has
finally shed its excrescences and become as simple and direct, as pure and
honest, as it is possible to be.
Winter Light is only eighty minutes in length compared to the ninety-
one of Through a Glass Darkly and the ninety-six minutes of The Silence;
and it uses relatively few actors and settings, like those “chamber” works.
But they at least have musical scores (in both cases by Bach), whereas the
only music in Winter Light occurs during church services in accompaniment
to Swedish psalms. Such economy of means, of course, is a matter of
great artistry, of artistic refinement. And no filmmaker, not even
38 Early Bergman, or Film and Faith: Winter Light Revisited

Michelangelo Antonioni, was ever Bergman’s superior when it came to

knowing what to leave out (one can almost divide true cinematic artists
from mere moviemakers on the question of such exclusion)—the absences
in Winter Light being as significant as what is presented. They in fact
contribute in the most central way to the picture’s theme, as well as to its
visual architecture, since Bergman is dealing here with an image of
spiritual darkness and desolation, with an “absence” in the soul.
That absence is a crisis in, almost a loss of, faith, and it’s a middle-
aged Lutheran minister who is in its grip. To describe his condition in this
way is entirely accurate, for his anguish is experienced like a violent
seizure, the “silence of God” being a palpable thing. Since the season is
winter, the days are short and the light is sparse and sterile—a counterpart
to the weather, the climate as well as the illumination, in the pastor’s soul.
The planes and angles of the camera’s investigations (the black-and-white
cinematography is by Sven Nykvist) mark out this universe of gray
emptiness within a framework that makes it even more austere or
stringent. And the “gray area” here, the study in varying shades of gray, is
entirely appropriate, because the clergyman’s crisis is a continuing one;
nothing is resolved either for or against religious belief. In a different
film, a different life, we would abide in the expectation of answers; in
Winter Light, we can only take heart from a continuity of questions.
The minister is accompanied, in his clerical vocation, by a
schoolteacher who loves him and wants to marry and whose presence he
accepts—but whom he cannot love in return. For it develops that when his
wife died some years before, his capacity to love died with her, and it
becomes clear that for him such a loss is itself a demonstration of God’s
absence or indifference. Thus does Bergman, in the most delicate,
unrhetorical, yet profoundly moving way, link the realms of natural and
supernatural, diurnal and supernal love, keeping the tension between them
at a high pitch and never resorting to cheap or arbitrary solutions. For him
life’s special agony is just such a rending of the loving bond between God
and man. Unlike Antonioni, whose work also concentrated on this subject,
he does not believe that man invented God but now must be manly enough
to admit it and destroy him. Bergman is concerned to find a way of living
with—at the very least—the memory of God, and the only way to such
divinity is through affinity: if not the loving marriage between two human
beings, then fellow-feeling of the kind that is contained in the very idea of
Or so this Lutheran minister learns. One of his parishioners, a fisherman
with three children and a pregnant wife, is in a state of depression,
deepened by the immanence in the world of nuclear-bomb threats.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 39

Brought by his wife, the fisherman talks to the pastor after morning
service—and the pastor’s own spiritual bankruptcy is glaringly revealed in
their talk. Later comes word that the fisherman has committed suicide,
which brings the minister face to face with the truth that his own worst
suffering—as well as that of his flock—is now caused by his inability to
fulfill his vocation.
But through the instrumentality of another character, a hunchbacked
sexton with a wry, mordant yet exceptionally deep commitment to faith,
he is shown the glint of possibility, of light whose very promise or idea is
contained in this picture’s title. That glinting possibility consists in going
on, in living through the aridity and absence, in making continual acts of
faith precisely where faith is most difficult or even repellent. The film
ends at twilight with the pastor beginning the vespers service (even as
Winter Light began with a communion service), in a church with only one
or two parishioners in attendance. On the one hand, this clergyman is
slipping back almost desperately into clerical routine; on the other, he
continues to minister to the faithful, and the darkness of winter night has
not yet come.
This summary fails to do justice to the mastery Bergman revealed over
his materials in Winter Light. For one thing, his actors—Max von Sydow
as the fisherman, Ingrid Thulin as the teacher, Gunnar Björnstrand as the
pastor—could not be bettered. They had by this time become the perfect
instruments of Bergman’s directorial will, forming what was undoubtedly
the finest cinematic acting company in the world, one that the stage (where
Bergman began and, to some extent, remained) might still envy, or envy
even more, today. Here, as elsewhere in the “faith” trilogy, their work was
especially difficult, for they had to give human gravity to a stripped-down
exercise in God-famished theology.
That is, the film’s effect depends on the penetration in us of the
minister’s doubt, as well as the teacher’s hopeless love and the fisherman’s
boundless despair (which are meant to reflect, in their way, on the central
problem of religious belief). The spiritual problem is not merely stated in
Winter Light, as some commentators continue to assert; it is visualized or
externalized, as I described earlier. Still, to deal in physical film terms
with the complex metaphysical question of the existence of God and the
equally difficult-to-sustain phenomenon of human isolation or alienation
requires performances of a freshening, even frightening kind. And
Bergman got them in Winter Light, to create a solemn, spare, severe
artwork that is nonetheless full of strange, harsh beauty.
To go back now to something I said in the opening paragraph of this
essay, my reservations about the secularity and hedonism of our age—as
40 Early Bergman, or Film and Faith: Winter Light Revisited

opposed to the one that produced a “faith” film like Winter Light—are
those of an aging critic who sees an increasing number of “faithless”
movies coming along, yet who continues to hope (if not believe) that there
is more to love than lust, that the spirit is greater in importance than the
body, and that romance has as much to do with religious rapture as with
sexual transport. For all its white heat, in other words, the giddy fantasy
of your average romantic movie (let alone a porno picture) leaves me
alone in earthbound darkness, coolly and contractively contemplating the
state of my own connubial bond. Whereas the sober mystery of Winter
Light may have left me ice-cold, but it is glistening cold that seeks out the
expansive warmth of divine solace. And everything that so rises, naturally,
must converge.

Thérèse (1986) is a film about the love of the Carmelite nun Thérèse
Martin for Jesus Christ. Of Thérèse, who died in 1897 and was canonized
in 1925, one might be tempted to say, “She embodied the dementia of a
religious generation,” except that hers wasn’t a particularly religious
generation. Thérèse’s “dementia” is all her own, and all the more striking
for this reason.
Let me begin unconventionally for this unconventional film, with the
performance of the woman who plays Thérèse. Of Catherine Mouchet’s
acting in Alain Cavalier’s film, I must say that: it is always in the moment,
never in the clouds. And this is quite an achievement in a role whose
foundation is this woman’s overpowering love for Jesus Christ. How does
Mouchet realize her performance? In two ways. She makes sure that she
loves the person of Jesus Christ, not the idea of God. This is somewhat
easy, since she is playing a Carmelite nun, and the Carmelite order’s
raison d’être is its members’ love for the man who tells them again and
again, “I am life,” “I am life,” “I am life.” To the Carmelites, Christ is
husband, father, son; upon initiation into the order, each nun goes through
a wedding ceremony, and we see Thérèse go through hers. (The
Carmelites thus make explicit the implicit marriage of all nuns to Christ.)
In her white gown, with flowers in hand and in her hair, blushingly
accepting congratulations from her sisters, Thérèse begins to give us a
sense of Christ’s presence next to her. She’s convinced, so she convinces
us. There’s no need for gimmicks, for visions or voices, and Cavalier
intelligently gives us none. Mouchet had to create an objective correlative
for her love, however, if she was fully to give us herself as well as herself
in devotion to Christ. And that correlative was ready-made in the life
around her, in her fellow nuns, three of whom are her actual sisters!
Thérèse’s love of Christ is visible in her love for these women who are his
wives, his children, his mothers. Her youthful happiness, sincerity, and
self-sacrifıce are like a gift—a needed gift—from God to this convent of
older and in some cases dour women.
Mouchet is helped by Bernard Evein’s sets and Cavalier’s camera, and
even by her nun’s habit. Since we’re in a convent, moreover in one whose
42 Saint Cinema: On Cavalier’s Thérèse

inhabitants live a hermit’s life of complete poverty and virtual silence,

there’s no ornament, no set decoration to speak of: only what furniture and
articles are absolutely necessary. But Cavalier and Evein take starkness
one step farther: there are no walls, no doors, only a huge backdrop. In
other words, there are no points of reference in the background and no
points of interest, of “design,” in the middle- and foreground. The one
point of reference is the screen’s frame, and when the human face enters
that frame, it automatically gets our undivided attention in all its
expressiveness and splendor. I say the human face and not the human
form, because the nun’s habit disguises the body, and the hood serves as
an additional frame for the face. Mouchet therefore has no competition;
when she’s on screen, we watch her face, every part of it, and we don’t
need close-ups.
Cavalier’s camera stays back for the most part, but not too far back. He
doesn’t want to give us Thérèse’s experience, to immerse us in it, the way
Dreyer immersed us, through close-ups, in Joan’s in his Passion of Joan of
Arc (1928); nor does he want to keep us at a certain remove from
Thérèse’s experience, to offer it up primarily for our contemplation, the
way Bresson offered up the curé’s experience in Diary of a Country Priest
(1951). Bresson did this less by means of long shots than by non-
expressive acting, an emphasis on the physical world—the world of
objects—which sets off the ineffability or interiority of the spiritual, and
through narrative trebling—through the representation on screen of written
pages from the curé’s diary, through his voice-over of those pages, and
through the depiction on screen of the actions described in them. Thérèse
is also based on a diary—hers, which was translated and published all over
the world after her death in 1897. But, though we see her diary—the book
itself—we do not look into its pages and we do not hear anyone’s voice-
over of passages from it. The action of this film is unmediated, as is its
representation of space, generally.
Cavalier doesn’t often fragment space into objects and people, or into
shot and reverse-shot between Thérèse and the other Carmelites in
conversation. They don’t talk that much, anyway: much of their day is
taken up by prayer, by chores, by meatless, skimpy meals, and by
mortifications of the flesh. And Cavalier’s camera usually takes in the
whole scene, all at once. He’s aided by Camille de Casabianca’s
screenplay, which consists of a series of nearly independent tableaux, and
by Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography, which plays the black-and-white
of the nuns’ habits against the muted sumptuousness of the colors behind
them. The women—their faces—thus stand out all the more, and most of
all because of the way the set is lighted. Cavalier has said that the principal
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 43

reference in this lighting was Monet, but this is misleading, since the main
character in Monet’s paintings is the light—the human figures are
distinctly secondary and, where they occur, take on a certain motionlessness,
even shapelessness. By contrast, the human face is primary for Cavalier
and, in order to accentuate it, he has most of the light fall on the
foreground and very little of it spill into the background.
Cavalier thus edits within the scene through light and through
simplicity of design rather than “outside” the scene through cutting. In this
sense he is the theorist André Bazin’s ideal director in Thérèse (he has
made eight other films in a career that began in 1962). He is not Bazin’s
ideal director in another sense, however, since he doesn’t render the real
world on film but instead a theatrical set filled with faces. I can recall only
one shot of the outdoors (of a young nun fleeing the convent over a wall):
Cavalier doesn’t record the mysteries of God’s universe to be found there,
in the manner of Bazin; rather, he goes inside to tell the story of one
woman’s love of Christ. And once inside, he lights her and the other
Carmelite nuns; he lights people, not an environment. The result is that the
configuration of light becomes a metaphor for the Carmelite nuns’ lives.
There is no “background” to these lives—no concern with social and
political events outside the convent, little or no contact with anyone
outside, little or no information on each nun’s past. What the film narrates
is the absolute present, in which the sisters are simply themselves, their
bodies seen nearly without perspective, their words and actions
unaccompanied by background music. Nothing matters, or should matter,
except Christ’s presence in their midst and their total devotion to him. He
is the past, the present, and the future; he is united with them in eternity.
Cavalier neither brings us too close to the action nor pulls us too far back
from it, because his concern is not primarily with Thérèse’s “passion” and
not primarily with the mystery of Christ’s justice: it is with the marriage
of the two, of Thérèse Martin and Jesus Christ.
Bresson keeps us at a distance from the action of Diary of a Country
Priest because his concem is ultimately with the mystery of God’s justice
in its bestowing of limitations, stupidities, and failures on the curé, and in
its striking him down with stomach cancer—none of which the curé can
accept until the very end when he utters, “All is grace.” Appropriately, the
final image of this film is a cross—the cross on which Christ, at first
believing himself forsaken by his God, was crucified. The final image of
Thérèse is this young woman’s pair of shoes. She has died of tuberculosis
(though we do not see her die) at the age of twenty-four, and has happily
regarded her illness all along as Christ’s gift so that she can join him
sooner in heaven. She has taken her shoes off, as it were, so that she can
44 Saint Cinema: On Cavalier’s Thérèse

enter the marriage bed with Christ, the prospect of which she and another
young Carmelite had discussed with glee earlier in the film. There is no
mystery; there is only love, there are only Thérèse’s shoes, which trod
with humble and unswerving certainty a path leading directly to her Christ.
If there is no mystery, no tension, no conflict, wherein does the drama
of Thérèse reside? Isn’t it true that there can’t be any drama in Thérèse’s
story, since she is perfect, is a saint? She even says (humbly!) at one point,
“I want to be a saint.” Well, she became one in 1925: Saint Thérèse of
Lisieux, whose day was designated as October 3rd. Once she knows she is
dying of tuberculosis, she doesn’t even fight that: she accepts her affliction
as the benign will of Christ. The drama in Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse
(1965, based on Diderot’s novel), to which Thérèse can be seen as a kind
of response, is in the resistance of Suzanne Simonin to her vocation, in her
longing to leave the convent, where she has been sent by her family
against her will.
Thérèse, in contrast to Suzanne, must fight to get into the Carmelite
order, and therein lies the only real drama in her story. Two of her sisters
have entered the convent before her, and the Church strongly discourages
her on account of her age—fifteen. With the help of her father, Thérèse
takes her case all the way to the Pope and is at first denied, then a short
time later approved. What other drama there is in Thérèse takes place
around her and serves only to set her saintliness in relief. Another young
nun, Lucie, has both a strong desire to leave the convent and a strong
sexual desire for Thérèse; the latter merely discourages Lucie’s passes in
as gentle and loving a manner as possible. For her part, an old nun reveals
to Thérèse that, before entering the convent, she had been married to a
man who died in a fall from a horse; she shows the solicitous Thérèse her
husband’s picture, which she has illicitly kept all these years. The mother
superior herself is a bitter woman who knows that some of the nuns would
like to see her replaced and that her convent does not enjoy a good
relationship with the nearby town. She quarrels sharply with the young
doctor who diagnoses Thérèse’s tuberculosis, refusing to administer his
prescribed treatments or to give her morphine for the severe pain. Thérèse
quarrels with no one, not even the mother superior, and she suffers her
pain without complaint.
Cavalier never attempts to “explain” Thérèse’s love affair with Christ
beyond giving the incident that convinces her of her vocation. At the start
of the film, she prays to Christ for the soul of a man condemned to die;
before he’s executed, he kisses the crucifix, and Thérèse interprets this as a
sign of her special relationship with Jesus. Cavalier doesn’t attempt to
explain, either, why four daughters from one family chose to enter a
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 45

religious order, especially one so demanding. Their mother is dead, and

their father seems anything but displeased at his daughters’ choices, even
though he sees little of them after they enter the convent, despite its
closeness to his home—and when he does see them, it’s through a wall of
iron bars and only for a few minutes. Explanations for the four women’s
existences, and particularly for Thérèse’s, are unnecessary: any
explanation would pale beside the fact of those existences. Is Thérèse
intended to be an exemplary tale, then? Of course not. How could anyone
be convinced to lead a life of such self-sacrifıce?
Thérèse is its own reason for existence. It leaves to other films the task
of charting the vast sea of subjects in between good and evil. Thérèse is
too good for this world, she is utterly otherworldly, and to the next world
she goes: case closed. We may wonder at the woman, but we don’t have
much in common with her. Thérèse did everything she could to make life
less at the same time, paradoxically, as she was making it more, and, for
all her pain, she dies in joy and faith. Cavalier’s camera stays just far
enough away from her to suggest to us her sanctity, and just close enough
to remind us of her humanity.

Under the Sun of Satan (Sous le Soleil de Satan, 1987) is a religious

film of the highest order, and that is because its main character, Abbé
Donissan, is at war not only with himself but with the whole world: with
the paradoxical existence of evil in a world that is the product of God’s
perfect goodness. Evil has a field day in this film, but it is the kind that
provokes the mind and soul more than it tickles the senses. If the last
words of the curé of Ambricourt in Diary of a Country Priest (Le Journal
d’un curé de campagne, directed by Robert Bresson in 1951 from the
novel by Georges Bernanos [1936]) were “All is grace”—words of
spiritual certitude that Bernanos quoted from the diary of St. Thérèse of
Lisieux, herself the subject of Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986)—then the
last day of his life Abbé Donissan felt compelled to utter, “Say who is
master, You or Satan!”
Under the Sun of Satan, the first of Georges Bernanos’s eight novels,
was written in 1925, the same year Donissan’s historical model, St. Jean-
Marie Vianney (1786-1859), the curé of Ars, was canonized (as was
Thérèse). Maurice Pialat, a Frenchman born in 1925, completed the film
version in 1987, when it won the award for Best Film at the Cannes
Festival. Two years later, this film finally arrived in, but quickly departed
from, New York. So much the worse for New York; so much the better for
Charlottesville, Virginia, where it surfaced and I got to see it.
We meet Abbé Donissan in the film as he begins his first assignment
as a priest: assistant to Abbé Menou-Segrais, the pastor of the country
parish of Campagne. Donissan—an awkward young priest in contrast with
the older, higher-born Menou-Segrais—has been permitted to receive his
holy orders despite his poor academic performance at the seminary and his
superiors’ doubts about his ability to minister to the faithful. As Menou-
Segrais shaves Donissan’s tonsure in the opening scene, the young priest
expresses his own doubts about his suitability for the priesthood, along
with his frustration and anger at the omnipresence of evil in the world, an
evil that he nevertheless feels he cannot successfully combat except as a
priest: “I am an ignorant, uncouth priest, powerless to make himself
loved”; “priests are so wretched; they spend their lives watching God be
48 On Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan

humiliated”; “I only learned to know evil from the mouths of sinners.” But
Menou-Segrais sees something in Donissan that has long lain dormant in
himself: the most precious of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, spiritual strength,
which the pastor knows is of far more use to human souls than the savoir-
faire he has developed over a long and comfortable—yet, in his words,
empty—career. Menou-Segrais declares his perception in the film’s
second scene, after he finds that Donissan has nearly fainted from the
punishment long inflicted on his body by a filthy, bloodstained hair shirt;
and the older man sets the younger one on the road to the fulfillment of his
vocation as a doctor of souls.
In Bernanos’s novel, these two opening scenes are one long one. Pialat
and his screenwriter, Sylvie Danton, chose to break it into two for two
reasons. First, and most obviously, a movie has to move, especially when
its subject is as weighty as this one. Novels may have the luxury of long,
uninterrupted scenes in one place, but films rarely do. The reader’s mind
can dwell on such a scene—that’s what minds are for—but the viewer’s
eye wants to see—it must see in order to know—and it’s happiest when
it’s on the move, so that it can see more: in this case, another room in the
priests’ residence, Donissan’s eremitic cell. This very principle of
movement is built into cinematic structure through the editing that goes on
within and between scenes (as here), and through cross-cutting, the
intermingling of shots from two or more scenes occurring simultaneously—
a device borrowed from the novel, yes, but intrusive there when used as
extensively as it is in films (and used less frequently by novelists since the
advent of film).
But there’s a second, more important reason why Pialat and Danton
divided Bernanos’s long scene in two, and it has to do with the visual as
well as verbal manner in which films tell a story—with the visual
information and suggestion that a film, without the novel’s facility for
digression through description, must compress into a scene that is literally
not moving. Indeed, since Under the Sun of Satan is so contemplative,
there is very little camera movement within scenes—I recall only a few
slight pans—as well as a reliance on the two-shot and the long take, as
opposed to cutting from face to face, when two people are in conversation,
which is often the case in this film. (When cutting is used, as in the very
first conversation between Donissan and Menou-Segrais, it’s used so much
that whatever visual interest was created through the initial alteration of
shots is soon used up: what remains in its place is visual division, if not
Under the Sun of Satan begins with the somber, ominous music of
stringed instruments (composed by Henri Dutilleux), which we will hear
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 49

before or after—never during—four other strategic moments, so that this

music functions as a kind of celestial chorus, a sigh of tristesse, that
separates itself from rather than runs underneath the action, like most film
music. Its goal is not to underscore the emotion of a scene and thereby
disappear into it, but rather to stand outside the scenes and, through its
sameness each time it is played, poignantly to mark their relentless
progression. The credits, appropriately for this meditation on the enduring
presence of evil in a world spotted with good, consist of white titles on
black backgrounds. And the opening conversation between Donissan and
Menou-Segrais is photographed in light so low in key that it cannot really
be called light; let’s call it instead the semi-darkness just before nightfall.
This scene is shot from a slight low angle, so that we get a view of the
room’s low ceiling cutting off the characters’ space. The music before the
scene, the cutting and framing within it, the lighting: all signal our entry
into a living nether world whose priestly occupants, despite their ability to
reach each other through language, fundamentally exist in isolation.
Once the scene shifts to Donissan’s room, the framing becomes tighter
and the lighting changes in two significant ways. First, the key light is
used to place half of Donissan’s face in light, the other half in darkness—
and this occurs, ironically, at precisely the moment Menou-Segrais blesses
him for the strength of his holy spirit. We’ll see the key light used again
and again in this way during the film: to split Donissan’s face, thus
suggesting his self-doubt or self-division, his obsession with the power of
evil to such a degree that it is debilitating, that the spirit of evil is able to
enter his own life and color his actions; and, beyond Donissan, to split
entire rooms into areas of darkness and light, rooms in which God and
Satan vie for control over human souls.
The second significant lighting change in Donissan’s room is the
suffusion of the image with an eerie but beautiful bluish tinge, achieved by
means of filters and occurring repeatedly throughout the film. Pialat and
his cinematographer, Willy Kurant (who shot Godard’s Masculine-
Feminine [1966], among other films of the French New Wave), wanted, I
think, to suggest not only the battle between darkness and light, but also
the union of the two, the combination of both, easy or not, that exists in
most people and in the world at large. And the best way to do this was
through the subtle use of blue, the color that is the perfect synthesis of
darkness and light, and that Kurant could even more unobtrusively
incorporate into scenes played against a blue sky.
In contrast with the curé of Ambricourt in Diary of a Country Priest,
Abbé Donissan of Campagne is beloved by his parishioners and esteemed
by them as an inspired and inspiring confessor. In part this is because they
50 On Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan

see him as one of their own—he is a physical, a physically clumsy, man,

not a slickly cerebral one, and to his surprise, his “imperfection,” as he
sees it, has worked in his favor; in part Donissan has succeeded because he
has been blessed by God with so great a gift for combatting sin. Still,
despite his joy at being filled with God’s grace, Donissan is not satisfied.
He continues to mortify his ample flesh against the advice of Menou-
Segrais, at one point scourging himself with an imposing set of rosary
beads, and he continues to be troubled by the ineradicability of evil—by
its almost easy coexistence with good—in a world that God, in His
“sovereign sagacity,” saw fit to create. Under the Sun of Satan is
structured around three confrontations with or instances of the power of
evil experienced—almost conjured up—by Donissan.
The first occurs during an eight-mile trip, on foot, to the village of
Etaples, where his zeal as a confessor is needed to complete the final day
of a retreat. During this trip, which begins in the sepia shade of late
afternoon and reaches into the darkness of night, Donissan loses his way in
the vast landscape (twice photographed in extreme long shot, in which we
nearly lose sight of him), only to be redirected toward Etaples by a horse-
trader who suddenly appears and begins walking alongside him. This
“horse-trader” turns out to be an incarnation of Satan, sent by God to mark
Donissan with the sign of Satan’s hatred (which he does with a kiss on the
priest’s mouth): that is, to impress upon Donissan God’s complicity in the
persistence of evil and thus in the dual nature—indeed, the infinite
complexity—of His creation (a duality or synthesis suggested by the very
title of the film). Before disappearing, Satan gives Donissan the gift of
reading souls, of knowing, like God, the inmost secrets of human beings.
“See yourself in me,” Satan mysteriously says, and we learn what he
means when Donissan encounters sixteen-year-old Germaine Malorthy,
nicknamed Mouchette (also the name of the titular character of Bernanos’s
seventh novel [1937]—filmed, like Diary of a Country Priest, by Robert
Bresson [1967]—with whom she has an agonized adolescence in
common), at dawn on his way back to Campagne after abandoning his trip
to Etaples.
“The Story of Mouchette” makes up the longish Prologue to
Bernanos’s novel; it’s followed by Part I, which begins with Donissan’s
arrival at Menou-Segrais’s parish on Christmas Eve. Bernanos has been
criticized for his awkward fusion of Mouchette’s story with Donissan’s,
especially since she disappears completely in the second and last part of
the book, which takes place when the priest is an old man. Pialat and
Danton solve this problem by beginning the film with Donissan’s story,
cutting to Mouchette’s right before the priest is dispatched to Etaples, then
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 51

joining the two stories in the countryside outside Campagne; also, the
director and screenwriter have Part II occur only a few years after Part I,
so that Donissan still has visions of Mouchette. The priest thus gets the
initial focus he requires, the editing itself quickly establishes that his and
Mouchette’s stories will join up, and more of a connection is established
between the power he exercises over her and the power he fails to
exercise, in Part II, over a dead boy.
Donissan comes upon Mouchette after she has killed her lover, the
morally as well as financially irresponsible Marquis de Cadignan, who had
got her pregnant but refused to run away with her to Paris; and after she
has been turned down for an abortion by her other lover, Gallet, the
unctuous local doctor and deputy to the national assembly, who also
rejects her remorse over the murder of Cadignan. He tells Mouchette that
because she fired at the marquis at such close range, his death has been
ruled a suicide, the case is closed, and she should not worry. The married
Gallet clearly wants to continue to have sex with the girl, which he does
during this meeting, and which even Cadignan did before she shot him.
The only child of an anti-clerical, domineering father, Mouchette is deeply
troubled and desperate in addition to being passionate and proud. And if
her men provide her with no solace, neither does religion, since she says to
Donissan that “God’s a joke. God means nothing to me.”
She is on her way to her dead lover’s grave when she meets Donissan,
and he unsettles her even more by reading her soul, by declaring her a
murderess and a fornicator. Mouchette is frightened by his miraculous
knowledge of her deeds, despite—or perhaps because of—the following
assurance from Donissan: “You are not guilty before God . . . You are like
a plaything, like a child’s toy ball, in the hands of Satan.” Like Satan’s toy
she is, too, when she returns home to her parents and commits suicide by
cutting her throat. Donissan had believed, correctly, that his ability to read
human souls was a gift from God. What he learns is that in God there is
Satan, and in Satan there is God: his God-given ability to read human
souls has resulted, not in good, but in further evil—the mortally sinful
suicide of a sixteen-year-old girl. Donissan madly tries to restore
Mouchette to God by rushing to her home, seizing her dead and bloody
body, and placing it upon the altar of Campagne’s church, where he kisses
and caresses it in full view of her astonished mother and a number of
parishioners. For this outrage he is relieved of his duties and sent for
“cure” to the Trappist monastery at Tortefontaine.
We next find Donissan in Lumbres, where he is pastor of a small
parish and is as revered by his congregation—and by pilgrims who come
from other parishes to confess their sins to him—as he was in Campagne.
52 On Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan

The absence, however, of any cinematic device to indicate the passage of

time between Parts I and II suggests that the priest has not been “cured” of
his obsession with evil’s abiding presence in the world, and the immediate
appearance of Mouchette’s ghost to him in his attic room confirms this
view. Soon he is called to the neighboring parish of Luzarnes to heal a boy
dying of meningitis; when he gets there, the boy is already dead and his
mother beside herself with grief. So confident is the local pastor, Abbé
Sabroux, of Donissan’s powers that he urges him to attempt to bring the
boy back to life, which Donissan does, only to let him slip quickly back
into death. Upon raising the child’s limp body to God and commanding,
“Say who is master, You or Satan!”, Donissan realized that he had
blasphemed and aborted the miracle. Unable to trust the grace with which
God had infused him and recalling Satan’s role in the suicide of
Mouchette, he demanded of God the smiting of Satan—and got instead his
own smiting and the triumph, yet again, of darkness and death.
Donissan’s literal smiting occurs shortly thereafter. On his way back to
Lumbres, he prays, “Lord, if I am still useful, don’t take me from this
world” (a line not found in the novel), and, after hearing a large number of
confessions upon his return, he dies in his confessional: his eyes look up,
his body is contorted in the small space allotted it, and a strange white
light bathes his face. In the novel, the old Donissan survives the self-
inflicted corporal punishments of his youth to be pastor of Lumbres for
thirty-five years, only to succumb in the end to a heart attack brought on
by angina pectoris. In the film, the fairly young Donissan is certainly not
in the best of health, given the various mortifications of the flesh he has
practiced and the long hours he has worked, but because of his relative
youth, his death seems as much a negative answer to his prayer as a
negative response by his body. It is Menou-Segrais, on a visit to his former
assistant, who finds him dead. Menou-Segrais, like Mouchette, is totally
absent from the second part of Bernanos’s book, and his touching
reappearance in the film serves to give it even greater unity.
Maurice Pialat himself plays Menou-Segrais—quietly, authoritatively,
transcendently, as if the older man had been sent from on high to direct
Donissan in his spiritual quest. Pialat began his career as an actor before
directing his first feature, L’Enfance nue (Naked Childhood), in 1968.
Prior to Under the Sun of Satan, his forte had been the naturalistic
examination of love relationships in crisis and transition; I’m thinking
particularly of Nous ne vieillerons pas ensemble (We Will Not Grow Old
Together, 1972), Loulou (1980), and A Nos Amours (To Our Loves, 1983).
But, of course, one could say that his new film is itself about a love
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 53

relationship in crisis: Donissan’s, with God. And one could also say that
Under the Sun of Satan is a species of naturalism.
Unlike Martin Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988),
Maurice Pialat has understood, as did Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson
before him, that the fundamental requirement of an authentic spiritual style
is that it be grounded in naturalistic simplicity. So naturalistically simple,
and simply presented, is the rural world surrounding Donissan (illumination
by candlelight, as well as work and travel in horse-drawn vehicles) that,
for much of the film, we think we’re in the late nineteenth or early
twentieth century—until the priest returns from the incident with the dead
boy in Luzarnes as a passenger in a comparatively modern truck, and we
realize that his world is not so remote from ours, in reality or in spirit.
Satanism still thrives among us, as the latest news reports make clear; the
difference, however, is that Donissan’s Satanism grows out of profound
religious belief, not violent religious travesty, out of deep self-abnegation,
not gross self-aggrandizement.
Gérard Depardieu, who has acted for Pialat in two other films (for
whom hasn’t he acted?!), is Donissan, and he supplies generous amounts
of the internal conviction the role requires. To the physical awkwardness
of Bernanos’s priest, Depardieu adds bulkiness. I kept thinking during his
performance of Delmore Schwartz’s poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes
with Me,” of how the “withness” of Depardieu’s body stood in such stark
and humble contrast to the flight of his spirit, especially conveyed through
his searching, restless, mole-like eyes. Sandrine Bonnaire, who has also
previously acted in two Pialat films (in one of them, with Depardieu), is
Mouchette. Bonnaire is too old for the part—she was twenty when the film
was made and looks older—but she brings to it the same quiet fierceness
that made her so compelling in Agnès Varda’s Vagabonde (1985). She’s
another kind of vagabond here, one whose chiseled exterior belies a
seething, deracinated interior. Together, Bonnaire, Depardieu, and Pialat—
all three by their own admission agnostics, if not atheists—have created a
miracle of a film, and I for one thank God (and Satan!) for it.

It could be said that the true subject of such films of Jim Jarmusch’s as
Stranger than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), and Mystery Train
(1989) is less the offbeat American landscape and the foreigners,
figurative as well as literal, who inhabit it, than filmmaking itself, the
sheer fashioning of motion pictures. Cubism was probably the first
movement that made the person, setting, or object depicted a pretext for
the artist’s exploration of the geometry of form, and it wasn’t long before
artists were creating truly abstract art, art from which the recognizable
world had been totally banished. Abstract cinema has been with us at least
since the work of Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and Walter Ruttmann in
the early 1920s, but, unlike abstract art, it has never gained a wide
audience, most likely because film, which can move and talk, seems
inextricably bound up with the human form and the thingness of this
world—with the representation of physical reality—in a way that painting
does not. Hence the divided impulse in a director like Jarmusch—and,
most notably, in Godard before him—between abstraction and
representation, between formalism and realism.
Both Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law were immediately
stylized by their black-and-white cinematography in an age of living color,
and each film had one foreigner among its three principal characters (not
to mention a “foreign” title)—a foreigner whose very presence in an
American film served to distance us somewhat from its already slim and
elliptical narrative, because that presence was not “explained” as it would
have been in a film of international intrigue or one about the immigrant
experience in America. Mystery Train has three narrative strands—and
strands is all they are—each of which is represented by one foreign
country: the first strand, entitled “Far from Yokohama,” follows a mod
teenaged Japanese couple, Jun and Mitzuko, on their pilgrimage to Elvis
Presley’s shrines in Memphis, Sun Studio and Graceland; the second
strand, “A Ghost,” remains with a gentle young Italian widow, Louisa,
waiting to ship her husband’s body back to Rome; and the third, “Lost in
Space,” chronicles the frustration and anger of the surly Cockney Johnny
at the loss of both his job (in a cotton warehouse) and his girlfriend. Jun
56 Miracle Movie: On Jarmusch’s Mystery Train

and Mitzuko’s presence in America is “explained,” since they are tourists

of a sort, but we never learn why Louisa or Johnny came to the States, or
even how Louisa’s husband died.
The Dutchman Robby Müller’s color cinematography doesn’t help us
much here, since it is no guide to characters’ interior states or to the
external scheme of things: that is, it is neither subjective nor symbolic.
Müller, who photographed Down by Law and, prior to that, the films of
Wim Wenders, has shot Mystery Train in color that is simply crisp, by
sunlit day or neon-suffused night—so crisp, in fact, that it sometimes
seems to exist purely as color, disconnected from concrete form.
Jarmusch’s structural method in this film is itself a kind of abstraction
or distillation, since he treats each of the three narrative strands separately,
one after the other, even though they are all taking place more or less
simultaneously. What unites them is the fact that each of the three strands
passes through the same seedy hotel in downtown Memphis (and some of
the same street locations on the way to that hotel) on the same night: after
their visit to Sun Studio, Jun and Mitzuko spend the night there in Room
27; her flight to Rome delayed until the next day, Louisa checks into
Room 25 with the indigent and garrulous Dee Dee, Johnny’s estranged
lover, whom she has just met and to whom she has generously offered
shelter for the night (for unexplained reasons, Dee Dee “emigrated” some
time ago from New Jersey to Memphis); and having shot the clerk of a
liquor store for just two quarts of (bad) bourbon, Johnny holes up in Room
22 with his black coworker, Will Robinson, and the whiny barber Charlie,
Dee Dee’s brother, also a transplanted New Jerseyite.
Except at the very (anticlimactic) end, there is no cross-cutting among
the three stories, which is how a conventional narrative filmmaker,
interested in suspense and complication, would have proceeded. We know
that they join up, in a sense, in the hotel because Mitzuko’s sexual ecstasy,
seen and heard in strand one, is heard through the wall in strand two by
Louisa and Dee Dee; because Johnny’s accidental shooting of Charlie in
the leg, seen and heard in strand three, is heard in strands one and two; and
because Tom Waits’s boozy voice on the radio is heard in all three strands,
announcing the end of Roy Orbison’s song “Domino,” the time—2:17
A.M., and the start of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon.” (Waits also played a
disc jockey in Down by Law.)
Additional continuity or connection among the three strands is
provided by Elvis, whose music we hear (in addition to “Blue Moon,” he
sings the version of “Mystery Train” that opens the film), whose first
recording studio we visit, whose (tacky) portrait hangs in each of the hotel
rooms, whose ghost Louisa sees, and by whose first name Johnny is called
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 57

(much to his disgruntlement) by his black cohorts. Continuity or

connection among the narrative strands is also provided by Dee Dee
herself, whose brother and boyfriend appear in strand three and who,
towards the end of the film, boards the same Amtrak train as the Japanese
couple, occupying the cabin next to theirs (she’s now bound for Natchez,
Mississippi, of all places, where she hopes to relocate with the help of a
girlfriend who lives there, while Jun and Mitzuko are on their way to visit
the home of Fats Domino in New Orleans); by the Memphis hotel’s desk
clerk and bellboy, who greet the representatives of each strand with the
same bemused impassivity; and by sounds and shots of passing trains,
which open the film, punctuate its episodes, and close out the action
(accompanied this time by Junior Parker’s version of “Mystery Train”).
I don’t think that these “mystery trains” symbolize anything particularly
momentous; rather, they seem to suggest sheer movement or passage
through an otherwise static landscape, sheer linkage with the larger world
outside. Jarmusch thus uses trains much the same way that the Japanese
director Yasujiro Ozu did in a film like Tokyo Story (1953): as one
representation of the physical world that surrounds his characters,
sublimely indifferent to their needs and concerns, concerned only with its
own continuation, its own microcosmic contribution to the macrocosmic
order. Jarmusch’s realistic shooting style, consisting of limited cutting
within a scene and a camera that eschews the heat of the c1ose-up for the
repose of the medium-to-full shot, itself has a long tradition dating back to
the brief flowering of a naturalistic cinema in southern Italy between 1913
and 1916.
But the director’s use of “cutaway” shots (to the Amtrak trains) and his
repeated interjection of temps mort, or “dead time”—beginning a scene on
an empty room or street, before the characters enter the frame, or holding
the camera on a location after the characters have departed—appear to
come from Ozu, all the more so since Mystery Train begins with the story
of the two Japanese obsessed with American popular music (American
influence on Japanese society was a frequent, if understated, theme in
Ozu’s postwar pictures), and since Jarmusch photographs them for
extended periods of time in their hotel room from the position
characteristically employed by Ozu: three or four feet off the floor (where
the director has Jun and Mitzuko sit), the same position from which a
person would view the scene if seated tranquilly on the traditional tatami
Temps mort, like the cutaway, is a device of the realist filmmaker who
seems compelled to remain in, or return to, the real world, the world
momentarily bereft of his characters and their story. Thus both temps mort
58 Miracle Movie: On Jarmusch’s Mystery Train

and the cutaway could be regarded as anti-fictional or anti-“action”

devices, especially when coupled with the absence of cross-cutting among
the three narrative strands in Mystery Train. Jarmusch, I take it, wants the
fiction he has created to give up some of its screen-time to the world in
which it is taking place, to the world from which it was in fact drawn, for
the purpose of drawing attention to the transcendent mystery and
inviolability of that world. Further, he wants to expose cross-cutting
among stories taking place simultaneously as unrealistic, as directorial
artifice contradicted by the law of nature that one cannot be in two places
more or less at the same time. So, sensibly rejecting the prospect of a
cubist film—which, instead of displaying several aspects of the same
object simultaneously, like a cubist painting, would display several
narrative strands simultaneously, without benefit of a split screen or a
triptych (both of which, in effect, place cross-cut images before our eyes at
the same exact time)—Jarmusch lays each strand out for us, one after the
other, in two-dimensional space, and it is up to us to lay them one on top
of the other, in a single period of time.
Is Mystery Train anything more than an economical reflection on film
form? Is there any thematic point to its three narrative strands, taken singly
or as a whole? I think so, but one must proceed with caution here, for
Jarmusch the writer works with as much understatement as Jarmusch the
director. It seems c1ear that popular culture—popular because rooted
finally in finance, in the marketability of each of its products—pervades
the film, from the Elvis-idolatry practiced by the Japanese couple (an
idolatry that nonetheless can make room for Carl Perkins and Roy
Orbison) to the absence of television from the rooms in the downtown
Memphis hotel—an absence frowned upon by Mitzuko, Dee Dee, and
Charlie in succession. Popular magazines, snapshot photography, T-shirt
as well as scrapbook art, popular music on the radio or on cassette: such
are the means through which culture promulgates itself in Mystery Train.
Only Louisa appears uninterested in, or unaffected by, this culture at
the same time, paradoxically, as she becomes its prime dupe: at an all-
night diner, she pays a man ten dollars for the Elvis-anecdote he has told
her and ten dollars so that he will leave her alone; at a newsstand, she buys
a load of magazines that she does not want just to put an end to the
owner’s hard sell, then gives most of the magazines and two hundred
dollars in cash to someone who really wants them and can really use
them—Dee Dee. Louisa’s preferred reading is Ariosto’s romantic epic
Orlando Furioso (third and final edition, 1532), which she carries with her
throughout the film and which, in its sprawling structure and thematic
scope, stands in direct contrast to Jarmusch’s minimalist Mystery Train.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 59

There is no romance to speak of in Mystery Train, certainly nothing on

the order of the love of Orlando, the greatest soldier in Charlemagne’s
Christian army, for Angelica, princess of Cathay. And whereas Orlando
Furisoso, like most of the great epics of the Renaissance, was a tale of a
quest or crusade for honor and glory, truth and beauty, God and country,
Mystery Train is a tale of Jun and Mitzuko’s journey in search of “The
King,” Elvis Presley, and, indirectly, of three other journeys whose
provenance remains a mystery: Louisa’s, from Rome to Memphis;
Johnny’s, from England to America; and Dee Dee and Charlie’s, from
New Jersey to Tennessee. (Will Robinson has taken only imaginary
journeys, as the title of his, Johnny’s, and Charlie’s episode, “Lost in
Space,” suggests. He did so by watching Lost in Space, a popular
television series on CBS from 1965 to 1968, a kind of Swiss Family
Robinson for the Space Age in which one of the characters, the son of the
astrophysicist John Robinson and his biochemist wife Maureen, was
named Will Robinson—a fact not lost on his namesake in Mystery Train.)
It’s possible that such a reduced structure and scope are Jarmusch’s
realistic response to the diminished and “unconnected” lives he finds
around him in today’s world. It’s also possible that his emphasis, through
temps mort and the cutaway, on the space that surrounds those lives is as
much a metaphorical attempt to extend them, to expand their meaning
beyond the confines of their own actions and interactions, as it is an
attempt to redeem the integrity and permanence of the natural world.
Ariosto himself was intent on recovering, or at least registering, that
world—the world of true earthly paradise, in the face of the (necessary)
vanities, delusions, and limitations of his otherwise heroic characters.
There’s one familiar face, besides Tom Waits’s voice, in Mystery
Train: that of Nicoletta Braschi, who played the proprietess of Luigi’s Tin
Top Restaurant in Down By Law. Here she does less but implies more, has
to imply more, like the rest of the actors (even if some of them are only
implying vacuousness, which is not so easy to do as one would think),
because there is no engrossing situation to amplify her character, as there
was in the earlier film, let alone any fast-moving action to carry that
character along or finely crafted dialogue to launch it. For an example of
what I mean, look at the matter-of-factness of the expression on Braschi’s
face and the motion in her hands, the willowy matter-of-factness of her
entire being, as she silently signs a number of papers—so many that the
scene becomes wryly comic—before entrusting her husband’s coffin to
airline officials prior to its shipment home to Italy.
For a response similar to Braschi’s, watch the perplexed dutifulness of
Youki Kudoh (Mitzuko) and the tetchy remoteness of Masatoshi Nagasi
60 Miracle Movie: On Jarmusch’s Mystery Train

(Jun) as they listen uncomprehendingly to the patter of their Tennessean

tour guide at Sun Studio and mirror her halting, pointless movement
through the room where Elvis recorded for the first time in 1953. This
scene, too, is wryly funny, as is the one in Will Robinson’s truck after the
shooting of the liquor-store attendant: Joe Strummer (Johnny), Steve
Buscemi (Charlie), and Rick Aviles (Will) sit in the cab, driving around
Memphis until approximately two in the morning, when they check into
the run-down hotel.
What in another movie would have turned into a suspenseful chase
scene here becomes a tedious few hours of swigging bourbon on the
road—hours condensed and punctuated by no fewer than four fades to
black on the same shot of three men looking out into the night, bleary-
eyed, closed-mouthed, and empty-headed. The comedy, of course, derives
from the fact that nothing happens between those fades; the truth, from the
fact that Strummer, Buscemi, and Aviles don’t try to act anything more
into the scene than is there. Such a scene may be Jarmusch’s joke on its
opposite number in an action-packed film, but it is also his way of telling
the unembellished truth about the lives his characters live.
Similarly, Louisa’s document-signing scene may be a send-up of its
opposite number in the tear-jerker genre, and the Japanese couple’s Sun-
Studio tour a send-up of the system of star worship begun by the movies
(or taken over, on a grand scale, from the nineteenth-century theater), but
they are also attempts to depict the estranging, mechanical society in
which these characters find themselves and to which they acquiesce. We
may laugh at such scenes, but it’s the laughter of recognition as much as of
derision, of self-implication as much as of self-congratulation. The virtue
of deadpan comedy like this is precisely that it gives us cause, and pause,
to ask what in the world we’re laughing at.

The history of religious themes on the screen sufficiently reveals the

temptations one must resist in order to meet simultaneously the
requirements of cinematic art and of truly religious experience. Everything
that is exterior, ornamental, liturgical, sacramental, hagiographic, and
miraculous in the everyday observance, doctrine, and practice of
Catholicism does indeed show specific affinities with the cinema
considered as a spectacular iconography, as a kind of miracle in itself. But
these affinities, which have made for the success of countless films, are
also the source of the religious insignificance of most of them. I’m
thinking of Stations-of-the-Cross movies—or, if you will, sand-and-
sandals epics—such as Quo Vadis (1901, 1913, and 1951), Ben Hur (1907,
1926, and 1959), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); of
hagiographies, or saints’ pictures replete with miracles, like The Song of
Bernadette (1943; remade as Bernadette of Lourdes in 1960 and as
Bernadette in 1988) and The Flowers of St. Francis (1950; remade as
Francis of Assisi in 1961 and as Brother Sun, Sister Moon in 1972); and of
priests’ or nuns’ stories such as The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and The
Nun’s Story (1959).
Almost everything that is good in the domain of religious film was
created not by the exploitation of the patent consanguinity of Catholicism
with the cinema, but rather by working against them: by the psychological
and moral deepening of the religious factor as well as by the renunciation
of the physical representation of the supernatural and of God’s grace,
except where such representation is both pervasive or decisive and
authentically religious, as in The Green Pastures (1936), The Road to
Heaven (1942), and Under the Sun of Satan (1987). In other words,
although the austereness of the Protestant sensibility is not indispensable
to the making of a good Catholic film, it can nevertheless be a real
advantage, as evidenced by fılms like Heaven Over the Marshes (1949),
God Needs Men (1950), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and
Thérèse (1986). (As for the thing-in-itself, good Protestant cinema, you
62 On Loach’s Raining Stones and Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

have Bergman’s “faith” trilogy and the picture of his that directly preceded
it, The Virgin Spring [1960].)
The fundamental requirement of an authentic spiritual style, then, is
that it be grounded in naturalistic simplicity, even abstraction, not in
widescreen pyrotechnics. The spirit resides within, in internal conviction,
not in external trickery, and of course it resides there for laypersons as
wel1 as the clergy, although you wouldn’t know this from the movies
listed above. All of these depict, if not Biblical scenes and the life of
Christ, then the lives of saints (or saints-to-be) and clerics. For films about
the triumph-cum-mystery of faith in secular lives, we must turn
respectively to the most Protestant of Catholic directors and the most
Catholic of Protestants, Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer.
To be sure, each man created works about saints and clerics—Bresson
in Angels of the Streets (1943) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Dreyer
in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Day of Wrath (1943). But each
also attempted to portray the manifestation of divine grace, whether
overtly miraculous or not, in the existences of ordinary people; Bresson’s
Pickpocket (1959) and Dreyer’s The Word (1955) immediately come to
mind. And this mission of theirs has been taken up in our own godless era
by filmmakers as different as the English and the French: Ken Loach and
Eric Rohmer. So godless is the time in which we live, I might add, that the
religious element in both their films, Raining Stones (1993) and A Tale of
Winter (1992), has been missed by every other critic I’ve read. Which is
one of the reasons, I suspect, why each of these movies had to be made.
The appearance of God, or godliness, in a film by Ken Loach is
something of a surprise, since Loach’s socialism, even Marxism, doesn’t
exactly go hand in hand with a Christian view of the world. This English
director’s social consciousness, if not preachiness, has been on display, on
television as wel1 as the big screen, for over forty years in such movies as
Up the Junction (1965), a romance about class differences; Poor Cow
(1967), which investigated the dismal life of an impoverished young
mother; Family Life (1971), a protest against establishment psychology’s
oppression of the underclass; and Hidden Agenda (1990), whose subject is
the illegal operations of the British intelligence service in Northern
Ireland. As of the 1990s, Loach began tempering the stridency of his
militant vision with anarchic humor, which the workers of Riff-Raff (1991)
use to strike out at a hostile world, protect themselves from it, and draw us
into it. Humor continues to palliate in Raining Stones (1993), except that
now it is yoked less to subversion of the Tory political order than to
affirmation of the Catholic (not Anglican) religious one.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 63

From the start, Raining Stones links its comedy to a Christian theme.
When we fırst see the unemployed protagonist, Bob Williams, and his best
friend, Tommy, they are out on the moors at dawn trying to steal a large,
uncooperative sheep, which recal1s the sheep-stealing shenanigans of that
quintessential divine comedy from the Middle Ages, specifically the late
fourteenth century, The Second Shepherds’ Play (whose ultimate concern,
like Ken Loach’s in this instance, is with Christ as the Lamb of God).
After they have caught and trussed the animal but failed to summon the
courage to stick or bash it to death, the two men drive with it back to
Manchester in Bob’s van, whose cab appropriately features a crucifix.
There they deliver the sheep to a “friendly” butcher who scoffs, “You said
lamb. This is mutton. You can’t give mutton away.” He nonetheless buys
the animal from Bob and Tom, although for a price that disappoints these
desperate characters, and all three begin the job of slaughtering it.
The very next scene confirms the symbolical1y ritualistic nature of that
slaughter in addition to pointing up one of the reasons Bob is so desperate
for cash: we see his seven-year-old daughter, Col1een, at a Catholic
church receiving instruction from Father Barry in preparation for her fırst
Holy Communion, at which, of course, she will ingest consecrated bread
and wine as if they were the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Colleen’s
father is obsessed with the idea that his angelic little girl must receive the
Sacrament in a new dress (and veil and gloves and shoes), which will cost
approximately 150 pounds; Bob refuses to listen to the argument of his
wife, Anne, and Father Barry that clothes do not the Communion make,
for he believes that his daughter’s outfit is a beautiful gift to God rather
than a mere adornment of the flesh.
This out-of-work plumber doesn’t have 150 pounds to spend on such a
godly gift, however, and his penury is soon compounded by the theft of his
van outside a pub—significantly, while inside Tommy tells a joke about
the miracles said to occur at the Catholic shrine of Lourdes. Bob must
have a van both to get work and to get to that work, so he borrows money
from loan sharks to buy another vehicle and to purchase Colleen’s
Communion dress. Then he sets about comic-pathetically trying to earn
income with which to pay his debts (welfare checks barely take care of his
family’s food and shelter): as a bouncer at a disco, where he’s the one that
almost immediately gets bounced for fighting with drug dealers (among
them Tommy’s daughter, Tracy), who presumably have free reign there; as
a supplier of sod to a local landscaper, which he can’t manage because
stealing it from local bowling greens proves too difficult; and finally as the
plumber he was trained to be, except that the only job he can get is at the
Catholic church, where Father Barry presumes Bob will unclog his dirty
64 On Loach’s Raining Stones and Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

drains free of charge! When the loan sharks stop getting their payments
after a few weeks, they close in on Bob, wrecking his humble council
flat—itself nearly a shrine to the Virgin Mary—and terrorizing his wife
and child. He retaliates by stalking, then mugging his chief creditor in an
attempt to seize and destroy the evidence for his debt; but in the process he
accidentally kills the man.
Sick to his stomach and filled with remorse, Bob flees to the Catholic
church—passing two crucifixes along the way—where he tearfully
confesses to Father Barry. The priest gently scolds him for borrowing the
money in the first place and gives him a drink; then abruptly declares,
“Fuck the loan shark.” The hardworking, God-fearing Bob must not
confess to the police, insists Father Barry, for he has in fact done a good
deed in murdering the vicious, bloodsucking usurer. He has achieved
justice in the name of Christ and deserves his reward: forgiveness of his
debt (which occurs in a ritualistic burning of the devil’s ledger) and
sharing in his daughter’s first Holy Communion. This Bob does together
with his wife in the next scene, which concludes Raining Stones. Indeed,
the very last shot is of Bob, not Colleen, devoutly ingesting the eucharistic
wafer. He has much to be blissful about—not only the dissolution of his
debt, but also the retrieval of his stolen van and the presence of Jimmy the
atheistic Socialist at Colleen’s Communion along with his pal Tommy.
Jimmy is the man who commiserated with Bob earlier at the Tenants’
Association Hall by saying, “When you’re a worker, it rains stones seven
days a week.” Well, not on this Sun-day morning, and not for this man
who has been touched by God’s grace rather than been crushed beneath a
hail of stones.
Ken Loach freely acknowledges the influence of the Italian neorealists
on his work, if not on Raining Stones’ uneasy mixture of Marxism and
Catholicism. Like them, he shares a predilection for using non-
professional actors—Bruce Jones, who plays Bob Williams, is one of
them. Also like the neorealists, he employs contemporary stories, focuses
on recognizable or ordinary characters taken from daily life, and
investigates the social, economic, and political forces that determine their
existences rather than any psychological complexities they may have.
Loach himself has pointed to Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a kind of model
for Raining Stones, since, as in De Sica’s film, the theft of the family
breadwinner’s mode of transportation is integral to his narrative. But
Antonio Ricci never recovers his bicycle, although, like Bob, he too turns
to crime (on a Sunday!), and the Catholic Church is implicitly criticized by
De Sica for its inability to effect social change (as opposed to feed the
stomachs, along with the hopes, of the poor).
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 65

The real model for Raining Stones would appear to be another of De

Sica’s films in combination with Bicycle Thieves: Miracle in Milan
(1950). In this movie, which mixes stark realism with comic fantasy, Totò
the good endeavors to found a shanty town for the poor, but he is thwarted
by entrepreneurs who discover. oil on the very land the squatters have
staked out. Forced to fight the police hired to evacuate them, Totò and his
homeless charges snatch up the broomsticks of street cleaners as a last
resort and, with the aid of a magic dove, fly away to a land “where there is
only peace, love, and good.” Far from overshadowing the film’s social
commentary about the exploitation and dispossession of poor people in an
industrialized nation, this miraculous or fairytale ending despairingly
underlines that commentary, for it implies that the poor will only achieve
their heaven apart from earth, not on it. Which is to say in their
imaginations, their spirits, or in eternal life after death (like the saintly
Maria Goretti of Genina’s equally neorealistic Heaven Over the Marshes).
The Christian humanism of Raining Stones is a bit more optimistic if
still somewhat miraculous: its message is less that celestial bliss awaits the
virtuous proletariat after death than that, in a depressed economy, God
helps those who help themselves. The otherwise pious Bob Williams
commits the mortal sin of murder, or at least manslaughter, and a Catholic
priest wondrously endorses that killing as an implement of social change;
then God himself endorses it by having—of all people—the police report
the recovery of Bob’s stolen van while he is celebrating his daughter’s first
Communion. Bob is a believer who acts in good faith, and his belief is
rewarded even if he still doesn’t have a job at the end of Raining Stones.
Who are we to doubt the reality or plausibility of what we have seen? To
question the higher comfort of spiritual certitude as opposed to material
wealth, if not the active hand of God in the affairs of men? Who are we to
deplore the militancy of a clergy in the major Western democracies as well
as in the under-developed countries of the Americas, Africa, and Asia—
increasingly fed up with spiritual rationalizations of material poverty? To
disbelieve the paradox of fervent Catholics like the Williamses, who
practice birth control (via the pill) inside the home and thieving crowned
by violence outside it?
Our belief in the magical action of Raining Stones is, as you might
guess from my introduction to this essay, helped, not hindered, by the
naturalistic authenticity of its writing, its cinematography, and its acting.
The script is by Jim Allen, who lives on the housing estate shown in the
film, and it makes no attempt to dilute, for the purpose of wide
accessibility, the regional rhythms, accents, and locutions of the characters
(the region in this case being northwest England). This speech makes for
66 On Loach’s Raining Stones and Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

same incomprehensibility but it adds to the air of religious mystery

surrounding the otherwise lucid shape of the narrative, in much the same
way as the Latin Mass does for worshippers who understand the
significance of what they are seeing if they do not understand the meaning
of many of the words.
Barry Ackroyd’s color cinematography and camera work are just what
they need to be: dreary if not bleary-eyed, simple but not spectral. Stewart
Copeland, who like Ackroyd also worked on Riff-Raff, here gives us music
that works with, not against, image and idea (as it did in the previous
film): paradoxically, his score is at once jaunty and melancholy, not, thank
God, awe-inspiring or spiritually uplifting in that gushy way familiar from
religious spectaculars. The actors are all good enough, though—
because?—none of them is really professional. (A few have done same
acting here and there, but most, like Bruce Jones, are non-professional.)
Professional actors might have spoiled this ingenuous story out of a desire
to create “psychologies” for their characters, or by bringing a worldliness
to their roles that those roles could not bear in a film that invokes this
world only to transcend it. To be sure, Ricky Tomlinson, who plays
Tommy here and was the loud-mouthed Larry in Riff-Raff, is an earthy,
even ebu1lient contrast to the solemn if not supernal Bruce Jones; but
worldly—worldly-wise or, for that matter, world-weary—Mr. Tomlinson
decidedly is not and couldn’t be if Raining Stones wanted to retain its
Like Ken Loach, Eric Rohmer is prolific, having been a director-
screenwriter since the early 1950s. Also like Loach, he encourages
suggestions and improvisations from actors whom he rarely features twice,
and he generally uses performers who aren’t widely known if they are not
precisely non-professional. This is because, again like Ken Loach, Rohmer
is interested in the lives of ordinary people as magnified by the lens of his
camera, not by the celebrity status of his actors. Unlike Loach, however,
Eric Rohmer is not a political animal, his concern being chiefly with the
fluctuations, even fibrillations, of love, with emotional dissection or
distillation along a continuum rather than emotional upheaval that moves
toward dramatic peak or climax. In the best of the Six Moral Tales, My
Night at Maud’s (1969) and Claire’s Knee (1970), the main characters—
self-absorbed men—are predictably absorbed in the surfaces of life,
primarily the appearances of beautiful women; in such Comedies and
Proverbs as The Aviator’s Wife (1980) and The Perfect Marriage (1982)
Rohmer’s subject is not the superficiality of men who don’t realize they
are in love only with surfaces, but rather the interiority of women who are
learning to fall in love with essences.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 67

The internal lives of women or, better, the inner promptings of their
hearts continued to occupy this filmmaker in Tales of the Four Seasons, of
which A Tale of Winter (1992) was the second to be completed after A
Tale of Springtime (1990). One might expect environment or setting to
play a big part in the Tales, since their focus seems to be on the seasons as
motivating factors in human behavior. However, to judge from Winter, the
film under scrutiny here, the visual punctiliousness for which Eric Rohmer
has become known—but which he hasn’t always employed felicitously—
is absent. In its place we find a spiritual element or dimension reminiscent
of Bresson to complement his Marivaux- or Musset-like dramatization of
the psychology of love. The spareness of Rohmer’s cinematic style, with
its restrained camera and unobtrusive editing, has long reminded me of
Robert Bresson’s astringency; now his subject, though essentially comic in
form, recalls Bresson’s transcendence as well.
Félicié is one of those seemingly perverse, exasperating protagonists
who come right out of Bresson: the titular characters of Diary of a Country
Priest (1951) and A Gentle Creature (1969) are her cinematic forbears. A
Tale of Winter opens under the credits with a montage depicting this
young woman on holiday at the seaside, where she is having a passionate
affair with a man named Charles. By the end of the credits, Félicié and
Charles are at the railway station saying goodbye with every intention of
seeing each other again, but she accidentally gives him the wrong address
and never hears from him. It is five years later when the film actually
begins, back in Paris. Félicié, a hairdresser, has a four-year-old daughter
called Elise—the fruit of her affair—but no Charles; she lives with her
mother and shuttles between two suitors, a cerebral, sensitive librarian by
the name of Loïc and the owner of the beauty salon where she works, the
adoring but businesslike Maxence. Significantly, a1most all of A Tale of
Winter takes place between Christmas and New Year’s, when Félicié is
pushed into choosing between Loïc and Maxence, who has left his wife for
her and wants to take her with him back to his hometown of Nevers, where
he will soon open a new hair salon. One reason she finds the choice so
difficult is that neither lover stirs her in the way the mere memory of
Charles does; he is the one man she loved completely and he, or rather the
possibility-next-to-inevitability of his return, still haunts all her amorous
Nonetheless, after explicating her dilemma, her indecisiveness, to her
boyfriends, her mother, her sister-in-law—among whom the two men are
surprisingly the most patient and understanding in the face of Félicié’s
seeming capriciousness-cum-opportunism—Félicié agrees to move with
her beloved Elise to Nevers, where she will live with Maxence and work
68 On Loach’s Raining Stones and Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

in his beauty shop. But she is there only a short time before returning to
Paris, and what triggers her decision to leave is a trip with her daughter to
a Catholic church (which she had previously visited with Maxence) to
enjoy a Nativity scene. Now Félicié is not a true believer in the manner of
Bob the workingman from Raining Stones and Loïc the intellectual—she
does not attend Mass and, although she is against abortion, she says that
this is for moral, not religious reasons (are the two really so separable?).
However, her moment of clarification or illumination about her love-life—
that she must remain true to her one true love, Charles—occurs while she
is meditating, perhaps praying, in the Catholic church, as Félicié herself
admits, and that moment of grace is reinforced once she is back in Paris by
attending, with Loïc, a production of The Winter’s Tale (1611).
Shakespeare’s tragi-comic romance is set in a pagan era but, like many
a medieval Christmas or Easter drama, its main theme is rebirth or
resurrection, if not reincarnation (in which the strictly Catholic Loïc said
earlier he doesn’t believe, but the idea of which Félicié finds appealing),
the forces of death and hatred in the play turning miraculously into those
of life and love even as the old year becomes the new, or winter turns to
spring. Indeed, the scene from The Winter’s Tale filmed by Rohmer, and
emotionally responded to by Félicié, is the final one of rebirth and
reconciliation in which Hermione’s statue comes to life before the
overwhelmed Leontes, the husband who had wrongly accused her of
adultery years before. Charles himself comes to life, or reappears, shortly
after this performance as Rohmer first cuts several times to a mysterious
stranger driving toward Paris, then shows Félicié miraculously running
into and reuniting with this man—now revealed to be Charles—on a bus
on New Year’s Eve. The next day finds them at her mother’s home,
celebrating amidst family the birth of the new year as well as his return,
the return of her “sailor,” as Félicié calls him in what may be yet another
reference to a play on a similar theme, Ibsen’s Lady From the Sea (1888).
Actually, Charles is a chef, appealing yet somehow different, and we may
assume that Félicié and Elise will be moving with him to Brittany, where
he is set to open a new restaurant.
Whose hand is at work in this conclusion, we may reasonably ask,
almighty God’s or that of mere chance? It is, of course, impossible to say
for sure, but Rohmer nonetheless coyly presents us with the choice—albeit
an extreme restatement of that choice—in a conversation between Loïc
and Félicié following the performance of The Winter’s Tale. After the
purportedly unreligious Félicié tells Loïc of her illuminating visit to the
Catholic church in Nevers, he recites Pascal’s wager, which argues that
you run a far greater risk if you disbelieve rather than believe in God. If
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 69

you believe and it tums out that there is no God, what have you really
lost?; whereas if you disbelieve and God does in fact exist, you will spend
etemity in hell instead of heaven.
Appropriately, it is the literal-mindedly pious Loïc—who finds the
ending of The Winter’s Tale “implausible,” for whom, according to
Félicié, only what is written down or factually recorded is true, and who
discounts the possibility of Charles’s reappearance—who states the
rationalist’s calculating argument for believing in God and, by extension,
in God’s creation of the miracle at the end of A Tale of Winter. But Félicié
is no such rationalist—”I don’t like what’s plausible,” she declares; rather,
she embodies the dark side of seventeenth-century French rationalism
invoked philosophically in Pascal’s own Pensées (1670), dramatically in
the plays of Jean Racine, and cinematically, prior to Rohmer, in the films
of Bresson again. I’m speaking of Jansenism, which in its emphasis on
predestination or fatalism, denial of free will in favor of God’s will, and
insistence upon salvation solely through God’s grace as opposed to “good
deeds,” is much closer to the Protestantism of John Calvin than the
Catholicism of Ignatius Loyola. (Jansenism, Pascal’s wager, the
miraculous, and the time between Christmas and New Year’s all figure as
well in My Night at Maud’s, although there they are put to somewhat
ironic use, as they are not in A Tale of Winter.)
Félicié is more of a Jansenist than a Jesuit not only in her intuited
conviction that she and Charles are destined to meet up again, but also in
her tacit belief that God is a silent or “absent” presence in the affairs of
men whose will can never be understood. Perhaps God drove her to enter
the church at Nevers and absorb His revelation; perhaps not. Perhaps God
arranged Félicié’s reunion with Charles on the bus as well as the
prefiguration of that reunion in the production of The Winter’s Tale she
attends; perhaps not. Only He knows. Félicié doesn’t reveal what she
thinks about this subject, and in her silence may be imitating her God more
than one might at first believe. We are left to determine for ourselves what
happened or rather why it happened precisely in this way, and Eric
Rohmer has thus managed to put us where he wants us: beneath heaven’s
abyss, trying to decide whether to play the game of chance and possibly
cast our fate to the wind, or to trust in God’s ultimate inscrutability and by
implication that of his cinematic handmaiden.
As I suggested earlier, the cinematography of A Tale of Winter, by Luc
Pagès, is nearly ascetic: what we see are Paris and to a lesser extent
Nevers in winter, shorn of their picture-postcard or movie-travelogue
beauty. There are no superficially inviting colors or backdrops on the
screen in this film—not even during the opening sequence at the beach!—
70 On Loach’s Raining Stones and Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

as there have been in such “proverbial comedies” of Rohmer’s as Pauline

at the Beach (1985) and Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987). Because of the
weather, we are indoors much of the time, where we should be for a film
whose drama is largely internal and therefore requires our concentration
on revelations of language and gesture, on matters of the spirit rather than
the spiritings of matter. Accordingly, the actors have been chosen less for
their look—for the sake of facial contrast and harmony, if not allure—than
for the character, the substance, conveyed by that look. Paradoxically, I
remember the faces of the principal players—Charlotte Véry (Félicié),
Frédéric Van Den Driessche (Charles), Hervé Furic (Loïc), and Michel
Voletti (Maxence)—quite well, not so much because those faces are
memorable in themselves but because their characters are etched in my
memory. The saturnine Rohmer has inspired ease and confidence in his
actors, and they in turn have given inspired performances of deceptively
“daily” characters before his reticent yet revealing camera—performances
that, in their offhand, conversational quality, stand in distinct contrast to
the formal, versified ones by the Shakespeareans of The Winter’s Tale.
As for music, there isn’t much to speak of (only occasional piano
strains) in this film that depends more on the music or musicality of
language—especially the French language as it sounds to non-French
ears—to create the saving grace of instrumental music as it uniquely
liberates us from the transitory world of natural forms and practical
concerns. Like the regional speech of Raining Stones, the “foreign”
language of A Tale of Winter contributes in the end to the divinity of its
(romantic) comedy, to a strangeness that suggests otherworldliness rather
than mere oddness or eccentricity. And that otherworldliness is confirmed
by each film’s inclusion in its story of a child, a lamb of God, if you will,
in search of its father. No matter that the father is an earthly one in A Tale
of Winter, for prior to his reappearance Charles had been a strictly spiritual
presence, through word and picture, in the life of his daughter It is with a
shot of Elise playing with other children, not of Félicié and Charles
embracing, that Rohmer’s film ends, as a reminder—like the final image
of Raining Stones in which Bob Williams communes with the heavenly
father to which his daughter has been newly introduced—that we are all
God’s children.

The title of a French movie is an oblique reminder of the cinematic

swamp of sex (not to speak of violence) through which film art must make
its way. Any reader of my work knows by now that it is not the swamp of
“entertainment,” Hollywood-style or European-fashion, with which I am
concerned, but rather the exceptions to it—to its trivialized trash that
nonetheless costs millions of dollars to make. However, to look only at its
title, A Single Girl (1995) seems to observe the commercial rule that non-
comic romantic movies cannot succeed without plenty of steamy sex
scenes—initiated, of course, by our horny single girl looking for Mr.
Goodbar. Where sex and this particular single girl are concerned,
however, there are no scenes of fornication between her and anyone else in
the movie, nor does she ever take off her clothes in view of the camera;
indeed, the film’s French title, La Fille Seule—The Lone Girl, A Girl
Alone, or The Girl All by Herself—is truer to its meaning than the English
translation. A Single Girl, then, is at best an ironic title, at worst a
deliciously misleading one, for this picture is concerned primarily with
the exploration of character and environment, soul and setting, not with
the mere elaboration of physical action.
Its title aside, the soundtrack of A Single Girl itself samples Anton
Dvorak’s melancholy, almost mournful String Quartet No. 1 in A, opus 2
(1862, revised 1887), but it does so only during its final third (there is no
music prior to this point) in an attempt to avoid artifice or manipulation,
extraneousness or intrusion. This the picture otherwise manages to
accomplish by shooting as much as possible in real time, by recording the
actual on-location sounds of a bustling city, and by including actual (if
sometimes camera-conscious) passersby, not extras, in its street scenes.
Predictably, comparisons have already been made between A Single Girl
and the audaciously energizing French New Wave from the late 1950s to
the early 1960s, and, as far as they go for the decade of the ‘90s—whose
artistic as well as moral climate of effete sophistication seems to move it
closer to the fin de siécle than to the end of the twentieth century—these
comparisons are valid.
72 Free Spirit: On Jacquot’s A Single Girl

Like the products of the nouvelle vague, this movie treats character in
an untraditional and certainly unsentimental way; its plot is no real plot to
speak of, more a slice-of-life sketch; its attitude toward human behavior or
action is experiential or existential in the extreme, without lapsing into the
sometimes facile anguish and dread of absurdism; and its cinematic
technique is liberated, if no longer experimental, in the sense that the
handheld camerawork, zip pans, compulsively frequent traveling shots,
and ever-so-tight framing paradoxically call attention to themselves, to
their “filmicness,” in this purportedly realistic film, at the same time as
their conflicted presence organically underscores the paradox of the
central character’s life: her division or vacillation between isolation of the
self and commitment to another or others, between breathtaking motion
and suffocating inertia.
Benoît Jacquot is the director of A Single Girl, on whose script he
collaborated with Jérôme Beaujour. The fifty-year-old Jacquot has been
making his own films since 1976, after beginning in the cinema as an
assistant to Marguerite Duras. His earliest pictures, The Murderous
Musician (1976) and Closet Children (1977), have been called austere or
rarefied, even Bressonian, in execution; and at least four times during his
career he has turned to novels for inspiration, among them Henry James’s
The Wings of the Dove (1902), which he adapted to the screen in 1981
(and which was again turned into a movie in 1997 by the British director
Iain Softley), and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night
(1932), which he made into a film in 1988.
Well, A Single Girl can certainly be called spare in scope, if somewhat
pronounced or conspicuous in execution. Its antecedents, however, are
filmic rather than literary: Paul Mazursky’s spuriously honest An
Unmarried Woman (1978), which raises the collective problem of
unmarried (actually divorced) motherhood, selfhood, and sexuality
without really dealing with it; Robert Bresson’s abstractly spiritual A
Gentle Creature (1969), in which a woman who is married nevertheless
lives in unbreachable solitude with a husband she does not love, as she
yearns to get beyond a world where all is matter or materialism and the
human animal seems to behave in socially as well as biologically
preconditioned ways; and Jean-Luc Godard’s eclectically essayistic A
Married Woman (1964), which portrays twenty-four hours in the life of a
married Parisienne who is having an affair (and who finds herself
pregnant), for the purpose of creating a sociological study of women’s
place in modern culture, not with the object of displaying for the
umpteenth time conventional Gallic bedroom charm-cum-tristesse.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 73

The overall effect of Godard’s New-Wave picture is of lonely

loveliness, of a solitary, middle-class beauty entangled in her own stream-
of-consciousness verbalizing, despite this young lady’s amorous episodes
with both her lover and her husband. Throughout we get from her a sense
of strange and, to a certain extent, estranged curiosity, as she tries to find
out what relationships mean, whether the word love—which she keeps
using, almost incantatorily—is any definition of what she feels, or whether
it is a simple sop to a heritage of guilty sin-consciousness or perhaps a
mere spiritual aggrandizement of purely physical attraction. Godard’s
theme, then, is natural history, and his female protagonist therefore seems
neither wicked nor French-farcically sly. She has, in essence, our sympathy.
The character of Valérie Sergent in A Single Girl has our sympathy,
too, in spite of her imperiousness, and her quest for selfhood is similar to
that of Godard’s married woman but for the fact that Jacquot’s heroine
cannot be said to be suffering from bourgeois alienation. We meet up with
this proud, working-class, nineteen-year-old beauty early on a gray Paris
moming, as she arrives late for a hurried coffee with her boyfriend, Rémi,
at a café near her new job. Valérie lives with her divorced mother and is
about to begin her first day of work—after a year of unemployment—at a
busy four-star hotel as a room-service waitress; Rémi lives with his family
as well and is unemployed, with no job prospects and with the belief that
all work is hell.
Tension is created during this young couple’s meeting by the high
prices at this dreary café in the opinion of the broke Rémi, combined with
Valérie’s tardiness as well as her nervous cigarette-smoking and attention-
getting, tight little skirt; by a camera that is in the characters’ faces and
cuts between those faces; and by our own inability to tell at first whether it
is nighttime or pre-dawn, and whether these two are getting together for
drinks-and-a-date or breakfast before work, maybe even school. Then the
heretofore evasive Valérie comes out with the truth: that she’s four-weeks
pregnant, has known so for two days, and wants to have the child even if
that means caring for it on her own, all of this before the peevish-become-
perplexed Rémi can say a word. Shortly thereafter his girlfriend shrugs off
his financial concems and rushes out, promising to meet him back at the
same café in one hour.
As Valérie strides across the street, around the comer, and into the side
door or service entrance of the hotel where she is now employed, the
camera of Jacquot’s cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, chases after
her, then in front of her until she reaches her destination. This camera
movement will be repeated a number of times during the film, outside on
the street as well as inside the hotel, where this new but not novice room-
74 Free Spirit: On Jacquot’s A Single Girl

service waitress (who once did the same job at the Paris Sheraton before
quitting on account of the sexual harassment she experienced there) is
followed on her rounds through elegant corridors, whose lush ocher-and-
gold tones contrast harshly with the dirty wanness of the French capital by
dawn or by dusk. On the one hand, the camera calls attention to itself as
narrator in its rush to keep up with the hurtling forward motion of Valérie;
on the other hand, in its occasional stopping, remaining stationary, and
simply looking, sometimes at this young woman walking down a long
hallway, at other times—in what the French call temps mort—at nothing in
particular after she has departed the frame, the camera calls attention both
to the tedious reality of her work and to its dead-end or secondhand nature.
Valérie’s job, after all, requires her to do nothing more than enter
rooms, announced or unannounced, with a breakfast tray and wake people
up, occasionally to interrupt their lovemaking or otherwise invade their
privacy—an act, we soon realize, that is as much an invasion of this
willful maiden’s privacy, especially when she must endure passes from
older men. Still, she efficiently persists in her work during this first
moming, despite the fact that some of the harassment comes from male co-
workers who are sexually attracted to Valérie clad in a tuxedo jacket that
keeps slipping off, from female co-workers who are jealous of her good
looks and aloof style or attitude, even from a chilly woman executive who
peppers the new girl with questions about her employment history and
private life before peremptorily placing her on a yearlong probation.
So fast and determinedly does Valérie carry out her rounds that she’s
able to sandwich in a coffee break, a cigarette, and a few alternatingly
argumentative and apologetic telephone conversations with her secretarial
mother (calls that the daughter makes against the rules, in unoccupied
rooms that she has entered by using her passkey) before an hour is up in
this ninety-minute movie, and it’s time for our room-service waitress to
take a real break: her promised return visit to the waiting Rémi at the
overpriced, dingy café. They nearly miss meeting each other there; then, in
an attempt to get away from her boyfriend after a disagreement, she’s
almost run down by a car before he saves her—all of this encounter in a
cinematic style that alternates between the unsettling closeness of shot-
reverse shot and the intimate oneness of two-shot (a.k.a. American shot!).
Finally, after a hug, a kiss, and a whiskey, and with all the moral grace of
self-assured youth, Valérie swiftly as well as irrevocably breaks up with
Rémi on the grounds that their ardent love cannot last forever, they will
eventually split up anyway, and she’d rather abandon him than be
abandoned by him. End of romance, back to work.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 75

Except that, after the camera tracks her back to the hotel’s entrance to
the tune of String Quartet No. 1 in A, opus 2 (heard for the first time here),
it doesn’t go inside with Valérie and we never see her there again, even
though she retains her job. In a jump cut to top all New-Wave jump cuts, A
Single Girl instead moves forward in time, without a cinematic transition
of any kind, to approximately one and one-half years later—which is a
way of pointing up the artifice of such smooth transitions themselves, as
well as underscoring the abruptness or bumpiness of some of life’s
transitions. Now sporting short, pixieish hair and clad in a sundress,
Valérie has a son about nine months old who she says resembles Rémi, in
addition to a new male companion whom we do not meet.
Her child in tow, she strolls with her mother through a park graced by
the pale light of early spring, and the two women first banter, then bicker
over family, boyfriends, and the future as Champetier’s camera follows
them around in a continuous traveling shot. At the end of their walk, as
well as the film, Valérie escorts her mother and baby down into the Metro,
where she leaves them waiting for a train as she heads up to the street, on
an escalator, toward a destination unknown. When we see her for the last
time, aboveground, Valérie is solitarily striding away from the camera,
which has come to a terminal halt in full-to-long shot; and as she
disappears gradually into the amorphous, anonymous crowd of
metropolitan Paris, the screen itself fades to black while the haunting
strains of Dvorak’s chamber music come up on the soundtrack.
Alone and still staunchly in search of herself, Valérie is nonetheless
still part of the lonely crowd, and she continues to wait on others in her
position as a hotel-restaurant employee. Moreover, she continues to be
connected or committed to a family that now includes not only her mother
and a brother, Fabien, but also a young son, with whom she appears to
have forged a strong maternal bond. I mention this last point because even
motherly love is no longer a given in what, at least in the West, has long
since become the age of narcissism bordering on solipsism. But Valérie
Sergent is interested in spirited self-discovery, not mindless self-worship,
and such an interest is commendable in a Euro-American culture that,
through its objectification of beautiful women, frequently arrests their
cognitive or intel1ectual development, their cultivation of their brains as
opposed to their bodies.
It’s surely no accident that Valérie bemusedly questions any attempt on
the part of Rémi and the waiters at the hotel—even of her female co-
workers—to define her as a pretty woman. She wants from that same
world the chance to make others aware of her capacity for thought or
thoughtful self-determination in spite of her inherent physical attractiveness.
76 Free Spirit: On Jacquot’s A Single Girl

(In this respect she is not unlike a proletarian progenitor of hers: Ruby Lee
Gissing of Ruby in Paradise [1993].) To be sure, a genuine thinker or
original mind this unlearned young woman obviously is not. Still, she has
the right to be recognized as an independent mental entity unto herself,
apart from her status as an object of male desire and female envy.
So mature is Valérie’s independence or selfhood by the end of A Single
Girl, despite her age—especially as her autonomous ego is luminously
conveyed. more than verbally expressed, by the dark-eyed, oval-faced,
olive-skinned, and svelte-figured Virginie Ledoyen—that she is able to
take on the role of single mother and thus recognize the claims of someone
other than herself: those of her infant son. Valérie plainly wants to have it
both ways and, on the evidence presented, is succeeding the last time we
see her. To what extent her having it both ways is a function of her youth
ahead of everything that dissipates youth, like life itself and the rigors of
manual labor, the film does not really consider. From Valérie’s point of
view—and to judge from the film’s own treatment of time—the present is

From France and Japan, we get two films about death, or rather about
the reaction of the living toward it. Maborosi (1995) is the first feature
from the documentarian Hirokazu Kore-eda (with a screenplay adapted by
Yoshihisa Ogita from Teru Miyamoto’s well-known novel [1978]), about
a young woman’s search to understand her husband’s inexplicable suicide.
This picture was photographed by Masao Nakabori, and the
exquisiteness—as well as thematic point—of his cinematography recalls
that of the great Kazuo Miyagawa. This visual stylist shot a previous
Japanese movie about suicide, The Ballad of Orin (1978), directed by
Masahiro Shinoda, who had earlier made yet another film on this subject,
Double Suicide (1969), which makes use of a fatal ignis fatuus similar to
the one summoned up by the very title Maborosi (Japanese for “mirage”).
Through their cinematographers, Shinoda and Kore-eda look to the
physical universe, the world of forests, oceans, mountains, and light, for an
explanation, transmutation, or at least encompassing of what happens to
people in their lives. In this both men are typically Japanese, as Shinoda
himself has argued:

I must categorize the films of the world into three distinct types. European
films are based upon human psychology, American films upon action and the
struggles of human beings, and Japanese films upon circumstance. Japanese
films are interested in what surrounds the human being. This is their basic

Shinoda oversimplifies, of course, but the essential truth of his remark

is proved by the aforementioned French picture about death. Its title is
Ponette (1996), and it was written and directed by Jacques Doillon, none
of whose more than fifteen previous movies I have been able to see.
Doillon was born in 1944 and has been a writer-director of features since
1972. Many of his films, like Ponette, treat females in one kind of crisis or
another, as the following sample of titles c1early shows: The Weeping
Woman (1978), The Wench (1979), The Prodigal Daughter (1981), The
78 Life and Nothing But: On Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Doillon’s Ponette

Temptation of Isabelle (1985), A Puritanical Woman (1986), and A

Woman’s Vengeance (1990).
Ponette herself is a four-year-old girl who has survived a car accident
in which her mother was killed, and who struggles during the film to
comprehend what death is and what it means, not only in relation to her
mother but also to herself and the rest of her life. Thus the movie’s
perspective is humanly psychological, in Shinoda’s terms, not
geographically or spatially circumstantial. And, befitting its perspective,
Ponette is either photographed from the little girl’s point of view, even her
precise eye-level (and edited by Jacqueline Fano with nearly a neglect for
“continuity,” so as to capture a child’s indeterminate sense of time, its
blurring of hard-and-fast distinctions among morning, noon, and night, as
well as between days and even between weeks), or we see “objective”
close-ups of her wracked, haunted face together with full shots that feature
Ponette in conversation-communion with other people. In any event, rarely
is her person excluded from the frame, which makes sense given the
picture’s intent to portray the emotional landscape of childhood, and also
given its cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, who, mutatis mutandis,
employed a similar style in the making of Benoît Jacquot’s A Single Girl
The French cinema has a long history of exceptional insight (sans
sentimentality) into the minds and sensibilities of children, from Jean
Benoît-Lévy’s La Maternelle (1932) and Jules Duvivier’s Poil de Carotte
(1932) to Louis Daquin’s Portrait of Innocence (1941) and René
Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952)—the latter film concerned, like
Ponette, with a child’s reaction to death. But no picture that I know,
French or otherwise, has given the leading role to a child so young—
Victoire Thivisol, who plays Ponette, was cast when she was three-and-a-
half years old, completed shooting when she was four, then promptly won
the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival before returning to
kindergarten!—and surrounded her mostly with children of about the same
age, more or less free of the intervention or mediation of adults.
Our first view of Ponette aptly occurs in the film’s first image: a
medium close-up of this little girl in a hospital bed, compulsively sucking
her thumb, the only part of her left forearm not in a cast (which she will
wear for most, if not all, of the movie as a white badge of courage) after
the crash that killed her mother. Ponette’s father (played by the director
Xavier Beauvois) is there by her side, but not for the purpose of sharing a
good cry with his daughter or lamenting her helpless suffering. Indeed, he
is surprisingly matter-of-fact about what has happened, while Ponette for
her part remains expressionless. Even Philippe Sarde’s score, for piano
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 79

and violin, eschews the effusively maudlin here for the reticently
melancholy, which it will do throughout the picture as music shares the
soundtrack not only with dialogue but also with silence.
Abruptly, the scene shifts to a car in which Ponette’s father is driving
her to the scenic Rhône-Alps district of France, where the girl will live for
a time with her Aunt Claire and two cousins roughly her own age,
Matthias and Delphine. Just as abruptly, the father blames his wife’s
inveterately careless driving for the crackup that cost her life, despite
Ponette’s protest that the accident was not her mother’s fault. Then he
stops with his daughter at the crash-site, whose beautifully verdant and
mountainous (but unitalicized, and therefore frequently unsunny)
background is small comfort to the girl. The father’s intention is clear, if
perhaps ill-advised: to get Ponette quickly used to the idea of her mother’s
death, to make her accept it by recalling its circumstances and reiterating
its irreversible facticity. (“Mommy is dead,” he pronounces. “Do you
know what that means?”) To this end, he even has the girl attend her
mother’s open-casket wake at Aunt Claire’s house.
But Ponette has other ideas, and this will be her film, not her dad’s; not
the story of her father’s life after his wife’s death (the angle a conventional
or routine picture would take), but the story of a young daughter’s living
with her mother’s absence. This approach is announced by the very
manner in which the wake is filmed: with the camera in close on Ponette
and her cousins, not on the faces of any adults; only the other, anonymous
parts of their fragmented bodies are shown. Accordingly, after saying
goodbye to a tearful Ponette clutching her beloved doll, Yoyotte, Dad
departs on business for Lyons, to be seen again only twice: once during a
brief visit at about the movie’s midway point and then in the final scene or
dénouement. Before leaving, Ponette’s father gives her the memento of his
watch—that sturdy symbol of time-worn, earthbound adulthood—which
the little girl later tellingly hands over to Matthias as she expresses a desire
to visit her mother in heaven.
Lest the reader deduce that Ponette subsequently turns into a
melodramatic narrative pitting innocent, feeling, and imaginative children
against ill-tempered, stupid, and insensitive adults (which, to some extent,
Clément’s otherwise masterful Forbidden Games does), rest assured that
Doillon the screenwriter is careful to give his heroine at least one young
playmate who cruelly taunts her with the accusation that it was Ponette’s
own meanness that caused her mother’s death, and to provide another like
the otherwise sympathetic and funny Matthias, who flatly insists to his
cousin that “Dead people never come back. They can’t wake up.” For not
only is Ponette inconsolable in her grief (when told, “You shouldn’t be so
80 Life and Nothing But: On Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Doillon’s Ponette

sad,” she promptly replies, “Yes, I should”), she is nearly alone even
among her peers in her stubborn notion-become-conviction that her
mother might somehow return from the dead. After all, she asks as she is
fed the basics of Christianity by her Aunt Claire, if Christ can come back
from the grave, why can’t her dearest maman? Why, indeed. To be sure,
sweet Claire, like her son Matthias, quickly avers that humans cannot be
brought back to life on earth; they go instead to heaven to join the
resurrected Jesus. And Ponette’s father seems to agree when he tries to
dissuade his “crazy” daughter from praying for a miracle by arguing that
“God doesn’t talk to the living. God’s for the dead, not for us.” But his
opinion, uttered during his midpoint visit, is easy for the little girl to
dismiss, since she knows that her daddy doesn’t believe in God in the first
Ponette begins attending nursery school with Matthias and Delphine
after her father’s second leavetaking for work in Lyons, and it is here,
amidst the games, quarrels, teasings, and boastings of children, that she
meets the one child with whom she forges a spiritual bond, Ada. This girl
introduces herself as a “child of God” or Sunday child, one who, according
to European folklore, can see supernatural phenomena in addition to
possessing the gifts of prophecy and healing; and it is she who coaches
Ponette through her trials and encourages her in her prayers, which the
latter offers up in the school’s private (Catholic) chapel. She is ushered
there by the understanding, unquestioning headmistress, Aurélie, who
leaves this four-year-old to supplicate all by her earnest self in “God’s
room.” For Ada has promised that if Ponette prays long and hard enough,
Almighty God may allow her to talk to her mom in person, not just in her
dreams. So desperate is the daughter to see her mother again, to embrace
every child’s image of love, goodness, and security, that she states her
willingness to die in order to do so.
But that won’t be necessary, as it was for two of her cinematic
predecessors: the similarly sanctified masochists Mouchette from the late
Robert Bresson’s film of the same name (1967) and Mouchette once again
from Maurice Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan (1987), both of whom
commit suicide in their adolescence. The reason is that Ada (from the
Hebrew for beauty) and Aurélie (from the Latin for golden), along with
Claire (from the Latin for bright or clear) and a kindly female playmate
named Luce (from the Latin for shining light), prepare the way for what
appears to be Ponette’s sunny vision of her mother’s return to earth. That
way is also prepared by Champetier’s camera, which, in response to
Matthias’ autumnal assertion that “dead people never come back,” appears
to give him the lie by beginning to circle around Ponette in imitation of the
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 81

life cycle of extinction and renewal; and which camera, in reaction to

Matthias’ second such declaration, does something similar by cutting to a
dissenting Ponette against the background of a newly risen sun.
In the cemetery near the nursery school, where her mother is buried,
the little girl one day places a sunflower on the grave under a blue sky
illuminated by a blazing sun. Then, crying out “Mommy!” Ponette begins
digging her hands in the dirt in an attempt to unearth maman, at which
point the woman (sensitively acted by Marie Trintignant) appears in an
epiphany that is something more than a vision, and that takes this
otherwise realistic film into the realm of the mystical or transcendental.
We know that we are expected to interpret this resurrection as a miracle
because of a lost or misplaced red sweater that the mother returns to her
daughter here, and that Ponette continues to wear after maman has
vanished. Before disappearing, the latter explains to her child that she is in
fact dead, but that such a death must not be allowed to interfere with
Ponette’s happiness and a sound relationship with her father. Though in
tears, the little girl seems to understand and to be on her way to finding the
inner peace that will carry her through the rest of her own life.
We can deduce that the mother’s brief return occurs on a Friday,
because that is the day on which Ponette’s dad himself retums from Lyons
by car for his sporadic weekend visits, and Father happens to appear
immediately after Mother’s departure to take his daughter for a leisurely
drive. He, too, seems to have been touched by his wife’s resurrection, of
which Ponette informs him, for he does not accuse the child of fantasizing
and he is as astounded as we are by the tangible residue of the mother’s
mysterious visitation: the red sweater, which the man admits he has not
seen for a long time. The reappearance of the dead mater on a Friday
bearing a gift with the color red, together with Ponette’s introduction to
the “child of God” on a Sunday, is no accident, since both events together
suggest a cycle of time with particular resonance for Catholic countries in
general and this French religious film in particular: not only the days,
respectively, on which Christ was crucified and then rose from the dead,
but also the time period that corresponds to the duration of Dante’s
journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise towards salvation, In
Doillon’s movie, of course, it is Ponette (literally, a female pony) who
takes a journey through her own hell-cum-purgatory on earth, to achieve
God’s saving grace in the end. Sitting anew in her father’s automobile, the
girl’s last words are, “My mother told me to learn to be happy,” as the
camera cranes up into leafless trees, the car drives off, and the screen
dissolves to celestially blinding white,
82 Life and Nothing But: On Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Doillon’s Ponette

This film has been called “majestically absorbing,” “wondrously

moving,” and “pristinely poignant” up until its miraculous or supernatural
ending, which the secular humanists among us reflexively describe as
“hokily sentimental.” But it is possible to see Ponette’s epiphany as the
inevitable conclusion of the movie’s divine comedy or childhood Calvary
rather than as the artificial result of its earthly drama. Certainly a votary
like myself has no trouble accepting the picture on these terms, as, let us
say, a cinematic exemplum of the power of prayer. Nonbelievers,
however, may be mystified by the Catholicity of Doillon’s movie,
preferring instead to see it as a pathetic instance of the human (childlike?)
need for something otherworldly in which to believe. Doillon, naturally, is
not the first director to confirm them in their prejudice. He joins the
distinguished company of the aforementioned French Catholic director,
Bresson, and Ponette follows in the wake of such relatively recent,
similarly disposed Gallic films as Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986), Pialat’s
Under the Sun of Satan, and Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter (1992).
These films and filmmakers all understand something I said in an
earlier chapter but is worth repeating here: everything good in the domain
of religious cinema was created not by the exploitation of the patent
affinities of Catholicism with the medium—conceived, with its spectacular
iconography, as a kind of miracle in itself akin to the miracle of the
Sacrament and the saints. Rather, religious films of quality have been
created by working against these very affinities: by the psychological and
moral deepening of the spiritual factor as well as by the renunciation of the
physical representation of the supernatural and of God’s grace, except
where such representation is both pervasive or decisive and authentically
religious—as in Ponette. The fundamental requirement of an authentic
spiritual style, then, is that it be grounded in naturalistic simplicity, even
abstraction, not in widescreen pyrotechnics of the kind found in such sand-
and-sandals epics as Ben Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961), and The
Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
As I stated in an earlier essay, the spirit resides within, in internal
conviction, not in external trickery, and of course it resides there for
laypersons as well as the clergy, as Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and Diary
of a Country Priest (1951) readily show. Ponette is one of those
laypersons, she has internal conviction of a kind that is rare in lay adults,
and she witnesses a miracle that is a cinematic trick only to those who
have never had a similar experience. I for one have (and for those doubters
out there, witnesses were present at my witnessing), and I can assure you
that miracles do occasionally occur for those who are spiritually receptive
to, or worthy of, them (as most of us are not). The witnessing of just one
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 83

will forever alter you perspective on worldly life and living beings, at the
same time as it expands your idea of the realm of possibility or probability
within otherwise realistic, representational art.
Speaking of miracles, the real wonder of this film may not be in its
story but in the acting of its child protagonist by Victoire Thivisol. One
wonders what “performance” means to a girl so young, anyway;
nonetheless, Doillon helped Thivisol over the threshold from play and
fantasy—in which all small children indulge—into playing and
fantasticating, into making imaginative use of the materials of her own
young life, together with the lives of other youngsters who may actually
have suffered the irrevocable loss of a parent. That Doillon needed, or
thought he needed, a child psychiatrist (listed in the credits) in order to
accomplish his goal (as well as to assist in the handling of the young actors
who surround Ponette), as opposed to a Catholic priest, is an ironic
commentary not only on the godlessness of our age, or rather the elevation
of science to the status of a divinity, but also on the need for films just
such as Ponette to reinject a little sacred mystery into our lives.
Mystery comes into our lives through another path in Kore-eda’s
Maborosi, whose narrative is slender and—on its surface—simple. A
young woman, Yumiko, lives in a smaIl apartment in Osaka with her
husband, a factory worker named Ikuo, and their three-month-old son,
Yuichi. Everything seems to be fine until one day the husband commits
suicide by walking into the path of an oncoming train. Yumiko cannot
understand why, and the riddle of Ikuo’s death haunts her. In the course of
two to three years (indicated by a fade-out followed by a fade-in), she
marries again with a matchmaker’s assistance and moves to her new
husband’s home, in a remote fishing village where this erstwhile widower
lives with his young daughter and elderly father. Yumiko’s life seems to
have resettled until she goes back to Osaka for her brother’s wedding,
where the inexplicability of her first husband’s suicide envelops her again
as she visits first a coffee shop that they used to frequent, then the factory
where Ikuo worked, and finally the apartment building in which the two of
them lived with their infant son.
Now almost immobilized with incomprehension, even after she retums
home to the fishing village, Yumiko listens quietly as her second husband
tells her that his father (a retired fisherman) once spoke of the existence of
a strangely beckoning maborosi, a phosphorescent light, optical illusion,
or “foolish fire” that could lead sailors to their demise much like the
sweetly singing sirens of Greek mythology who lured mariners to
destruction on the rocks surrounding their island. “It happens to all of us,”
the present husband says, by which he means that anyone—and in
84 Life and Nothing But: On Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Doillon’s Ponette

particular Ikuo—can give in to a maborosi of the landlocked kind, a

sudden impulse or demonic urge that results in self-destructive behavior.
This doesn’t really explain anything, of course, but it does have the virtue
of retrospectively directing our attention to every maborosi—or, for my
purposes, every filmed image sans the human form—of which this picture
consists, for each of these is in reality no more than a configuration of
light consisting of a series of frames designed to create the illusion of
motion and continuity when viewed in sufficiently rapid succession. And
there are many such shots, absent people—of the landscape, the sea, the
city, the indoors—in this work.
Let’s start with the sounds and shots of passing trains, which run
throughout the scenes set in Osaka. These “mystery trains” don’t seem to
symbolize anything special; rather, in addition to foreshadowing early on
the suicide of Ikuo, they appear to suggest sheer movement or passage
through an otherwise static cityscape, sheer linkage with the larger world
outside—paradoxically, in this case, with the smaller world of the second
husband’s fishing village, to which Yumiko travels and from which she
returns to Osaka by train. Kore-eda thus uses trains much the same way
that his fellow Japanese Yasujiro Ozu did in a film like Tokyo Story
(1953): as one representation of the physical world that surrounds his
characters, sublimely indifferent to their needs and concerns, concerned
only with its own inexorable continuation, its particular microcosmic
contribution to the macrocosmic order.
To reiterate what I said in my piece on Jarmusch’s Mystery Train
(1989), Kore-eda’s realistic shooting style, consisting of limited cutting
within a scene or the frequent use of long takes, as well as the deployment
of a camera that uses only natural light and rarely moves (in addition to
eschewing the heat of the close-up for the repose of the full shot indoors
and the long shot outdoors), itself has a long tradition dating back to the
brief flowering of a naturalistic cinema in southern Italy between 1913 and
1916. But his use of “cutaway” shots to the trains and his repeated
interjection of temps mort, or “dead time”—beginning a scene on an
empty room, street, piece of land, or stretch of water, before the characters
enter the frame, or holding the camera on a location after the characters
have departed—appear to come from Ozu. These devices seem to derive
from Ozu in part because Kore-eda also photographs his actors for
extended periods of time indoors, whether they are standing, sitting, or
reclining, from the position characteristically employed by Ozu: with the
camera placed three or four feet off the floor, at the eye-level of a person
seated tranquilly on the traditional tatami mat.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 85

Temps mort, like the cutaway, is itself the device of the realist
filmmaker who seems compelled to remain in, or return to, the real world,
the visual surface of a world momentarily bereft of his characters and their
story. Documentarian that he has been, Kore-eda appears to want the
fiction he has created to give up some of its screen-time to the real or
physical world in which it is taking place, to the one from which it was in
fact drawn, for the purpose of drawing attention to the primacy, mystery,
and imperturbability of that world.
The cinematographer Nakabori’s exclusive use of natural light
underscores this universally enigmatic, impenetrable quality, for the
screen, as a result, is often dimly (if not obscurely) illuminated.
Furthermore, the gentle color scheme of Nakabori’s palette is coolly
overlaid with a tint of blue-green, even as the curve and flow of the actors’
bodies stand in stylized, almost eerie contrast to the patent geometry of
Japanese interiors—the explicit rectangles of relatively unadorned
windows and bare walls, which are made all the more explicit by light that
frequently falls in horizontal planes, thus making the frame seem very
delicately striated.
Paradoxically, then, Nakabori and Kore-eda’s cinematic style could be
described not only as realistic but also as transcendental, a term that the
critic-turned-writer/director Paul Schrader once applied to the films of
Japan’s Ozu, France’s Bresson, and Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer (and
that can be equally applied to the Australian Bruce Beresford in his
American-made Tender Mercies [1983], which, like Maborosi, unites in a
second marriage to a similarly bereaved man a woman who has suffered
the mysterious loss of her first husband—in this instance, to the chaos of
combat during the Vietnam War). According to Schrader, it is not
necessarily the function of transcendental style to depict holy characters or
pious feelings—that is, to deal explicitly with religion, as Ponette does;
rather, the alternative, perhaps even proper, function of transcendental art
is to express universal holiness or organic wholeness itself, which takes it
beyond the realm of spiritual style or religious cinema as previously
Thus the covertly or implicitly Christian pictures of Bresson and
Dreyer, such as A Man Escaped (1956) and Gertrud (1964) respectively,
express the transcendent to the same degree as their movies with overtly
Christian themes, like the former’s Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and the
latter’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); while the entire oeuvre of Ozu, a
director clearly working in a non-Christian tradition, like Kore-eda,
demonstrates the same depth of reverential insight as the work of his
86 Life and Nothing But: On Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Doillon’s Ponette

Western European counterparts, from the early Dreams of Youth (1928) to

Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962).
The most appropriate analogy for the art in Ozu’s fılms is Zen
Buddhism, as it is for traditional Japanese arts, crafts, or skills such as
painting, gardening, archery, the tea ceremony, haiku poetry, Noh drama,
judo, and kendo. Zen is not an organized religion with physical and
political concerns like Shintoism (itself devoted in part to nature worship,
to the cultivation of a harmonious relationship between man and the
natural environment) or Christianity, but a way of living that has permeated
the fabric of Japanese culture for over 1300 years. The fountainhead of
Zen is a fundamental unity of experience in which there is no dichotomy
or discord between man and Nature (in Western terms, this comes close to
pantheism), and which thus permits the achievement of transcendental
enlightenment through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuitive
knowledge. (For Ozu—often described as the most Japanese of all
directors for his introduction, indeed marriage, of the elements of Zen to
the cinema—the great threat to this communal Oneness, of course, has
been “modernization” in the wake of the industrial-technological
revolution, particularly as such modernization has affected Japan during
the post-World War II period.)
For its part, transcendental style in the cinema itself seeks to maximize
the mystery of earthly existence at the same time as it attempts to bring
human beings as close to the ineffable, the invisible, or the unknowable as
words, thoughts, sounds, and especially images can take them.
Transcendental style does this precisely through its redemption of physical
reality, to borrow Siegfried Kracauer’s phrase: through its reveling, as in
Maborosi, in the temporality or mundaneness of quotidian living—
working, eating, washing, drinking, conversing, shopping, walking,
traveling, playing, sleeping, sitting—at the expense of more dramatic
actions such as murder, mayhem, rape, robbery, even simple altercation. In
Kore-eda’s film, for example, we see neither the suicide of the first
husband nor its gory aftermath nor even the man’s funeral; we don’t even
witness the marriage ceremony or the preceding period of courtship (if
any) between Yumiko and her second husband (let alone get an
explanation of, or flashback to, the circumstances of his first wife’s death),
emotional events toward which the plot of a conventional narrative picture
would build. Moreover, in this pictorial tone poem we are introduced to
several characters, places, events, and sounds as we would be to recurring
motifs in a piece of symphonic program music. That is, although we do in
fact see or hear them in Maborosi, they are left simply to resonate, like
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 87

purely formal orchestral notes, rather than otherwise being underscored,

integrated, or elucidated.
I’m thinking of the dying old woman at the start, the mother of
Yumiko’s first husband, whose death we likewise do not see but whose
incarnation, as it were, we witness later in the film in the elderly father of
Yumiko’s second husband, who likes to listen to the radio much as did the
aged gentleman that lived next door to Ikuo and his wife in Osaka. I’m
thinking also of the old fishwife named Tomeno, whose mysterious
disappearance at sea recalls Ikuo’s puzzling suicide, but who, unlike
Yumiko’s first husband, returns from a shipwreck to live and work again;
of the bicycle bell that rings close to the beginning of Maborosi and then is
heard again in Osaka during Yumiko’s return trip—ostensibly for her
brother’s wedding, which, like her own second marriage, we never see—in
addition to ringing once more, later, back in her second husband’s fishing
I’m thinking as well of Yumiko’s recurrent dream about her
grandmother, of which she speaks to her first husband, that finds its double
in the dream she mentions to her second husband shortly after she comes
back from Osaka; of the stranger’s funeral procession near the fishing
village, which Yumiko trails after as it moves along the windy, barren,
snowswept seashore at dusk, until all the mourners have drifted offscreen
and only she is visible in what we must take to be pensive recollection of
her own husband’s death and burial; and of the small, doorless shack on a
country road from which the barely visible Yumiko emerges to find and
follow the aforementioned funeral procession—a shack that serves as a
bus stop and takes us back to an earlier scene in the fishing village during
which we saw a group of anonymous women waiting there, only to get
onto the bus that stopped (unlike Yumiko) and pass with it out of the
Similarly, in alternation or juxtaposition with the commonplace
activities of everyday life, we see the placid timelessness of the natural
world in Maborosi—courtesy of temps mort and the cutaway. And
although that placid timelessness obviously cannot unravel the mystery of
Ikuo’s suicide, it can, like the recurring aural, scenic, incidental, and
characterological motifs, encompass and even transmute such a traumatic
occurrence through stasis (Schrader’s term)—which is to say, by including
it in a condition of balance among the various forces of an inscrutable
universe whose ultimate questions, about the meaning of life, the existence
of God, the secretiveness of the human heart, can never be answered.
Kore-eda leaves us with a memorable such balance at the end of the
picture, with a kind of coda, by cutting away from Yumiko inside the
88 Life and Nothing But: On Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Doillon’s Ponette

house, looking out and remarking to her father-in-law merely on the

warmth of the weather, to a shot of the fishing village’s tranquil harbor,
and then to a long take of Yumiko’s second husband as he plays joyously
outside with his daughter, the boy Yuichi, and the family dog.
After this outdoor scene, Kore-eda cuts back to the interior of the
house, but now no one or no thing is to be seen except the rustling of a
curtain by the wind, to be followed abruptly by a concluding cut to black.
The implication here is that Yumiko’s disparity (again, Schrader’s term)—
the divorce, disunity, or unresolved tension between man and Nature (in a
Christian picture, the alienation between man and God), between
Yumiko’s agonizing over Ikuo’s suicide and the indifference of the
physical world toward her grief as well as his motives—has been
transcended in her quietly harmonious merger with the dailiness of daily
existence. So much so that the film’s final shot need only be an attenuated
metaphor for, or rarefied simulacrum of, the crucible that this woman has
successfully undergone: the image of an invisible natural phenomenon, the
wind, as it brushes up against a manifest screening-cum-sheltering device
of any family’ s domestic life, the curtain.
As you might guess, a film such as this calls for extremely subtle
acting, in part because the performer here is only one element in a picture
or series of moving pictures. This is literally true of all movies, of course
(except the abstract cinema of the avant-garde), but it’s truer in Maborosi
than most, and unfortunately not true enough in the alternately star-
centered and spectacle-driven cinema that continues to roll out of
Hollywood. In Kore-eda’s film, the actors—Makiko Esumi, Takashi
Naitoh, and Tadanobu Asano in the roles of Yumiko, Ikuo, and the second
husband—are used almost as balletic figures, moving slowly through a
terrain that itself seems to be a kind of character, as opposed to an instance
of spectacle for its own sake. Their job is not to emote or overemote (they
mean essentially the same thing) in grief, sympathy, or anger and thus
place the focus on themselves, but rather to underplay their characters so
as to make aesthetic room for, as well as make themselves psychically
accessible to, what surrounds and even transcends them. Speaking of
underplaying, Chen Ming-Chang’s score, mostly for piano, not only is
sparingly used, it also underplays the emotion of any moment or scene it
accompanies—again, unlike the Pavlovian mood music of most American
features. At the same time, Maborosi’s score reminds me of the music of
Keith Jarrett, which is to say that it is meditatively moving, or affecting in
spite of its ruminative, searching, pared-down self—like Kore-eda’s own
motion picture.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 89

In the course of its 110 minutes, Yumiko does not miraculously get to
see her first husband again, though she may dream of him, nor does she
even get to fathom his motives for killing himself. In this regard her
experience is distinctly different from that of Ponette, who knows why her
mother died and who is able, through prayer, to will maman ever-so-
briefly back to existence. I won’t say that the difference between the
experiences of these respective main characters is the difference between
an adult’s and a child’s vision of the world. But I will say that this
difference is one of world view: Yumiko looks finally to circumstances, to
her surroundings, to bring her own deadened spirit back to life, whereas
Ponette looks almost from the start to the God within herself to invoke her
mother’s risen spirit. The Japanese film resoundingly succeeds at placing
its heroine squarely in the world, whereas the French one need hardly
struggle to drive its protagonist decidedly back into herself.
Put another way, the Asian work of art looks out, as Yumiko herself
does at the end of Maborosi when she comments to her father-in-law about
the weather; the European artwork peers within, like Ponette in the final
scene when, ensconced in her father’s departing automobile, she twice
pronounces in quick succession—for herself to hear more than anyone
else—maman’s psychological assessment that fille ought to stop
complaining and be content with her fortune. In Doillon’s movie, then, the
emphasis is on the self and soul-salvation, while in Kore-eda’s it’s on
otherness and natural communion. Together they paint as unified a picture
of the material world, and the place of the human spirit within it, as one
might wish to find, or, alternatively, as stark a contrast between Christian,
original consciousness and non-Christian, primeval congruousness as one
could hope to imagine.

In 1999, major writer-directors with reputations for treating outré

subjects released movies to which we could all take our young children.
That poetically profane critic of American materialism, David Mamet,
turned out his stirring adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy
(1946), a verbally buttoned-up English period piece. Wim Wenders,
known primarily for Teutonic puzzle-pictures of anxiety and alienation,
came up with an uplifting concert movie called Buena Vista Social Club,
about a group of forgotten Cuban folk musicians. The otherwise camp,
even sadomasochistic sensibility of Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar gave us the
uncharacteristically gentle, soberly comedic All About My Mother. And
David Lynch, best known for exploring the darker recesses of the human
psyche as well as the darker corners of the American landscape in such
cult films as Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Twin Peaks
(1992, from the 1990-91 television series), created an eloquently simple,
representatively American, straightforwardly emotional, and extraordinarily
moving picture titled The Straight Story (1999; G-rated and released by
Disney, no less).
As for why he and other big-name directors turned to more “serene”
material, Lynch’s explanation rings as true as his latest film: “Sex, drugs,
violence, and obscene language have been pushed to an absurd extreme, to
the point where you don’t feel anything anymore” (The New York Times,
22 May 1999). In other words, less is more, or restraint can produce its
own form of artistic freedom. But let’s not be too quick to predict a shift
from blunt literalism to imaginative suggestion in the prevailing cinematic
wind, for contemporary audiences, conditioned not only by (action) films
but also by cable television, video games, and even best-selling books, are
used to having everything spilled as well as spelled out. (Moreover,
teenagers make up the largest audience of moviegoers, and therefore they
are the ones the studios most often aim to please, as well as the ones least
likely to appreciate imaginative suggestion or restraint.) Ask Martin
Scorsese, who, after the Buddhist idyll of Kundun (1997), returned to his
physical senses with Bringing Out the Dead (1999), a gritty tale
concerning the life and work of big-city emergency medical technicians.
92 Getting Straight with God and Man: On Lynch’s The Straight Story

Even David Lynch wasn’t sure that he would undertake another

“experiment in purity” like The Straight Story. As he put it, “My
sensibility was probably too warped at a young age for me to do more than
dabble in the serene” (The New York Times, 10 October 1999).
Nonetheless, he did so dabble in this instance and in the process made not
only his best film but also the best American fılm since Sling Blade
(1996). The idea for the picture itself came from The New York Times,
where Mary Sweeney (Lynch’s professional as well as social partner, and
the co-author of The Straight Story’s script along with John Roach) read a
report in 1994 about a seventy-three-year-old resident of Laurens, Iowa,
named Alvin Straight. It so happened that Alvin had traveled 300 miles
eastward to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his stroke-afflicted, dying
brother Lyle, whom he had not seen for ten years on account of a terrible
quarrel. Naturally, these facts in and of themselves would not have
constituted a “story”; what made them one was Alvin’s mode of
transportation: a 1966 John Deere tractor-style lawn mower, with a trailer
attached, which he used because his deteriorating eyesight had cost him
his driver’s license and he couldn’t stand buses, and despite the fact that he
could walk only with the support of two canes. lt took Alvin all of
September and a fair portion of October of 1994 to reach his older brother,
camping along the way and occasionally receiving hospitality from people
he met. But reconcile with Lyle he did before dying of emphysema in
1996. And it is to Alvin Straight that David Lynch dedicated his new film.
Aside from its “sereneness” (more on which later), what did Lynch see
in this Reader’s Digest material, the very kind that might once have
inspired the cover art of a Saturday Evening Post? He saw, I think—
especially as a result of Sweeney and Roach’s verbally distilled yet
veristically precise screenplay—that Alvin Straight’s sentimental journey
need not lapse into narrative sentimentality. He also sensed that the usual
tempo of one of his pictures—in our era of the shrunken attention span, an
unapologetic adagio that can accommodate this director’s measured,
attentive gaze—would unobtrusively serve Straight’s simple, unadorned
tale just as well as it self-consciously heightened the eccentricity-cum-
grotesquerie of such Lynch movies as The Elephant Man (1980) and Wild
at Heart (1990). The title of The Straight Story thus names not only the
film’s human subject but also its artistic style, as if that title were playfully
attempting to tell us this will be a factual tale or journalistic account
filtered through the consciousness of a cinematic Thomas Eakins rather
than a moviemade Norman Rockwell.
Still, the David Lynch of old obtrudes teasingly into the rarefied,
almost abstractly tender world of The Straight Story, like Edward Hopper
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 93

trying to put his signature on an Eakins canvas, or Diane Arbus attempting

to make a Walker Evans photograph in her own image. We see, or think
we see, that Lynch at the start of the picture, where all the usual Lynchian
elements seem to be in place: the mock-innocent, faux-resonant score by
Angelo Badalamenti; a threateningly bland, overhead shot of Midwestern
fields in early autumn, followed by an eerily sunny vista of one-story
clapboard houses, neatly trimmed lawns, and a main street that is vacant
save for its resident running dogs; the first human being in the form of a
mildly grotesque, supinely plump woman sunning herself before her house
with a reflector as she gobbles junk food, and as the camera swoops down
on, then moves in toward, her; finally, the window of the house next door
on the left, to which the same chillingly slow, predatory camera has
traveled and where we hear a sudden thumping noise deep from within,
after which this first sequence ends, without a word, on a fade-out.
In fact, there is nothing ominous, threatening, mocking, removed,
eerie, bizarre, chilling, or predatory about the movie that follows; Alvin
Straight’s odyssey never intersects with the Twilight Zone, and the
normal. wholesome façade of his hometown is no façade at all: it’s the
essence of Laurens, Iowa. To be sure, Alvin is something of a small-town
eccentric, like many a figure in the Lynch gallery, but here the character’s
eccentricity or intense individualism is hitched to a genuine theme and not
made a voyeuristic subject in its own right. That theme has to do not only
with our national self-image or ideal personification—deliberately, almost
perversely conveyed through the figure of the senescent Alvin—as a self-
reliant, stubborn, taciturn, yet humane and courageous loner. lt has also to
do with transcendentalism, American- as well as cinematic-style.
For American transcendentalism, as sponsored by Ralph Waldo
Emerson, emphasized the practice of self-trust and self-reliance at all
times, at the same time as it preached the importance of spiritual, or
spiritually expansive, living, by which it meant living close to nature—a
nature where God’s moral law could be intuited by divinely receptive
man—rather than submitting to religious dogma. Transcendental style in
the cinema, as sponsored by Paul Schrader, similarly unites the spiritual
style of religious cinema with realism’s redemption of the physical world.
That is, transcendental style seeks to express the universal holiness or
organic wholeness of reality itself—of people, nature, and things. It does
this not only through a realistic shooting style consisting of (1) limited
cutting within a scene or the frequent use of long takes; (2) the deployment
of a camera that seeks out natural light while eschewing the heat of the
close-up for the repose of the full shot indoors as well as the long shot
outdoors; and (3) the repeated interjection of “dead time,” or shots of the
94 Getting Straight with God and Man: On Lynch’s The Straight Story

material world that are devoid of the film’s human characters, for the
purpose of calling attention to the inscrutability and unassailability of that
world. Transcendental style also attempts to fulfill its mission by reveling
in the temporality or mundaneness of quotidian living—of working,
eating, washing, drinking, talking, shopping, walking, sitting, traveling,
playing, sleeping—at the expense of more dramatic activity such as
murder, mayhem, rape, robbery, even simple altercation (or its opposite
jejune romance).
So we get almost none of the latter “action” in The Straight Story,
which is the reason the film hasn’t gotten—nor will it get—much attention
from the press and consequently will not receive any awards. The very
nature of Alvin’s transportation (which moves at approximately five miles
per hour) means that the pace of his journey, and thus of the picture, will
be slow, unlike that of an action movie. Lynch is interested in this man’s
mental journey into his past via the people he meets on the road in the
present; mental journeys take a long time, for they are arduous; and,
although Alvin has chosen to travel by lawn mower for physical reasons,
one senses the suitability of his choice to the purpose at hand—his own as
well as David Lynch’s. That purpose is not merely a brotherly visit, or else
Alvin would not refuse proffered transportation along the way (which he
does do). He wants to suffer the hardships of his inner as well as outer
journey, since it is a penance for, or expiation of, past misdeeds, including
years lost to drinking and nastiness (toward his wife, now deceased, and
seven children) as well as to his falling out with Lyle (whom Alvin calls
the Abel to his Cain). This journey, then, is a gift that he is fashioning both
for his brother and his family, just as a craftsman might finish a fine
object, and it is a gift that he presents by the very fact of his arrival in
Mount Zion on the snail-paced lawn mower. Therefore Alvin must make
this trip alone and in his own way—this trip that at first looks so ludicrous,
even cranky, but that soon becomes a spiritual pilgrimage (not least
because of the serendipitous name of his final destination).
So determined is Lynch to get us used to his cinematic pace, as
opposed to the fast, factory kind we’ve become conditioned to expect, that
he has Alvin’s journey begin with a false start: the septuagenarian’s first
mower blows its engine a few miles from Laurens, so he must hitchhike
home to purchase another, used one at what is a considerable cost ($325)
for this pensioner. (This part of the Straight story may be true, but that
doesn’t mean the filmmakers had to include it.) As for the old lawn
mower, Alvin sets it on fire in his backyard with two rifle shots to the gas
tank in the film’s one ironic nod to the cinema of spectacle. Yet even this
bizarrely comic moment resonates with unforced seriousness in a movie
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 95

whose overarching seriousness of intent is an article of faith. For Alvin’s

adult daughter Rose, with whom he lives, witnesses with trepidation the
incineration of the broken-down mower, and we only later learn why. This
“slow,” speech-impeded woman, you see, is the single mother of four
children who have been removed from her custody forever on account of a
house fire in which one of them was badly burned—a fire apparently
caused by Rose’s “incompetence” or neglect. Rose lives in mourning for,
and memory of, those children who were once her family; and now her
present family, consisting only of her elderly father, is about to embark on
a perilous journey conceived, as it were, in flames yet dedicated to
reuniting him with his familial past in the form of his estranged older
Hardly by accident, Alvin’s mower-breakdown occurs near a sign
announcing that the Grotto of the Redemption (in West Bend, Iowa) is five
miles away. And, once back on the road, Alvin duly passes by the Grotto
on the road to his own redemption. Prior to his meeting with Lyle, that
road consists of a series of stations (about seven to Christ’s fourteen
Stations of the Cross), each marked or punctuated by (aerial) traveling
shots of corn crops and grain fields at harvest time; long takes on the sun
as it rises, the rain as it falls, or a fire as it burns; by passing glimpses of
woods, rivers, vehicles, and barns; and, above all, by crane shots that
begin by catching Alvin’s puttering progress from behind, rise into the sky
with epic majesty, then gracefully sweep down to reveal the man and his
mower-cum-trailer about ten feet farther down the highway. Some
commentators have taken these crane shots to be an elaborate visual joke
on Alvin and his pilgrim’s progress, but nothing could be farther from the
truth. Along with the other “travelogue” footage, as well as the recurrent,
companionate shots of a starry nighttime sky—the very first as well as the
very last image in The Straight Story—they are sublimely designed to
suggest the spiritual nature of the protagonist’s quest, to serenely unite
Alvin, as it were, with natural elements in space as a way of creating for
him a supernal warp in time.
To be sure, the skyward or heavenly shots additionally suggest the
benign oversight of a supreme being, but Lynch is far more concerned
with Alvin’s watchful gaze here on earth. Indeed, it is from his inspired
point of view that the camera frequently looks up at the firmament, for
such a vista reminds him of his boyhood in Moorhead, Minnesota, where
he and Lyle spent summers sleeping outdoors under the stars. And it is
from Alvin’s point of view, or from the omniscient point of view of the
camera as it also watches him, that we watch mundane occurrences like
rainstorms and sunsets. He seems beatifically moved by such simple,
96 Getting Straight with God and Man: On Lynch’s The Straight Story

natural events, and we are left to wonder why: to imagine, that is, the inner
journey that Alvin takes, even as we witness his outward one; to have our
own spirits thus awakened at the same time as we observe the material
stages of Alvin’s trek in the most material artistic medium yet known to
After his false start, those stages include an encounter with a pregnant,
teenaged runaway, who spends the night by his campfire and with whom
Alvin shares information about his family as well as wisdom about the
concept of family in general. Although probably the scene in The Straight
Story that comes closest to sentimentalism, this one works well because of
the irony at its heart: the two conversationalists are a teenaged runaway
who says her family hates her yet who is about to start a family of her
own, and a wizened old fellow who is a latter-day version of Robert
Warshow’s archetypal Westerner. A melancholy, intensely individualistic
loner, this figure is a man of repose and self-containment who seeks not to
extend his dominion but only to assert his personal value as well as
comport himself with honor, and who above all else resists the need for
others upon which the modern world insists, which Europeans accept as a
perennial fact of life, yet which Americans see as the lapse of Rousseau’s
natural man into the compromise and frustration of social life as we know
it. Alvin Straight is the (mid)Westerner in contemporary, socialized form,
if you will, the outsider who nonetheless dwells within the family circle.
And David Lynch or his screenwriters suggest Alvin’s ambivalence by
means of his private symbol for the family unit: a bunch of sticks bound
together so they won’t break, or a wooden bundle that the Romans used to
call a fascia and that, under Mussolini, became the Italian symbol for
family of a thoroughly insidious kind.
Menaced on the highway the next day by enormous, rumbling
eighteen-wheelers, lone Alvin is also lapped by a herd of bicycle
marathoners, who invite him into their camping area when they retire for
the evening. Why bicycle racers? Because each is the very image and
essence of what Alvin is not or is no longer: a physically adept young man
rushing headlong through life, obsessed with the finish line instead of
being attentive to the road that will get him there, preoccupied with the
ultimate destination rather than being mindful of the incremental journey
to that end. One of these bicyclists asks Alvin, in a friendly but telling
way, what the worst part is about getting old. Alvin thoughtfully replies
that “The worst part is rememberin’ when you was young”—an
ambiguous statement that sentimentalists will take as an exaltation of
youth in all its vitality or freshness but that a catholic realist like myself
reads as a denigration of youthful impetuosity as well as immaturity.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 97

We get an instance of such impetuosity in the very next scene, when

Alvin comes upon a distraught driver who, in the process of her frantic
daily commute to work, has just killed her thirteenth deer in seven
weeks—deer that she tearfully says she loves. “Where do they come
from?” she wails. Alvin can do little to comfort this woman, and at first we
think she’s just a sideshow exhibit from David Lynch’s gallery of freaks.
But then something almost magical happens: we watch, that evening, as
Alvin eats a portion of the deer for supper (the last supper or food we will
see him eat in The Straight Story), surrounded by twelve living (or
resurrected) deer who observe him. And the following morning we find
the buck’s antlers attached to Alvin’s trailer, right above the seat on his
lawn mower (where they remain for the rest of the film), in a humble
transfiguration of Christ’s crown of thorns into Straight’s crown of horns.
Like Christ and his human counterparts in the episodic mystery or
morality plays of the Middle Ages, Alvin is traveling his own via
dolorosa; and, like Christ, he stumbles three times along the way. The first
“stumble” occurred when Alvin’s first mower broke down; the second
occurs when, sixty miles from Lyle’s place in Wisconsin, the second
mower picks up so much speed going down a hill that its drive belt snaps.
Miraculously unhurt, Alvin is assisted by a group of volunteer firemen,
who had been putting out a practice fire on a nearby barn. (Like the
burning bush in Exodus 3, this flaming building is of no danger to
anyone.) Just as miraculously, one of his helpers is a former John Deere
salesman, Danny Riordan, who arranges to have the mower repaired (by
identical-twin mechanics who, in their petty bickering, are comic foils to
Lyle and Alvin) and allows Alvin to camp on his property in the
meantime. Alvin camps in Danny and his wife Darla’s backyard: he
doesn’t bother to ask if he can sleep on their sofa, he won’t even enter
their house to call Rose (he takes the Riordans’ cordless phone outside,
then leaves it on the doorstep—with three or four dollars for the long-
distance charges—when he’s finished), and he politely but stubbornly
refuses the ride that the kind, tactful, and empathetic Danny offers him to
Mount Zion. Again, this is a man on a mission, and part of that mission is
self-mortification and self-excoriation as well as self-purgation, as we see
in what may be The Straight Story’s most moving scene.
It occurs toward the end of Alvin’s stay at the Riordans’ when an
elderly neighbor named Verlyn Heller stops by and invites him to a quiet
bar for a drink. Alvin goes but, having long ago been cured of his
alcoholism by a preacher, he drinks only milk while his companion sips a
Miller Lite. Both Alvin and Verlyn are World War II veterans, so their
conversation in alternating medium close-up naturally drifts to each man’s
98 Getting Straight with God and Man: On Lynch’s The Straight Story

anguished memory of combat—a conversation we feel so privileged to

hear in part because Lynch had his cinematographer, Freddie Francis,
discreetly photograph the men’s initial meeting, on Danny Riordan’s lawn,
in a medium long shot with under-miked sound. A crack shot of a hunter
before the war, Alvin was used as a sniper during his service in France,
where most of the Germans he killed subsequent to the Normandy
invasion were “moon-faced boys.”
But Alvin also killed one of his own men by accident; no one ever
discovered this, nor has he ever admitted it to anyone; and now, with tears
in his eyes, he admits it to Verlyn. We see no images of fighting, no
flashbacks. We hear only some popular music from the 1940s in the
background -a tune that slowly turns into the muffled sounds of heavy
artillery. The focus here is obviously not on the Spielbergian saving of a
Private Ryan, on spectacular action and heroic adventure, but on saving
Alvin Straight’s soul. For this we must hear his confession, we must see
his face, and through his eyes we must look into his heart. Only then can
we leave the scene in more or less the same way that we entered it: in
medium long shot, with Alvin’s and Verlyn’s backs to us, and not a word
to be heard as the two men sit on stools while the lone bartender nearly
dozes as he stands off to their left.
Alvin moves on the next morning and becomes exultant as he
approaches, then crosses the Mississippi River into Wisconsin—the
Promised Land, as far as he’s concerned, and, like the Biblical Canaan, a
state bordered in both the east and the west by a body of water. That night,
the one before his reunion with Lyle, Alvin camps in one of the oldest
cemeteries in the Midwest—where the seventeenth-century Jesuit explorer
and missionary Jacques (Père) Marquette lies buried, as Alvin happens to
know—and there is visited by the priest whose rectory abuts the
graveyard. No formal confession occurs here, since Alvin is a Baptist by
birth, yet the facts that this scene occurs in a graveyard, that the priest had
ministered to Alvin’s equally Baptist (but nonetheless dying) brother in
the hospital, and that Alvin refuses the priest’s offer of bodily sustenance
speak for themselves. Loneliness and longing are the subjects of the two
men’s conversation—not religions or their prescribed rituals—and
brotherly love or communion is its object. The priest as celibate brother
seems to need to talk to the widowed Alvin as much as the latter needs to
talk to him, and the only “amen” this priestly father utters is in response to
Alvin’s earthly desire to swallow his pride and ask for Lyle’s forgiveness.
Before he swallows that pride, Alvin first swallows a beer in a bar a
few miles from Lyle’s ramshackle wooden home. It’s his first alcoholic
drink in years; he stops after one Miller Lite, his thirst quenched; then,
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 99

with directions to his brother’s place provided by the bartender, he climbs

back onto his load of a lawn mower in order to finish his journey. But
before he can, Alvin “stumbles” for the third time, when his mower
appears to “die” just short of its final destination. Appearing lost, he
simply sits there—for so long that Lynch must punctuate the passing time
with fades, until another old man on a big tractor passes by and (in another
reverentially inaudible medium long shot) reveals exactly where, off the
beaten path, Lyle’s house sits. After this encounter, Alvin wondrously
restarts the inert mower and rides it to a point where the road ends, so that
he must hobble down to his brother’s porch-in-the-woods on his two trusty
Once there, Alvin calls out Lyle’s name, Lyle responds by calling out
Alvin’s as he emerges with support from a walker (something his younger
brother has consistently refused to use), and the two men sit down together
in twilight on the porch, largely silent but deeply moved by their long-
deferred reunion. When Lyle asks his brother, “Did you ride that thing all
the way here to see me?” Alvin’s response is the last, reticently
reaffirming line of the film: “I did, Lyle.” As I’ve indicated, The Straight
Story’s final shot is of the leitmotif-like starry night, into which the camera
continues majestically to travel as the credits roll. Alvin had told the
Catholic priest that this was all he wanted to do: sit with his older brother
in peace and look up at the stars, just as they did as youngsters. And this is
all we see them do—with sentiment but without sentimentality, with
words yet without wordiness, with fraternal psychology but without
paternalistic psychologization—as their point of view merges with that of
the celestial-bound camera. (Recall how roughly analogous scenes
between relatives were handled in maudlin pictures like Terms of
Endearment [1983], Places in the Heart [1984], and Steel Magnolias
[1989], and you’ll appreciate the terse magnitude of Lynch’s achievement
here.) The Straight Story ends, then, precisely when it has fulfilled its
artistic design—neither before nor after it has done so—and such design is
intimately connected to Alvin Straight’s place in his own mind, in his
family, and in the family of man; in Laurens, Iowa, America, the natural
world, the cosmic universe, and in the mindful eyes of God. Alvin found
his place in the end, and this film has indelibly etched that noble place in
human memory.
One of the reasons The Straight Story succeeds to such a degree is its
stellar acting. Let’s begin with the small roles, each of which features an
actor (in some cases doubtless a non-professional one) who both looks and
sounds credible as a rural person from the Midwest—from Everett McGill
as the dealer who sells Alvin the (second) mower that he uses on his trip,
100 Getting Straight with God and Man: On Lynch’s The Straight Story

to Wiley Harker as the fellow oldtimer with whom he exchanges grim war
memories, to Russ Reed as the man who serves Alvin a beer in Mount
Zion. These people breathe authenticity, commitment, and understanding,
down to the way their clothes fit and their bodies move; they are never
what they would be in standard Hollywood fare: condescending country
caricatures, on the one hand, or miscast as well as underdirected urbanites,
on the other. The very best of the “small” performances is delivered by
James Cada as Danny Riordan, who may spend more on-screen time with
Alvin than anyone else in The Straight Story. Watch the concentrated
Cada’s restless eyes, and you’ll see an actor who fully comprehends his
character’s interest in Alvin Straight. As an early retiree with too much
free time on his hands (so much that he attends the volunteer fire
department’s staged fire), the cigarette-smoking Riordan is the type (like
my late father) who’s always nervously looking forward to the next
project, trip, event, visit, or holiday, and who finds that, for a few days at
least, he need look no further than Alvin for the absorption of his attention.
Two other small parts feature well-known actors who have either
worked with David Lynch in the past (Harry Dean Stanton, in Wild at
Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) or have enjoyed a longtime
friendship with him (Sissy Spacek) . Stanton is on screen for perhaps two
minutes at the end as Lyle, yet his gratifying presence—consisting of a
halting voice, feeble walk, and tired look belied by a compassionate
core—continues to haunt my memory. Spacek, as the “simple” Rose with
her speech impediment and habit of building birdhouses, initially seems
like a refugee from the Lynch carnival of grotesques, but she gains in
gravity with each scene in part because she undercuts her secret scars with
unaffected warmth. Spacek’s excellence, like that of everyone else
associated with the making of this film, would come to little, however,
without Richard Farnsworth in the titular role.
Born in the same year as Alvin Straight, Farnsworth has worked in
movies since 1937 and has been everything from a stunt man, in Westerns
and Biblical epics, to a minor supporting player in The Stalking Moon
(1969) and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), to a prominent
performer in Comes a Horseman (1978), Resurrection (1980), and The
Grey Fox (1982). Tall, skinny, white-bearded, and weak-hipped (like
Alvin), quiet yet dogged, Farnsworth ended a two-year retirement to act in
The Straight Story, and the result is a valedictory performance of the
highest order. This aged actor understands the part of Alvin as the one
toward which his whole career has been moving, and that is the primary
reason he can lend such immense dignity to so otherwise unassuming an
old man approaching the end of his days. Farnsworth also understands that
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 101

playing a character Alvin’s (and his own) age is more about being than
doing, and therefore more about allowing the camera to penetrate into the
essence of that being than presenting to the camera a reality framed by
architectonic language. (Think about how much an overbusy actor like
Jack Lemmon, a mawkish one like Walter Matthau, or a performing self
[seal?] like Wilford Brimley would do or want to do in such a role, and
you’ll appreciate the minimalism of Farnsworth’s creation.) When
Farnsworth speaks, his gravelly voice lingers in the mind; as we look at
his wizened face, we read beneath it layer upon layer of meaning,
experience, consequence, and resolve.
He’s helped—yet could have easily been hindered—by Badalamenti’s
music and Francis’s cinematography. A1vin is in the autumn of his years,
even as The Straight Story takes place in September and October, but
Francis doesn’t make the mistake of prettifying the autumnal Midwest, on
the one hand, or of tarnishing it, on the other. He works here as he has in
the past, in such a color picture as Glory (1989) and in a black-and-white
film like Sons and Lovers (1960): by filling the world with color in its
infinite variety (or, mutatis mutandis, black and white in their multiplicity
of shades), yet with hues that are photographed in autumnal or otherwise
diminished light and therefore appear understated. The result is the visual
equivalent of combining poignance with exhilaration, pathos with wonder,
passion with anguish—precisely the mixed emotional tone Lynch’s movie
is trying to sound. And we get a similar mixture in Badalamenti’s plaintive
yet lilting score, which is rooted in the spirited tradition of bluegrass but
propelled by its elegiac incorporation of strings. Badalamenti, like Francis,
has collaborated with David Lynch before, but his best previous work was
for Paul Schrader in The Comfort of Strangers (1991), which itself mixed
emotional tones by suggesting the Byzantine quality of Venice and the
story taking place there at the same time as it acted as a momentary,
melodic balm to viewers’ troubled senses.
So masterful and unified is every aspect of The Straight Story that even
so seemingly minor a detail as the protagonist’s smoking habit fits into its
master plan. A1vin is warned early in the film by his doctor to quit
smoking, but he refuses to do so—even refusing to have his lungs X-
rayed. He likes his “Swisher Sweets” and he continues to puff on them for
the duration of the movie, even as his daughter (for one) smokes
cigarettes. But A1vin never lights a cigarillo while he is doing something
else, only when he is in a state of watchful repose. Consciously or not,
Alvin uses smoking to slow down his already slow-paced life, for the
purpose of taking in the fullness or richness of the peopled world around
him. He seems to realize that smoking is paradoxically a delicious moment
102 Getting Straight with God and Man: On Lynch’s The Straight Story

in time and, in its inutility, a savory moment out of time, a little artistic
world unto itself in the magical insubstantiality of its delicate puffs. And
this mystery that attaches to tobacco—the danger in its pleasure, the
foulness in its beauty, the arrogance in its evanescence—only enhances a
man’s appreciation of the mystery, the sheer multitude or denseness, that
underlies life’s dailiness, which is far more complicated and inspiriting
than most films or other artworks could ever make it out to be.
The Straight Story is one of the exceptions, of course, and I for one
thank God, man, and country for its transcendent union of human
redemption with the phenomenal redemption of physical reality. Not even
Bergman’s celebrated Wild Strawberries (1957)—The Straight Story’s
closest cinematic relative in its archetypal portrayal of an old man (played
by Victor Sjöström in his own valedictory performance) taking a long car
trip that turns into a life’s journey as well as the intimation of his
mortality—was able to achieve so organic a dual focus (partly because the
Swedish director’s films prior to this one had led progressively to the
rejection of religious belief). And this places David Lynch’s picture very
high, indeed, on my list of the greatest movies ever made—American or

“The soundtrack invented silence,” wrote Robert Bresson, and some of

the best directors in history, including Bresson, have fixed silence on film.
For them, silence is both aural and visual—not merely the absence talk but
the presentation of persons who fill our imaginations with what they are
not saying. Two such directors are the Malaysian-born Taiwanese Tsai
Ming-liang and the Frenchman François Ozon, each of whom has made a
movie not only encased in quiet but also occupied with love, yearning, or
union. In Tsai’s What Time Is It There? (2001) and Ozon’s Under the
Sand (2000), however, such a feeling or state is of the mysteriously
paradoxical, not the lushly romantic, kind: deathless yet lifeless, present
yet absent, palpable yet laconic.
Let’s begin with the French picture, for it has some obvious cinematic
precedents: the maudlin Ghost (1990) and, despite its title, the
unsentimental Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991). Under the Sand has more in
common with the latter, which is about a blissful London couple whose
marriage is ended by the sudden death of the husband. His wife is simply
unable to accept this fact, and he himself returns from time to time—not a
ghost, the husband. No explanations are offered, but the two roles were so
movingly played by Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman that the film had
no trace of the egregiously spooky or the freakishly supernatural. Truly,
Madly, Deeply seemed to be, calmly and credibly, straightforwardly and
seriously, about a love stronger than—even synonymous with—death.
Now Ozon gives us Under the Sand, which he wrote along with
Emmanuelle Bernheim, Marina de Van, and Marcia Romano, and which is
about another wife who cannot accept the death of her husband. Thirty-
five years old at the time of this film, Ozon had previously made more
than a dozen shorts and three features, including Truth or Dare (1994), A
Summer Dress (1995), See the Sea (1996), and Criminal Lovers (1998).
All of these films are saturated with erotic longing and situated firmly
outside the mainstream with their disturbing images and outré subjects
(such as queer sexual politics in Water Drops on Burning Rocks, made in
1999 from a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder). All of them are also
104 On Ozon’s Under the Sand and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?

somewhat mannered and, in the manner of cinema-school products, proud

of their mannerisms. (Ozon studied directing at the famous French film
academy known as La fémis.) The mannerisms disappear in Under the
Sand, but not the current of sexual yearning and not the single quality that
characterizes all the work to date of this young Frenchman: a desire to
reveal the fragility and vulnerability that underlie seemingly secure or
solid bourgeois appearances.
Marie and Jean Drillon are an upper-middle-class Parisian couple who
have been married, without children, for twenty-five years. English-born
Marie is somewhere in her late forties or early fifties yet is timelessly,
strikingly beautiful; a one-time competitive swimmer who continues to
work out regularly at a gym, she works as a university lecturer in English
literature. Her somewhat older husband is a businessman with a bear-like
physique, a homely yet quietly commanding masculine presence, and a
distinctly melancholy air about him. At the start of the film Jean and his
wife are driving to the Landes region of southwestern France, where they
have a spacious summer home not far from a splendid beach. After they
arrive and open the house, the two of them eat spaghetti and drink some
wine, then go to bed.
This first sequence proceeds with a smoothness appropriate to a couple
that has been happily married for so long. Warmth, ease, and consideration
are evident in their every move or gesture; in fact, they are ostensibly so
comfortable in their relationship that words—of which there are few in the
opening scenes—are unnecessary. We hear none of the casual chatter that
we might expect from a sophisticated, middle-aged Gallic husband and
wife. Nonetheless, Jean seems a little too quiet for comfort—intellectually
disengaged or emotionally aloof would be the best description—and there
are other clues that all is not quite right or that calamity impends.
Under the Sand opens, for example, with the image of two boats
trave1ing down the Seine, then immediately cuts to the same river bereft
of boats altogether before panning to the right to find Marie and Jean
leaving Paris by car. (They are listening to aptly chosen classical music,
selections from which we shall hear again later on the soundtrack—salient
among them Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in C Minor, Resurrection.)
Then after Jean and Marie reach the south of France, they enter a house
that has understandably been “dead” for some months, with its covered
furniture, shuttered windows, and dank air. And when he goes out to get
wood for a fire, the camera holds on what appears to be a dying tree as we
hear the overweight Jean breathing hard; when he lifts a fallen branch
from this tree, ants swarm beneath in fear for their lives or in search of
new cover and new prey. As Marie herself looks into the bathroom mirror
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 105

while she gets ready for bed, she sees, and registers, yet another intimation
of mortality: her aging face.
The next day at the beach, where Marie and Jean are more or less
alone, the camera lingers in medium close-up on him as he stares out at the
distant, crashing waves while she relaxes at his side. Eventually he gets up
to go down for a swim, but Marie declines to join him: instead she naps in
the sun. After a while, she awakens to discover that her husband has not
yet returned; Marie then briefly diverts herself by reading a book she has
brought along before being forced to conclude, in a panic, that Jean is
missing. Lifeguards and the police search for him, but they find nothing,
and their only supposition is that he drowned. Marie, however, is left with
a host of unanswered questions. Was Jean’s death accidental or did he kill
himself? Is he really dead or did he fake his death and disappear? Is there
anything Marie could have done to prevent his drowning, or what did she
do to cause his disappearance?
Without answers, Marie closes up the couple’s summer place in order
to return to Paris, and with her return the first part of Under the Sand—a
little masterpiece of domestic-unease-become-mounting-terror—is over.
The second section, set mostly in Paris (and shot by Jeanne Lapoirie and
Antoine Héberlé in a format that one might term less glossy, except that
the film’s initial cinematographic format itself was somewhat muted in its
color range as well as in its light intensity), shows Marie Drillon’s life
without Jean. Or, more precisely, the second section of Under the Sand
reveals her radical refusal to admit that a life without Jean exists. Marie
may be “in denial,” but the appearance on the soundtrack, twice, of
Portishead’s song “Undenied” suggests that she will not be denied in her
desire to be reunited with her husband.
Not only does Marie behave as if he were still alive, Jean himself
appears as a living, breathing, talking entity, a human being—not a
specter—at least five times in his wife’s otherwise lonely apartment.
Naturally she sees him, and so do we. Our belief in what we see is
irrelevant, however; the woman’s belief is what matters, and Ozon boldly
chooses to make it tangible, not delusional. By doing so, this writer-
director begs some questions of his own—aimed at himself as well as the
audience of his film. To wit, who can actually accept, deep within herself,
the fact that her most loved one has vanished forever or is dead? (Think
here of George Sluizer’s not unrelated thriller The Vanishing [1988, 1993],
or especially of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sober rumination on spousal suicide
titled Maborosi [1995].) And who wouldn’t, at least for a time, accept
madness as the price of getting that person back? Moreover, if love is all
it’s cracked up to be, can death kill it? If so—as in cases where people
106 On Ozon’s Under the Sand and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?

have lost their loved spouses, learn to love again, then re-marry—doesn’t
that make us wonder what love, in all sentient beings, really is?
In any event, Jean’s death or disappearance does not kill Marie’s love
for him. Like an ostrich with its head in the sand—not like a woman in
mourning, dressed in sables (the film’s French title, Sous le sable, cleverly
puns on this masculine noun, which means both “sand” and “sable”)—she
lives her private, social, and professional life as if her husband were still
around. At home Marie acts as if Jean were lying next to her in bed,
sharing breakfast, chatting with her about the events of the day. She even
buys him a tie. To their friends, Marie speaks of Jean in the present tense,
as if he simply were away on a business trip. Her best friend, Amanda
(also British), while not aware of the full measure of Marie’s denial,
advises therapy, only to be rebuffed.
Amanda’s advice brings to mind Freud’s likening of mourning to a
kind of madness that needs to be played out over time. But in
contemporary society one is supposed to return to work and routine after
only a few days of bereavement, with the result that Marie’s denial not
only makes her something of a social outcast, it also endangers her
livelihood. Amanda’s husband, Gérard, who is also the Drillons’ attorney
warns Marie, for example, to curb her spending because Jean’s assets,
should he not be found, will be frozen for ten years. She cannot escape
such reminders of her husband’s absence, the most unsettling of which
occurs during a lecture Marie gives to her English literature class on
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931).
Reading aloud from the text, she stumbles as the loss of Jean suddenly
becomes real to her—as it should in treating a novel introduced as well as
divided by sections of lyrical prose describing the rising and sinking of the
sun over a seascape of waves and shore; a novel, moreover, that features
an absent character whose death becomes the focus for the other
characters’ fear and defiance of mortality. Jean’s death or disappearance
becomes real to Marie not only because of The Waves but also because
one of her students was a lifeguard who assisted her in Landes in the
search for her husband. When this young man approaches Marie in a
sympathetic way after she cancels the class on The Waves in mid-lecture,
she refuses to acknowledge that she remembers him.
Virginia Woolf recurs as a motif during Marie’s relationship with a
charming, handsome, single, accommodating, and middle-aged book
publisher named Vincent, to whom she is introduced by Amanda. Over
dinner with him, Marie recites from memory Woolf’s suicide note (“I have
the feeling that I am going mad . . .”); she also remarks that the novelist,
who heard voices even as Marie says she does, committed suicide by
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 107

walking into the Ouse river and drowning herself. Vincent responds with a
comment about British morbidity, but he nonetheless begins an affair with
Marie. Once, when they are having sex, she glances up and sees Jean
peering through the bedroom doorway. But this doesn’t disturb Marie: she
acts as if she expects her husband to understand what she calls her
adultery, and he apparently does. So much so that, at another point in
Under the Sand, Jean’s hands massage Marie’s body together with
Vincent’s while she masturbates. We see only the men’s hands on either
side of Marie’s recumbent, partially nude figure as the camera
photographs her from slightly overhead, in a stunning visual commentary
on the interrelationship-bordering-on-indistinguishability not only between
reality and fantasy, but also between life and death.
Yet Vincent can only be so accommodating of Marie’s inability to
separate herself from the memory—nay, what she thinks to be the
reality—of her husband. Vincent has known, or has believed, for some
time that Jean is dead, and he parts with Marie over her refusal to stop
practicing what he calls her charade. For how long has she been “in
denial”? The film is unclear about this matter, but its temporal
inspecificity is not a flaw, for Ozon wishes to suggest, I infer, that in a
sense time has stopped for Marie, that the present has become a kind of
eternal past where Jean still exists. The present begins to catch up with
Marie, however, in the person of Jean’s mother, who has her own reasons
to think that her son is still alive. From the nursing home where she
resides, this old woman bitterly argues to her daughter-in-law that there is
no history of suicide in the Drillon family; that Jean was taking medication
for depression (the used-up prescription for which Marie has already
found), which was the product of boredom with Marie and disappointment
that she never bore him any children; and that he simply faked his death so
he could begin his life anew, with another woman, somewhere else.
So shockingly denying, if not delusional, is the senior Madame Drillon
that, for the first time, even Marie begins to admit that Jean may be dead.
She has been in touch with the authorities in Landes since her return to
Paris, and, she declares to her mother-in-law, the police left a message on
her answering machine saying they have retrieved a body that matches
Marie’s description of her husband. Marie never returned the officer’s call,
as requested, but now she takes the train back to Landes for Under the
Sand’s scène a faire. There she meets with the lead investigator, who says
that a strong undertow caused Jean to drift out to sea, where he got caught
in a fisherman’s net and drowned. Then the coroner, who is also present,
reports tlıat the body has decomposed to such an extent that Marie would
not be able to identify her husband, but a DNA test, using tissue samples
108 On Ozon’s Under the Sand and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?

from the corpse and Jean’s mother (who therefore already knew of the
body’s retrieval during her meeting with Marie?), has confirmed with
ninety per cent certainty that the body is Jean Drillon’s.
Still, Marie wants to see the putrefied remains and does so, despite the
warnings of the detective and the coroner; we see nothing except the
dizzied, horrified expression on her face. When the coroner shows Jean’s
blue swimming trunks to Marie, she says she thinks they belonged to her
husband. When he returns Jean’s watch, though, she claims that it isn’t her
husband’s—despite the fact that this watch matches the description she
originally gave to the police. Whether the watch actually belonged to Jean
is less important, of course, than Marie’s rejection of any device that
would signify the cessation of her husband’s biological clock and the
concomitant continuation of her own. After that rejection, she
understandably returns, in Under the Sand’s final scene, to the beach
where Jean disappeared.
That beach is now cool, windy, and sunless, as the camera holds on
Marie in close-up when she sits down and stares out, crying, moaning, and
finally digging in the sand with her hands. Then Ozon cuts to another held
shot: this time a long one in which Marie, in profile in the foreground, sees
a man walking along the shore in the background. Sensing that he is Jean,
she gets up and runs toward him into the long shot, as it were, on which
the camera remains fixed until the screen abruptly goes to black before
Marie reaches the man. Is this in fact Jean? We do not know; we cannot
tell. The mystery persists at the end, and the problem of identification is
never “solved.” Marie’s love lives on, either in corporality or only in her
own mind. That she my have been right all along in believing that Jean
continued to live is less the film’s clever conceit—its “Macguffin,” to use
Alfred Hitchcock’s term—than its heartfelt reality. In any event, it’s not
important that we know whether Jean actually lives or lives only in
Marie’s imagination; in fact, Ozon may be suggesting that the one is as
good as the other, or that the imagination has its own reality even as reality
has its share of unbelievableness.
Ozon says he based Under the Sand on a personal experience he had at
the beach when he was a child: “Every day we would meet a Dutch couple
in their sixties. One day, the man went for a swim and never came back. It
was a shock for me and my family.” Such a traumatic event incites the
action of Under the Sand’s ninety-five minutes, but, as should be clear by
now, that action is largely static. A better word would be contemplative,
and no actress could have better embodied this essential quality of the film
than Charlotte Rampling (whose given name happens to be Marie Drillon
and who, though English-born, is bilingual). I saw her for the first time in
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 109

Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), in which she made a bit of a
name for herself by playing a concentration camp survivor who resumes
the sadomasochistic relationship she had with a former SS officer. This
wasn’t her first venture into the bizarre: that occurred in Luchino
Visconti’s The Damned (1969), which takes place in Germany during
Hitler’s rise to power; and the bizarrerie of Rampling’s roles continued
with Stardust Memories (1980), where she played the woman who helped
Woody Allen to rape Federico Fellini. As a matter of fact, one could say
that Rampling has done more to reinvent the fetishistic nature of love and
death than any other screen actress.
So one can well understand the superficial reason why Ozon—himself
no stranger to the exotically erotic—cast Rampling as Marie in Under the
Sand. The deeper reason is that, since Ozon’s minimalistic film can be
reduced to the relationship between the camera and a character who for the
most part doesn’t talk about her feelings, he had to use an actress who
could communicate subtle psychological states without words. And this
Rampling can do, does do here, through gesture look, and phrasing (when
she actually speaks)—a Lauren Bacall with out the mischief, I would call
her. She first showed the ability to create inner torment combined with
emotional nakedness in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982), where she
was taciturn and true as a schemer eventually devastated by her scheme.
Now, older of course (fifty-seven in this film, though she doesn’t look her
age) and never before as attractive, she creates a woman who is clearly
intelligent, worldly-wise, even slightly stern or intimidating, yet who,
without any awareness of abnormality, continues to live with a husband
who is either dead or somewhere else.
That Rampling’s character in Under the Sand is not a young woman is
what makes this picture so different from Truly, Madly, Deeply as well as
the artistically inferior Ghost. It is impossible to watch Ozon’s movie and
not be reminded that European actresses like Rampling and Catherine
Deneuve continue to get mature parts in mature pictures that comparable
American actresses like Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange could never hope
to land in today’s Hollywood—where there are no such roles for women
and few such films for middle-aged men, for that matter. Indeed,
Rampling followed up her fine work in Under the Sand with two
performances opposite Stellan Skarsgård: first in Aberdeen (2000), where
she plays his long-divorced wife who is dying of cancer, and next in Signs
and Wonders (2001), in which Skarsgård and Rampling portray a happily
married couple who begin to grow apart after seventeen years of marriage.
(Michael Cacoyannis’s Cherry Orchard, made in 1999 with Rampling in
the role of Madame Lyubov opposite Alan Bates as her brother Gaev,
110 On Ozon’s Under the Sand and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?

itself arrived in the United States in the spring of 2002.) For their part, the
middle-aged men playing opposite Rampling in Under the Sand are the
dependable Bruno Cremer (Jean), a veteran actor well known for his
portrayal of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret on French television,
and the gruff-looking yet smooth-acting Jacques Nolot (Vincent), whose
work may be familiar to those who have seen Claire Denis’s Nénette and
Boni (1996) or André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds (1994).
A middle-aged man is the only character to appear in the long (four to
six minutes) opening, virtually wordless scene of Tsai Ming-liang’s What
Time Is It There?, but we soon learn that he has died and he doesn’t appear
again until the end of the film [sic]. Like Under the Sand, this Taiwanese
film took its origin from an event in the life of its director and co-author
(with Yang Pi-ying): the death of his father in 1992. And, also like Ozon’s
picture, What Time Is It There? shares thematic as well as stylistic
characteristics with its auteur’s previous work, at the same time as it adds
existential depth and metaphysical anguish to what until now could be
seen merely as offbeat or unconventional, rebellious or even flippant. In
Tsai’s case, I’m referring to the teenaged disaffection of Rebels of the
Neon God (1992), the affected anomie of Vive l’amour (1994), the
hermetic symbolism of The River (1996), and the deadpan comedy of The
Hole (1998).
Tsai is one of three Taiwanese filmmakers whose films have begun to
be distributed in America; the other two are Hou Hsiao-hsien, represented
most recently in the United States by Flowers of Shanghai (1998), and
Edward Yang, whose Yi Yi (2000) won the Best Director award at the
Cannes Festival before arriving in North America. The new Taiwanese
cinema seems to be as nimble as that of Hong Kong, without the
commercial constraints, and as serious as Chinese film without being
burdened so much by the dead weight of an often mythological past. As
Tsai himself has observed,
Taiwanese film has begun to develop its own style without any political
influences . . . Now that it’s come to us we feel strongly that movies must
be personal and spring very much from one’s own heart. I think we’re
searching for a narrative style that is different from Hollywood’s . . . and
different from our predecessors in Taiwan cinema.

Those predecessors were faced chiefly with the political question of

whether Taiwan would remain independent or reunify with mainland
China. The Taiwanese New Wave, by contrast, sees itself confronted by an
inescapable cultural question, particularly in an era when even the Beijing
Communists are trying to capitalize on the Asian economic miracle: these
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 111

writer-directors question the nature of their very existence in the culture-

in-transition that is Taiwan, where brash Western values promise ever-
increasing materialistic gain yet provide little moral direction and even
less spiritual fulfillment to Eastern sensibilities.
In this quest—epitomized by the title of Yang’s fifth film, A Confucian
Confusion (1994)—the young Taiwanese moviemakers have something in
common with the French New Wave, whose most famous member,
François Truffaut, makes an appearance in What Time Is It There? via his
film The Four Hundred Blows (1959) and his alter ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud.
The French nouvelle vague, seemingly like the Taiwanese one, was at
bottom less a wave than an epidemic of faith and of desperation—a
desperate belief that film might prove to be an answer to much that was
harassing French society and culture, which, to use the literal title of Jean-
Luc Godard’s first feature, was “out of breath.” Among those
“harassments”: the political uncertainties of post-World War II France, the
Vietnamese and Algerian debacles, the growth of ideological disillusion
almost into an ideology, and a conviction of sterility and vacuum in the
nation as well as in traditional art (particularly the old-fashioned, worn-out
format of industry-financed, studio-crafted, finally impersonal filmmaking).
Paradoxically, though there is nothing impersonal about the making of
recent Taiwanese cinema, its own themes are urban impersonality,
isolation, or alienation; social dissonance bordering on dysfunction; and
psychological malaise glossed over by private obsession or compulsion—
themes that are manifestly the products of an Asian nation in a limbo of
the body as well as the soul.
What Time Is It There? begins, in a sense, with an elliptical meditation
on body and soul. Sitting down to eat in the small dining area of his
apartment, the father of a family smokes a cigarette, then goes to call his
wife (who is apparently in a room off the kitchen) to the table. Returning,
he sits down to his meal, but he does not eat and his wife does not come.
The man then gets up and goes first to the kitchen then to the back porch,
where he fiddles with a potted plant, smokes another cigarette, and
remains standing until the end of the scene. The main emotion here
appears to be melancholy, the chief “drama” absence, not presence (the
father exits the frame once, then retreats from the table in the foreground
to the porch in the background, while the mother never appears or even
speaks off-camera); and the abiding activity seems to be waiting or simply
being, even wasting away instead of eating in order to sustain life. Indeed,
what we don’t realize in our MTV-impatience, even after we have finally
cut to another scene, is that we have just witnessed the final minutes in the
life of a man numb with illness and solitude. The very stasis of this
112 On Ozon’s Under the Sand and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?

opening scene—opening shot, really—should have told us as much, for it

is filmed in a single long take at full-body distance, with no camera
movement, no music, some “dead time,” total ambient sound, and spare
This is to be the cinematic style for the remainder of What Time Is It
There?, a minimalistic or reductivist one that is the natural distillation of
Tsai’s previous filmmaking, and which combines the seemingly disparate
aesthetic principles of Ozu, Bresson, and Jacques Tati (or of Antonioni,
Jim Jarmusch, and Andy Warhol, for that matter). Much of the film’s
action transpires indoors (apartments, hotel rooms, cars, subway trains,
movie theatres), and the space of those interiors is confining as characters
move about in awkward silence or even a somnambulistic state of
contemplation bordering on depression. Oddly, photographing these
figures mostly in full shot—sometimes at medium range but almost never
in c1ose-up, and occasionally with a wide-angle lens that presents an
image with a greater horizontal plane as well as greater depth of field—
without editing exacerbates the sense of their being confined or entrapped
by their environment. (Sometimes that environment itself becomes the
sum of everything that “happens” or is revealed during a scene.)
I say “oddly” because such a shooting style is normally equated with
freedom of movement, action, and association for the characters (not to
speak of continuity of performance for the actors), freedom of choice (as
to where to look and what to see) for the viewer, and respect for the divine
mystery of reality in all its wholeness or sanctity. In What Time Is It
There? this third element may come into play, but as for the second one,
there isn’t so much happening in a scene like the first that the viewer must
exercise any power of selection. And, where the initial element is
concerned, the people of Taipei and Paris (the two cities where the film
takes place) themselves may be “free”; however, their great physical
proximity to each other in such densely populated places ironically only
increases their emotional-psychological separation. And this in turn leads
to self-isolation if not self-immobilization within the otherwise “uncut”
confines of their homes, their automobiles, their work places, their
recreation spots. Furthermore, the cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme
(who has also worked with the Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, most
notably on The Scent of Green Papaya [1993]), has photographed these
inner spheres with fluorescent light sources, the effect of which is to give
an anesthetizing reflective gloss to images dominated by the cool colors of
blue, green, and gray.
Those images in the end don’t amount to a drama so much as the
weaving together of three interconnected stories or lives, along with the
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 113

three concepts of time, space, and the time-space relationship as, at any
one time, they affect two of the picture’s three main characters. After the
death of the film’s patriarchal figure, one of those three main characters,
his middle-aged widow, becomes obsessed with the notion that his spirit
will be reincarnated and that she must ritualistically facilitate his or its
arrival (shades here of Marie Drillon). This she does by always setting her
husband’s place at the table; burning incense and saying prayers (led by a
Buddhist priest on at least one occasion); eliminating all light sources from
without as well as within; and by preparing his supper at midnight, which
she interprets as the time—5 p.m. in his new “zone”—at which the
evening meal would be served (hence one possible reason for the film’s
title). The widow gets this idea from her kitchen clock, which one day
mysteriously appears re-set seven hours earlier than the time in Taipei. But
it is her twentysomething son, Hsiao Kang, who has re-set the clock, even
as he obsessively re-sets every watch and clock he has or sees to Parisian
One could argue that Hsiao does this because he’s grieving for his
father and wants to turn back the hands of time to when the old man was
alive, or that such a repetitive activity is the perfect escape from his
overbearing mother and claustrophobic home life, where in a sense time
has stopped. (The only noisy scenes in What Time Is It There? are those
between Hsiao and his mother as he tries to temper her compulsive effort
to invite her dead husband’s return.) But clearly Hsiao is also re-setting as
many of Taipei’s timepieces as possible because this is the only way he
can re-connect himself to a young woman he met on the street (yet never
sees again) in his job as a watch peddler, and separation from whom may
reiterate or intensify his separation from his father. Her name is Shiang-
chyi and, en route to France for a holiday of sorts, she convinces Hsiao
Kang to sell her his own dual time-zone wristwatch. (Hsiao needs
convincing because, as a Buddhist by birth, he believes it would be bad
luck for a man in mourning, like himself, to sell his watch; as a Christian,
Shiang-chyi says that she doesn’t believe in bad luck.) Such a watch will
allow her simultaneously to keep track of the time in Paris and Taipei—
thus the other possible reason for the movie’s title.
Not that Shiang becomes involved in a long-distance relationship with
Hsiao or anyone else in Taipei; in fact, she never refers to him again after
their initial encounter, nor is there any sense of love lorn in him despite his
obsession with Parisian time. And the lightness of this young couple’s
encounter, the fact that it does not lead to any romantic or even mystical
union, is essential to Tsai’s design. For he wants to show, not that they
yearn for each other, but rather that each yearns for a heightened
114 On Ozon’s Under the Sand and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?

awareness of the world she or he does not know, yet which to a substantial
degree determines the nature of their lives. This seems to be the
overarching reason why Shiang goes West to Paris, in space, and Hsiao
goes there in time. But he goes there in virtual space as well when he buys
a videotape of The Four Hundred Blows (reportedly Tsai’s favorite movie)
because it will enable him to see images of Paris. (Significantly, the only
other French film Hsiao could have purchased in this particular shop was
Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour [1959], itself a kind of meditation
on East-West relations through the persons of a French film actress and a
Japanese architect and their respective “places,” Nevers and Hiroshima.)
What Hsiao sees in The Four Hundred Blows, however, is less Paris
than the existential crisis of a character caught between childhood and
adolescence, on the one hand, and neglectful parents (one of them a
stepfather) and a tyrannical public school system, on the other. Along with
Hsiao in his darkened room, we watch two scenes in particular from
Truffaut’s first major film: the one in which the fourteen-year-old Jean-
Pierre Léaud, as Antoine Doinel, drinks a stolen bottle of milk for
breakfast after having spent the night alone on the street; and a second
scene at an amusement park, where this boy flouts gravity by refusing to
stick to the side of a rotowhirl ride as it spins around with greater and
greater velocity. As someone who flouts time by setting even public clocks
back seven hours throughout Taipei, and as a son who himself seeks
refuge on the street from a mother more concerned with her dead
husband’s spirit than her son’s life, Hsiao can identify with the protagonist
of The Four Hundred Blows—even if he can see Antoine’s Paris only by
night or in the black and white of an overcast day.
What Shiang herself experiences in Paris, as an almost accidental
tourist who doesn’t speak French, is severe dislocation and even
dissociation. This is not the candy-colored, landmark-dotted Paris of
romantic movies; Shiang’s relationship to the city is relatively loveless as
she moves from her dreary little hotel to one café, small grocery, or cheap
restaurant after another. When she isn’t crowded into a subway car that
must suddenly be vacated because of “a serious incident,” she becomes the
second-hand victim on the street of an angry Frenchman’s pay-telephone
tirade. When Shiang gazes shyly at an Asian man standing alone on the
opposite platform down in the Metro, her face suggests a young woman
desperate to shed her loneliness for a little native-culture connectivity,
while his visage stares back at her as if she were an apparition.
So detached is this all-too-visible Asian outsider in a world of white
Europeans that human contact for her becomes what would be a nuisance
or disturbance to anyone else: the sound of loud noises and heavy
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 115

footsteps in the hotel room above hers. Sensing Shiang’s loneliness, Jean-
Pierre Léaud himself (fifty-eight years old at the time of this film) strikes
up a terse yet friendly conversation with her, in English, as they sit at
opposite ends of a bench outside a cemetery. Though not much is said,
Léaud does scribble his phone number down on a piece of paper, hand it to
Shiang, and introduce himself (as ]ean-Pierre) before the scene—as well
as their acquaintance—ends. (Léaud’s last such cameo was in Aki
Kaurismäki’s La vie de bohème [1992], a melancholic yet darkly humorous
meditation on the lives of artists, set, like What Time Is It There?, in a
surprisingly bleak contemporary Paris.)
Shiang does finally meet a young woman from Hong Kong who has
also come to Paris alone, as a tourist. But their friendship—the only one
formed in What Time Is It There?—ends unexpectedly after an
unconsummated lesbian encounter between the two women. This scene,
set in the Hong Kong girl’s hotel room, is cross-cut with two other sex
scenes in what, for this film, is a burst of quickly edited action. We cut
back and forth between Shiang and her would-be lover, Hsiao and a
prostitute copulating in the backseat of his parked car, and Hsiao’s mother
masturbating on the floor of her home before a candle-lit photograph of
her departed husband (autoerotism that makes Marie Drillon’s self-
stimulation in Under the Sand look mild by comparison). That none of
these scenes takes place between two people who love each other, or
concludes with tenderness of any kind, is telling. For Tsai, it appears, sex
is no more sensual, personal, or intimate than any other mundane act to be
performed in the urban landscape, be it Eastern or Western. In fact, the
sexual act gets less screen time than Hsiao’s urinating, which we watch
him do twice in his room at night from start to finish—into bottles or
plastic bags, because he is afraid he will bump into his deceased father’s
spirit if he walks to the bathroom.
Hsiao is asleep in his car when we see him for the penultimate time in
What Time Is It There?, as the aforementioned prostitute steals his suitcase
full of watches and slithers off into the night. That suitcase, or one like it,
then appears in the film’s final scene, which is set in Paris. Shiang-chyi is
sitting silently by a pond in the park-like area outside the Louvre,
apparently collecting her thoughts the morning after her aborted affair with
the woman from Hong Kong. Then a suitcase floats by—into and out of
the frame—atop the pond. An older man farther along the edge of the
water hooks the suitcase with his umbrella handle, brings it ashore, leaves
it there, and moves on. Shiang is now asleep. What Time Is It There? ends
with this older man—played by the same actor (Miao Tien) who played
Hsiao’s father in the opening scene—lighting a cigarette and walking
116 On Ozon’s Under the Sand and Tsai’s What Time Is It There?

away into an extreme long shot, in the background of which a large Ferris
wheel begins ever-so slowly to revolve. The father’s spirit has returned to
earth, Tsai would give us to believe, but why to Paris and not Taipei?
Perhaps this is where the old man is needed, as a guardian angel of
sorts to the beleaguered Shiang in a godforsaken, consumptive West that
should be regarded as the source of, rather than the answer to, the East’s
problems. His wife, after all, has an overgrown pet goldfish and her
hothouse-like plant (both of them constrained by walls of glass within the
already walled-in confines of the family’s apartment) as well as her son.
Indeed, Hsiao’s last act in What Time Is It There? (after his evening with
the prostitute) is to cover his sleeping mother with his jacket and lie down
next to her for some rest. The film thus ends in quotidian serenity, a mood
that has been broken throughout by cracked or dotty comedy, but also one
that has allowed for the continual raising of larger, epistemological
If the contrast between Tsai’s large questions or subjects—time as an
immutable, inexorable, incorporeal construct that humanity nonetheless
seeks to control or manipulate; space itself as an infinite construct that, on
earth at least, we have tried to render in convenient divisions such as East
and West; and the relationship among time, space, and matter—and his
film’s structural spareness suggests the existential absurd, this seems to be
the worldview that Tsai espouses. Such a reduced structure then becomes
Tsai’s realistic response to the diminished and disconnected lives he finds
around him in today’s “shrunken” world, lives such as Hsiao’s and
Shiang’s as well as those of Hsiao’s mother and father. Similarly, Tsai’s
emphasis, through long takes, full shots, and “dead time,” on the space that
surrounds those lives turns into a metaphorical attempt to privilege the
integrity, imperviousness, or permanence of the natural world over against
the insignificance and evanescence of the people who inhabit it.
It’s equally possible that the true subject of What Time Is It There?, as
the culmination of Tsai’s cinema, is less the droll Taiwanese landscape
and the characters, in both senses of the word, who inhabit it, than
filmmaking itself—the sheer fashioning of motion pictures out of celluloid
snippets in time. Cubism was probably the first movement that made the
person, setting, or object depicted a pretext for the artist’s exploration of
the geometry of space, to be joined by Futurism’s investigation of the
physics of time. And it wasn’t long before painters and sculptors were
creating truly abstract art, from which the recognizable world had been
totally banished. But film, which can move and talk, seems inextricably
bound up with the representation of physical reality in a way that painting
or sculpture does not. Hence the divided impulse in a director like Tsai—
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 117

and, most notably, in Jim Jarmusch before him as well as Godard before
him—between abstraction and representation, formalism and realism,
allocation in space and being in time.
That divided impulse carries over into Tsai’s work with actors. On the
one hand, like Jean-Pierre Léaud in Truffaut’s series of five films featuring
the character Antoine Doinel, Lee Kang-sheng (as Hsiao Kang) has been
the protagonist of all five of Tsai Ming-liang’s movies. Moreover, Lu Ti-
ching (as the mother) and Miao Tien have played Lee’s parents in each of
Tsai’s four previous pictures as well as in What Time Is It There? Others
in the cast, like Chen Shiang-chyi (as Shiang) and even the goldfish
“Fatty,” have worked with Tsai before. (Sets also reappear in his films:
Lee Kang-sheng’s home provided the setting for What Time Is It There?,
Rebels of the Neon God, and The River.) So there’s the sense that these
people (and that fish) are Tsai’s artistic collaborators in addition to making
up a familiar or recognizable family of actors, like the “repertory
company” that Ingmar Bergman regularly used.
On the other hand, Tsai’s actors are also his performative instruments
in the Bressonian sense. That is, some of them are not professionals or
were not before they began working for Tsai, and several have never
worked for anyone else. Bresson called his mostly non-professional actors
“models” and spoke of using them up in the creation of a sacred cinema
that would rival any other art in its ability to invoke mystery, ineffability,
or otherness. Tsai, who has praised the reticent “enacting” in Bresson’s
films (as opposed to the manufactured emoting of professionals to be
found in movies everywhere), similarly uses otherwise human figures as
inscrutable yet evocative chesspieces in the creation of his own finely
formal, poetically transcendent, immanently cinematic design.
Possibly there is some danger in loading What Time Is It There? with
more weight than it can bear. But unless we shed our reservations about
this film’s gravity or its director’s courage in disregarding almost every
convention that holds most pictures together, we reduce What Time Is It
There? to a piece of avant-garde eccentricity, even concentricity, designed
to keep us on the outside looking in. Similarly, unless we are stirred to
deep questions about the nature of love, illusion, and being in Under the
Sand, we reduce it to a piece of sentimental trickery designed to invite us
in and close the door on the outside world behind us. Which fate neither of
these extra-ordinary artworks deserves.

Only in America could reality become a trend. But, then, only in

America do we take time out for a “reality check,” as if anyone so far gone
as to lose his sense of reality would actually know what to check in order
to get it back. I mean, get real. Of course, only in America could the
admonishment “get real” be a reproach, and “unreality” be a sin. And now
that we’re on the subject, only in America do we say “I mean” before we
say what we mean, as if it were an acceptable convention for people to go
around saying what they didn’t mean, and it had become another
convention to make the distinction, before saying anything of
consequence, between meaning and not meaning what you are about to
say. Already I’m, like, getting dizzy.
Which raises the question of why Americans distance themselves from
what they are saying by putting “like” before the description of something,
as if people are nervous about committing to a particular version of reality,
or to a direct, unmediated, non-metaphorical experience of the real.
“Like” may be annoying, but it is a powerful tool of detachment and
defense; it is verbal armor against the depth of reality’s complexity. It
should be no surprise, therefore, that “reality television” has become not
just a gigantically profitable object of diversion, but also the subject of
appalled concern by those who view it as “like-TV.”
Indeed, the nature of reality in America has been a riddle ever since
Europeans started fleeing their own literal conditions by exporting their
dreams to the new continent in the form of Noble Savages, the Land of
Opportunity, and even Brecht’s Mahagonny. Not long ago, however, the
Europeans stopped exporting their dreams over to the States and began
exporting their “reality”: Survivor, the granddaddy of reality television,
came to American shores from England in 2000, while Big Brother and
Fear Factor came over from Holland and Germany, respectively, around
the same time. Or maybe these are new kinds of dreams. As the cultural
editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit put it, “People are missing the
real life in their lives.”
But hasn’t that always been the case? Medieval artists and artisans,
after all, staged Catholicism for the masses. The painter Jacques-Louis
120 Reality Bites: On Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron

David helped to orchestrate the French Revolution, the Russian avant-

garde helped to design the Russian Revolution, and the Third Reich
aestheticized life to cover up the workings of Nazi evil. If the social
theorist Jean Baudrillard sounds comical, then, when he complains that
reality has disappeared into folds of media-fabricated “simulacra,” it is
because he thinks that once upon a time, before the media, there used to be
something called reality that was available directly and without the
interference of interpretation—something which existed in isolation, that
is, untouched by artifice. But degrees of so-called unreality have always
constituted part of so-called reality. That is why reality is so hard to pin
down. Which is why they call it reality, or give it a name in the first place.
All of the above is by way of an introduction to an Asian film I’d like
to treat that, in one way or another, broaches but does not necessarily
bridge the gap between the real and the unreal, the abstract or abstracted
and the representational, the non-narrative and the storied, the avant and
the garde. The male lead of this film, 3-Iron (2004), never says a word,
while his female counterpart speaks only three words near the end of the
film. In this they appear to be part of both a linguistic (or non-linguistic!)
and a narrative experiment by 3-Iron’s writer-director, the South Korean
Kim Ki-duk, who wants not only to make his characters virtually silent in
an otherwise sound film, but also to tell a story in which their silence
acquires primary thematic significance. 3-Iron, like his previous picture
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003), is thus different from
Kim’s other nine films (dating back to 1996), each of which otherwise also
contains little dialogue and focuses on marginalized or disenfranchised
characters who operate outside the main currents of middle- and upper-
class Korean society.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, for its part, was a kind of
Buddhist pastoral that, in its emphasis on forgiveness and redemption,
took on a spiritual aspect absent from Kim’s earlier, sometimes sex-and-
violence-filled cinema. (I’m thinking here of Wild Animals [1997], The
Isle [2000], and Bad Guy [2002], but in particular of Crocodile [1996],
which tells the story of a man living at the edge of the Han River in Seoul
who saves a woman from trying to commit suicide, but then proceeds to
rape and abuse her—until an odd sort of relationship develops between
them.) 3-Iron itself is an unconventional love story in extremis, yet one
that, largely through its silences, takes the spiritual (as opposed to carnal
or corporal) element in love—and life—seriously. The spiritual here is not
a stylistic joke, something incongruously introduced for the sake of
incongruity, as it was in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005). It has
something to do with dreams and reality, subjective vision and objective
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 121

facticity, and thus partakes of a subject that, to speak only of film, can be
traced back to two avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 1930s:
namely, German expressionism and French surrealism.
In the first part of 3-Iron, we meet a young man named Tae-suk, as
slender and lithe as a dancer, who breaks into a number of Seoul’s more
comfortable homes when their owners are away but never steals or
damages anything. He simply lives in each house as long as he can,
bathing and eating and watching television. As a sort of recompense for
the owners’ unwitting hospitality, Tae-suk waters their plants and does the
laundry; he even fixes things that may be broken, like a clock or a
bathroom scale. Then, when he sees the rightful residents returning, this
lone drifter quickly slips out, jumps onto his motorcycle, and moves to
another empty house. How does Tae-suk know that no one is home for an
extended period of time? He hangs handbills—restaurant take-out menus,
to be exact—on the front doors of houses, and if, in the course of a few
days, he sees that a particular flyer has not been removed, he knows the
owners are away and he can enter. Naturally, since no one else is in these
scenes in vacant homes, Tae-suk never converses.
Just as naturally, we quickly begin to wonder about the reasons for his
behavior. We are ready to treat it as just a prankish aberration until he
enters the residence of a young married woman named Sun-hwa, whose
husband is away, and part two of 3-Iron begins. Tae-suk doesn’t know at
first that she is there: she hides from him out of fear, yet follows him about
the house, fascinated. And since Sun-hwa is hiding, these two don’t
converse, either. Telephone messages inform us that her husband is
desperate to see her, that he is en route home and yearns for his wife
despite the coldness with which she has long been treating him. (With
good reason: Sun-hwa’s face is a patchwork of bruises that she has
received at the hands of her abusive husband.) Nonetheless, she remains
focused on, and spellbound by, this silent, precise, strangely gentle
intruder, who is startled one night to find Sun-hwa, no longer afraid,
standing by his bed staring at him. Even then they do not speak. Each
simply accepts the other’s presence—his that of a “punk”-like housebreaker,
hers that of a model by profession—indeed, seems to want it.
Still, Tae-suk withdraws before Sun-hwa’s husband appears. When
the latter does appear, a middle-aged man named Min-kyu whom his wife
clearly dislikes, he tries to make love to her—against her will. (He is the
kind of man, if there is such a kind, who keeps his glasses on during
lovemaking, or the attempt at it.) Tae-suk then intervenes to help Sun-
hwa, and it is here that we get the reason for the film’s strange title.
Almost thoughtfully, Tae-suk takes a 3-iron from Min-kyu’s golf bag and
122 Reality Bites: On Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron

drives three balls into the husband’s stomach, making him double over.
Such an action risks the ludicrous, or would risk it if Tae-suk’s behavior
up to now had been conventional. Since it is not, we can view this
particular addition as one more oddity. Min-kyu, of course, remembers his
treatment at Tae-suk’s hands and later gets the chance to use it himself on
his erstwhile assailant.
Golf and the driving of golf balls recur throughout the picture, not just
in these two instances. Apparently, well-heeled Koreans, like their
counterparts in Japan, have a passion for the game so strong that for them
it has elements of a rite (a particularly silent one, I might add), and a golf
club has an almost ceremonial glow—an earthly glow, and a secular rite,
which are meant to contrast starkly with the preternatural rite of passage
Tae-suk and Sun-hwa undergo and the transformative glow they take on in
the course of 3-Iron. All the more so, paradoxically, because of the
parallel Kim makes between the title of his film and the lives of his two
main characters. For a 3-iron may be one among a number of special golf
clubs, but it is also the least used or most neglected of clubs—except in
this picture, and except by analogy Sun-hwa and Tae-suk (as opposed to
the third member of this triangle, Min-kyu), whose own respective neglect
and marginalization are turned to almost otherworldly use by Kim.
Back to this world, for the time being: after giving Min-kyu the golf-
ball drubbing, Tae-suk waits on his motorcycle outside Sun-hwa’s home.
She comes out and mounts the rear seat of the bike, but again nothing is
said. They simply ride off together—to another empty house that he
knows awaits them. Matters darken only when, in one home the couple
enters, they find the body of an old man who has literally dropped dead.
Tae-suk and Sun-hwa wrap the corpse formally and bury it in the garden.
However, when the dead man’s son comes looking for his father and finds
a pair of intruders instead, he has them arrested. Sun-hwa is released to
her husband, who takes her home; but Tae-suk is imprisoned after he
confesses to the body’s whereabouts, and this marks the start of part three
of 3-Iron. (We don’t hear his confession, but we do see the beatings by
police that make him talk, as well as his violent golf-balling by a vengeful
Min-kyu.) An autopsy eventually reveals that the old man died of natural
causes, so Tae-suk is set free.
Yet some of the film’s most extraordinary sequences take place in his
cell. Even though it is white, concrete, and unfurnished, Tae-suk finds
ways in this little space to conceal himself from his warder. And it is these
quasi-metaphysical sequences that help us fully to comprehend not only
Tae-suk’s somewhat amused tolerance of the world as it is and his desire
to become invisible in it, but also the mystical bond that he forged with
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 123

Sun-hwa in part two—a bond that itself contrasts with the worldliness of
the city through which it winds. Indeed, it is this couple’s very silence that
helps to intensify the sense that they are airy dancers to a music only they
can hear, as they glide through the pedestrianism of everyday life. Tae-
suk and Sun-hwa thus suggest visitants, figures in very real surroundings
who are self-created abstractions: self-created because they believe, these
creatures who seem to have been waiting for each other all their lives, that
the world exists precisely in order for them to disregard it, however much
they may understand its practical workings.
What is being dramatized in 3-Iron, then, is an attempt at otherness,
the recognition of a private state of mind that may accompany us (as less-
than-extreme, or more earthbound, variations on Tae-suk and Sun-hwa) in
our trudging dailiness but that we shunt aside so that, daily, we can carry
on with the trudge. And what presses Tae-suk and Sun-hwa is not just a
hope for escape from the humdrum—it is fidelity to the private self. These
two want to live in some measure like others, yes, but they also want to
feel untrammeled by the world outside them. It is as if Ariel, released by
Prospero, had found his mate in this picture and decided with her to escape
life’s tempest. Tae-suk finds Sun-hwa again after he himself is released
from jail, and it is 3-Iron’s final sequence that provides the climax to a
film which, for a good portion of its ninety-five minutes, seemed only to
be neat and clever—not much more than a sophisticated twist, like Wong
Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) and Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour
(1995), on the general run of housebreaker films out of Asia. But from the
entrance of Sun-hwa to its closing scenes between her and Tae-suk, 3-Iron
stops being merely clever: it opens up on a kind of eternity that these two
characters themselves join to create.
The conclusion itself is eerie yet touching: Tae-suk and Sun-hwa may
be reunited, but she is the only one who can see him. Sun-hwa is with her
husband at home, where Tae-suk is also present—and not present: for
Min-kyu senses his presence without actually being able to see him. Sun-
hwa and Tae-suk will thus have their own, Platonic marriage even while
her marriage to her first husband goes on. And it is through the fidelity of
Sun-hwa and Tae-suk, each to his or her own private self, that they have
managed simultaneously to make a private union for themselves.
One possible explanation for this ultimate, all-surpassing union-within-
a-union is that, during his time in prison, Tae-suk achieved a higher level
of consciousness where he exists on a mystical plane at the same time as
he retains the capacity of taking on a physical form at will. Or the
contrary: during Tae-suk’s imprisonment, Sun-hwa achieved—during her
own connubial imprisonment—a higher level of consciousness that
124 Reality Bites: On Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron

enabled her to will him into physical form at the same time as she could
spirit him, as required or desired, to a mystical plane. Moreover, 3-Iron’s
final image, of the two of them standing on a scale that reads “0,” reveals
that Sun-hwa herself has entered Tae-suk’s mystical realm, if not through
her own agency then through the considerable powers of her own Tae-suk.
All physically impossible, you say? Yes, but that’s precisely the point.
What is physically impossible need not be spiritually so, particularly in so
representational a medium as film where the spiritual can be made to
appear corporeal or tangible. Kim obviously knows this, which is why he
leaves an escape clause, if you can call it that, for those viewers who are
irretrievably wedded to the material world. A caption at the end of 3-Iron
talks about the difficulty of differentiating dreams from reality, which
allows for the possibility that one of the leading characters, even each of
them, is unreal or oneiric. Ah, it was all a dream, then (though, again,
there are no visual indications that we are in a dream world). Or at least
part of it was. But which part, and whose dream was it? That of someone
inside, or outside, the picture? And is it only, finally, in the quiet of
dreams that we can preserve our private selves, unimpeded by the wake of
the world? 3-Iron doesn’t say. It just methodically ingests the golf-club
business and turns the ritual of this game into an ethereal nod to the
vernacular below—or apart.
In the end, the insinuating, oddly enchanting quality of 3-Iron is
irresistible, not least because it is distinguished from the start by the
wraithlike, black-clad body of Jae Hee (a.k.a. Lee Hyun-kyoon), rippling
through empty houses as Tae-suk, and by the equally tacit yet supplely
expressive countenance of Lee Seung-yeon as Sun-hwa. They are backed
up, as they had to be in their dialogue-free roles, by the natural sounds of
the city of Seoul, as well as by Slvian’s mood music for piano and violin
in combination with the melancholic tones of a female vocalist. But Jae
Hee and Lee Seung-yeon are aided even more by the color
cinematography of Jang Seung-back, which—doubtless cued by Kim
himself (a former painter who studied art in Paris and who also edited 3-
Iron)—has a slightly unnatural green tint and a wholly unrelieved flat
look. These qualities make the otherwise urban images appear sylvanly
primitive, but only in the sense that, like medieval drama for one, they
depend for their depth or perspective less on the (camera-) eye of man than
on the all-transcendent consciousness that oversees the film in addition to
pervading it.
I’m not necessarily talking about God or gods here, religion or faith,
but I am talking about a higher reality than the kind most materialists and
secularists recognize—a reality toward which, among avant-gardists, the
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 125

symbolists (for one artistic group) aspired in their paintings, plays, and
poems in reaction against the literalness, sordidness, mundaneness, and
topicality of late-nineteenth-century realism and naturalism. That kind of
reality is higher, of course, because it is neither “real” nor “unreal” in the
sense that I have been using those words here; it’s spiritual, another
category altogether, and one which remains forever beyond such mundane
terms as “like,” “I mean,” and reality TV. Awesome—really.

The Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta won the Palme d’Or at the 1999
Cannes Film Festival over David Lynch’s The Straight Story, and I
suspect that the American entry lost not only because of the increasingly
virulent anti-Americanism of the French, but also because of this picture’s
unashamedly Christian overtones in an era unparalleled for its greedy
secularism. But Rosetta has its Christian overtones as well, though they
have been missed by every commentator I have read, probably because of
the movie’s seemingly unrelieved bleakness of tone. Luc and Jean-Pierre
Dardenne themselves have not helped their cause by comparing Rosetta to
the modernist hero of Kafka’s The Castle (1926), a land surveyor called
“K.,” who tries in vain to be recognized by the very officials who
supposedly have summoned him to their village (which is overlooked by a
castle on a hill).
She has more in common, however, with Bresson’s protagonists than
with Kafka’s “K”—in particular with the late, great French filmmaker’s
Mouchette and Balthazar. Their parables represent a departure from the
Christian certitude to be found in such earlier works by Bresson as Diary
of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959),
and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962); still, a principle of redemption or a
promise of transfiguration operates in Mouchette (1966) and Au hasard,
Balthazar (1966) as well, even if it may be found only in a humanity or an
animality redeemed from this earth. Both these pictures are linked with
Rosetta in their examination of the casual, gratuitous inhumanity to which
the meek of this earth are subjected, a fourteen-year-old girl in the former
case and a donkey in the latter.
Mouchette is the loveless, abused, humiliated daughter of an
alcoholic father and a dying mother, living in a northern France made to
seem unreal by the juxtaposition of village life from another century with
the modernity of jazz and automobiles. So relentlessly oppressive is
Mouchette’s young existence that she finally drowns herself—to the
accompaniment of Monteverdi’s Magnificat, which is Bresson’s way of
indicating that death alone is victory over such a spiritually wasted life.
128 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

Balthazar, by contrast, begins his life as a child’s pet who is formally

christened, virtually worshipped like a pagan idol, and generously adorned
with flowers. But the world of hard labor brutally intrudes: Balthazar is
beaten and broken in; becomes a circus attraction; gets worked almost to
death grinding corn for an old miser; then is hailed as a saint and walks in
a church procession after his rescue, only to be shot to death by a customs
officer during a smuggling escapade. The donkey’s only saving grace, in a
bizarre world of leather-clad motorcyclists and roughhewn millers, is that
he is allowed to die on a majestic mountainside amid a flock of peacefully
grazing sheep.
I have summarized Mouchette and Au hasard, Balthazar in some detail
because I believe that the Dardenne brothers know both these films as well
as the religious tradition, or spiritual style, of which they partake—one
dominated by French Catholics even subsequent to Bresson, in such
pictures as Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986), Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan
(1987), Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter (1992), and Doillon’s Ponette (1996).
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne happen to be Belgian, not French, and prior
to Rosetta they spent twenty years making sociopolitical documentaries
for European television before turning to fiction film in the socially
realistic La Promesse (1996). That fine and unforgettable work burrowed
into a rough chunk of proletarian life in Liège today, an economically
deterministic environment in which the struggle to survive leads,
ravenously, to the exploitation of workers by other workers. Into this pit
of money-grubbing vipers came an African family that showed a morally
degraded, teenaged Belgian boy—simply through their dignity and
pride—that another kind of existence is possible, even in the muck. We
are in the heavily industrialized city of Liège again in Rosetta, and again
we are dealing with a Belgian teenager, this time a girl. But in their
second feature film the Dardennes (who write their own screenplays) not
only forsake this world of proletarian realism for the nether one of
subproletarian naturalism; at the same time, paradoxically, they seem to
invoke an otherworldly realm that, unbeknownst to Rosetta (or anyone
else in the picture, for that matter), runs parallel to her own.
Living in a tiny, beat-up trailer (sans toilet or running water) with her
alcoholic, irresponsible, utterly dispirited mother, who mends old clothes
for peddling in second-hand shops when she is not turning tricks in
exchange for drinks, eighteen-year-old Rosetta is a furiously sullen bundle
of energy. This adolescent longs to have a “normal” life—which for her
means having a “real” job—and to become a productive member of
society, but even this modest goal appears to be beyond her grasp. (Hence
her identity is as a member of the lumpenproletariat, or proles who haven’t
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 129

had mechanized or otherwise rote work long enough to be dehumanized

by it.) As we see at the film’s outset, Rosetta must be bodily removed
from a factory where she’s just been fired, for reasons unspecified.
Subsisting in existential angst, quietly terrified that she will slide into the
abyss like her bedraggled mother, the fresh-faced daughter wages a
desperate, purely instinctive battle to lift herself out of her wretched,
nearly feral existence and achieve a material state of grace.
Like some form of brute life force, the barely socialized Rosetta will
do anything but beg to survive; like a jackal (as opposed to Balthazar, a
passive pack animal), she will nip at any chance to prolong her life—
including poach fish with rudimentary tackle from a pond so dank and
muddy that it could be called a swamp. Indeed, this movie makes a
spectacle of Rosetta’s repeated dodging across a highway and ducking into
the woods that adjoin her trailer park: as quick and cunning as an animal,
she scrambles for her life, then covers her tracks, hides her things, and
hoards her food (sometimes outside, where she’d rather compete with the
foxes for it than with her shiftless mother). Ever walking briskly when she
is not actually running, Rosetta appears to compensate for the paralyzing,
anomic dread of her implacable existence with a defiant, headlong tread.
Determined to find regular work after being fired from the factory
job—and equally determined not to go on welfare—Rosetta applies for
several menial vacancies without success before landing a position at a
waffle stand. There she replaces a young woman whose sick baby caused
her to miss ten days of work in one month, and there she meets Riquet, a
young man from the countryside who ekes out his own pittance at the
waffle stand while secretly skimming profits from his boss. (This
taskmaster runs a number of such stands throughout Liège, and is played
by the voracious Olivier Gourmet, the father in La Promesse.) Delicately
performed by Fabrizio Rongione, Riquet is the only person in the film to
show Rosetta any kind of sympathy, and the two develop a tentative
friendship—though his awkward attempts to gain her romantic interest go
completely unacknowledged by the preoccupied girl. During one such
poignant try at Riquet’s crude apartment (which appears to be carved out
of a warehouse), he treats Rosetta to a dinner of beer and fried bread,
stands on his head, then plays a tape of himself amateurishly banging on a
set of drums (the only “music” we hear during the movie, since the
Dardennes wisely eschew the adornment of a musical soundtrack here as
in La Promesse) and tries to teach her to dance. She remains
unresponsive, however, especially because of an attack of stomach pain,
one of several such (unexplained) attacks that recur throughout the film.
But she does ask to sleep at Riquet’s place, just to get away from her
130 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

mother for a night—which she does, in her own bedroll, untouched by her
understanding host.
Before falling asleep, Rosetta utters in voice-over (even as we see her
on screen) the following mantra of reassurance, words that at the same
time painfully attest to the degree of her alienation from a self that she has
nearly objectified in an effort to steel her humanity against the world’s
cruel indifference: “Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You’ve
found a job. I’ve found a job. You have a friend. I have a friend. You
have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t fall into the rut. I
won’t fall into the rut.” To indicate the relative normality that Rosetta has
achieved, the Dardennes film most of this scene at Riquet’s apartment in a
static, becalming long take, with the camera in medium shot. Much of the
rest of Rosetta, by contrast, is photographed with a handheld camera that
remains disorientingly close to the heroine as she dashes about, with a
twofold effect. On the one hand, the restless, uneven camerawork of Alain
Marcoen (who was also the director of cinematography for La Promesse)
creates the visual equivalent of the instability and uncertainty in Rosetta’s
life; on the other hand, the handheld camera seems to dog Rosetta with an
angry intensity that matches her own, as it were her doppelgänger-cum-
guardian angel or, antithetically, the devil of destiny in disguise.
The jagged, hurtling camera immediately resumes its ways in the scene
following Rosetta’s sleep-over at Riquet’s, where she is fired from the
waffle stand after being on the job for only three days. (She is replaced by
the boss’s son despite her efficiency, and despite the fact that this girl has
never seemed happier—and therefore more personable—than when she’s
been serving up waffles.) So desperate is she not to “fall into the rut”
which now gapes wide-open before her, that, after she’s terminated, the
raging teenager pathetically clings to a heavy sack of flower as though it
were simultaneously a life raft and the anchor preventing her forcible
removal from a life-giving ocean of work. Rosetta possessed no such
lifeline when, earlier, she and her estranged mother had become embroiled
in a fight along the shore of the turbid, stagnant pond near the trailer camp
(ironically named “Grand Canyon,” by the way), at the end of which the
older woman tossed her daughter into a moat so thick with mud that the
youth could barely pull herself out of it. Down into the metaphorical
abyss she went—appropriately, at her mother’s hands—and down there, in
the hellishness of high water, she almost suffocated.
Riquet nearly succumbs to the pond as well when, subsequent to
Rosetta’s dismissal from the waffle stand, he finds her fishing, tries to
help, and accidentally falls in. So intent is this girl on not going down
with him—literally or figuratively—that she nearly lets her only friend
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 131

drown. But she relents and saves him at the last minute, only to get
Riquet’s treasured job through another means: by blowing the whistle on
his scam at the waffle stand (which she has long since detected and a share
of which he had even offered to her, albeit unsuccessfully), after which the
boss instantly installs Rosetta in the stunned boy’s place. Again, however,
she doesn’t remain on the job for long, except that this time the working
girl terminates herself: in part because Riquet’s physical as well as mental
harassment, in the wake of his own dismissal, has awakened her moral
conscience; in part because Rosetta is tired of fending for her drunken
mother in addition to herself, and for this reason has decided to quit not
only work but also life.
She plans to commit suicide by turning on the propane gas in the house
trailer she has made airtight—gas that will dispatch her passed-out mother
along with her—but the canister runs out before the job is done. So
Rosetta must go to buy another one from the seedy, opportunistic caretaker
of the trailer court. As she struggles to carry the extremely heavy new
canister back to the trailer-for this young woman, even committing suicide
will be hard work—Riquet arrives on his scooter for one more episode of
harassment. But he senses that something is terribly wrong when Rosetta
drops to the ground in tears; he gets off his motorbike, goes over to the
fallen girl, and compassionately lifts her up; they look silently into each
other’s eyes for a moment, after which the camera switches to a held shot
of Rosetta’s face in medium close-up; then the film abruptly ends with a
quick cut to black.
That Rosetta has Christian overtones should be evident from this final
scene, as well as from the titular character’s one outfit of clothing, her
recurrent stomach pain, and the food she eats. This pain, like the stomach
cancer of Bresson’s protagonist in Diary of a Country Priest, is meant to
reflect not only the physical stress of Rosetta’s impoverished life, but also
its spiritual dilemma. That she can get relief from her pain only by turning
a blow-dryer on her abdomen ought to tell us that human warmth, or
fellow-feeling, is missing from her life as well. And that human warmth
comes to this latterday Everywoman, as a miraculous godsend, in the form
of Riquet, who in several scenes pursues her as inexorably with his scooter
as the Dardennes do throughout with their camera; and who more than
once wrestles with Rosetta as if he were struggling, like a saintly figure
from a medieval religious drama, for the possession or salvation of her
Rosetta’s habitual costume itself underscores her near-medieval
existence, foraging for sustenance in the wilds of the postmodern Western
European economy. Though her facial mask is expressionless, she dresses
132 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

in a jumbled garb of red-and-black jacket, thick yellow tights, gray skirt,

and rubber boots—in other words, in a kind of fool’s motley that vividly
stands out against the sparse and somber, cool and wet, winter landscape
of Belgium. This is initially no wise fool, however, for all her survivalist
cunning; Rosetta gets her (otherworldly wisdom, emotional lift, or
spiritual resurrection from none other than the sad-eyed, drably dressed,
otherwise corporeal Riquet, who, in a reversal of gender roles, plays the
Columbine to her Harlequin (or who, as a former gymnast, represents the
accomplished acrobat and dancer in Harlequin to Rosetta’s wily if dense
servant). And that resurrection, that uplift, comes at the end of Rosetta’s
own via dolorosa, during which, like Christ carrying his wooden cross,
she stumbles three times with her canister of propane gas. She has finally
exchanged her material state of grace, however minimal, for grace of
another kind, and the implication is that Rosetta had to forego the body
before she could bare her soul—a body that we have seen her nourish only
with fish (the traditional symbol of Christ), bread, waffles (whose cognate
term is the [Eucharistic] wafer), and, near the very end, a revivifying hard-
boiled egg.
Those who have argued that Rosetta’s tone is unvaried in its
grimness—that this girl is trapped throughout and the Dardenne brothers’
film is merely a documentary-like chronicle of her depressing case—
choose to ignore this work’s spiritual element, in addition to the fact that,
unlike Bresson’s Mouchette or Balthazar, Rosetta is alive and in good
company at the conclusion. Put another way, there is a mite of hope for
this young heroine, and it comes from another person, from the human
spirit of Riquet. That hope does not derive from the redemption of
physical reality, from the uniting of Rosetta with natural elements in space
as a way of creating for her a supernal warp in time, as it would if Rosetta
had been shot in realistic-cum-transcendental style (like The Straight
Story, to cite the most recent example). Rosetta’s sphere is circumscribed,
as the handheld camerawork (with almost no room for establishing shots,
panoramic vistas, or “dead time” spent dwelling on the phenomenal world
that surrounds her) reveals, and the only way to reach her is by force, as
Riquet learns.
As Rosetta, Emilie Dequenne (Best Actress at Cannes) is so thoroughly
immersed in her otherwise unappealing (and most unglamorous) character’s
simmering fierceness—so free of the self-regard that can tinge even the
best actors’ work—that, by sheer force of will, she forces us to pay
attention to Rosetta’s appalling life in all its squalor. Hence there was an
extra-aesthetic pleasure in wondering what Dequenne herself is like and
was like between takes during the shooting of Rosetta, so extreme is the
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 133

role into which she has plunged herself. There was another kind of
pleasure, too—one as damning as it is astonishing. That is the pleasure we
take in paying rapt attention to, and thinking a lot about, characters and
subjects in film (in theatre and fiction as well, but especially in cinema,
the most wide-reaching and therefore the most democratic of arts) to
which we wouldn’t normally give a large amount of consideration in real
life. This, of course, is the special, intriguing power that all art holds over
us: the power to engage merely by the act of isolating and framing. I bring
it up in the context of Rosetta only because it is more pronounced in the
naturalistic mode than in any other. And because naturalism, when
combined with a spiritual or a transcendental style, has the power to exalt
like no other mode: to shift our concern, to elevate our solicitude, from
self to other, from man to God and thus to other men. Outstanding among
them must be counted the wretched of the earth, the Rosettas of this world
who race through their time here because they mortally fear to idle.
After Rosetta in the Dardennes’ filmography comes The Son (2002), in
which the milieu—the workaday life of a carpenter who teaches carpentry
to wayward boys in Liège—is again the core, but which, like Rosetta,
subtly introduces a spiritual element or Christian overtone into its
otherwise sordid tale. Put another way, Émile Zola seems to occupy the
foreground in these two pictures while Leo Tolstoy glimmers in the
distance. Everyday working life may be where most of the world’s drama
takes place, then, but it is also, the Dardennes gently insist, where God’s
grace performs most of its work as well.
Paradoxically, part of the enlarging (almost frightening) effect of The
Son in the end comes from the Zolaesque banalities with which it begins.
First we hear the whine of a saw. (There is never any music, or musical
adornment, on the soundtrack, as there wasn’t in either La Promesse or
Rosetta.) Then comes the clatter of some hammering and other shop
noises as we enter the world of Olivier, a skilled carpenter in his thirties,
who is moving around a shop attending to the work of teenaged boys.
Most of the movement in this sequence—in almost all of the sequences—
is shot up close and in natural light with a handheld camera, which, in the
sense of spontaneity or immediacy it thereby creates, seems to the
Dardennes, in collaboration with their usual cinematographer, Alain
Marcoen, to be an adjunct of naturalism. (It is also an adjunct of the
documentary work with which the brothers began their careers, where it is
often impossible to set up a stationary camera, create lighting effects, and
deploy make-up artists.)
Hence, through much of the beginning, we are following Olivier as if
we were one of his teenaged charges, not accompanying him like a
134 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

colleague. We see his face sometimes, but mostly we see the back of his
head as the handheld camera weaves us into the pattern of Olivier’s life.
We get some idea of his skills and standards, of course, but we also get an
idea of his good feeling toward these boys, who are the real focus of this
opening segment. For they are not simply students of carpentry or
carpenters’ apprentices, we learn: they have recently been released from
juvenile prison and are being taught a useful trade here, in a program
sponsored by the Belgian government.
We learn more when Olivier’s former wife, Magali, visits. She tells
him that she is remarrying and asks whether he has met anyone. No, he
replies. Apparently, their divorce came about because of an emotional
shock: their infant son was murdered, and this couple could not survive the
blow—as a couple. Olivier survives singly by immersing himself in his
work with the delinquent sons of other couples, work that is demarcated, if
you will, by the whining of saws and the tapping of hammers. And thus
does The Son progress until a new “son” arrives, sixteen-year-old Francis,
who has just completed a five-year prison term.
In the course of his daily work with Francis, Olivier asks the youth
why he was sent to prison. For stealing a radio from a car, says Francis.
But after he began the theft, he saw that there was a baby in the car; and
when that baby began to cry, Francis had to silence him. (What, we may
ask, was the baby doing alone in the vehicle, and, if one of its parents left
it there, was that what precipitated their break-up?) Soon Olivier realizes
that this is the boy who killed his son. Yet throughout Francis’s account
of his crime, as through all their work together, this humble—or
humbled—carpenter reveals nothing by word or look; not voluble in any
case, he does not tell Francis that he is the murdered child’s father. Olivier
just keeps on working.
He isn’t sure why he doesn’t reveal his identity to the teenager or why,
for that matter, he agrees to work with him. But when Olivier is alone, the
unspoken questions tear at him, the ultimate one of which has to be, “How
do I forgive the unforgivable?” When his ex-wife discovers that he is
working with their child’s killer, she faints in his arms. Later she asks her
ex-husband and this former father why he is committing such an act, to
which Olivier replies with an aching, insistent bewilderment, “I don’t
know.” And so he doesn’t. In some notes made by the Dardenne brothers
during the shooting of the film (and included in its press material), they
wrote in answer to the same question, “We don’t know, either.” Yet the
immensity of forces that are at work in, and on, Olivier—previously
unsuspected by this man but soon to be revealed to him—is precisely this
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 135

movie’s subject. So much so that, as the Dardennes agree in their notes, it

could have been called The Father as easily as The Son.
Knowingly or not, Olivier asks Francis to accompany him one Sunday
to a lumberyard that Olivier’s brother owns. Other boys at the government
center have made this trip, for it gives them a good chance to learn
something more about wood and woodworking. In the deserted
lumberyard this time, however—as this carpenter and his helper select
planks and load them onto a trailer behind a pickup truck—Olivier tells
Francis what he knows about the crime against his and Magali’s son.
Perhaps Olivier planned to tell him, perhaps not; but their isolation here
seems to make room for the facts such that they seem to burst forth.
Fearing that his teacher will take revenge in this lonely place, Francis
panics, scampers over the piles of planks, and breaks out of the yard into
the woods. Shouting that everything will be all right, Olivier chases after
him, catches the boy, then finally subdues him—in the end with his hands
around Francis’s throat.
Thus he finds himself in the same position that Francis was in with the
baby. The shock of this fact stops Olivier—who did not mean to harm the
teenager in any case (just as the latter, one could say, had not planned to
kill Olivier’s son). He releases Francis and gets up, and the youngster,
somewhat calmed, follows Olivier back to the lumberyard. There the two
of them continue their working life as, once again, they start loading
planks onto the trailer. Then, like La Promesse and Rosetta before it, the
film stops rather than ends, as if to suggest that there will be no end to the
moral drama or quest in which now both Olivier and Francis are willing,
and witting, participants. They themselves may not be father and son, but
some kind of holy spirit at last has come to attend them.
Anyone who doubts the divine or spiritual component in The Son
ought to consider Olivier’s profession of carpentry (together with his age),
the film’s very title, the Sunday on which Olivier and Francis have their
day of reckoning, even their names themselves. (Francis’s, of course,
recalls the friar and later saint who founded the Franciscan order; in the
Charlemagne legends, Olivier was the close friend of Roland, that stalwart
defender of the Christians against the Saracens; and the name of Magali,
Olivier’s ex-wife, is itself derived from Magdalene.) Consider also
Olivier’s “wrestling match” with Francis in the lumberyard, something
akin to which occurs toward the end of Rosetta as well: it is as if this
carpenter were struggling here, like a saintly figure from a medieval
drama, for possession of his wayward apprentice’s soul.
No, this starkly sculptured, naturalistically simple narrative does not
depend on such a religious overlay for its effect; The Son doesn’t even
136 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

depend on plot twists, of which there are none after Francis’s introduction
to the story. In so compact a drama on such a huge subject, the fulfillment
or embodiment is all, and that takes place chiefly through the revelation of
character—which is to say, through the performances. But those
performances could not have succeeded, I submit, without the kind of
internal conviction on the part of the actors that depends, in this case, on
spiritual understanding. The spirit, after all, resides within—in precisely
the kind of internal conviction shown by Olivier Gourmet (who was in the
first two Dardenne features, as the boy’s crafty, exploiting father in La
Promesse and the girl’s boss in Rosetta) and Morgan Marinne in the roles
of Olivier and Francis—not in external trickery or special effects.
Take the person of Gourmet (whom the judges at the 2002 Cannes
Film Festival had the good sense to choose as Best Actor over feckless
Adrian Brody of The Pianist): he couldn’t have a less distinguished face—
doughy and bespectacled—but his physical force, and the concentration
with which he uses it, assure us that a manifold figure is lurking within the
seeming non-entity of a provincial carpenter. When he chases Francis
around the lumberyard, for example, what we see is the sheer physicality
of that chase; what we sense on account of Gourmet’s acting, and what is
not verbalized, is the largeness of spirit welling up inside him—the kind
that seeks not just immediately to reassure the boy, but also eternally to
forgive him for the mortal sin of infanticide. How Olivier is able to do
this, God only knows.
Let me add, about filial longing or love of the kind found in The Son,
that here the treatment of this emotion happily avoids the excesses of
sentimentality, on the one hand, and irony, on the other. Naturally the
cinema, like literature, has always taken profound emotion as one of its
primary subjects; and being moved, in art as in life, may be the oldest
emotion of them all. But great filmmakers like Jean-Pierre and Luc
Dardenne, like great writers, make it new every time. They do so with
unembarrassed earnestness, a willingness to consider the world seriously
and uncorrosively, without any interest in cynicism or nihilism, alienation
or revolt, the hip or the cool. All of which, like irony, are really the flip
side of sentimentality, that sweet instrument of evasion and shield, whose
strong and touching feeling the lesser artist uses to deflect strong and
heartless pain.
Indeed, if the seven deadly sins were reconsidered for the postmodern
age, vanity would be replaced by sentimentality. The most naked of all
emotions, relegated to Hallmark cards and embroidered pillows,
sentimentality is one of the distinctive elements of kitsch. “The heart
surges”—could there be a better description of a person in the throes of
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 137

sentiment, whose heart expands to absorb its impact? But, as with other
sins of excess, the line here between the permissible and the scandalous
resists easy definition. As Somerset Maugham put the matter,
“Sentimentality is only sentiment that rubs you the wrong way.” And
Maugham doubtless knew that, with the exception of puppy dogs or little
children, love is the most sentimental of subjects, and sentimentality is the
pitfall that all great love stories must overcome.
The Son may not be a love story in the traditional sense, but it is a love
story nonetheless. However, unlike great sentimental characters such as
Jay Gatsby and Emma Bovary—who, by novel’s end, must somehow be
disabused of that emotion, unsentimentalized, often just before death (the
reverse of the process undergone by Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The
House of Mirth, which sustains its emotional impact through its final
devastating scene because there is otherwise not a sentimental moment in
this relentless novel)—Olivier, for all his filial feeling, seem disabused of
sentimentality almost from the start. That’s because, as an indigenous
member of a lower social order than the titular characters of Fitzgerald and
Flaubert, he can’t afford it, in both senses of the word.
Olivier has no “title” like “Great” or “Sir”; his could only be the
generic, anonymous, unadorned one of father, if “father” were part of his
film’s title in the first place. But it isn’t. His son is—is the whole of that
title. And thus are we quietly informed that it is to his son, not himself,
that he would be devoted—which is sentiment that rubs me the right way.
God’s grace appears to be at work again in the Dardennes’ next
picture, L’Enfant (The Child, 2005), but everyday working life in this film,
as opposed to Rosetta and The Son, is a life of petty crime. The place,
once more in a Dardenne film, is a Belgian industrial city. Bruno and
Sonia, attractive, young, truly mated but not married, are thieves; they live
in criminality as fish live in water. She has just given birth to a son
(whom she names “Jimmy”), which for the time being relieves her of any
moral imperative except maternity—the first shot, in fact, is of this young
woman in a tight, handheld close-up, carrying her child up a flight of
dingy stairs. But this is not your usual screen baby of the kind to be found
in such American movies as Three Men and a Baby (1987), Baby Boom
(1987), She’s Having a Baby (1988), and Nine Months (1995). Jimmy is
almost supernaturally quiet, and, more important, he is rarely seen because
of his cocoon-like blanket. Cuteness and sentiment don’t play a part in
L’Enfant, you see. Grimness and grace do.
Even as L’Enfant immediately sets itself apart from what is nearly a
Hollywood subgenre, it, like Rosetta, places itself alongside the cinema of
Robert Bresson. Except that here the reference is to Pickpocket, not
138 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

Mouchette. L’Enfant and Pickpocket are each tales of crime, punishment,

and redemption, spiritual odysseys through a world that could hardly seem
more drably material. And in this pursuit they both partake of the religious
tradition, or transcendental style, that has been dominated by French (or
French-speaking) Catholics, in such pictures, in addition to Bresson’s and
the Dardennes’, as the aforementioned Thérèse, Under the Sun of Satan, A
Tale of Winter, and Ponette.
Back to L’Enfant itself: only after the film is finished can we recognize
that its first image, of Sonia and the infant—of a new life being carried to
its future—is a muted hint of its theme. Back at her apartment, she finds
herself locked out and discovers that, while she was giving birth, the father
of her child opportunistically sublet their apartment—using the quick cash
to outfit himself in a leather porkpie hat and striped windbreaker. When
Sonia finally tracks Bruno down, some fifteen minutes into the movie, he
is engaged in his own version of multi-tasking: walking down the middle
of a street so that he can panhandle from motorists on both sides at the
same time as he looks out for a burglary in progress. (Bruno’s chief
activity at present is to use schoolboys of twelve or so to steal from places
where he himself cannot go, pay them off, and then fence the loot.) She
shows him the bundle in her arms but he is far prouder of his new duds,
and much happier that Sonia is sexually available to him once again. To
celebrate—her availability or the baby’s birth, it’s not clear—Bruno buys
Sonia a matching windbreaker and, for Jimmy, an outsized infant carrier.
Then it’s back to being busy with his “work”—a cell-phone call to one of
his accomplices in this instance—and to behaving in every instance like a
machine: ever in motion, always making connections, constantly doing
something that will bring in more money.
Is Bruno the devil incarnate, you ask, so much so that he can’t even
respond to his own newborn child? Not really, for he is not calculating or
manipulative, malevolent and destructive, though the face of Jérémie
Renier, as Bruno, could fool you. (Renier was the fifteen-year-old boy in
La Promesse, viewers will recall.) Thatch-headed and blond (like Sonia),
he has level eyes that are shadowed, cheeks that are hollow, and creases
which have set in around the mouth, where his lips tug upward in a
chronic grin—thus seeming too old for his twenty-four years yet also
somewhat unfinished, as if he, or his squared-off chin and unmodeled
nose, were awaiting refinement. But Bruno is not evil, only impulsive and
without regard for the repercussions of his actions; indeed, it’s as if
morality were a concept entirely alien to him, or as if the moral machinery
that makes up most human beings is missing a piece in his case and
therefore malfunctioning.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 139

Visually, that missing piece is intimated by the narrowness of Bruno’s

perspective. To wit, the camera stays close to him, often sitting on his
shoulder and refusing to reveal anything, during what can be unnerving
long takes, that he does not experience immediately for himself. Yet such
a narrowness of vision is also, paradoxically, an intimacy of vision: a way
of clinging to the character of Bruno and thereby making us feel the moral
weight of his actions, even when he does not. For it is on him that the
camera dwells, as L’Enfant’s central character, not on his obviously more
sympathetic companion, Sonia. (Nonetheless, L’Enfant is sometimes less
tightly framed than the Dardennes’ previous feature films, and that is
because, though, like them, it concentrates primarily on a single
individual, it also features—unlike them—something resembling a
romantic relationship between a man and a woman.)
So narrow is Bruno’s perspective (as opposed to our intimate view of
him), so immediate his focus, that, although he now has a child in addition
to a steady girlfriend, he feels no need for a fixed abode. Sometimes he
himself sleeps in a cardboard box by the river’s edge, but now that their
apartment has been rented out to someone else, he checks his “family” into
a homeless shelter. The next day, while Sonia is standing in line to apply
for financial assistance, Bruno goes off with their baby and arranges to sell
it for several thousand dollars to a gang that specializes in illegal
adoptions. His rationale is that the money will enable him and Sonia to
survive, and that she can always have another child later if she wants.
Then, when Sonia comes looking for Jimmy, he tells her what he has
done—after which the camera cuts to her on the ground, to which she has
fallen after fainting. (This moment is much like the one in The Son where
the carpenter tells his ex-wife that his new apprentice is the fellow who
killed their child.)
Let me digress for a moment here to describe how the visual style, or
emotional rhythm, of L’Enfant changes at the turning point of its action,
once Bruno decides to give up his young son for a wad of cash. The
jumpiness or jitteriness of the camerawork in the earlier scenes gives way
here to a steadier pace as the camera follows Bruno to the outskirts of the
city (Seraing, which is right next to Liège, in eastern Belgium), where his
rendezvous with the baby traffickers will take place. For the Dardennes
want you to experience the lengths to which he will go to commit his
crime. And when he gets to the scene of exchange, where he stands alone
in real time in a dimly lit apartment, the brothers want you to know what
it’s like for the normally restless, impatient Bruno to wait, for once in his
life. (A “once” that was foreshadowed earlier by a key image from
Bruno’s world-in-motion: of the protagonist standing alone by the side of
140 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

some multi-lane highway, poised to dash across but momentarily stymied

by the heedless vehicles speeding past.)
Half in shadow, Bruno listens anxiously for the unseen buyers to come
and go. (It’s easy to hear footsteps in a Dardenne film, because there’s
never a musical score—only ambient sound.) Then, after long, long
moments of stillness comes a brief respite as Bruno rushes toward his
money. But time will soon stretch itself out again, as the Dardennes next
insist on showing Bruno’s return to the city center. This patient rhythm
has nothing to do with the ironic, distancing longueurs of a Jim Jarmusch
or an Aki Kaurismäki, or with the meditative, temporally extended
formalism of a Hou Hsiao-hsien. Such a rhythm has everything to do with
the character of Bruno: how he experiences the world, and how, despite
his thoughtlessness and even insentience, we are made to experience it
along with him.
Unexpectedly riven by Sonia’s suffering in response to the loss of her
child, Bruno races to buy back Jimmy, to reverse the irreversible, as it
were. Not that this agile if unconvincing liar realizes yet what he has done
or why Sonia should stubbornly refuse to forgive him—even after he
manages to recover the baby from the adoption gang, repay the money
they gave him, and return his son to its mother. Part of Bruno’s penance,
however—which Sonia does not know—is that he still owes the adoption
crooks a lot of money in return for what they would have gotten from the
baby’s purchasers; and they have threatened Bruno with a little sample of
what they will do to him if he doesn’t come through with the cash.
Desperate, he recruits one of his schoolboy accomplices, Steve, to steal
a woman’s purse as the latter sits on the back of a motor scooter that
Bruno himself will pilot. But the woman screams, some men give chase,
then the police give chase as well, as the film suddenly explodes into an
adrenalin-charged car pursuit (so charged even though, or perhaps
because, it lacks the usual percussive soundtrack and multiple camera
angles) that proves to be both intensely physical and almost effortlessly
metaphoric. Agonizingly, on the verge of being overtaken, Bruno and
Steve plunge into the muddy river Meuse—a figurative as well as literal
descent into the depths—so as to hide under a dock. But Steve flounders
and Bruno has to save him from drowning. The Dardennes, always
concerned with the relationship between adults and young people, thus use
Steve as a vicar for Bruno’s baby.
The rescue itself is a dangerous, selfless act, particularly for a young
man more interested in business transactions than physical pursuits of the
kind typically found in “action films.” Steve may survive, but the police
find and arrest him anyway. Then, conscience-stricken, Bruno comes to
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 141

the rescue again by turning himself in to free Steve. Slowly, through his
powerful, emotionally-induced response to two quite distinct instances of
hysterical paralysis suffered by his fellow creatures (first Sonia and next
Steve), Bruno is being nudged toward transformation, toward spiritual and
emotional growth. For it’s he who is really the movie’s eponymous child,
even as the son in the Dardennes’ film of the same name is the very
apprentice who murdered the carpenter’s infant boy.
Bruno’s final destination in L’Enfant (like the protagonist’s in
Pickpocket) is prison: a kind of haven from the men to whom he owes
money; a kind of hell where his ceaseless motion has no outlet; and also a
vision of purgatory where his soul will be tested and perhaps saved. The
very last scene, understated but overwhelming, deceptively taciturn yet
profoundly moving, fulfills both the film’s narrative and its meaning
without the slightest touch of neatness or patness. The sense is that prices
have been paid for this ending, that—unlike most sentiment—it is earned.
His cockiness gone, Bruno sits down with Sonia, who is visiting him in
jail (and who has been absent from the film up to this point for quite some
time), and for once shows an emotion appropriate to the situation: he cries.
What sets his crying off? Something as small as an offer from Sonia of
vending-machine coffee—or, in this context, everything.
The mystery in this motion picture that has been made so studiously
out in the open, without mysteries and for all to see, is that now even a
plastic cup matters. For the moment, Bruno’s perspective has been
reduced to that cup and the woman who proffered it. But the suggestion is
that his perspective has begun to widen or expand, for Bruno’s tearful yet
gratified (and gratifying) response to Sonia’s thoughtfulness should be
evidence enough to him that every action—even one so small as offering a
person a cup of coffee—has its consequences. And that, after all, has been
what this genuine “action film” or morality play has been trying to
illustrate all along, on a much larger scale: that, to phrase the matter
biblically, whatsoever a man soweth, so shall he reap.
Moreover, consequences are still in store, or at least questions
unresolved, for Bruno as well as Sonia. To wit: after Bruno gets out of
jail, will this couple learn to live together humanely as adults? How will
Bruno deal with his debt? And what kind of life awaits the heretofore
hapless Jimmy? We do not know, and neither do the characters—the
characters, for it is almost impossible in a film such as this to talk about
them in any terms that include the actors who play them. Some directors
(like Ingmar Bergman) lead us to admire their actors’ art even while they
are creating it. But not the Dardennes. Although certainly not content
with facile verism, they have their actors (here including Dardenne veterans
142 On the Dardennes’ Rosetta, The Son, and L’Enfant

Olivier Gourmet, in a brief appearance as a detective, and Déborah

François as Sonia in her first film role) disappear behind their characters in
the act of creating them. And those characters, of course, inhabit a world
that is not dissimilar to our own. Yet the Dardennes see it not only as it is,
but more so. They see what we may sense is there but don’t always
perceive, by which I mean the spirit that enlivens matter as well as matter
itself, the soul that is immanent in the body (let alone the universe) and not
just the body on its surface.
For the Dardennes’ perceptions, their persistence, their very modesty
or, better, humanity, we can be grateful. As we can be thankful as well for
the two colleagues who work with them on all their fiction features. The
first is Marie-Hélène Dozo, an editor who understands the urgent economy
in the brothers’ work—not one instant too much or too little, particularly
in this 100-minute movie, which has more “action” than we are accustomed
to in a Dardenne film. The second is the cinematographer Alain Marcoen,
who renders the grainy urban landscape unremittingly, in natural light,
such that terms like “black and white” and “color” don’t really enter into
the picture. And, under the brothers’ guidance, he dollies along in shot
after shot, thereby making movement, velocity, the transience or
subjectivity of space (if you will) integral components of L’Enfant’s
L’Enfant, then, is an unretouched, and rare, “baby picture,” not the
kind that Hollywood gives us on all too regular a basis. The Dardennes’
film has a real baby in it, to be sure, but it also has a figurative one; it
features some American names (baby Jimmy, baby stand-in Steve), just to
remind viewers indirectly of the kind of movie it is not; and, most
important, L’Enfant features a protagonist who ascends from the depths of
his own hell to achieve redemption or transformation—however nascent—
in the end. How Bruno, and to a lesser extent Sonia, wound up in the
lower depths is less the focus of this film, though, than how they will get
out, if not from a socioeconomic point of view then from a psycho-
emotional one. So L’Enfant can’t really be called a naturalistic social-
problem picture, even if its immediate subject is the lumpen underclass.
Spiritually-infused social realism is what I would call it, of the kind found
in Rosetta and The Son, as it marries the ephemeral arena of human
tribulation to the eternal realm of divine dispensation. Art doesn’t solve
problems, the Dardennes thereby imply, nor does it dissolve them. The
most it can do, and has done in all their films I have seen, is guilelessly
bear witness to creation. That is all, and that is enough. The rest is up to a
higher power.

I say nothing new when I assert that realism has been central to the last
hundred and fifty years or so in the history of art. Realism, of course, is
not only an approach to representing people and things but also a view of
the world. Indeed, the great French film critic André Bazin has argued
that, throughout the ages, mankind has dreamed of being able to see the
surface of the world faithfully copied in art. He ascribes this wish to what
he calls the “mummy complex”—an innate human need to halt the
ceaseless flow of time by embalming it in an image. But it was not until
the development of photography in the nineteenth century that this appetite
for the real could be fully satisfied. For Bazin, a photograph holds an
irrational power to persuade us of its truth because it results from a process
of mechanical reproduction in which human agency plays no part. A
painting, however lifelike, is still the obvious product of human craft and
intention, whereas the photographic image is just what happens
automatically when the light reflected from objects strikes a layer of
sensitive chemical emulsion.
In Bazin’s view, it’s this objective quality of the photograph—the fact
that it is first of all a sensory datum and only later perhaps a work of art—
which gives the medium its privileged relationship with the real. It
follows that both photography and its spawn, the motion picture, have a
special obligation toward reality, because the image is a kind of double of
reality, a reflection petrified in time but one that can be brought back to
life by cinematic projection; and because both photography and the cinema
are both fundamentally democratic arts, making every face reproducible in
a photo (not just the faces of the rich in portrait paintings) and making
every place in the world accessible to everyone, on film (not just to those
few who can afford the price to travel there). For Bazin, this special
obligation of the photograpic and cinematographic media is ultimately a
moral or sacred one, since, in effect, they are preordained to bear endless
witness to the miracle as well as mystery of the manifold cosmos. The
144 The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence

cinematic staging or rendering of the reality of the cosmos can be carried

out in untold ways, however, so it would be more suitable to speak of
filmic “realisms” than of a single, definitive realist mode.
I think it fair to say, however, that in no medium has realism’s view of
the world been so cheapened as in film. In film you can excuse anything,
explain anything, fake anything—you can get away with anything, no
matter how extreme, repulsive, or degrading—simply by calling it
realistic. A case in point is Die Hard II, a movie popular with many
different audiences, or so I heard at the time of its release in 1990. It takes
place within about five hours in and around an airport. The hero, played
by Bruce Willis, goes through a whole series of beatings and fights: he is
shot at, he jumps from great heights, he experiences things that would
hospitalize the young Arnold Schwarzenegger within five minutes. Still,
our hero persists, and all of the fantasy—it’s the sheerest fantasy—is
passed off as realism, simply because the setting seems to be a real airport
and the actors are real human beings. Bolts and nuts, bodies and heads,
are discernible. Yet the whole affair is more fantastic than The Arabian
Nights; indeed, it’s hard to take any film seriously when virtually all of its
characters are involved in the violence, when all but the hero are shot and
killed. Die Hard II is just low-level comic book material, then. But—and
this is my point—comic books at least don’t pretend to be real.
The realism of contemporary film is thus not only at odds with, it
actually subverts the original purpose of the great realists, which was to
present the facts of our experience, like the facts of science (whence the
aesthetic of realism is derived), so that we could also see beneath them.
We never feel, when we read a novel by Flaubert, that he shows us only
what we would have seen for ourselves if we had lived in France at the
time of his characters. But in the realistic films of our time we get mostly
commonplace data, not revealed truth, even when that data is dressed up—
as it is occasionally in Woody Allen’s work—with wit. The art critic
Harold Rosenberg once wrote that if you look closely at the new realism,
you see that it’s mostly décor. I like that remark, because it helps me to
recall what I like about films that are more than décor, that know how to
put their realism to use. And I don’t have to name a lot of titles here, since
what we are really talking about is the great motion pictures in the history
of narrative cinema.
My subject in this essay is the décor known as screen violence, or the
way in which superficially realistic films dress themselves up with violent
action of all kinds. Although it’s true that the cinema has long portrayed
violence without routinely resorting to the kind of obliqueness or
discretion deployed in the treatment of sex, in recent movies the violence
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 145

has become extreme in a way that suggests a significant change. I want to

investigate this change by considering Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the
Christ (2004) from the point of view of its violence—the relentless
violence to which this film subjects both Jesus and the viewer.
I have no interest in the question of whether The Passion is anti-
Semitic. Obviously not because I am anti-Semitic, but because the
Gospels themselves are; they are unanimous, in fact, in their attempt to
thrust the moral responsibility for Jesus’ death upon the Jews. (All four
Gospels, from which The Passion draws in the manner of most Jesus
films, depict the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as finding Jesus not guilty
and the Jews as calling for Christ’s crucifixion.) Gibson perhaps gets
some added relish out of his treatment of the Jewish high priest
Caiaphas—who speaks with a gravelly sneer and moves cunningly
beneath a shawl streaked with threads the golden color of money—
together with the Jewish mob, but no unsanitized version of the story can
omit their actions.
And “story” it is, for the Gospels are not clear and reliable historical
documents: for one thing, they were written in the last third of the first
century, at least forty years after Jesus expired on the cross. So the answer
to the question, “Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic?” is yes (though
I must quickly qualify this assertion by pointing out that Jesus himself was
a Jew, as were Mary and the apostles, and the conflict in the movie is not
between Jews and Jew-hating Gentiles, but between establishment
Judaism and a radical Jew in a predominantly Jewish world). However, if
the question becomes, “Does the film intend to stir up hostile feelings
toward Jews that under certain conditions might lead to physical
violence?” the answer is no.
That is, Gibson’s movie doesn’t aim to be anti-Semitic. Indeed, with
the exception of Pilate (who receives unusually sympathetic treatment as a
vacillating, conflicted, world-weary man averse to unnecessary roughness),
the Romans do not fare much better than the Jews in this Passion. If
anything, they are more violent, and some of them derive sadistic pleasure
from torturing Jesus, a trait that the picture does not attribute to the Jews.
Nonetheless, the focus of The Passion is Christ’s suffering—between the
night of the Last Supper and his death—not his murderers’ brutality, even
if, in the process of depicting that suffering, the film unfortunately adds to
the visual library of images in which the Jews are portrayed as conniving,
bloodthirsty, hate-filled Christ-killers. The Passion of the Christ may be
morally careless, then, but it is not morally culpable. (As is the 1917
German silent film Der Galiläer, which accentuates those elements of the
Gospels that lend themselves most easily to anti-Semitic representations of
146 The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence

Caiaphas and the Jewish crowds, who in this instance take Jesus’ blood
upon themselves and their children not once—as in Matthew 27:25—but
Artistically, Gibson’s directing of the film is predictably workmanlike
when it is not being self-consciously arty (I’m thinking particularly of the
high-angle, eye- or mind-of-God shots), while the cinematography by
Caleb Deschanel is foreseeably fine and the music by John Debney is a
surefire combination of the banal and the bathetic. Jim Caviezel, who
plays Jesus, does not act, strictly speaking; he rolls his eyes heavenward as
much as possible and speaks little, as befits a man stupefied by suffering,
but with the effect that this Christ appears more the victim than the
Messiah. (The filmmakers thus seem to take literally the word “passion,”
which is derived from the Late Latin word for suffering or “being acted
upon.”) In this, Caviezel and his collaborators do not diverge from the
pack of other pictures that treat the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life,
including The King of Kings (1927), Golgotha (1935), King of Kings
(1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Jesus of Nazareth (1977),
Jesus (1979), and The Gospel of John (2003).
Where The Passion of the Christ does diverge is in its use of language.
For the dialogue, which is subtitled, is in Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic
(Aram was the ancient name for Syria). Scholars have criticized the
accuracy of using Aramaic and Latin in this context, for Pilate and his
Roman soldiers would most likely have spoken Koine Greek—the dialect
of Greek that became the common language of the Hellenistic world—and
not “street Latin,” as the movie’s publicity materials assert. Yet, at the
least, it is a relief to be spared the sound of Biblical characters expressing
themselves in the diction of our own everyday lives. (Remember how
risible the urban American accents of Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel
sounded in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ [1988]?)
What is not a relief is that The Passion had (and has continued to have
since it was released in DVD-format) the biggest success ever achieved by
a subtitled movie in the United States—which tells me more about
Americans’ (lack of) appetite for genuinely foreign or international film
than I want to know.
The only cinematic achievement of The Passion of the Christ is that it
breaks new ground in the verisimilitude of filmed violence. Its initial
emphasis is on Jesus’ psychological and emotional suffering, as he
struggles to come to terms with the fate that God has in store. With his
arrest, however, the suffering becomes physical: we see and hear every
lash and blow that the Jews and the Romans inflict upon Jesus. Jesus falls,
Jesus rises, he falls, he rises; he bends beneath the blows, but never wavers
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 147

mentally; his flesh is ripped, his head is stabbed, his right eye is beaten
shut. And blood is everywhere—much more so than in any previous film
or in the majority of paintings on the subject. It drips, it runs, it spatters, it
jumps. By the time he is nailed onto the cross, Christ is covered with
blood from head to toe, and the drops that spring from his wounds are
filmed in excruciating slow motion.
The flagellation-cum-crucifixion concludes in a shower of blood, which
issues from the corpse of Jesus when it is pierced by a Roman soldier’s
spear. (Even the Resurrection, at the end of The Passion, is tinged with a
reminder of violence: as Jesus rises to leave the tomb, the hole in one of
his hands passes right before our eyes.) Now the details of this violence
far exceed the literary depictions in the Gospels, despite what Mel Gibson
says about The Passion’s faithfulness to its source materials. Matthew
says only that Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged before he was taken
away to be crucified, and that the soldiers crowned him with thorns, spat
upon him, then “smote him on the head.” That is all. Mark says almost
the same thing. Luke does not even say that much. And John makes no
mention whatsoever of the scourging.
The torture that this film’s Jesus undergoes on his way to Golgotha,
along the Via Dolorosa, was therefore supplied by Gibson (along with his
co-scenarist, Benedict Fitzgerald); it is the expression of his own mind or
imagination about what mattered most in the action or agon. Clearly, he
wanted to exalt the agony that was suffered by Christ for the sake of
mankind, to make his viewers aware—or more aware—of the sacrifice
that was made for their sins. The Passion thus makes no quarrel with the
pain that it excitedly inflicts, unlike so many movies where torture is
depicted in a spirit of protest. And its only rationale can be the quotation
with which the picture opens—Isaiah 53:3-5—which evokes the old
Christian belief that Isaiah prophesied the coming, the suffering, and the
death of Jesus; that Christ’s crucifixion was foreordained by scripture as
the dramatic climax to the battle between God and Satan (who is unsubtly
on display in this film in the guise of a hideous young woman garbed in
Yet the extent of The Passion’s intoxication with body and blood, with
gore and gristle and grisliness, may have an unintended effect, for it raises
a question in the minds of us mere earthlings. To wit: even if we accord to
Jesus every quality that Christianity cherishes, it is still difficult to believe
that he could have survived Gibson’s savage treatment (together with the
struggle to carry the cross) long enough to reach Calvary. Jesus’ physical
life was vulnerable, as the Crucifixion proves, but—with all due reverence
and no mockery intended—The Passion of the Christ makes us wonder
148 The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence

how that life could have lasted long enough to make the Crucifixion
possible. Unless, that is, one considers Jesus’ durability wondrous—in
short, a miracle.
Let’s give Gibson the benefit of the doubt and say that this is how he
wanted Christ’s agony to be perceived, as opposed to just another instance
(as in the four parts of Lethal Weapon [1987-1998], where the star himself
appears) of ridiculously exaggerated movie violence made to seem
plausible by the realistic setting in which it’s placed and the lifelike make-
up with which it is adorned. But even viewed miraculously, Jesus’ ability
to endure torture in The Passion works against any spiritual exaltation that
the film wishes to inspire. For, to repeat something I said earlier in this
book, the spirit resides within—in internal conviction—not in external
trickery or “special effects.” And that spirit can be found in Pier Paolo
Pasolini’s austere, neorealistically-influenced Gospel According to St.
Matthew (1964), as well as in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest
(1951) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
What do these three films have in common? Their realism, not their
spectacle. They accord with much sophisticated film criticism that
anchors itself in the proposition that film art should first and foremost
employ the visible world, that the camera ought to, and indeed finds it
difficult not to, proceed among objects and occurrences that might be open
to the ordinary eye. The cinema is truth twenty-four frames per second,
the French director Jean-Luc Godard once famously remarked on this
subject, and in doing so (perhaps despite his intention) he seems to have
pushed the movies farther away than ever from imagination. Yet to utilize
the ordinary physical world (instead of, for example, constructing it in
studios or editing it through montage and other manipulative, even
distortive devices) is, if not in Godard’s meaning then certainly in that of
Bazin, neither to have to pretend to a documentary style nor to subscribe to
a cult of action in the most literal or “active” sense. It is simply to be
humble in the face of what already exists—including, especially in the
case of Dreyer’s picture, the revelatory human face—before whatever is
waiting to be discovered, and to trace relationships among eye-opening
realities that could not have been articulated without the intervention of a
special, if not divine, cinematic intelligence.
Such intelligence, and spirit, are not visible in Gibson’s over-financed,
over-produced, and over-publicized, yet in the end aesthetically bankrupt
Passion, which, stripped of Jesus’ incandescence, is little more than a
hyperbolic or inflated record of one of thousands of such barbarities
committed by the Romans in Judea. The question becomes, then, why this
film now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century? The superficial
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 149

answer is that the means of portraying violence realistically have been

undergoing quantum leaps for the last thirty years or so, and it is the
violence of the Christ, not the Passion, that attracts attention in as secular
or even irreligious an age as our own. Marvelously convincing fights,
shootings, and beatings are now possible; there is no longer any need for
clumsily staged fisticuffs or blood that looks like ketchup, and there is
great latitude for invention that offers almost the very smell and taste and
feel of violent action.
At one time such violence in films (human violence, that is; natural
disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves, and hurricanes were early and
enduring movie staples and are not problematic) was almost wholly a
matter of genre: the western, the gangster film, the war movie, the
adventure epic, the historical spectacular. And these genres had their
conventions, the most significant one, common to them all, being that of a
removal from ordinary life, a distancing from everyday plausibility and
connection with the viewer’s own existence. But now violence takes place
more and more at the very center of a life which purports to be the
reflection of the ones we lead or that are led right around us, at an
increasing remove from myth or legend or history, and it is perpetrated not
so much by special figures—Indians, sheriffs, gunfighters, public enemies,
commandos, demented killers—as by the people next door, by
representatives from the audience itself. (The Passion of the Christ is
naturally the exception that proves the current rule: a picture that
simultaneously hearkens back to the old violence and heralds or incarnates
the new.) It is in fact the de-exoticizing, the demystification, what we
might call the “unfictionalization” of violence and that violence’s
conversion into a species of “natural” activity performed by “real”
persons, which has become a hallmark of its latter-day epiphanies in the
so-called mass art of the movies.
Thus, in concordance with the law of technology that what can be done,
will be done, screen violence has additionally become more prominent as
it has become more believable, because we are able to make it so. And no
one knows this better than the action-figure Mel Gibson. But Gibson is
also a devout fundamentalist Catholic who has made many, many millions
of dollars through movies (like Mad Max [1979], The Road Warrior
[1981], Ransom [1996], and Payback [1999]) whose violence contradicts
the vision of the Prince of Peace. His best serious acting to date happened
to occur in Hamlet (1990), adapted from a very Catholic play about
another kind of peaceful prince who finds himself caught up in a revenge
tragedy. And it was filmed by the very Catholic director Franco Zeffirelli,
who himself made the aforementioned Jesus of Nazareth and may have
150 The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence

given Gibson the idea to make his own Jesus picture. Therefore maybe,
just maybe, The Passion of the Christ is a misguided act of contrition on
Gibson’s part, his Hamletic way of trying to confer value on violence or to
exonerate himself for all the mindless mayhem in which he has engaged
for so long on so many movie screens throughout the world. (The $25
million of his own that Gibson is said to have put into the film may thus be
construed as conscience-money.)
This said, it is at the same time possible to see The Passion as part of
an historical-artistic continuum. The film is a contemporary instance of a
tradition of interpretation that came into its own in the late medieval
period, when the Passion became the chief concern of the Christian soul.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as a consequence of persecution
and war and pestilence, the image of Christ hovering over the world in
gilded majesty was replaced by the image of Jesus nailed in this world to
the cross. The message was clear: if he could bear such public torment for
all of humanity, the least we can do in return is stoically to suffer our
private pains in his glorious and everlasting memory.
Passion plays, like the York Crucifixion, soon began to be devised for
Holy Week. (Indeed, the earliest known Jesus movie was a film version of
the German Passion Play at Oberammergau, made in New York in 1898,
and there have been at least two subsequent films about the staging of
Passion plays—each of them a play-within-a-film, as it were—He Who
Must Die [1957] and Jesus of Montreal [1989].) The lacerated Jesus thus
became a commonplace of religious art, in which the Man of Sorrows
plaintively displayed his wounds, which were duly venerated. This Jesus
came to be depicted with brutal realism, climaxing in the grisly
masterpieces of the German painter Matthias Grünewald.
Yet what we need to keep in mind about the brutal realism of
Grünewald, and even more so about movie violence of the kind found in
The Passion of the Christ, is that its literalness is a false facticity, that it is
only deceptively “real”—like sex in all but pornographic films (until
Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny [2003], that is), where it becomes a
form of violence unto itself. Blood on screen is still contrived out of some
chemical mixture or other; slashes, gashes, holes, and bruises are still
created by colored pencils, paint brushes, or cosmetic sculpture; and boots,
sticks, and clubs, because of the prestidigitatory powers of camera angles
as well as film editing, don’t actually connect with all those helpless limbs
and skulls. Moreover, nobody really dies. A commonplace observation
on my part, a piece of naïveté perhaps, but this fact—the deceptive reality
of all the death and injury, the graphic gore and guts, we see depicted on
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 151

the screen—has been peculiarly neglected in so many of the numerous

commentaries about violence on the screen.
I’m thinking particularly of the ridiculous comment by one American
critic that The Passion is a “sacred snuff film,” akin to exploitation movies
in which unwitting participants are actually harmed or even murdered. It
is no such thing, nor is Mel Gibson merely a violent-minded exploiter who
“hates life,” in the words of this same critic. Nor, for that matter, is a
desire to watch screen violence the property of spectators simply thirsting
for bloody spectacle, as, we are told, were the Romans in the Coliseum
(both on display in a film from not so long ago called Gladiator [2000]).
Truth be told, the “new and improved” violence to be found in The
Passion and other recent releases isn’t a matter of morality, or rather its
moral implications are inseparable from its psychic ones (as I described
earlier in reference to Gibson’s violent acting career), if these in turn are
not entirely separable from technical or stylistic considerations.
I’d like to propose that the new violence on exhibition in The Passion
satisfies a need that is far from being as clinically pathological as has been
made out. I came to this proposition simply by posing the following
question: why, in an age when the Internet and television, via cable,
satellite dish, or digital transfer, have brought factual death and pain on a
mighty scale into our everyday purview, should anybody want to see them
artificially produced on the wide screen? “Artificially” is the operative
term here, because in the current debate over film violence not only is its
“false facticity” often ignored, but the movies themselves are almost
always regarded as a direct expression of sentiments, impulses, ideas, and
psychic states that exist outside them—indeed, are considered to be of the
same order of reality as life apart from the screen. (So much so that, in the
case of the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center in
September of 2001, something like the equivalent-in-reverse occurred:
videotaped images on television of the Twin Towers actually collapsing
were initially thought by many viewers to be preview shots from the latest
Hollywood disaster movie.) One questionable formula arising from this
debate is that if violence in life is bad, then violence on the screen,
regarded as a sort of immense mirror, is self-evidently bad, too.
Violence by artifice—in a “story” or in an invented scene (but not in a
documentary photograph)—actually has the power to seem more human
than the real thing, and this is because it is chosen, whereas the physical
world is what we are given. Another way of saying this is that violence in
nature, including human nature at its darkest, cannot speak for itself, while
in art, in the movies, it presumably has a voice, and it is saying something
when it is selected as a course of action (drama in general being nothing so
152 The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence

much as the enactment of choices). Finally, violence on screen is

personal, in the sense that it is perpetrated by and happens to people
(characters) we have been permitted to know, and also in the sense that
this violence is the work—as cinematic artifact—of persons who in the
very act of skillfully devising it indicate that they, as the audience’s
representatives, are in control. Technology on this scale means control,
and it is vicarious control over existence that is desired by all those
essentially powerless spectators who hunger for the world to appear
brutally framed on screen.
So Mel Gibson’s late-medieval sensibility in concentrating so
graphically on the lacerated Jesus may be the reflection of a postmodern
world that, for all its high technology—and in some cases because of such
technology—has given us famine in Africa, the plague of AIDS
worldwide, the religious if not genocidal persecution of Jews, Muslims,
and Catholics alike, plus the constant threat of biological, chemical, and
nuclear warfare as perpetrated by nation-states or terrorists. In other
words, the violence in The Passion is homeopathic, even Artaudian—or
purgative in the way that the French avant-gardist Antonin Artaud
intended his Theater of Cruelty to be. The film’s physical suffering is
present with the intent, conscious or not, of turning it into a domestic,
quotidian reality and thus depriving it of its terror, or of the terror of life of
which violence is less a cause than an expression.
Such violence, confronted or faced, seems to stimulate recognitions of
the precariousness of mortality and to renew impulses toward life’s
extension, even transformation. In the presence of violence there is also a
sensation of belonging, of being part of a whole; from this point of view,
man-made disasters as well as natural ones—in life as on screen—bring
about communal feelings, and not simply in the interest of social survival
or self-preservation. And, apart from the fact that violence as an element
of narrative has a propulsive quality that is quite independent of its
content, we should not underestimate the seductive appeal that such
violence has when it is rendered effectively on film. That is, when it
achieves “technological success” to be admired for its expertise and
attentiveness to detail—even if directed, as in this case, at ordinarily
unacceptable or outcast behaviors like assassination and torture.
Lastly, violence witnessed affords a very odd sense of importance. The
people who rush to the site of a plane crash, a mass murder, or a building
collapse, and who rushed to see The Passion of the Christ on the day it
opened, are not merely morbidly inquisitive but spiritually needy as
well—needing to be filled with something other than the material
connections easily available to everyone in society at large. And needing
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 153

in the case of actual catastrophe, to be “recognized” as well, to have their

own little existence confirmed—enlarged, as it were—by seeing it later
reproduced in a television news image, a newspaper photograph, or a
documentary film frame.
For this reason and others, it seems to me that the violent realism of
Gibson’s film and its numerous counterparts these days (think only of Man
on Fire from 2004) isn’t centrally a matter of the primitive release of
sadistic (or sadomasochistic) impulses but of the cathartic relief of fear,
the release from feelings of impotence or emptiness and the gaining of a
measure of control, sad and illusory as that may be, over experience—
which is violent anyhow but whose savagery is practiced by others,
strangers in the shadows who must be made less strange by being exposed
to the light of the screen.
Another way of saying this is that, for most of the moviegoing
audience, the response to violence is not that of a participant—spectators
don’t identify with the perpetrators of violence, or imagine what it would
be like to kill all those people up there on the screen—but of an observer, a
witness, or an attendant instead. (The same filmgoers, by contrast, do feel
that they are privy to the private experience of a nude actor going through
the motions of sex, and they viscerally identify with one or another
fictional participant in the act of lovemaking. Thus, while it is difficult to
take seriously the exaggerated violence in most movies, audiences take
very seriously the sex scenes.) The new screen violence, then, is in its
own strange way a means of or at least a hope for, not empathy, but
therapy: of an existential or ontological kind, to be sure, not a psychiatric
And not a religious one, either. For what is centrally “wrong” about the
violence in movies like The Passion of the Christ is not that it turns us into
therapeutic vegetables or fascist pigs, not that it encourages immorality or
exacerbates social pathologies, but that it drives out other realities—
especially spiritual reality. Such violence is a substitute for perception and
insight; it stands as emblematic or representative of experience in its
entirety without, however, going behind the overt action to the
inarticulateness and despair and frustration of which violence is only the
symptom. This inability to think past violent manifestations has been
characteristic of American film directors since the late sixties and early
seventies—precisely when, as I suggested earlier, the means of depicting
violence realistically on screen began to undergo quantum leaps (and, not
coincidentally, also when actual violence began to enter our living rooms
via the first “television war,” shot on location in Vietnam).
154 The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence

I’m thinking of such movies from the period as Sam Peckinpah’s The
Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and
Clyde (1967), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), Francis Ford Coppola’s
The Godfather (1972), William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971),
and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)—this last film being a
salient instance of a work in which the brutal, physical action is carried out
with verve and cinematic point, but which degenerates into dragooned
satire and muddled politics when it turns to its ostensibly larger subject,
the cause behind the violent symptom. All of these movies were made by
men adept at idea-tailoring, either cutting serious material to measure or
embroidering lesser material with seriousness. (Appositely, most of them
came from television; one, Kubrick, began as a staff photographer for
glossy Look magazine; and another, Coppola, started out as a director of
short sex films.) All of these men have or had directorial skill—some of
them a great deal of it; visually acute, they helped to make fine
cinematography a commonplace in the American cinema.
But, however visually acute these American directors had become,
even visually they betrayed themselves by trying to give weight to flimsy
material with otherwise superb cinematography (such as Haskell Wexler’s
for a gimmicky race-relations thriller with its own share of lurid violence,
titled In the Heat of the Night [1967]). They used close-ups that were
meant to seem unconventionally truthful but that dared nothing and said
nothing (like a dead dog’s paw or a singing convict’s mouth in the anti-
authoritarian, chain-gang prison picture Cool Hand Luke [1967], starring
the late Paul Newman). And the directors of these films strained to
include entire sequences that were only inserted “arias” for the
cameraman, as was the Parker family reunion in Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.
Or, again as in the case of Bonnie and Clyde, these moviemakers struggled
to contrive an overall moral statement in the visual aesthetics of their own
Consider the last scene, and the ultimate scene of violence, in Penn’s
picture, when the hero and heroine drive into an ambush and are machine-
gunned to death. It is a long scene, showing the two characters riddled
with bullets, blood spurting out of dozens of punctures, their bodies
writhing in death-agony as they are cast up by the force of the repeated
bullet impacts. And yet, and yet . . . it is all so Beautiful, shot as it is in
italicizing, aestheticizing slow-motion, and featuring two Beautiful People,
the young stars Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, in the roles of Bonnie
and Clyde. There is a dance-like quality to the action and, besides that, a
sensual rhythm of intercourse between the two bodies in their coupled
rising and falling. Here are the grace, the sexual release, and the lyricism
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 155

that our heroes were really aiming for as they committed criminal mayhem
across the American Southwest.
This artfully choreographed, almost beatific scene does not exactly
match up, however, with contemporary photographs of the actual event
(which took place in 1934) or with the homely looks, let alone the
psychopathic natures, of the historic figures of Bonnie Parker and Clyde
Barrow. It is certainly so much a violation of the moral implications of the
film’s earlier scenes—in which innocent people are killed and their money
or property stolen—that it can only be called an instance of supreme, not
to say divine, decadence. And decadence, I might add, that by being
absorbed almost immediately into popular American culture through
memorializing or iconizing song and fashion, as well as material spin-off
of every other conceivable kind—Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first
movies to be “merchandized”—bore witness to Oscar Wilde’s witticism
that the United States is the only country in history to have passed from
barbarism to decadence without ever stopping for civilization in between.
Pictorially as well as intellectually, then, Bonnie and Clyde’s director,
Arthur Penn, like the other filmmakers cited from this period, showed
himself to be a clever utilizer: a directors who knows or knew enough
about art and ideas to feed the ravenous appetite of the then newly created
“baccalaureate bourgeoisie” (including the reflexively anti-bourgeois
young) for cultural status, yet still not permit art and ideas to get out of
hand—to have, that is, any of the results for which they were originally
devised. What these American directors lack is wholeness of sentient
being—the intellectual-cum-emotional wholeness that distinguishes a
range of foreign directors, from the best to the good, during the same time
frame, the late 1960s to the early 1970s: from Ingmar Bergman and
Michelangelo Antonioni, let us say, to Ermanno Olmi and Alain Jessua; or
alternatively, from Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray to Ousmane
Sembène and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.
Not by accident, the films made by the Americans in question, some of
which I’ve listed, are themselves characterized by a dearth of sentient
being. This is because they are all melodramas, as are almost all
American movies of violent aspect—including The Passion of the Christ
and Gibson’s other prominent directorial effort, 1995’s Braveheart (both
of which may have been directed by a native Australian, but one who has
been living in the United States for some time, like a few other prominent
Australians, and one whose work is in the main financed by the strength of
the American dollar). And melodrama, for our purposes, must be defined
not only as a form using monochromatic characters, usually involving
physical danger to the protagonist, and frequently accompanied by a
156 The Passion of the Christ and the New Cinema of Violence

musical score. It must also be defined as drama whose physical action or

external (never internal) conflict of good versus evil—though always
resolved on the side of justice—goes unquestioned and unlocated within a
larger sense of experience. That is to say, within a total human landscape
that can be made to yield up secrets beyond itself: in sum, within a
complex moral spectrum.
Now we know well enough from the history of the theater, where
melodrama originated, that physical action of this sort is the fastest path to
both esteem and popularity, that, in one degree or another, action has to be
violent in order to be dramatic. Yet in almost every case the violent action
in serious playwrights—from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Ibsen, in Genêt,
Pinter, Williams, and Bond (even before, as in the case of the
aforementioned York Crucifixion from the Middle Ages)—is in great part
strategic, the means of exemplification of some deeper aim. Moreover,
violence in such dramatic art (but not in melodrama) is a strategy for
ensuring that the attention of audiences will be solicited but it isn’t in itself
the final object of such attention. The putting out of Gloucester’s eyes in
King Lear, for instance—or of Oedipus’s, for that matter, in the greatest of
ancient Greek tragedies—is there to incorporate the theme of blindness to
the effects of one’s actions, not to stand alone as horrifying spectacle.
One result of centuries of violence in the theater, however, has been to
multiply the possibilities of frisson rather than insight, cliché instead of
revelation, categorization in place of catalysis. A singular tendency of the
serious theater in our time has therefore been to move away from violence,
away from physical action in fact and toward stasis—perhaps in part as a
reaction to the theater’s own inability to equal the lifelikeness of screen
violence. (As for popular theater, which cannot compete with the verism
of film violence, it now consists mostly of comedies and musicals and of
drama that is devoid of bloodshed or murder.) Among the serious,
Chekhov’s and Beckett’s plays are of course major examples from the
twentieth century; and from the late nineteenth century, we can cite the
drama of the French symbolists. What is substituted in them is action of a
different kind: verbal, psychic, and metaphysical, even metatheatrical. But
being a mass art, it is argued, the movies cannot afford such quiet, indirect,
subtle kinds of activity, and this argument is one basis for the unsubtlety
of the action so many films offer us these days: the wider culture presses
them toward it, their makers tell us.
Such melodramatic action is manifestly present primarily for emotional
sensation, not intellectual stimulation, and justice in this monochromatic
cine-dramatic form is always emotionally satisfying, because it is always
seen to be done, either on earth or (as in The Passion) in the hereafter. In
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 157

this sense, melodrama and Christianity go hand in hand; indeed, they are
the proverbial match made in heaven. Yet nothing more impedes the
development of mature film art than the fact that so many melodramas,
Christian or otherwise, should be praised as imaginative achievements.
On the contrary, melodrama offers everything for the eye, nothing for the
imagination, the mind’s eye.
Nothing is gained, however, by calling melodrama, or melodramatic
violence, morally corruptive. What is desired, alas, will be purchased; and
prohibition or censorship of something like melodrama is obviously out of
the question, for such a practice gives comfort not only to the enemies of
art in general, but also to the black-market purveyors of illicit
entertainment in every imaginable form. Further, as human existence
grows ever more diminished, violent movies—especially those like The
Passion, which purport to offer more than violence—are one of the means
to which people will turn for a feeling of actuality, or presence, that is
missing from so many of their lives. (The irony here of course is that art,
or entertainment that borrows from art, was once thought to afford as one
of its actions a pleasure in being taken out of the self, which was at the
same time a presumption that there existed a self from which to be taken.)
This is sadder than it is frightening: that movies, which aren’t “real,”
can provide a sense and even a confirmation of existence only by being
“unreal” in the manner proper to them. That they are being asked to fill a
palpable void, and are responding—have been responding now for well
over forty years—means that the void is being filled by the darkest of
shadows as well as so many blinding bright lights. The most melancholy,
even pathetic, aspect of the entire matter is to imagine that we have
attained some mastery over death and the brutal powers of the world by
having seen death and brutality artificially produced in a picture like The
Passion of the Christ, which so clamors at us for genuflection at its
cinematic wizardry (available, for a price, to any movie star who has the
hubris, or hutzpah, to direct his own movies).
But such cinematic artifice, for all its technical wizardry, is not the
same thing as transcendent style or immanent divinity—on film as in the
firmament. I mean the kind of style that refers to something, some reality,
besides itself, and which is more easily achieved, paradoxically, within the
confines or restrictiveness of the theater. What we are left with, in the
end, is a realism-of-violence on screen that has little to do with human
reality, with human consciousness, and everything to do with mindless
stupefaction—not so ironically, a condition comparable to that drug-
induced state from the late sixties which itself used to elicit (from the
young) the exclamatory expression, “Unreal!”


Lodge Kerrigan is a young writer-director who has drawn comparisons

with the Dardenne brothers of Belgium for his shooting style and his
treatment of characters on the margins of society. But his latest film,
Keane (2004), suggests that he has more in common with the Frenchman
Robert Bresson—not stylistically, but spiritually. It is sometimes
forgotten that Bresson himself treated his share of marginalized characters,
in such films as Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard, Balthazar (1966), and
Mouchette (1967). Yet no one would ever have called him a naturalist like
the Dardennes, whose pictures, even though they sometimes have an
implicit Christian component (especially Rosetta [1999] and The Son
[2002]), are closer in subject to the social-problem-play tradition of the
European naturalistic theater. Bresson, by contrast, was a transcendental
stylist concerned to unite the spiritualism of religious cinema with
realism’s redemption of the physical world in its organic wholeness if not
separateness, its inviolable mystery, and its eternal primacy or self-
Mystery, or ambiguity, is what Kerrigan’s films share with those of
Bresson, and I’d like to discuss Keane here before reconsidering what I
believe to be Bresson’s most underrated film: A Gentle Creature (1969).
Keane was preceded in Kerrigan’s slim oeuvre by Clean, Shaven (1994)
and Claire Dolan (1998), the one a harrowing, up-close look at a
schizophrenic who goes in search of the daughter that his wife put up for
adoption against his will, the other a startlingly removed portrait of a
prostitute who is neither a happy hooker with a heart of gold nor a
degraded victim of masculine abuse. Each of these pictures is filled with
its share of dramatic ambiguity, but ambiguity is the very essence of
160 Conclusion

Keane, which may be the reason for this film’s extraordinarily vivid,
stripped-down, intense quality.
In it a thirtyish, once married, unemployed housepainter named
William Keane is searching for his six-year-old daughter, Sophie, who,
during a joint-custody weekend with her father, was abducted from right
under his nose in the New York Port Authority bus terminal six months
before the film begins. When we first see him, he is burrowing around the
terminal with a crumpled newspaper clipping about the abduction,
complete with Sophie’s photo, politely asking everyone he meets,
including ticket agents and baggage handlers, if he or she has seen this
child. Immediately we can’t help being seized, in part because John
Foster’s handheld camera plunges us, in close-up, right into the center of
the action as if we had suddenly been cast into a whirlpool (where the
camera stays throughout the picture). Very soon, however, we are
differently seized, as the guilt- and grief-ridden Keane, who lives off
federal disability checks, repeatedly returns to the scene of Sophie’s
abduction, spending his days revisiting the crime in search of clues to his
daughter’s whereabouts, even obsessively retracing his steps around the
candy counter where she was last seen in the hope that this would tell him
something. A man so consecrated to such a search, months after the event,
has clearly passed the rational, as Keane’s appearance and demeanor
suggest: eyes bloodshot (as much from lack of sleep as crying), knuckles
scraped raw, rocking foot to foot, he alternately mutters angrily to himself
and shouts paranoically at the air, seemingly a captive of demons that only
he can hear, when he is not restraining his anxiety and desperation to ask
random commuters or bus-station employees if they recognize the picture
of his little girl.
The question quickly becomes, then, not whether Keane will find
Sophie, but whether the trauma of his daughter’s sudden disappearance
metastasized into Keane’s madness, or whether Sophie is the product of
madness itself, the figment of this man’s tortured, and possibly
schizophrenic, imagination. (Indeed, fairly soon in the film we suspect
that Keane may never have had a daughter—for one thing, we never
actually see the clipping of her photograph—or that, if he did have a little
girl, his estranged ex-wife received total custody of the child on account of
his mental condition, and he has reimagined the event as a self-exculpatory
kidnapping.) Kerrigan leaves this question unanswered—just as he does
the one of whether Keane has been searching for Sophie in this way for the
entire six months she has been missing—as a lesser filmmaker would not
have done, in the process of reducing the movie down to a convoluted
jigsaw puzzle for the audience to assemble.
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 161

Keane is thus less interested in who William was—for the most part
his past or “backstory” remains a mystery—than in what he has become.
And that is a man who, knowingly or not, may merely have imagined this
cross on which to crucify himself, or invented this hell in which to
submerge his soul. (My metaphor is not randomly chosen, for, even as we
tend to demonize the mentally ill today, centuries ago their minds were
thought to have been touched or “unreasoned” by God himself.) Keane
may even be a man who, seeing the post-9/11 world and himself as they
are (tellingly, Sophie was allegedly abducted on September 12th), has, in a
Dostoyevskyan surge, fated himself to suffer.
That suffering is relieved somewhat by the nights he spends drinking
whisky, snorting cocaine, and having anonymous sex with women in the
stalls of dirty nightclub bathrooms. It is also alleviated by the relationship
Keane strikes up with a beleaguered mother named Lynn Bedik and her
seven-year-old daughter, Kira, who live down the hall from him at a seedy
welfare hotel in North Bergen, New Jersey. The mother is not the issue
here—again, as she would be in a conventional picture, where Lynn and
William would pursue a sentimental romance that eventually saved his
soul. The child, as surrogate, is the real focus, which at first seems a bit
too neat until, as the film progresses, that neatness is folder under, like any
neat answers to our questions concerning the origin of Keane’s madness
and the abduction or even existence of his biological daughter.
Keane meets Lynn and Kira when they are about to be evicted from the
transient hotel in Jersey for non-payment of rent. He gives them the $100
they need, they become friends, and then, growing to trust Keane, Lynn
(who works as a waitress) not only lets him pick Kira up after school, she
also entrusts him with the care of her daughter while she goes off to
Albany for a day or two to try to reconnect with the husband who
abandoned her. Thus, after Kerrigan has spent the first half of Keane’s
ninety minutes slowly establishing the particulars of his protagonist’s daily
routines (which include washing up in public restrooms and attempting to
buy new clothing in preparation for his hoped-for reunion with Sophie)
without regard for conventional plotting or story-structure, he suddenly
gives the second half of his film forward momentum with the introduction
of the child. For it is with Kira, sans her mother, that Keane spends most
of the latter portion of this picture, in which he is so keen to find his
natural daughter at the same time he is keening over her loss.
And, just as we can never be sure whether that loss is real or imagined,
we cannot be sure that Keane’s interest in caring for Kira is innocent and
fatherly—as opposed to demented and predatory. (His case is not helped
by the fact that, when Kira is in his care, he remains in the bathroom while
162 Conclusion

she is showering; then again, it is Kira who sometimes seems like Keane’s
surrogate mother, as when he collapses at a bowling alley and she assumes
the mature responsibility of getting him home.) Hence we see that, far
from settling matters, this other child only feeds the ambiguous essence of
Namely, does William intend to harm Kira, which harm could include
his abduction of her even as (he says) Sophie was abducted? Or will he
remain benign and paternal toward Kira until her mother returns? Is
Keane, in fact, more in danger of harming himself than anyone else
(including the man he picks out at random at the bus terminal, as the
ostensible kidnapper of Sophie, and beats up)? At the end of the film, with
regard to Keane’s intentions toward the unsuspecting little girl he has
taken under his wing, the two possibilities still face him. The choice is left
open—to become a vulture or to remain a dove—which makes Keane’s
conclusion as morally ambiguous as it is strangely cathartic.
Keane himself does not see his potential abduction of Kira as harmful
to the girl. But even he finds it weird that Lynn would entrust her daughter
to a stranger like him—which is precisely what makes him wonder if Kira
might be better off with him, away from such an irresponsible mother.
When Lynn returns to New Jersey and announces her intent to rejoin her
husband in Albany, in effect leaving Keane behind without Kira, he makes
his move and goes with the girl to his home-away-from-home, the Port
Authority bus terminal, where we leave the two of them. Obviously,
Keane sees what he is doing as a chance to redeem himself: to prove not
only that he is competent to care for a little girl (like the real, or imaginary,
Sophie), but also that he is capable of creating a bond, however tenuous,
with another human being—a bond whose very forging is the only way he
can momentarily quell his tumultuous inner life. Just as obviously, if he
leaves New York with Kira, the law would regard him as a criminal.
At the end of Keane, as I have said, the choice is left open. At the Port
Authority, Keane re-creates the circumstances of his daughter’s own
abduction and gives Kira money to buy candy, just as Sophie was
allegedly doing when she was abducted. Then the film abruptly ends. Is
this just another replaying in reality, instead of Keane’s own mind, of the
traumatic disappearance of his daughter, or is this the prelude to his own
abduction of Kira? We cannot say and we do not know whether Keane
will go on to play the role of devil or angel, savior or stealer. We can only
make a Pascalian wager on the possibility of his redemption—through
God’s grace or his own good deed.
This double ambiguity—the two possibilities at the end, the mystery
over the existence-disappearance of Sophie and over the source of Keane’s
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 163

madness itself—fits the style of Kerrigan’s film. For Keane enters a realm
where all the details—the streets, the lights, the rooms, the furniture—
could not be more veristic, yet the titular character moves through this
world like someone who does not quite belong there. Foster’s jittery,
handheld camera, with its endless and therefore suffocating close-ups, its
long takes (sometimes four minutes in duration) unrelieved by editing,
even its very positioning (either focused on Keane’s face or looking at the
world from over his shoulder), itself subtly supports this doubleness. That
is, the camera appears to record the world objectively at the same time as
it subjectively views the world from Keane’s point of view—particularly
since he is in every scene and almost every shot, since sometimes we hear
him talking to himself in voice-over, and since the editing (by Andrew
Hafitz) is limited to jarring jump cuts, which suggest that Keane himself
may not remember what happened in the previous scene or that he cannot
explain how he got from one day or time, one scene or location, to
These locations themselves, as you might guess, are among the least
photogenic in New York City: the chief one, of course, being the Port
Authority bus terminal, one of the bleakest centers of big-city alienation
imaginable, a transient place itself filled not only with restless travelers but
also with hapless transients, the hopeless homeless, the poor and the
downtrodden. But in Keane we also get our share of sleazy bars, round-
the-clock fast-food joints, urban slums, and even the inside of tunnels (as
an objective correlative for Keane’s own tunnel vision)—the Lincoln
Tunnel, for one, through which Keane walks to get to North Bergen on the
other side of the Hudson River. No beautiful New York vistas or
breathtaking Manhattan panoramas in this film, then, only the kind of hot,
claustrophobic closeness we paradoxically associate with large urban
landscapes. (Compare, by contrast, Claire Dolan’s vision of New York as
a cold, sterile, politely oppressive grid of geometrically arranged concrete,
metal, and glass.) And each of these places is shot, as much as possible,
with available light in all of its unfiltered harshness, which gives Keane’s
color a grimy, washed-out quality entirely appropriate to its grim subject
As unromanticized and unsentimental as that subject matter is, in
comparison with other recent films about mental illness like A Beautiful
Mind (2001), as well as other films about adults who redeem their shabby
lives by taking care of other people’s children (Central Station [1998],
Kolya [1996]), it should come as no surprise that Keane has no palliative
musical score. We hear music only when the characters in a scene play it,
and it is not designed to placate or purge us, as when Keane crazily,
164 Conclusion

jarringly sings along with the old Four Tops hit “I Can’t Help Myself” as
it blares from a jukebox. With no music to cue our feelings and no
connect-the-dot editing to guide our minds, Keane thus aims, in scenes
played out up close, in a simulacrum of real time, to give us an
experiential, sensorial experience rather than a coolly cognitive or
vicariously emotional one.
To do that, of course, to put us in Keane’s position and make us want
to stay there and, as it were, suffer along with him, Kerrigan had to find
the right actor. By this I mean someone who not only would forego the
usual actorish ticks and quirks of mental illness (see The Snake Pit [1948]
for a catalogue) in favor of a nuanced portrayal of a man with a rich albeit
troubled inner life, but who would also be able to “fill up” unusually long
takes during which the focus would be squarely on him. Kerrigan found
his man in Damian Lewis, who is English but whose American accent is
flawless, and who, like all good “character actors,” works a lot but is so
good he never stands out in the worst, ostentatious sense of that verb. (On
television, he was Major Winters in the HBO war series Band of Brothers
and played Soames Forsyte in PBS’s The Forsyte Saga; on film, you can
find him both in the Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher [2003] and in
the Robert Redford-Jennifer Lopez vehicle An Unfinished Life [2005].)
Here Lewis’s pale blue eyes that suggest depths we can never plumb; his
sculpted face that is less hardened than pliant and even plangent; his
inflections of speech that suggest Keane’s complexity without ever
“indicating” or “telegraphing” it in the acting-class sense of the term; his
behavior that is the product of lean force rather than of excess accidie or
anomie, yet that adds up in the end to a performance which itself is
astonishingly elastic at the same time as it is rigorously disciplined—all of
these are exactly the qualities that Kerrigan needed for this compelling
madman whose diary we must ever keep along with him, if not in his
As executed, then, Keane is almost a one-man show with its central
character whose conflict or dilemma is an internal, not an external, one.
But the film is not a clinical case study, a socio-psychological “problem
picture” or pseudo-documentary about the mentally unbalanced who are
out there on the streets, among us. And that is why the Keane-Kira
relationship is as important to the total picture as John Foster’s empathetic,
as opposed to objective or detached, shooting style—not for the usual
sentimental reasons but for the increasingly unusual (in the American film
[as well as film-critical] world, in any event) humanistic ones. (The doe-
eyed Abigail Breslin plays Kira, by the way, with just the right balance
between reticence and closeness). For, as much as it is a portrait of a
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 165

psychologically traumatized individual, Keane is also an existential

exploration of contemporary urban malaise and the overwhelming human
need for fellow feeling in the face of the appalling impersonality,
indifference, isolation, and dis-ease of metropolitan life.
Moreover, if Keane is not such an existential exploration in addition to
being a psychological portrait, then it is nothing. And if Keane himself is
not Everyman, he is no one. I happen to believe that he is someone,
everyone, and that the film is something. I believe, too, that any sentient
person (especially one with a child) who sees this film must walk away
from it invoking the otherwise tired maxim, “There but for the grace of
God go I.” And that is precisely because Kerrigan doesn’t explain
Keane’s psychosis or answer the other pressing questions about him and
his search—questions which, in a conventional movie, would be answered.
He thus invokes mystery, something we cannot comprehend and that the
characters themselves cannot comprehend, and which therefore joins us
with them in oneness. Or let us call what Kerrigan invokes simple
otherness, what is beyond our ken—and his—as human beings. (Along
these lines, I don’t think it’s any accident that the director had titled an
earlier film of his, itself about child abduction, In God’s Hands. About the
disintegration of a middle-class family in the wake of its child’s
disappearance, In God’s Hands was made after Claire Dolan and before
Keane, but its negative was irreversibly damaged during processing and
the picture therefore never made it to distribution.)
All may not be grace for William Keane at the end, then, as it was for
the curé of Ambricourt at the conclusion of Bresson’s Diary of a Country
Priest (1951, from the 1936 novel by Georges Bernanos), who utters these
words of spiritual certitude (“All is grace”) as he is dying. But all is not
nothingness, either. In fact, Keane finally finds himself in a position
similar to that of another character of Bernanos’s, the Abbé Donisson in
the novel Under the Sun of Satan (1925; filmed by Maurice Pialat in
1987), who on the last day of his life as a holy man nonetheless felt
compelled to blaspheme by demanding of God, “Say who is master, You
or Satan!” Well, blasphemy is not the issue for Keane, but choice is. And
everything Lodge Kerrigan has done in the film up to this point—its
ending—puts us in the position of making the choice for him and thereby
redeeming his soul, if not his mind.
That brings me to Bresson’s Une Femme douce, or A Gentle Creature,
his first work in color, his ninth film, after the 1876 novella by
Dostoyevsky (sometimes called A Gentle Spirit), and his fourth picture
derived from or suggested by a Dostoyevskyan source. (Pickpocket was
based on Crime and Punishment, Au hasard, Balthazar was inspired by
166 Conclusion

The Idiot, and Four Nights of a Dreamer [1971] was adapted from the
story “White Nights.”) Bresson regarded Dostoyevsky as the world’s
greatest novelist, doubtless for his spiritual strain—an almost existential
one, in contrast with the sentimental religiosity of Tolstoy—because
Bresson avoids the Russian’s preoccupation with truth and his probing of
human psychology. Put another way, this most Catholic of filmmakers
(French or otherwise) always forbids the surface as well as the depths of
naturalism from distracting us from the mystical moments in his films,
which cannot be explicated or revealed in any positivistic manner.
Those moments, to be sure, involve cinematic characters, but
Bresson—and this is one of his connections with Kerrigan, or rather
Kerrigan’s with Bresson—makes us focus, not on the story in the human
beings on screen, but on the human beings in the story and their sometimes
complete lack of connection to or understanding of what happens to them.
Bresson almost disconnects character from story in this way, as does
Kerrigan, whose Keane is driven less by its minimalist plot than by the
reactions of its protagonist to the world inside his head. His is an extreme
reaction to decades of “dramatic” pictures, where character is action and
action character; “action” movies, in which the characters are designed to
fit the exciting plot; and films “of character,” where the plot is designed to
present interesting characters—those with a “story,” that is. To the
oversimplifications of character of the cinema before him, Bresson and
Kerrigan both respond by not simplifying anything, by explaining almost
nothing. To the self-obsession of the Hollywood star system, the “dream
factory,” Bresson in particular responds in the extreme by calling for
complete self-denial on the part of his actors. (Hence his designation of
them as “models.”)
Let’s begin simply with the plot of Une Femme douce, so that we can
instructively compare what Bresson and Dostoyevsky do with more or less
the same series of events. A contemporary young woman, unnamed, of
uncertain background and insufficient means, for no apparent reason
marries a pawnbroker, also unnamed, whom she meets in his shop. She
tells this man that she does not love him, and she makes it very clear that
she disdains his, and all, money; if she is marrying to escape her origins, it
remains unclear exactly what those origins were and why she is choosing
to escape them in this particular way. The woman (as she is called in the
credits, like “the man”) and her husband go through periods of much
unhappiness—we even see her with another man at one point, but we
cannot be sure that she has been unfaithful—and some calm. Then she
nearly shoots her spouse to death in his sleep. Later she becomes quite ill,
and, once she recovers, matters appear to be righting themselves between
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 167

her and her husband. Nonetheless, she proceeds to jump to her death from
the balcony of their Paris apartment.
The plot of Dostoyevsky’s novella, A Gentle Spirit, is substantially
similar to this one, allowing for differences in time (mid-to-late nineteenth
century) and place (the harsh Russian countryside), with one major
exception: the young wife in Dostoyevsky’s narrative is initially very
loving toward her husband, with the result that the main turns of the above
plot are easily explained. The husband in the novella—he is the narrator
both of the novella and of Bresson’s film—distrusts, out of his own
perverse obsession with verifiable as opposed to intuited truth (his
Dostoyevskyan surge, if you will), his wife’s love for him, so he decides
to test it. He is cold toward her and holds over her head the fact that he has
rescued her from her poor beginnings. For these reasons, she eventually
comes to hate her husband and almost to commit adultery. Finally, she is
even ready to shoot him. With his wife’s gun at his temple, the man
awakens but does not move. Yet she cannot fire. A religious woman, she
feels great remorse and atones for her “sin” by leaping to her death while
clutching a Christian icon. The wife in fact is lying on her bier at the
beginning of the novella with her husband at her side, reviewing his
marriage in an attempt to understand why she committed suicide. What he
winds up understanding is that his own contrariness is the cause of all his
unhappiness, and that all men live in unbreachable solitude.
Any such explanations of what happens in Une Femme douce,
however, pale beside the facts—and the facts are almost all Bresson gives
us (here as elsewhere in his oeuvre) and all that we should consider if we
are to be able to interpret his film justly. One fact that critics have
inexplicably ignored, and that I take to be the foundation of any sound
interpretation of Une Femme douce, is the young woman’s declaration in
the beginning that she does not love the man she intends to marry. Put
another way, it is not at all clear why she marries him (her Dostoyevskyan
surge, in opposition to the husband’s in Dostoyevsky’s novella), and
certainly the sum of the evidence points to the conclusion that they are so
different from each other as to be nearly exact opposites. (No, the
“opposites attract” theory of romance doesn’t work here, for nothing the
young woman does indicates that she is even attracted to the pawnbroker,
let alone in love with him.) The pawnbroker, for his part, although he may
wish to marry this woman, does not make known why, after so many years
of bachelorhood, he suddenly wants to wed someone about whom he
knows so little. (Bresson makes him forty or so and gives him a live-in
maid-cum-assistant whom, significantly, he does not dismiss after his
marriage.) Certainly he gets little or no response from his fiancée, however
168 Conclusion

much he may think he loves her, and they could hardly be said to carry on
anything resembling a courtship.
In a word, these two are simply not meant for each other, and I am
maintaining that Bresson makes sure we know this right from the start.
Just as Lodge Kerrigan’s intent in Keane was not to make a socio-
psychological problem picture about mental illness, Bresson’s subject is
thus not the rise and fall of a modern marriage, say, on account of financial
problems or sexual infidelity (as it is Germaine Dulac’s subject in La
souriante Madame Beudet [1922], a kind of early feminist film that deals
with the problem of a husband’s economic domination of his wife, and to
which, in letter but not in spirit, Une Femme douce bears some
resemblance). The couple in Une Femme douce don’t even fall out in
direct conflict with each other over a genuine issue that is raised in the
film: the spiritually transcendent way of life over the material driven one.
These two are fallen out, as it were, when they first meet.
What Bresson does in Une Femme douce, then, is the reverse of what
Dostoyevsky does in A Gentle Spirit. The latter has the husband test the
love of his wife and conclude that all human beings live in “unbreachable
solitude.” Bresson has the husband and wife living in unbreachable
solitude from the start and tests the duty, if not the love, toward them of
the maid Anna, the character whom Bresson adds and purposefully names
so that she will stand in for us, the audience. (Although Bresson could just
as easily have had the husband narrate the story of his marriage alone and
unseen, in intermittent voiceover, he has us watch the husband tell it to
Anna in the same room where his wife’s corpse lies on their marital bed;
like the wife’s body lying in the street after she jumps to her death, which
we see at the start of the film, this is another telling image—the dead
woman juxtaposed against the (re)union of man and maid—of the end-of-
the marriage-in-its-beginning.) Whereas Dostoyevsky had used the
spiritual to express the nihilistic, Bresson thus uses the nihilistic to express
the spiritual.
Let me go into some detail as to how he does this, chiefly by
concentrating on the contrast between the figures of the man and the
woman. Since most of what we learn about her is designed solely to
establish how different from the pawnbroker she is, she does not add up to
a unified character of depth and originality, or “color,” with whom we can
readily identify. She walks into the pawnbroker’s shop, and immediately
the otherwise beautiful Dominique Sanda, in her first screen role (and
giving more of a “performance” here than Bresson usually allowed his
“models”), is unsympathetic: her clothing is drab, her hair is disheveled,
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 169

she makes very little eye-contact with anyone, and her walk has about it at
the same time a timidity and an urgency that make it unnerving.
The pawnbroker, by contrast, is meticulous in appearance, sparing in
gesture, and steady in his walk; he looks directly at all whom he
encounters (whereas his customers avert his gaze), but with eyes that one
cannot look into and a face that, eerily, is neither handsome nor plain. This
is clearly a man (as “modeled” by Guy Frangin) who “understands” the
world and how to get along in it, as opposed to being “had” by it: money is
everything to him, and what can’t be seen, touched, and stored is not worth
talking about (which is one of the reasons, as he himself says, that he is
unable to pray). He accumulates item after item in his pawnshop, yet we
never see him sell anything: he likes his money, but apparently he likes his
“things,” too. His wife, on the other hand, gives away his money for
worthless objects when she is working in the pawnshop; before she was
married, she pawned her own last possessions in order to get a few more
books to read. Her husband, for his part, has shelves of books, not one of
which we ever see him take down to read.
He likes them for their “thingness,” yet he will not read those books so
as to rise above the world of things. The woman longs to do so, but
realizes that, as a human being, she can only achieve her goal to a limited
extent. She indirectly reveals this knowledge when, early in Une Femme
douce, she declares, “We’re all—men and animals—composed of the
same matter, the same raw materials.” Later we have this truism visually
confirmed when the young woman and her husband visit a museum of
natural history, where she goes on to ask, “Do birds learn to sing from
their parents, or is the ability to sing present in them at birth?” The wife
yearns beyond a universe in which all is such nature, nurture, matter, and
where human being themselves frequently seem to behave in a
preconditioned manner: preconditioned to beautify the self, to marry, to
reproduce, to gather wealth and possessions, to enter society, et cetera.
Throughout the film the suggestion is that, himself obsessed with
possessing matter (including his wife, or her body), the husband responds
to situations in a preconditioned or “correct” manner, whereas his wife
responds in the most unforeseen, and sometimes bizarre, of ways. Indeed,
almost all her behavior in Une Femme douce is choreographed according
to this ideal of the unexpected or the gratuitous. When she and her
husband enter their bedroom on their wedding night, for example, the
young woman quickly turns on the television set but does not watch it.
The man does, but what he sees could be called the image of his own
dead-end behavior pattern: cars racing in a circle. (He drives an
automobile, she doesn’t.) Later the husband will watch horses racing
170 Conclusion

around a track on the same television, then World War II fighter planes
themselves flying round in endless circles as they try to out-maneuver one
another in dogfights.
Meanwhile, incongruously, the wife nearly runs about the room in
preparation for bed, wrapped in a towel that dislodges itself by accident as
opposed to being dislodged in an act of sexual enticement. At one point
she carelessly tosses her nightgown onto the bed, in much the same way
that she will leave underclothes strewn about it during the day and scatters
her books everywhere, showing no respect for the material, for objects or
possessions. At another point, this young woman takes a bath but doesn’t
drain the dirty water and even leaves the faucet running, which her
husband then turns off. Moreover, she spurns money yet likes to eat fancy
pastries; she enjoys jazz but plays Bach and Purcell, too. The wife wants a
bouquet so much she goes as far as to pick sunflowers alongside a road,
then quickly tosses them away when she sees that, nearby, some couples
are gathering their own bouquets of sunflowers.
This woman is different even in dying. (Her suicide ends as well as
begins the film.) We do not get her point of view of the street before she
leaps from the balcony, nor do we await her fall from below, from the
position where she will soon find herself. As the wife jumps in daylight,
we “innocently” see a potted plant fall off the small table from which she
leaped, we watch the table topple over, and we are given a slow-motion
shot of this woman’s shawl floating discursively to the ground after her—
as if it were both her surviving soul or spirit and a final reminder of the
unpredictability of her human nature—to be followed by a series of
shadows and feet that flutter toward her dead body. (She placed a white
shawl around her shoulders before jumping, even as she fingered the
Christ figure retained from the gold crucifix she had pawned at her future
husband’s shop.) Off-camera during her fall, the young woman lands in
the street, cars screech to a halt, and we await her husband’s discovery of
her death.
If, even in suicide, the wife’s behavior has not been categorizable, has
once again been somewhere “in between”—we can never predict quite
where, we do not know quite why—then Bresson’s camera itself is always
literally somewhere in between, except when it is teasing us with a
subjective camera-placement or point-of-view shot. (As when the man and
woman, together with us, attend both the French movie Benjamin
[1968]—a costume drama trading on the wiles of love—and a production
of Hamlet, i.e., the kinds of narratives or dramas, unlike Une Femme
douce, we are accustomed to seeing and hearing, in which we are more or
less easily able to identify with the characters, their worlds, their
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 171

experiences.) There are many shots of doors, of empty stairways, of the

objects filling the pawnbroker’s shop and his apartment. The camera is
also “in between” in its representation of people: we get hands and arms
cut off bodies, bodies cut off from heads, just torsos, just feet. As usual in
his work, Bresson thus makes matter of the human body, even as he films
the material world, the literal distance between the husband and the wife,
as much to bring this matter to (spiritual) life as to emphasize the fact that
these two people live in unbreachable solitude, on either side of a great
chasm. The last shot of Une Femme douce is of the lid to the woman’s
coffin being screwed tight, as the material world—the actual coffin lid, the
world of things which she has at last transcended—continues to separate
her, in death, from her husband, just as it did in life.
If these two characters are so permanently “separated” or irreconcilably
different, one might ask, why did they choose to get married? I don’t
know; I don’t think that they know (if they do, they don’t tell us); and
Bresson doesn’t care because, as I have more than suggested, this couple’s
“psychology” is not the focus of Une Femme douce. Perhaps the man and
the woman get together out of their own perversity, but the film doesn’t
contain this idea: it just doesn’t contradict it. Just as it doesn’t contradict
the possibility that the young woman marries the pawnbroker only because
it is the unexpected thing to do. For Bresson, then, their marriage is not a
relationship to be explored, but instead a device to be used.
To wit: marriage is universally perceived to be the most intimate state
in which two people can live, and Bresson counterpoints this perception of
ours with the almost total lack of intimacy that exists between the husband
and the wife in his film. In other words, the director does not allow us to
identify with the marriage of the pawnbroker and the young woman, to see
ourselves in them, because he doesn’t indicate that they marry for the
reasons we usually associate with marrying: love, money, convenience,
convention, children. They wed, they are unhappy, they reach a fragile
understanding, then she kills herself. The husband, in his narration—it is
not narration in the proper sense, but more on this later—attempts to
discover why his wife committed suicide, but he cannot find an answer.
He doesn’t know why she killed herself, nor do we, and neither does
My point is not that every human action in Une Femme douce is
without explanation, without cause or motive—for instance, the wife’s
near murder of her husband after he discovers her with another man can be
accounted for—but that these individual explanations become beside the
point when one considers that there is no explanation in the film as to why
the pawnbroker and the young woman got married in the first place. What
172 Conclusion

becomes important, therefore, is not so much their relationship with each

other as our relationship with each of them, and Anna’s with the
pawnbroker. This is why the camera shifts periodically from its illustration
of past events to the husband pacing back and forth in the bedroom in the
present, telling his story of the marriage: not only to point up that neither
narrative account provides the “answers,” but also to emphasize that this
man, as character or person apart from his story, is the proper focus of our
concerns. As is his wife, literally apart from her story in death, lying in the
road at the beginning of the film even as she lies there at its conclusion.
Clearly, then, Bresson wants more from us than our “understanding” of
the husband and wife’s relationship, our feeling sorry for them for their
frailties and obsessions, because ultimately this is only feeling sorry for
ourselves; or it is making these characters do the work of our living, which
is too easy. The remarkable aspect of this film is that we do much of the
feeling and querying for the actors, not in identification with them as they
do it, but in their place: we feel and query for them as we imagine they
would. (This is quite different from what happens in Keane, where the
camera itself more or less forces us into the protagonist’s place or position
because we might not go there otherwise.) And this has the effect of
making us think absolutely about their situation, instead of about theirs
plus our own. Bresson, in this way, wants us to feel for and care about
characters whom we do not “recognize,” who reveal as little that is “like
us” as possible, namely, the heights and depths of strong emotion: love,
hate, anger, regret, happiness, sadness.
To this end, Bresson, unlike Lodge Kerrigan, forces his actors to deny
themselves in their portrayal of their characters. Again unlike Kerrigan, he
denies himself in his shooting of these characters: for the most part, the
camera is held steady in the middle distance, there is no panning or
tracking, and there are no high- and low-angle shots—objectivity or
distance that Bresson can afford because of the very lack of appeal of his
main characters in contrast with the character of Keane. The director asks
us in turn to deny ourselves in our perception of these characters and their
actions. He demands that we pay attention to the husband and wife for
themselves, no matter how uninviting or inexpressive they may appear, no
matter how their story resembles little more than a skimpy newspaper
The fact that, as in the case of Une Femme douce, Bresson almost
always made his films from preexisting texts should be a signal that he
was not interested in the creation of original character for its own sake, or
even in the re-creation of traditionally arresting and appealing character
(which is one reason we never learn the name of the husband or wife). The
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 173

fact that he frequently began his films by telling us what would happen at
the end should be a signal, as well: that he was not primarily concerned to
tell stories for the suspense they could create. Related to this, the effect of
having the husband narrate parts of the story to Anna, the enactment of
which parts we then see in flashback, is less to show us discrepancies in
the husband’s version as compared with “what really happened,” than to
obliterate the newness or freshness of story, the interest in it per se—
precisely through the filming of both the husband’s narration and its
subsequent repetition in action instead of words.
Bresson asks us, not to fully fathom this “double-narrative,” to
decipher the how and why of the whole story, but simply to believe that it
occurred and to take witness if not pity. His is a nearly perverse demand,
which is to say a kind of religious one. If we can comply and perform the
requisite act of faith, of utter selflessness, together with a leap of the
imagination, Une Femme douce becomes for us something resembling a
religious or spiritual experience. An experience, moreover, that teaches an
important aesthetic lesson: that we must acknowledge the existence of the
inexplicable in, as well as beyond, art. For it is art’s job not to make
people and the world more intelligible than they are, but instead to re-
present their mystery or ineffableness, their integrity or irreducibility, if
you will, their connection to something irretrievably their own or some
other’s—like God himself. All may not be grace for the young woman at
the end of Une Femme douce, then, as it was not for William Keane. But
all is not nothingness, either.
Anna the maid seems to have learned the lesson of inexplicability or
irreducibility from life rather than art, for she knows as little as we do
about the motives for, and causes of, the husband’s and the wife’s
behavior, yet she utters not one querying or querulous word to either of
them in the course of the picture. Indeed, Anna utters only a few lines
through all of Une Femme douce. Yes, she is the couple’s maid, but her
silence and impassivity (especially as she is played by Jane Lobré) here
appear to go beyond the call of a servant’s duty. Before the end of the
film, Anna leaves the room in which she has quietly listened to the
husband’s narrative of his and his wife’s relationship, but she will not
leave him. She will remain with him during and after the funeral of the
young woman because, as the husband himself admits, he will need her.
Bresson, by implication, asks the same of us: that, figuratively
speaking, we do not desert this man in his time of need, that we recognize
his humanity despite the fact we cannot comprehend his, or his marriage’s
deepest secrets. If there is anyone in Une Femme douce with whom we
should “identify,” then, it is Anna. (Thus, mutatis mutandis, she is as
174 Conclusion

important to Une Femme douce as Kira is to Keane.) And if can be said

we identify with the husband and wife at all, it is in the sense, as I have
implied, that they seem as puzzled by what is happening to them as we are.
This is not only character almost disconnected from story, it is character
nearly disconnected from self. Thus are we disconnected from our selves,
our certain egos, and made to look, not for the moral or balance in the
story, the symmetry of feeling and form, of ideas and execution, but
simply and inescapably for the only remaining tie that binds us to the
characters depicted on screen: the human one, or the only one that cannot
be explained away.
As one can doubtless deduce from my concentration above on Une
Femme douce’s method, Bresson’s films are even more distinguished for
their method or their style than for their individual subject matter—
something that may eventually be said about Lodge Kerrigan’s work as
well. That is because Bresson’s subjects pale beside his treatment of them,
so much so that it is almost as if the director were making the same movie
time after time. How ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that he filmed number
nine in color (though elegantly understated or “innocent” color it is, as
photographed by Ghislain Cloquet) because, as he later wrote in Notes on
Cinematography (1975), he felt color was more true to life. Like André
Bazin’s true filmmaker, Bresson thus attained his power through his
method, which, to re-phrase something I said at the start of this essay, is
less a thing literally to be described or expressed (as in such terms as
color, deep focus, handheld camerawork, and long takes) than an inner
orientation enabling an outward quest. That quest, in Bresson’s case as
surely in Kerrigan’s, is (this is not too strong) to honor God’s universe by
using film to render the reality of that universe, and, through its reality,
both the miracle of its creation and the mystery of its being.

The Films of Robert Bresson

Public Affairs (Les Affaires publiques), 1934
Production Company: Arc-Film
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (the playwright André Josset helped with the
Cinematography: Nicolas Toporkoff
Sound: Robert Petiot
Music: Jean Wiener
Sets: Pierre Charbonnier
Running time: 25 minutes
Cast: Beby (the chancellor of Crocandie); Andrée Servilanges (the
princess of Mirandie); Marcel Dalio (announcer/sculptor/head of the fire
brigade/admiral); Gilles Margaritis

Angels of the Streets (Les Anges du péché), 1943

Production Company: Synops-Roland Tual
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on an idea by R. P. Brückberger)
Dialogue: Jean Giraudoux
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Philippe Agostini
Editor: Yvonne Martin
Sound: René Louge
Music: Jean-Jacques Grünewald
Art Director: René Renoux
Running time: 97 minutes
Cast: Renée Faure (Anne-Marie); Jany Holt (Thérèse); Sylvie (the
prioress); Mila Parély (Madeleine); Marie-Hélène Dasté (Mother Saint-
Jean); Yolande Laffon (Anne-Marie’s mother); Paula Dehelly (Mother
Dominique); Sylvia Montfort (Agnès); Gilberte Terbois (Sister Marie-
Joseph); Louis Régnier (Prison director)

Ladies of the Park (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne), 1945

Production Company: Les Films Raoul Ploquin
176 Filmography

Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on Jacques le fataliste et son maître,

by Denis Diderot)
Dialogue: Jean Cocteau
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Philippe Agostini
Editor: Jean Feyte
Sound: René Louge
Music: Jean-Jacques Grünewald
Art Director: Max Douy
Assistant director: Roger Spiri-Mercanton
Running time: 84 minutes
Cast: Maria Casarès (Hélène); Élina Labourdette (Agnès); Paul Bernard
(Jean); Lucienne Bogaert (Agnès’s mother); Jean Marchat (Jacques)

Diary of a Country Priest (Le Journal d’un curé de campagne), 1951

Production company: Union Générale Cinématographique Screenplay:
Robert Bresson (based
on the novel by Georges Bernanos)
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Léonce-Henri Burel
Sound: Jean Rieul
Music: Jean-Jacques Grünewald
Art director: Pierre Charbonnier
Editor: Paulette Robert
Running time: 110 minutes
Cast: Claude Laydu (the curé d’Ambricourt); Jean Riveyre (the count);
Armand Guibert (the curé of Torcy); Nicole Ladmiral (Chantal); Martine
Lemaire (Seraphita); Nicole Maurrey (Mlle. Louise); Marie-Minique
Arkell (the countess); Antoine Balpêtré (Dr. Delbende); Léon Arvel
(Fabregard); Jean Danet (Olivier)

A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé, ou Le vent souffle

où il veut), 1956
Co-producers: Gaumont; Nouvelles Éditions de Films
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on the account by André Devigny)
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Léonce-Henri Burel
Sound: Pierre-André Bertrand
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Kyrie of Mass in C Minor
Art director: Pierre Charbonnier
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Running time: 100 minutes
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 177

Cast: François Leterrier (Fontaine); Charles Le Clainche (Jost); Maurice

Beerblock (Blanchet); Roland Monod (the pastor); Jacques Ertaud
(Orsini); Roger Tréherne (Terry)

Pickpocket, 1959
Producer: Agnès Delahaîe
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Léonce-Henri Burel
Art director: Pierre Charbonnier
Sound: Antoine Archimbaut
Music: Jean-Baptiste Lully
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Running time: 75 minutes
Cast: Martin Lasalle (Michel); Marika Green (Jeanne); Jean Péligri (the
inspector); Dolly Scal (Michel’s mother); Pierre Leymarie (Jacques);
Kassagi (the first accomplice); Pierre Étaix (the second accomplice)

The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d’Arc), 1962

Producer: Agnès Delahaye
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on transcripts of the trial)
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Léonce-Henri Burel
Art director: Pierre Charbonnier
Sound: Antoine Archimbaut
Music: Francis Seyrig
Editor: Germaine Artus
Running time: 65 minutes
Cast: Florence Delay (Joan of Arc); Jean-Claude Fourneau (Bishop
Cauchon); Roger Honorat (Jean Beaupère); Marc Jacquier (Jean
Lemaître); Jean Gillibert (Jean de Chatillon); Michel Heubel (Isambert);
André Regnier (d’Estivet); André Brunet (Massieu); Marcel Darbaud
(Nicolas de Houppeville); Philippe Dreux (Martin Ladvenu); Paul-Robert
Nimet (Guillaume Erard); Richard Pratt (Warwick); Gérard Zingg (Jean
Lohier); André Maurice (Tiphaine)

Au hasard, Balthazar (By Chance, Balthazar), 1966

Co-producers: Argos Films; Pare Film; Athos Films (France); Institut
suédois du film; Svensk
Filmindustri (Sweden)
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Ghislain Cloquet
Art director: Pierre Charbonnier
178 Filmography

Sound: Antoine Archimbaut

Music: Franz Schubert, Sonata no. 20; Jean Wiener
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Running time: 95 minutes
Cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie); Walter Green (Jacques); François Lafarge
(Gérard); Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold); Philippe Asselin (Marie’s
father); Pierre Klossowski (the grain merchant); Nathalie Joyaut (Marie’s
mother); Marie-Claire Frémont (the baker’s wife); Jean-Joël Barbier (the
curé); Jean Remignard (the lawyer); Guy Brejnac (the veterinarian);
Jacques Sorbets (the police captain); François Sullerot (the baker); Tord
Paag (Louis), Sven Frostenson and Roger Fjellstrom (members of
Gérard’s gang); Rémy Brozeck (Marcel); Mylène Weyergens (nurse)

Mouchette, 1967
Co-producers: Argos Films and Pare Film
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (adapted from Nouvelle histoire de
Mouchette, by Georges
Cinematography: (black-and-white) Ghislain Croquet
Art director: Pierre Guffroy
Sound: Séverin Frankiel and Jacques Carrère
Music: Claudio Monteverdi, Jean Wiener
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Running time: 82 minutes
Cast: Nadine Nortier (Mouchette); Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arsène); Paul
Hébert (the father); Marie Cardinal (the mother); Jean Vimenet (Mathieu);
Marie Susini (Mathieu’s wife); Marie Trichet (Louisa); Liliane Princet
(the teacher); Raymonde Chabrun (the grocer); Suzanne Huguenin (the old
lady who watches over the dead)

A Gentle Creature (Une Femme douce), 1969

Co-producers: Pare Film and Marianne Production
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on “A Gentle Spirit,” a novella
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Cinematography: (color) Ghislain Cloquet
Sound: Jacques Maumont, Jacques Lebreton, Urbain Loiseau
Music: Henry Purcell, Jean Wiener
Art director: Pierre Charbonnier
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Running rime: 88 minutes
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 179

Cast: Dominique Sanda (She); Guy Frangin (He); Jane Lobré (the maid);
Claude Ollier (the doctor)

Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre Nuits d’un rêveur), 1971

Co-producers: Albina Productions; i Film dell’Orso; Victoria Film;
Gian Vittorio Baldi (Italy); and ORTF (France)
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on “White Nights,” a story Fyodor
Dostoyevsky)Cinematography: (color) Pierre Lhomme (Ghislain Cloquet
for the police-film scene)
Sound: Roger Letellier
Art director: Pierre Charbonnier
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Running time: 83 minutes
Cast: Isabelle Weingarten (Marthe); Guillaume des Forêts (Jacques); Jean-
Maurice Monnoyer (the lodger); Jérôme Massart (the visitor); Patrick
Jouanné (the gangster); Lidia Biondi (Marthe’s mother); Groupe Batuki
(musicians on the bateau mouche)

Lancelot of the Lake (Lancelot du Lac), 1974

Co-producers: Mara-Films; Laser-Production ORTF (France); and Gerico
Sound (Italy)
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (adapted from “Le chevalier à la charrette,”
by Chretien de Troyes)
Cinematography: (color) Pasqualino De Santis
Sound: Bernard Bats
Music: Philip Sarde
Scene design: Philippe Charbonnier
Editor: Germaine Lamy
Running time: 93 minutes
Cast: Luc Simon (Lancelot); Laura Duke Condominas (Queen Guinevere);
Humbert Balsan (Gawain); Vladimir Antolek (King Arthur); Patrick
Bernard (Mordred); Arthur de Montalembert (Lionel); Marie-Louise
Buffet (old peasant woman); Marie-Gabrielle Carton (young girl)

The Devil, Probably (Le Diable probablement), 1977

Co-producers: Sunchild G.M.F./M. Chanderli
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Cinematography: (color) Pasqualino de Santis
Sound: Georges Prat
Music: Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Scene design: Eric Simon
180 Filmography

Editor: Germaine Lamy

Running time: 97 minutes
Cast: Antoine Monnier (Charles); Tina Irissari (Alberte); Henri de
Maublanc (Michel); Laetitia Carcano (Edwige); Nicolas Deguy (Valentin);
Régis Hanrion (the psychoanalyst); Geoffroy Gaussen (the bookseller);
Roger Honorat (the police officer)

Money (L’Argent), 1983

Co-producers: Marion’s Films; FR3 (France); and Eos Films (Switzerland)
Screenplay: Robert Bresson (adapted from the novella of Leo Tolstoy, The
Counterfeit Note)
Cinematography: (color) Pasqualino de Santis; Emmanuel Machuel
Sound: Jean-Louis Ughetto and Jacques Maumont
Music: Johann Sebastian Bach
Scene design: Pierre Guffroy
Editor: Jean-François Naudon
Running time: 85 minutes
Cast: Christian Patey (Yvon); Vincent Risteruci (Lucien); Caroline Lang
(Elise); Sylvie Van den Elsen (the woman with gray hair); Michel Briguet
(her father); Béatrice Tabourin (woman in the photography shop); Didier
Baussy (man in the photography shop); Marc-Ernest Fourneau (Norbert);
Bruno Lapeyre (Martial); Jeanne Aptekman (Yvette); André Cler
(Norbert’s father); Claude Cler (Norbert’s mother); François-Marie Banier
(Yvon’s cellmate)

Credits of Other Films Discussed

Day of Wrath (1943)
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writing credits: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Poul Knudsen, Paul La Cour,
Mogens Skot-Hansen, Hans Wiers-Jenssens’ play Anne Pedersdotter
Albert Høeberg: The Bishop
Preben Lerdorff Rye: Martin (Absalon’s son from first marriage)
Lisbeth Movin: Anne Pedersdotter (Absalon’s second wife)
Preben Neergaard: Degn
Sigrid Neiiendam: Merete (Absalon’s mother)
Produced by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Tage Nielsen
Original Music by Poul Schierbeck
Cinematography by Karl Andersson
Film Editing by Anne Marie Petersen, Edith Schlüssel
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 181

Art Direction by Erik Aaes

Costume Design by Karl Sandt Jensen, Olga Thomsen
Running time: 97 minutes

Europe ’51 (1952)

Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Writing credits: Roberto Rossellini, Sandro De Feo, Mario Pannunzio, Ivo
Perilli, Brunello Rondi
Ingrid Bergman: Irene Girard
Alexander Knox: George Girard
Ettore Giannini: Andrea Casatti
Teresa Pellati: Ines
Giulietta Masina: Passerotto
Marcella Rovena: Mrs. Puglisi
Tina Perna: Cesira
Sandro Franchina: Michele Girard
Giancarlo Vigorelli: Judge
Maria Zanoli: Mrs. Galli
William Tubbs: Professor Alessandrini
Alberto Plebani: Mr. Puglisi
Alfred Brown: Hospital Priest
Gianna Segale: Nurse
Antonio Pietrangeli: Psychiatrist
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti, Roberto Rossellini
Original Music by Renzo Rossellini
Cinematography by Aldo Tonti
Film Editing by Jolanda Benvenuti
Production Design by Virgilio Marchi
Running time: 113 minutes

Tokyo Story (1953)

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Writing Credits: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Cast :
Chishu Ryu: Shukishi Hirayama
Chieko Higashiyama: Tomi Hirayama
Setsuko Hara: Noriko Hirayama
Haruko Sugimura: Shige Kaneko
Sô Yamamura: Koichi Hirayama
Kuniko Miyake: Fumiko Hirayama - his wife
182 Filmography

Kyôko Kagawa: Kyoko Hirayama

Eijirô Tôno: Sanpei Numata
Nobuo Nakamura: Kurazo Kaneko
Shirô Osaka: Keiso Hirayama
Hisao Toake: Osamu Hattori
Teruko Nagaoka: Yone Hattori
Produced by Takeshi Yamamoto
Original Music by Kojun Saitô
Cinematography by Yuuharu Atsuta
Film Editing by Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Production Design by Tatsuo Hamada, Itsuo Takahashi
Costume Design by Taizo Saito
Running time: 136 minutes

Sundays and Cybèle (1962)

Directed by Serge Bourguignon
Writing credits: Serge Bourguignon, Antoine Tudal, Bernard
Eschassériaux (novel)
Cast :
Hardy Krüger: Pierre
Nicole Courcel: Madeleine
Patricia Gozzi: Françoise / Cybèle
Daniel Ivernel: Carlos
André Oumansky: Bernard
Anne-Marie Coffinet: Françoise II
Malka Ribowska: Clairvoyant
Michel de Ré: Fiacre
Produced by Gérard Ducaux-Rupp, Raymond Froment, Romain Pinès
Original Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography by Henri Decaë
Film Editing by Léonide Azar
Production Design by Bernard Evein
Costume Design by Marie-Claude Fouquet, Jacques Heim
Running time: 110 minutes

La strada (1954)
Directed by Federico Fellini
Writing credits: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano
Anthony Quinn: Zampanò
Giulietta Masina: Gelsomina
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 183

Richard Basehart: The Fool

Aldo Silvani: Mr. Giraffa
Marcella Rovere: The Widow
Livia Venturini: The Sister
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti
Original Music by Nino Rota
Cinematography by Otello Martelli, Carlo Carlini
Film Editing by Leo Cattozzo
Production Design by Mario Ravasco
Art Direction by Enrico Cervelli, Brunello Rondi
Costume Design by Margherita Marinari
Running time: 108 minutes

Winter Light (1962)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Writing credits: Ingmar Bergman
Ingrid Thulin: Märta Lundberg, Schoolteacher
Gunnar Björnstrand: Tomas Ericsson, Pastor
Gunnel Lindblom: Karin Persson
Max von Sydow: Jonas Persson
Allan Edwall: Algot Frövik, Sexton
Kolbjörn Knudsen: Knut Aronsson, Warden
Olof Thunberg: Fredrik Blom, Organist
Elsa Ebbesen: Magdalena Ledfors, Widow
Produced by Allan Ekelund
Cinematography by Sven Nykvist
Film Editing by Ulla Ryghe
Production Design by P.A. Lundgren
Costume Design by Mago
Running time: 81 minutes

Thérèse (1986)
Directed by Alain Cavalier
Writing credits: Camille de Casabianca, Alain Cavalier
Catherine Mouchet: Thérèse
Hélène Alexandridis: Lucie
Aurore Prieto: Céline
Clémence Massart-Weit: Prioress
Sylvie Habault: Pauline
184 Filmography

Nathalie Bernart: Aimes

Mona Heftre: Marie
Beatrice De Vigan: Singer
Jean Pélégri: The father
Pierre Maintigneux: Convent Doctor
Jean Pieuchot: The Bishop
Produced by Maurice Bernart
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot
Film Editing by Isabelle Dedieu
Production Design by Bernard Evein
Costume Design by Yvette Bonnay
Running time: 96 minutes

Under the Sun of Satan (1987)

Directed by Maurice Pialat
Writing credits: Georges Bernanos’s novel Sous le soleil de Satan, Sylvie
Danton, Maurice Pialat
Gérard Depardieu: Donissan
Sandrine Bonnaire: Mouchette
Maurice Pialat: Menou-Segrais
Alain Artur: Cadignan
Yann Dedet: Gallet
Brigitte Legendre: Mouchette’s Mother
Jean-Claude Bourlat: Malorthy
Jean-Christophe Bouvet: Horse Dealer
Philippe Pallut: Quarryman
Marcel Anselin: Bishop Gerbier
Yvette Lavogez: Marthe
Pierre D’Hoffelize: Havret
Corinne Bourdon: Child’s Mother
Thierry Der’ven: Sabroux
Marie-Antoinette Lorge: Estelle
Bernard De Gouy: M. de Vamin
Yolene De Gouy: Mme de Vanin
Edith Colnel: Mme Lambelin
Produced by Claude Abeille, Daniel Toscan du Plantier
Original Music by Henri Dutilleux
Cinematography by Willy Kurant
Film Editing by Yann Dedet
Production Design by Katia Wyszkop
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 185

Costume Design by Gil Noir

Running time: 93 minutes

Mystery Train (1989)

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Writing credits: Jim Jarmusch
Masatoshi Nagase: Jun (segment “Far From Yokohama”)
Youki Kudoh: Mitsuko (segment “Far From Yokohama”)
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: Night Clerk (segment “Far From Yokohama”)
Cinqué Lee: Bellboy (segment “Far From Yokohama”)
Rufus Thomas: Man in Station (segment “Far From Yokohama”)
Jodie Markell: Sun Studio Guide (segment “Far From Yokohama”)
Nicoletta Braschi: Luisa (segment “A Ghost”)
Elizabeth Bracco: Dee Dee, Charlie’s Sister (segment “A Ghost”)
Stephen Jones: The Ghost (segment “A Ghost”)
Lowell Roberts: Lester (segment “A Ghost”)
Jim Stark: Pall Bearer at Airport (segment “A Ghost”)
Joe Strummer: Johnny aka Elvis (segment “Lost In Space”)
Rick Aviles: Will Robinson (segment “Lost In Space”)
Steve Buscemi: Charlie the Barber (segment “Lost In Space”)
Vondie Curtis-Hall: Ed (segment “Lost In Space”)
Royale Johnson: Earl (segment “Lost In Space”)
Winston Hoffman: Wilbur (segment “Lost In Space”)
Produced by Kunijiro Hirata, Jim Stark, Hideaki Suda
Original Music by John Lurie
Cinematography by Robby Müller
Film Editing by Melody London
Production Design by Dan Bishop
Set Decoration by Dianna Freas
Costume Design by Carol Wood
Running time: 110 minutes

Raining Stones (1993)

Directed by Ken Loach
Writing credits: Jim Allen
Bruce Jones: Bob
Julie Brown: Anne
Gemma Phoenix: Coleen
Ricky Tomlinson: Tommy
186 Filmography

Tom Hickey: Father Barry

Mike Fallon: Jimmy
Ronnie Ravey: Butcher
Karen Henthorn: Young Mother
Christine Abbott: May
Geraldine Ward: Tracey
William Ash: Joe
Matthew Clucas: Sean
Jonathan James: Tansey
Anthony Bodell: Ted
Bob Mullane: Ted’s Mate
Jack Marsden: Mike
Jim R. Coleman: Dixie
George Moss: Dean
Little Tony: Cliff
Derek Alleyn: Factory Boss
Produced by Sally Hibbin
Original Music by Stewart Copeland
Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd
Film Editing by Jonathan Morris
Production Design by Martin Johnson
Art Direction by Fergus Clegg
Costume Design by Anne Sinclair
Running time: 90 minutes

A Tale of Winter (1992)

Directed by Eric Rohmer
Writing credits Eric Rohmer
Charlotte Véry: Félicie
Frédéric van den Driessche: Charles
Michel Voletti: Maxence
Hervé Furic: Loïc
Ava Loraschi: Elise
Christiane Desbois: Mother
Rosette: Sister
Jean-Luc Revol: Brother-in-Law
Haydée Caillot: Edwige
Jean-Claude Biette: Quentin
Marie Rivière: Dora
Produced by Margaret Ménégoz
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 187

Original Music by Sébastien Erms

Cinematography by Luc Pagès
Film Editing by Mary Stephen
Costume Design by Pierre-Jean Larroque
Running time: 114 minutes

A Single Girl (1995)

Directed by Benoît Jacquot
Writing credits: Jérôme Beaujour, Benoît Jacquot
Virginie Ledoyen: Valérie Sergent
Benoît Magimel: Rémi
Dominique Valadié: Valérie’s mother
Véra Briole: Sabine
Virginie Emane: Fatiah
Michel Bompoil: Jean-Marc
Aladin Reibel: M. Sarre
Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc: Patrice
Guillemette Grobon: Mme Charles
Hervé Gamelin: Jean
Catherine Guittoneau: Jean’s lover
Produced by Philippe Carcassonne, Brigitte Faure
Cinematography by Caroline Champetier
Film Editing by Pascale Chavance
Casting by Frédérique Moidon
Production Design by Louis Soubrier
Running time: 90 minutes

Maborosi (1995)
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writing credits: Teru Miyamoto (novel), Yoshihisa Ogita
Makiko Esumi: Yumiko
Takashi Naitô: Tamio
Tadanobu Asano: Ikuo
Gohki Kashiyama: Yuichi
Naomi Watanabe: Tomoko
Midori Kiuchi: Michiko
Akira Emoto: Yoshihiro
Mutsuko Sakura: Tomeno
Hidekazu Akai: Master
188 Filmography

Hiromi Ichida: Hatsuko

Minori Terada: Detective
Ren Osugi: Hiroshi, Yumiko’s Father
Kikuko Hashimoto: Kiyo, Yumiko’s Grandmother
Produced by Naoe Gozu, Yutaka Shigenobu
Original Music by Ming Chang Chen
Cinematography by Masao Nakabori
Film Editing by Tomoyo Oshima
Production Design by Kyôko Heya
Art Direction by Kyôko Heya
Costume Design by Michiko Kitamura
Running time: 110 minutes

Ponette (1996)
Directed by Jacques Doillon
Writing credits: Jacques Doillon, Brune Compagnon
Victoire Thivisol: Ponette
Delphine Schiltz: Delphine
Matiaz Bureau Caton: Matiaz
Léopoldine Serre: Ada
Marie Trintignant: Father
Xavier Beauvois: Mother
Claire Nebout: Aunt
Aurélie Vérillon: Aurélie
Henri Berthon: Teacher
Carla Ibled: Carla
Luckie Royer: Luce
Antoine du Merle: Antoine
Marianne Favre: Marianne
Produced by Christine Gozlan, Alain Sarde
Original Music by Philippe Sarde
Cinematography by Caroline Champetier
Film Editing by Jacqueline Fano
Production Design by Henri Berthon
Running time: 97 minutes

The Straight Story (1999)

Directed by David Lynch
Writing credits: John Roach, Mary Sweeney
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 189

Sissy Spacek: Rose Straight

Jane Galloway Heitz: Dorothy, Straight’s Next-Door Neighbor
Joseph A. Carpenter: Bud
Donald Wiegert: Sig
Richard Farnsworth: Alvin Straight
Tracey Maloney: Nurse
Dan Flannery: Doctor Gibbons
Jennifer Edwards-Hughes: Brenda, the Grocery Clerk
Ed Grennan: Pete
Jack Walsh: Apple
Gil Pearson: Sun Ray Tours Bus Driver
Everett McGill: Tom the John Deere Dealer
Anastasia Webb: Crystal
Matt Guidry: Steve
Bill McCallum: Rat
Barbara E. Robertson: Deer Woman
James Cada: Danny Riordan, Clermont Resident
Sally Wingert: Darla Riordan, Clermont Resident
Barbara Kingsley: Janet Johnson, Clermont Resident
Jim Haun: Johnny Johnson, Clermont Resident
Wiley Harker: Verlyn Heller
Kevin P. Farley: Harald Olsen, Tractor Mechanic
John Farley: Thorvald Olsen, Tractor Mechanic
John Lordan: Priest
Russ Reed: Mt. Zion Bartender
Leroy Swadley: Bar Patron
Ralph Feldhacker: Farmer on Tractor
Harry Dean Stanton: Lyle Straight, Alvin’s Brother
Produced by Pierre Edelman, Neal Edelstein, Michael Polaire, Mary
Original Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Cinematography by Freddie Francis
Film Editing by Mary Sweeney
Production Design by Jack Fisk
Costume Design by Patricia Norris
Running time: 112 minutes

Under the Sand (2000)

Directed by François Ozon
Writing credits: Emmanuèle Bernheim, Marina de Van, François Ozon,
Marcia Romano
190 Filmography

Charlotte Rampling: Marie Drillon
Bruno Cremer: Jean Drillon
Jacques Nolot: Vincent
Alexandra Stewart: Amanda
Pierre Vernier: Gérard
Andrée Tainsy: Suzanne
Maya Gaugler: German woman
Damien Abbou: Chief lifeguard
Pierre Soubestre: Policeman
Laurence Martin: Apartment seller
Jean-François Lapalus: Paris doctor
Fabienne Luchetti: Pharmacist
Michel Cordes: Superintendent
Maurice Antoni: Landes doctor
Patricia Couvillers: Evelyne
Patrick Grieco: José
Axelle Bossard: Student
Charlotte Gerbault: Nurse
Nicole Lartigue: Morgue attendant
Produced by Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Original Music by Philippe Rombi
Cinematography by Antoine Héberlé, Jeanne Lapoirie
Film Editing by Laurence Bawedin
Production Design by Sandrine Canaux
Costume Design by Pascaline Chavanne
Running time: 92 minutes

What Time Is It There? (2001)

Directed by
Ming-liang Tsai
Writing credits:
Ming-liang Tsai,
Pi-ying Yang
Kang-sheng Lee: Hsiao-kang
Shiang-chyi Chen: Shiang-chyi
Yi-Ching Lu: Mother
Tien Miao: Father
Cecilia Yip: Woman in Paris
Chao-jung Chen: Man in Subway Station
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 191

Guei Tsai: Prostitute

Arthur Nauzyciel: Man at Phone Booth
David Ganansia: Man at Restaurant
Jean-Pierre Léaud: Jean-Pierre/Man at the Cemetery
Cinematography by Benoît Delhomme
Film Editing by Sheng-Chang Chen
Production Design by Timmy Yip
Running time: 116 minutes

3-Iron (2004)
Directed by Ki-duk Kim
Writing credits: Ki-duk Kim
Seung-yeon Lee: Sun-hwa
Hyun-kyoon Lee: Tae-suk
Hyuk-ho Kwon: Min-gyu (husband)
Jeong-ho Choi: Jailor
Ju-seok Lee: Son of Old Man
Mi-suk Lee: Daughter-in-law of Old Man
Sung-hyuk Moon: Sung-hyuk
Jee-ah Park: Jee-ah
Jae-yong Jang: Hyun-soo
Dah-hae Lee: Ji-eun
Han Kim: Man in Studio
Se-jin Park: Woman in Studio
Dong-jin Park: Detective Lee
Produced by Yong-bae Choi, Ki-duk Kim, Michiko Suzuki
Original Music by Slvian
Cinematography by Seong-back Jang
Film Editing by Ki-duk Kim
Production Design by Chungsol Art
Running time: 90 minutes

Rosetta (1999)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Writing credits: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Emilie Dequenne: Rosetta
Fabrizio Rongione: Riquet
Anne Yernaux: The Mother
Olivier Gourmet: The Boss
192 Filmography

Bernard Marbaix: The Campgrounds Manager

Frédéric Bodson: The Head of Personnel
Florian Delain: The Boss’s Son
Christiane Dorval: First Saleswoman
Mireille Bailly: Second Saleswoman
Thomas Gollas: The Mother’s Boyfriend
Leon Michaux: First Policeman
Victor Marit: Second Policeman
Colette Regibeau: Madame Riga
Produced by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Laurent Pétin, Michèle
Original Music by Jean-Pierre Cocco
Cinematography by Alain Marcoen
Film Editing by Marie-Hélène Dozo
Production Design by Igor Gabriel
Costume Design by Monic Parelle
Running time: 95 minutes

The Son (2002)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Writing credits: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Olivier Gourmet: Olivier
Morgan Marinne: Francis
Isabella Soupart: Magali
Nassim Hassaïni: Omar
Kevin Leroy: Raoul
Félicien Pitsaer: Steve
Rémy Renaud: Philippo
Annette Closset: Training Center Director
Fabian Marnette: Rino
Jimmy Deloof: Dany
Anne Gerard: Dany’s Mother
Produced by Olivier Bronckart, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne,
Denis Freyd
Cinematography by Alain Marcoen
Film Editing by Marie-Hélène Dozo
Production Design by Igor Gabriel
Costume Design by Monic Parelle
Running time: 103 minutes
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 193

L’Enfant (2005)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Writing credits: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Cast :
Jérémie Renier: Bruno
Déborah François: Sonia
Jérémie Segard: Steve
Fabrizio Rongione: Young thug
Olivier Gourmet: Police officer
Samuel De Ryck: Thomas
François Olivier: Remy
Hicham Tiberkanine: Abdel
Mireille Bailly: Bruno’s mother
Bernard Geurde: Doctor
Produced by Olivier Bronckart, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne,
Denis Freyd
Cinematography by Alain Marcoen
Film Editing by Marie-Hélène Dozo
Production Design by Igor Gabriel
Costume Design by Monic Parelle
Running time: 100 minutes

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Directed by Mel Gibson
Writing credits: Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson
James Caviezel: Jesus
Maia Morgenstern: Mary
Christo Jivkov: John
Francesco De Vito: Peter
Monica Bellucci: Magdalen
Mattia Sbragia: Caiphas
Toni Bertorelli: Annas
Luca Lionello: Judas
Hristo Shopov: Pontius Pilate
Aleksander Mincer: Nicodemus
Adel Ben Ayed: Thomas
Luca De Dominicis: Herod
Produced by Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson, Stephen McEveety, Enzo Sisti
Original Music by John Debney
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel
194 Filmography

Film Editing by Steve Mirkovich, John Wright

Production Design by Francesco Frigeri
Costume Design by Maurizio Millenotti
Running time: 127 minutes

Keane (2004)
Directed by Lodge Kerrigan
Writing credits: Lodge Kerrigan
Damian Lewis: William Keane
Abigail Breslin: Kira Bedik
Amy Ryan: Lynn Bedik
Liza Colón-Zayas: 1st Ticket Agent
John Tormey: 2nd Ticket Agent
Brenda Denmark: Commuter
Ed Wheeler: 1st Bus Driver/Ticket Taker
Christopher Evan Welch: Motel Clerk
Yvette Mercedes: Woman in Department Store
Chris Bauer: Bartender
Lev Gorn: Drug Dealer
Frank Wood: Assaulted Commuter
Alexander Robert Scott: 1st Cab Driver
Phil McGlaston: 2nd Cab Driver
Tina Holmes: Michelle
Ted Sod: Gas Station Attendant
Omar Rodríguez: Garage Manager
Mellini Kantayya: Newsstand Cashier
Ray Fitzgerald: 2nd Bus Driver/Ticket Taker
Produced by Brian Bell, Andrew Fierberg, Jenny Schweitzer, Steven
Cinematography by John Foster
Film Editing by Andrew Hafitz
Production Design by Petra Barchi
Art Direction by Peter Yesair
Costume Design by Catherine George
Running time 100 minutes

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Aberdeen, 109 Austen, Jane, 22

Absurdism, 116 An Autumn Afternoon, 16, 86
Academy Awards (Oscars), 28 Avant-gardism, 88, 117, 121, 124-
Ackroyd, Barry, 66 125, 152
Adair, Gilbert, xvii The Aviator’s Wife, 66
Les affaires purlieus (Public Aviles, Rick, 60
Affairs), viii, 175 Ayfre, Amédée, xvii
Agee, James, 1
Agee on Film, 1 Baby Boom, 137
Agel, Henri, xvii Bacall, Lauren, 109
Air pur, ix Bach, Johann Sebastian, 37, 170
Akerman, Chantal, viii Badalamenti, Angelo, 93, 101
Alea, Tomás Gutiérrez, 155 The Bad Guy, 120
Alighieri, Dante, 27, 81 Band of Brothers, 164
All About My Mother, 91 Barrault, Jean-Louis, 34
Allen, Jim, 65 Basehart, Richard, 35
Allen, Woody, 109, 144 Bates, Alan, 109
Almodóvar, Pedro, 91 The Battle of Algiers, xi
Les anges du péché (Angels of Sin; Baudrillard, Jean, 120
a.k.a. Angels of the Streets), ix, Bazin, André, xvi-xvii, 43, 143,
xii, xv-xvii, 62 148, 174, 198
Anne Pedersdotter, 9 Beatty, Warren, 154
A Nos Amours (To Our Loves), 52 Beaujour, Jérôme, 72
Antonioni, Michelangelo, vii, 23, A Beautiful Mind, 163
38, 112, 155 Beauvois, Xavier, 78
The Apple, 11 Beckett, Samuel, 156
The Arabian Nights, 144 The Bells of St. Mary’s, 61
Arbus, Diane, 93 Ben Hur, 61, 82
L’argent (Money), ix-x, xii, xiv-xv, Benjamin, 170
180 Benoît-Lévy, Jean, 78
Ariosto, 58 Beresford, Bruce, 85
Arnheim, Rudolf, xvii Bergman, Ingmar, vii, xviii, 16, 37-
Artaud, Antonin, 152 40, 61, 102, 141, 155, 195
Asano, Tadanobu, 88 Bergman, Ingrid, 12-13, 117
Assayas, Olivier, viii Bernadette, 61
Atsuta, Yuharu, 16-17, 19 Bernadette of Lourdes, 61
Au hasard, Balthazar (By Chance, Bernanos, Georges, ix, xii, xvi, 47-
Balthazar), ix, xii, xiv-xv, 127- 53, 165
129, 132, 159, 165, 177-178 Bernheim, Emmanuelle, 103
204 Index

The Bible, 3, 62, 97-98, 100, 141, 119, 128, 138, 149, 152, 166,
145-147, 197-199 198-199
Bicycle Thieves, 64 Cavalier, Alain, xviii, 41-45, 47, 82,
Il bidone, 35 128
Big Brother, 119 Cavani, Liliana, 109
Björnstrand, Gunnar, 39 Caviezel, Jim, 146
Bloy, Léon, xiv Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, 72
“Blue Moon,” 56 Central Station, 163
Blue Velvet, 91 C’était un musicien, ix
Bond, Edward, 156 Champetier, Caroline, 73, 75, 78, 80
Bonnaire, Sandrine, 53 Chaplin, Charles, 18, 34
Bonnie and Clyde, 154-155 Chekhov, Anton, 156
Bordwell, David, 1 The Cherry Orchard, 109
Bost, Pierre, 1 Christianity, 59, 62, 65, 80, 85-86,
Bourguignon, Serge, 27-31, 35 88-89, 113, 127, 131, 133, 135,
Boyfriends and Girlfriends, 69 147, 150, 157, 159, 167, 198,
Braschi, Nicoletta, 59 200
Braveheart, 155 Chungking Express, 123
Brecht, Bertolt, 119 Cinémathèque Ontario, vii
Breslin, Abigail, 164 Clair, René, viii
Bresson, Robert, vii-xviii, 13, 17, Claire Dolan, 159, 163, 165
24, 42-43, 47, 50, 53, 62, 67, 69, Claire’s Knee, 66
72, 80, 82, 85, 103, 112, 117, Clean, Shaven, 159
127-128, 131, 137-138, 148, Clément, René, 78-79
159, 165-174, 195-196 A Clockwork Orange, 154
Brimley, Wilford, 101 Cloquet, Ghislain, 174
Bringing Out the Dead, 91 Closet Children, 72
Brody, Adrian, 136 Cocteau, Jean, 27
Brother Sun, Sister Moon, 61 Comedies and Proverbs, 66
The Brown Bunny, 150 Comes a Horseman, 100
Buddhism, 15, 26, 86, 91, 113, 120 The Comfort of Strangers, 101
Buena Vista Social Club, 91 Commentary on Plato’s
Burel, L. H., xvii “Symposium”, 27
Buscemi, Steve, 60 Un condamné à mort s’est échappé
(A Man Escaped), ix-xii, xiv,
Cacoyannis, Michael, 109 xvii, 85, 127, 176-177
Cada, James, 100 A Confucian Confusion, 111
Cahiers du cinéma, xviii Cool Hand Luke, 154
Calvin, John, 69 Cooper, Jackie, 28
Cannes Film Festival, 47, 110, 127, Copeland, Stewart, 66
132, 136 Coppola, Francis Ford, 154
Casabianca, Camille de, 42 Corot, Jean-Baptiste-Camille, 29
Casarès, Maria, xvii Cremer, Bruno, 110
The Castle, 127 Crime and Punishment, xii, 165
Catholicism, ix, xiv, xvi-xvii, 29, Criminal Lovers, 103
34, 61-65, 67-69, 80-83, 99, Crocodile, 120
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 205

Cubism, 55, 58, 116 The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox,
Dafoe, Willem, 146 Duke, Patty, 31
Les dames du Bois de Boulogne Dulac, Germaine, 168
(Ladies of the Park), xii, xvi- Dumont, Bruno, viii
xvii, 175-176 Dunaway, Faye, 154
The Damned, 109 Duras, Marguerite, 72
Danton, Sylvie, 48, 50 Dutilleux, Henri, 48
Daquin, Louis, 78 Duvivier, Jules, 78
Dardenne, Jean-Pierre, xviii, 127- Dvorak, Anton, 71, 75
142, 159
Dardenne, Luc, xviii, 127-142, 159 Eakins, Thomas, 92-93
David, Jacques-Louis, 119-120 Ebreo, Leone, 27
Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag), 1-10, Eggeling, Viking, 55
62, 180-181 8½, 31
Debney, John, 146 Eisenstein, Sergei, xvi
Decaë, Henri, 31 The Elephant Man, 92
Delhomme, Benoît, 112 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 93
Deneuve, Catherine, 109 L’Enfance nue (Naked Childhood),
Denis, Claire, vii, 110 52
Depardieu, Gérard, 53 L’Enfant (The Child), 127, 137-142,
Dequenne, Emilie, 132 193
Deschanel, Caleb, 146 Eraserhead, 91
De Sica, Vittorio, 11, 13, 64 Eschassériaux, Bernard, 29
de Van, Marina, 103 Esumi, Makiko, 88
Le Diable probablement (The Devil, Europe ’51, 11-13, 181
Probably), xiii-xv, 179-180 Evans, Walker, 93
Dickens, Charles, 22 Evein, Bernard, 41-42
Diderot, Denis, xii, 44 Expressionism, 121
Die Hard II, 144
Les Dimanches de Ville d’Avray, 29 Family Life, 62
Dirty Harry, 154 Fano, Jacqueline, 78
Disney Studios, 91 Farnsworth, Richard, 100-101
Doillon, Jacques, xviii, 77-83, 128 Fassbinder, Rainer Werner, 103
“Domino,” 56 Faure, Renée, xvii
Domino, Fats, 57 Fear Factor, 119
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, xii, xviii, 12, Fellini, Federico, vii, 27, 31-35,
159, 161, 165-168 109, 196
Double Suicide, 77 La Fémis Film School, 104
Down by Law, 55-56 Une Femme douce (A Gentle
Dozo, Marie-Hélène, 142 Creature; a.k.a. A Gentle Spirit),
Dreamcatcher, 164 xii, xiv-xv, 67, 72, 159, 165-
Dreams of Youth, 86 174, 178-179
Dreyer, Carl Theodor, viii, xi, xviii, Ficino, Marsilio, 27
1-10, 24, 42, 53, 62, 85, 148, The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer,
196 1
206 Index

Fitzgerald, Benedict, 147 Gourmet, Olivier, 129, 136, 142

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 137 Gozzi, Patricia, 31
Flaiano, Ennio, 35 The Greatest Story Ever Told, 82,
Flaubert, Gustave, 137, 144 146
Flickers, xvii The Great Gatsby, 137
Floating Weeds, 16 Green, Eugene, viii
The Flowers of St. Francis, 61 The Green Pastures, 61
Flowers of Shanghai, 110 The Grey Fox, 100
Forbidden Games, 78-79 Griffith, D. W., xvi
The Forsyte Saga, 164 Grünewald, Matthias, 150
Foster, John, 160, 163-164 Guilbert, Jean-Claude, xii
Foster, Stephen, 22
The Four Hundred Blows, 111, 114 Hafitz, Andrew, 163
Four Screen Plays (Dreyer), 1, 3, 9 Haiku poetry, 20
The Four Tops, 164 Hamlet, 149-150, 170
Francis, Freddie, 98, 101 Hand Catching Lead, xvii
Francis of Assisi, 61 Haneke, Michael, viii
François, Déborah, 142 Hara, Setsuko, 19
Frangin, Guy, 168 Harker, Wiley, 100
The French Connection, 154 Heaven Over the Marshes, 61, 65
French New Wave, xviii, 49, 71-73, “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with
75, 111 Me,” 53
Friedkin, William, 154 Hee, Jae (Lee Hyun-kyoon), 124
Futurism, 116 Heraclitus, 21
He Who Must Die, 150
Der Galiläer, 145 Hidden Agenda, 62
Gallo, Vincent, 150 Higashiyama, Chieko, 19
Garland, Judy, 28 Hippolytus, 3
Genèse (Genesis), xiii Hiroshima, mon amour, 114
Genêt, Jean, 156 Hitchcock, Alfred, 108
Genina, Augusto, 65 The Hole, 110
Germany, Year Zero, 12 Hopper, Edward, 92-93
Gertrud, 85 The House of Mirth, 137
Ghost, 103, 109 The House on Telegraph Hill, 35
Gibson, Mel, xviii, 143-157, 196, Hsiao-hsien, Hou, 110, 140
199-200 Hung, Tran Anh, 112
Gladiator, 151
Glory, 101 Ibsen, Henrik, 68, 156
Godard, Jean-Luc, xviii, 49, 55, 72- “I Can’t Help Myself,” 164
73, 111, 117, 148 The Idiot, xii, 12, 166
The Godfather, 154 The Immediate Experience, 10
God Needs Men, 61 Ince, Thomas, 15
Golgotha, 146 In God’s Hands, 165
The Gospel According to St. Ingram, Rex, 15
Matthew, 61, 148 In the Heat of the Night, 154
The Gospel of John, 146 Irony and Drama: A Poetics, 2-3
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 207

The Isle, 120 Kurosawa, Akira, 16, 155

Jacquot, Benoît, xviii, 71-76, 78 The Lady From the Sea, 68

James, Henry, 72 Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the
Jansenism, ix-x, 69 Lake), xi-xii, xiv-xv, 179
Japan Society of New York, 15 Lange, Jessica, 109
Jarmusch, Jim, 55-60, 84, 112, 117, Lasalle, Martin, xii
140 Last Days, 120
Jarrett, Keith, 88 The Last Temptation of Christ, 53,
Jessua, Alain, 155 61, 146
Jesus, 146 Late Spring, 16
Jesus of Montreal, 150 Laydu, Claude, xii
Jesus of Nazareth, 146, 149 Léaud, Jean-Pierre, 17, 111, 114-
Johnson, Samuel, 4 115, 117
Jones, Bruce, 64, 66 Ledoyen, Virginie, 76
Journal d’un curé de campagne Leenhardt, Roger, xvii
(Diary of a Country Priest), ix, Lemmon, Jack, 101
xi-xii, xv-xvii, 13, 24, 42-43, Lethal Weapon, 148
47, 50, 67, 82, 127, 131, 148, Lewis, Damian, 164
165, 176 Loach, Ken, 61-66
Jumeaux de Brighton, ix Lobré, Jane, 174
Look, 154
Kafka, Franz, 127 Lopez, Jennifer, 164
Kang-sheng, Lee, 117 Lost in Space, 59
Kar-wai, Wong, 115 Loulou, 52
Kaurismäki, Aki, 115, 140 Loyola, Ignatius, 69
Keane, 159-166, 168, 172, 174, 194 Lucas, George, vii
Keane, Walter, vii Lully, Jean-Baptiste, xii
Keitel, Harvey, 146 Lumet, Sidney, 109
Kerrigan, Lodge, 159-166, 168, 172, Lynch, David, xviii, 91-102, 127,
174 197
Kiarostami, Abbas, 13
Ki-duk, Kim, xviii, 119-125 Maborosi, 77, 83-89, 105, 187-188
King Lear, 4, 6, 10, 37, 156 Madame Bovary, 137
King of Kings, 82, 146 Mad Max, 149
The King of Kings, 146 The Magician, 37
King, Stephen, 164 Magnificat, 127
Kolya, 163 Mahler, Gustav, 104
Kore-eda, Hirokazu, xviii, 77, 83- Makhmalbaf, Samira, 11
89, 105 Malory, Sir Thomas, xii
Kracauer, Siegfried, 86 Mamet, David, 91
Krüger, Hardy, 31 Man on Fire, 153
Kubrick, Stanley, 154 Marceau, Marcel, 34
Kudoh, Youki, 59 Marcoen, Alain, 130, 133, 142
Kundun, 91 Marinne, Morgan, 136
Kurant, Willy, 49
208 Index

Marivaux, Pierre Carlet de Newman, Paul, 154

Chamberlain, 67 New York Times, viii, 91-92
Marquette, Jacques (Père), 98 The Night Porter, 109
A Married Woman, 72 The Nights of Cabiria, 31
Martelli, Otello, 32 Nine Months, 137
Martin, Thérèse (Saint Thérèse of Noda, Kogo, 15-19
Lisieux), 41-45, 47 Noh drama, 20, 86
Marxism, 62, 64 Nolot, Jacques, 110
Masculine-Feminine, 49 Notes on Cinematography, 174
Masina, Giulietta, 34 Nous ne vieillerons pas ensemble
La Maternelle, 78 (We Will Not Grow Old
Matthau, Walter, 101 Together), 52
Maugham, Somerset, 137 The Nun’s Story, 61
Mazursky, Paul, 72 Nykvist, Sven, 38
McGill, Everett, 99
McKuen, Rod, vii Oedipus Rex, 4, 10, 156
Ming-Chang, Chen, 88 Ogita, Yoshihisa, 77
Ming-liang, Tsai, 103, 123 Olmi, Ermanno, 155
Miracle in Milan, 64-65 Orbison, Roy, 58
Miyagawa, Kazuo, 77 Orlando Furioso, 58-59
Miyamoto, Keru, 77 Othello, 4, 10
Mizoguchi, Kenji, xvii Ozon, François, 103-110
Monet, Claude, 42-43 Ozu, Yasujiro, xviii, 15-26, 57, 84-
Monteverdi, Claudio, 127 86, 112, 197
Mouchet, Catherine, 41
Mouchette, xii, xiv-xv, 50, 80, 127- Pagès, Luc, 69
128, 132, 138, 159, 178 Parker, Junior, 57
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, xii, Pascal, Blaise, 68-69, 162
xviii Pasolini, Pier Paolo, 148
Müller, Robby, 56 La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The
The Murderous Musician, 72 Passion of Joan of Arc), xi, 1,
Museum of Modern Art (New 24, 42, 62, 85, 148
York), 25 The Passion of the Christ, 143-157,
Musset, Alfred de, 67 193-194, 198-200
Mussolini, Benito, 96 Passion Play at Oberammergau,
My Night at Maud’s, 66, 69 150
Mystery Train, 55-60, 84, 185 Pauline at the Beach, 69
Payback, 149
Nagasi, Masatoshi, 59 Peckinpah, Sam, 154
Naitoh, Takashi, 88 Penn, Arthur, 154
Nakabori, Masao, 77, 85 Pensées, 69
Naturalism, 16, 19, 52-53, 57, 62, The Perfect Marriage, 66
65, 82, 84, 125, 128, 133, 135, Perkins, Carl, 58
142, 159, 166 Phaedra, 3
Nénette et Boni, 110 The Philosophy of Love, 27
Neorealism, 11-13, 31, 64-65, 148
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 209

Pialat, Maurice, xviii, 47-53, 80, 82, Realism, xiv, 13, 16, 34, 55, 57-59,
128, 165 64, 72, 81, 83-85, 93, 96, 116-
The Pianist, 136 117, 125, 128, 132, 142-144,
Piano Sonata no. 20, 148-150, 153, 157, 159, 197
The Picasso Summer, 28 Rebels of the Neon God, 110, 117
Pickpocket, ix-xii, xvii, 62, 82, 127, Redford, Robert, 164
137-138, 141, 159, 165, 177 Reed, Russ, 100
Pinelli, Tullio, 35 La Religieuse, 44
Pinter, Harold, 156 Renier, Jérémie, 138
Pi-ying, Yang, 110 Resnais, Alain, 114
Places in the Heart, 99 Resurrection, 100
Plato, 123 The Reward, 28
Poil de Carotte, 78 Richter, Hans, 55
Ponette, 77-83, 85, 89, 128, 138, Rickman, Alan, 103
188 Riff-Raff, 62
Poor Cow, 62 Rise and Fall of the City of
Portishead, 105 Mahagonny, 119
Portrait of Innocence, 78 The River, 110, 117
Pound, Ezra, vii Rivette, Jacques, 44
Presley, Elvis, 55-56, 58, 60 The Road to Heaven, 61
Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial The Road Warrior, 149
of Joan of Arc), ix, xi-xii, xvii, Rockwell, Norman, 92
62, 85, 127, 177 Rohmer, Éric, 62, 66-70, 82, 128,
The Prodigal Daughter, 77 197
La Promesse, 128-130, 133, 135, Romano, Marcia, 103
138 Romanticism, 35
Purcell, Henry, 170 Rongione, Fabrizio, 129
A Puritanical Woman, 78 Roosevelt, Eleanor, 19
Rosenberg, Harold, 144
Quandt, James, vii Rosetta, 127-133, 135, 137, 142,
Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (Four 159, 191-192
Nights of a Dreamer), x, xii, Rossellini, Roberto, 11-13
166, 179 Rousellot, Philippe, 42
Quinn, Anthony, 34 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 96
Quo Vadis, 61 Ruby in Paradise, 76
Ruttmann, Walter, 55
Racine, Jean, 69 Ryu, Chishu, 16-19
Raining Stones, 61-66, 68, 70, 185-
186 Sanda, Dominique, xii, 168
Rampling, Charlotte (Marie Sarde, Philippe, 78
Drillon), 108-110 Sartre, Jean-Paul, xiv
Ransom, 149 Saving Private Ryan, 98
Rattigan, Terence, 91 The Scent of Green Papaya, 112
Rauschenberg, Robert, vii Schrader, Paul, xvi-xvii, 8, 10, 85,
Ray, Satyajit, 155 87-88, 93, 101
Schubert, Franz, xii
210 Index

Schwartz, Delmore, 53 85-86, 88-89, 94-95, 111, 113,

Schwarzenegger, Arnold, 144 120, 124-125, 127-128, 131-
Scorsese, Martin, 53, 91, 146 133, 135, 138, 141-142, 147-
The Second Shepherds’ Play, 63 148, 150, 152-153, 157, 159,
See the Sea, 103 165-166, 167-168, 171, 173,
Sembène, Ousmane, 155 195, 198-200
Serra, Richard, xvii Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . .
Seung-back, Jang, 124 and Spring, 120
Seung-yeon, Lee, 124 The Stalking Moon, 100
The Seventh Seal, 37 Stampfer, J., 4, 6
Shakespeare Survey, 4 Stanton, Harry Dean, 100
Shakespeare, William, 3, 6, 10, 33, Stardust Memories, 109
68, 156 States, Bert, 2, 4-5
She’s Having a Baby, 137 Steel Magnolias, 99
Shiang-chyi, Chen, 117 Sternberg, Josef von, viii
Shinoda, Masahiro, 77-78 Stevenson, Juliet, 103
Shintoism, 86 La strada, 27-28, 31-35, 182-183
Shoeshine, 11 The Straight Story, 91-102, 127,
Siegel, Don, 154 132, 188-189
Sight and Sound, 25 Stranger than Paradise, 55
Signs and Wonders, 109 Straw Dogs, 154
The Silence, 37 Streep, Meryl, 109
Simenon, Georges, 110 String Quartet No. 1 in A, opus 2,
A Single Girl (La Fille Seule), 71- 71, 75
76, 78, 187 Stromboli, 13
Six Moral Tales, 66 Strummer, Joe, 60
Sjöström, Victor, 102 A Summer Dress, 103
Skarsgård, Stellan, 109 Sundays and Cybèle, 27-31, 35, 182
Sling Blade, 92 Surrealism, 121
Sluizer, George, 105 Survivor, 119
Slvian, 124 Sweeney, Mary, 92
The Snake Pit, 164 Sylvie (Louise Sylvain), xvii
Socialism, 62 Symbolism, 125, 156
Softley, Iain, 72 Symphony no. 2 in C Minor
The Son (Le Fils), 127, 133-137, (Resurrection), 104
159, 192
The Song of Bernadette, 61 Taiwanese New Wave, 110
Sons and Lovers, 101 A Tale of Springtime, 67
Sontag, Susan, xvi-xvii A Tale of Winter, 62, 66-70, 82,
Sophocles, 3, 10, 156 128, 138, 186-187
La souriante Madame Beudet, 168 Tales of the Four Seasons, 66
Spacek, Sissy, 100 Tati, Jacques, 112
Spielberg, Steven, vii, 98 Téchiné, André, 110
Spiritualism, ix, xiv-xvii, 11-12, 17, The Tempest, 115
27, 34, 37-39, 42, 47-48, 52-53, The Temptation of Isabelle, 77-78
59, 62, 65-67, 70, 72-73, 80, 82, Tender Mercies, 85
Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema 211

Terms of Endearment, 99 Variety Lights, 31

Theater of Cruelty, 152 Venice Film Festival, 78
Thérèse, 41-45, 47, 61, 82, 128, The Verdict, 109
138, 183-184 Véry, Charlotte, 70
Thivisol, Victoire, 78, 83 Vianney, St. Jean-Marie, 47
3-Iron, 119-125, 191 La vie de bohème, 115
Three Men and a Baby, 137 Vigo, Jean, viii
Through a Glass Darkly, 37 The Virgin Spring, 61
Thulin, Ingrid, 39 Visconti, Luchino, 109
Ti-ching, Lu, 117 I vitelloni, 31
Tien, Miao, 115, 117 Vive l’amour, 110, 123
Titanic, 35 Voletti, Michel, 70
Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari), von Sydow, Max, 39
15-26, 57, 84, 181-182 Voyage to Italy, 13
Tolstoy, Leo, xii, 20, 133, 166 Voyage to the End of the Night, 72
Tomlinson, Ricky, 66
Transcendentalism, xvi-xvii, 8, 13, Waits, Tom, 59
32, 52, 58, 81, 85-86, 93-94, Warhol, Andy, 112
102, 117, 124, 132-133, 138, Warshow, Robert, 10, 96
157, 159, 168, 196-197 Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 103
Transcendental Style in Film, xvii, 8 The Waves, 106
Trintignant, Marie, 81 The Weeping Woman, 77
Truffaut, François, 17, 111, 114 Weil, Simone, 12
Truly, Madly, Deeply, 103, 109 The Wench, 77
Truth or Dare, 103 Wenders, Wim, 56
Tudal, Antoine, 35 Wexler, Haskell, 154
Twin Peaks, 91, 100 Wharton, Edith, 137
Two Weeks in September, 28 What Time Is It There?, 103, 190-
Umberto D., 11 “White Nights,” 166
“Undenied,” 105 Wiazemsky, Anne, xii
Under the Sand (Sous le sable), Wiers-Jenssen, Hans, 9
103-110, 115, 189-190 Wild Animals, 120
Under the Sun of Satan (Sous le Wild at Heart, 92, 100
Soleil de Satan), 47-53, 61, 80, The Wild Bunch, 154
82, 117, 128, 138, 165, 184-185 Wilde, Oscar, 155
An Unfinished Life, 164 Wild Reeds, 110
An Unmarried Woman, 72 Wild Strawberries, 102
Up the Junction, 62 Williams, Tennessee, 156
Willis, Bruce, 144
Vagabonde, 53 The Wings of the Dove, 72
Vampire, 1 The Winslow Boy, 91
Van Den Driessche, Frédéric, 70 Winter Light, 37-40, 183
The Vanishing, 105 The Winter’s Tale, 68-69
Van Sant, Gus, 120 A Woman’s Vengeance, 78
Varda, Agnès, 53 Woolf, Virginia, 106-107
212 Index

The Word, 1, 62
Zeffirelli, Franco, 149
Yang, Edward, 110-111 Zola, Émile, 133
York Crucifixion, 150, 156