Missing piece for BFI Southbank Bresson season

The article below by Ginette Vincendeau had to be removed from the BFI membership website for technical reasons. Those of you interested in Bresson who missed it might still like to catch it.


Ginette Vincendeau

Robert Bresson’s originality and his elevated status in the pantheon of French post-war cinema derive from his austere style and metaphysical concerns, but also his rejection of anything that smacked of ‘commercial’ filmmaking – he went as far as refusing the term ‘cinema’, to replace it with the quaintly old-fashioned cinématographe.[1] Central to his system was the rejection of professional actors and recourse, instead, to so-called ‘models’ (or, in an earlier appellation, ‘protagonists’). Bresson employed some great actors in his early features, for instance Maria Casarès in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944). But soon he decided that to attain what Paul Schrader calls his ‘transcendental style’,[2] he must use only untrained people and ask them to recite their text with no inflection whatsoever. To this end he would make them rehearse the same lines endlessly until they were ‘flattened’, as if by an iron, as he told François Weyergans.[3]

Bresson hated professional actors for the reasons others love them, namely their charisma and ability to evoke emotions, and he radically stripped their performance style of any character or idiosyncracy. Above all, he needed to control them. As Paul Schrader said, ‘In a Bresson film, Bresson is the only one who does the creating’.[4] This unique method undoubtedly bore fruit. Bresson’s films have a mesmerising quality and some of his ‘anonymous’ models – Martin Lasalle in Pickpocket, Anne Wiazemsky in Au hasard Balthazar for instance – are as memorable as famous stars. Hence his work commands enormous respect and, among others, Jean-Luc Godard, Marguerite Duras and Susan Sontag have praised him as one of world cinema’s geniuses.

In the chorus of praise for Bresson’s handling of actors, there has been the odd false note – Maria Casarès thought Bresson curtailed her talent; the writer Marie Cardinal who plays the mother in Mouchette (1966) severely criticised his harsh treatment of the cast;[5] the theoretician Jean-Pierre Oudart declared Bresson’s posture as an auteur ‘Sadian’.[6] The recent publication of Anne Wiazemsky’s book Jeune fille,[7] adds a startling piece of evidence to this controversial issue. Wiazemsky, who plays Marie in Au hasard Balthazar (1966), comes with an impeccable cultural pedigree. The grand-daughter of novelist François Mauriac (who was prescient enough to encourage her to keep a diary during the shoot), she was plucked from her bourgeois family at the age of 18 by Bresson, through her friend Florence (Carrez, who plays the lead part in Bresson’s 1962 Le Procès de Jeanne D’Arc). Subsequently Wiazemsky married Godard, appeared in his films, and later became a prize-winning writer and a filmmaker.

Jeune fille, which recounts her experience on Balthazar, begins in anodyne fashion, like its title. A shy and sheltered adolescent, as befitted her privileged Catholic background in pre-May 68 France, she was initially in awe of the suave 64-year-old Bresson. What unfolds then is an extraordinary tale which mixes insights into Bresson’s method with the usual behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and the more unusual story of the director’s repeated attempts, in equal measures, at controlling and seducing Wiazemsky. These go from isolating her from the rest of the crew, making her sleep in a bedroom next to his, and forbidding her to see her friends or mother, to brutal treatment on set (unexpectedly violent slaps or falls, provoking director of photography Ghislain Cloquet to protest), to gestures and words that would now be called plain sexual harassment. This is no prurient ‘kiss-and-tell’ story though. Wiazemsky repeatedly expresses her admiration for Bresson as well as the liberating nature of working on Balthazar, which literally changed her life. What she documents, rather, is how behind Bresson’s much admired ‘Jansenist’ approach to theories of performance is also a brutally exploitative – at times cajoling, at times sadistic – attitude towards flesh-and-blood actors, especially virginal young women.

The timid jeune fille quickly understood her power over the tyrannical but besotted older filmmaker; she deliberately lost her virginity to a young man on the crew and bravely resisted the master night after night. Many will think that on screen her radiant embodiment of Marie, in its glowing simplicity, is a tribute to Bresson’s brilliance. But Wiazemsky shows forcefully the ambiguities as well as the human price there is to pay for Bresson’s apparently a-temporal and metaphysical cinema.


[1] The term is enshrined in Bresson’s book Notes sur le Cinématographe (first published in 1975).
[2] Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1972).
[3] François Weyergans, Robert Bresson, ni vu ni connu, part of the ‘Cinéastes de notre temps’ series. The film was initially shot in 1965, then re-released in 1994 bracketed by Weyergans’s comments.
[4] Schrader, op. cit., p. 66.
[5] Marie Cardinal, Cet Eté-là (Paris : Julliard, 1967).
[6] Jean-Pierre Oudart, ‘Le Hors-champ de l’auteur’, Cahiers du cinéma, N° 236-7, p. 88, quoted in Keith Reader, Robert Bresson (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 65.
[7] Anne Wiazemsky, Jeune fille (Paris, Gallimard, 2007).

Good news for UK archives

The following email about the DCMS’s substantial award for UK national archives was circulated to staff by the BFI press office today. It’s followed by a news release from the DCMS itself:

Colleagues –

I attach a (final draft) news release issued by the DCMS today announcing a £25 million investment to support the UK’s national and regional film archive strategy, as developed by the BFI with partners. This is part of the Government spending round announced last week.

This really is most welcome news and represents a huge vote of confidence in the BFI by Government. We are about to see probably the biggest ever single investment made in the BFI National Archive that will ensure the national collection can be safeguarded. Furthermore, and as part of the national archive strategy that was out to consultation during the summer, investment can also be made in regional archive infrastructure and digitisation, which will lead to people throughout the UK having much wider access to their film heritage wherever they are and regardless of where the material is held.

This announcement is testament to the hard work, commitment and achievements of everyone at the BFI over the past three years or more as we have restructured the Archive, highlighted the importance of the collections, launched many new access initiatives and led in the development of the national archive strategy.

Full detail on how the investment will be apportioned is yet to be announced but we’ll keep everyone posted. Hopefully, we will also have further good news to tell over the coming weeks, so again…watch this space!


BFI Press Office


James Purnell announces £25 million for national and regional film archives.

As the curtain opens on the Times BFI 51st London Film Festival, Culture Secretary James Purnell today announced that the UK Film Council (UKFC) has been awarded £25 million to safeguard the future of the UK’s national and regional film archives.

Mr Purnell revealed the funding package from the latest DCMS funding settlement settlement ahead of his attendance at tonight’s opening gala performance of David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises in Leicester Square.

This £25 million fund is in addition to £3 million from the UK Film Council for the UK Digital Film Archive Fund. It will enable the UK Film Council to implement the Screen Heritage Strategy to preserve the visual memory of the UK and ensure access for all.

Using the funds the UKFC will:

· preserve and restore the British Film Institute (BFI) national collection and the regional collections, some of which is deteriorating and in danger of being lost;
· ensure a joined up strategic approach to making the collections safe and overcome issues around rights, digitisation and skills investment;
· increase accessibility to the public; and
· enable archive material to be accessed around the regions.

The BFI National Archive is one of the world’s greatest collections of film and television and one of the most accessible.

The majority of the collection is British material but it also features a significant number of works from around the world. And it contains more than 60,000 fiction films, over 120,000 non-fiction titles and around 675,000 television programmes, which is well over 500,000 hours of material.

But a large amount of the contents of the archive is in danger of being lost and much needs to be restored. An estimated 30 per cent (123,000 cans) of the acetate collection is deteriorating.

Mr Purnell said:

‘The archive is a national treasure. It’s a visual history of Britain since the moving image began. From the earliest silent newsreels to CinemaScope to 3-D, the BFI archive is one of the greatest collections of film and TV in the world. It’s vital that we safeguard its future.

‘This additional £25 million will secure the future of the national and regional archives. It’s absolutely right that they should be safe and accessible for future generations.’

John Woodward, Chief Executive Officer of the UK Film Council said:

‘This is a fantastic boost for our nation’s screen heritage which brings to life the UK’s cultural, social, political and economic history. We are now in a position to take forward our plan for screen heritage in the UK which has been developed in partnership with the sector. This money, together with £3 million of UK Film Council funding to digitise film archives will mean that the regional and national archives can protect, preserve and showcase their amazing film collections for audiences across the UK to enjoy.’

Amanda Nevill, Director of the BFI said:

‘Through our emerging and nascent projects such as TV co-productions, online access activities and the Mediatheque, we have proved just how hungry the public is for archive and heritage film and how much they value it. This level of investment will mean we can once again set a world standard in conservation and preservation and bring into view so much more of our precious heritage captured on film and that the public is clamouring for.’

The national archive
Public interest in film heritage was demonstrated in the BBC TV series “The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon”, which showed everyday life in Edwardian Britain taken from the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection of 800 roles [sic] of early nitrate film, and attracted a television audience in excess of 4.5 million each week.

In schools, DVDs of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection are a useful teaching tool in aspects of Key Stage 3 history.

The regional archives
The regional film archives actively search for, acquire, and then provide access to film and video material specifically relevant to their regions. Almost all of the collections are non-fiction (feature films being the remit of the BFI ), and they vary in size from one individual film to a collection of hundreds of titles. The films are often acquired because of their local interest, but in many instances these collections are much more significant and of national and international importance.

For example: one single reel of nitrate film was deposited with the Yorkshire Film Archive, by a member of the public who had been to an archive screening. The film shows unique moving images of Queen Victoria when she visited Sheffield to open the new Sheffield Town Hall on 21st May, 1897. A film found and made accessible through regional activity, but of national importance.

At the North West Film Archive, the Manchester Ship Canal Company donated 175 reels of professional industrial films, dating from 1908 to the 1970s recording the historical breadth and depth of the company?s domestic and maritime exploits.

On a larger scale still, the East Anglian Film Archive holds over 1,200 award winning films, dating from 1932, made by the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers – a collection of national and international interest. The IAC require frequent access to their collection, as it continues to be actively used, but their primary consideration was to deposit the collection with an Archive with a reputation for specialist small gauge film expertise.

Notes to editors
The £25 million archive allowance is in addition to the UK Film Council’s annual fund. This is still being decided following DCMS’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement. The money will be split roughly evenly across 2 years.

For further details on DCMS’s settlement and the Departmental Strategic Objectives over the CSR07 period, please see The 2007 Pre-Budget Report and Comprehensive Spending Review: Meeting the aspirations of the British people, which can be found at http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/pbr_csr/pbr_csr07_index.cfm

Amanda Nevill and the Evening Standard

After weeks of silence, during which BFIwatch nearly fell asleep, Amanda Nevill was provoked by an article that appeared in the Evening Standard into sending the following email to BFI staff on Friday 12 October. The full text of the Standard piece is posted below her email.


I wanted to address the article in the Evening Standard today which, whilst uncomfortable for me, is not all bad for the BFI as a whole.

Just to ensure the record is absolutely straight:

1. There are no plans to ‘hive’ off the library or any part of the collections. The forward strategy is to bring these together, with all other BFI activities, in a national Film Centre. What we are intending is to bring in an HE partner for new investment for increased research and access to the collections.

2. Stills – these are as available as they have been in the last four years. We have reduced the size of the commercial operation as it was losing money, but are still offering a service – more in line with the size the business requires.

3. The partnership with Palgrave Macmillan is a licence agreement which will revitalise BFI publishing. This is good news for us and the authors. There will be a joint Palgrave/ BFI editorial board maintaining cultural integrity.

Whilst we try to minimise the impact of our challenging funding situation, I’m afraid it is not something we can avoid altogether.

The contents of the article are primarily based on the word of Ray Deahl, Michael Chanan and Tony Sloman – individuals who are know to most of us. Inspite of all the journalistic investigation, it seems the writer was unable to identify any authoritative or influential individual who shared their views.

The article is very helpful in highlighting our funding need, the fact we have a precious and important archive and that our forward direction includes a Film Centre which will house the library and special collections. To quote the journalist speaking of the Film centre, ‘No one doubts such a major project would benefit london’.

Criticising me is one thing, it goes with the territory, but criticising the BFI at a time when everyone is working incredibly hard, with visible success, is what irks me the most.

Let it not dint our resolve or ambition for the future.


The Kill Bill prank and the BFI boss accused of asset-stripping

Keith Dovkants
Evening Standard, Friday 12 October 2007

The 51st London Film Festival starts next week but there is unrest at the British Film Institute, with director Amanda Nevill under fire over her plans for the nation’s film treasures

SOMEONE at the British Film Institute has a dark sense of humour. Copies of a poster for the film Kill Bill were pinned up around the institute’s headquarters, with the sword-wielding Uma Thurman’s face replaced by that of Amanda Nevill, the BFI’s director.

According to an insider, the prank was a response to massive staff cuts and grumbles over Ms Nevill’s management style. She ordered a round-up of all the offending posters and a hunt for the perpetrator, not least because the episode touched a raw nerve. Ms Nevill has had to contend with a mounting wall of criticism of late. Her detractors accuse her of tearing the heart out of a revered and unique cultural body.

According to one respected documentary maker and academic, her policies at the BFI amount to “asset stripping” the nation’s film treasures.

Charges against her include:
• Hiving off the BFI’s publishing arm.
• Moving the institute’s unique collection of stills beyond the reach of all but a few academics.
• Seeking to strip the BFI’s London headquarters of its world-famous library of books and documents.

Ms Nevill says she is modernising the BFI and she maintains that she has the staunch support of the chairman, Oscar-winning director, Anthony Minghella. But he is leaving the BFI at the end of the year and the word from inside the organisation is that they are struggling to find a replacement.

The perception of trouble at the top of the BFI, in the week before the London Film Festival, has helped foster anxieties about whether the organisation can survive in its present form. “It look like it might be the end of the BFI as we know it,” Michael Chanan, film maker and professor of film and video at Roehampton University said. “If it was a private company you would say they are asset-stripping it.”

Professor Chanan headed a list of more than 50 academics and film writers who recently wrote an open letter deploring Ms Nevill’s policy of “realignment”. They called for her plans to be put on hold until the institute’s members, interested parties and the Government can be more fully consulted.

Within weeks of this an impassioned letter to Ms Nevill from a former BFI governor and long-standing member, Ray Deahl, was published on the internet. Mr Deahl accused the institute’s management of wasting money on expensive “rebranding” and failing to understand the historic purpose of the institute. He pointed out that recent seasons devoted to Laurence Olivier and Andy Warhol saw Olivier demoted to second place. “If only he’d had the genius to shoot five hours of Hamlet asleep,” Mr Deahl wrote caustically. He accused the BFI Southbank of neglecting silent films, to the extent that the Barbican was now considered the home of silent movies. “It’s not too late to save the day,” he wrote, “but with the clock at one minute to midnight there isn’t much time.”

Some fear too much has already happened. Tony Sloman, the film historian, director and critic, had his BF1 membership cancelled after he was involved in an altercation with a manager at the NFT. “He was rusticated,” another long-standing member said. “The row was used as an excuse. The real reason they got him out was because he was a member of the awkward squad.”

Mr Sloman said: “I had been a member for nearly 40 years and an elected governor. They barred me from even watching films at the NFT. I only got my membership back after Ken Loach and Lord Attenborough intervened. I thought the action they took was a bit heavy. I used the Data Protection laws to see what documents they kept on me. They had a file on me that wouldn’t disgrace the Stasi. They are spying on anyone who raises their voice in criticism.”

Mr Sloman would be the first to agree that he has a reputation for being a touch prickly, but others talk of a siege atmosphere inside the institute’s headquarters, prompted by disquiet over radical changes. The BFI has hived off its publishing arm to Palgrave MacMillan [sic], it is moving its unique stills collection to a storage unit in Berkhamstead [sic] and it is trying to persuade a university to take its library of books, periodicals and documents including original scripts and letters. The library itself is considered a national treasure. Hand-written notes from David Lean, Charlie Chaplin and Eisenstein are among its rare items.

The BFI says it has to move the stills and library because it cannot continue to keep them at its Stephen Street building. The offices were given to the institute by the oil tycoon John Paul Getty II, a devoted film buff. Now, it is said, Nevill and her team are preparing it to be sold off to the highest bidder.

“It’s all part of what she calls her ‘vision’,” a well-placed insider said. “They are not interested in the importance of the library to historians and scholars. When the stills go to Berkhamstead it be hard for anyone to get a look at them. God knows what will become of the library and the documents. They just want rid of them so they can pursue some grandiose ambition.”

This turns on plans for a new institute to house several national film theatres. The London Development Agency gave the BFI £500,000 to carry out a feasibility study. One site considered is a car park near Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank.

Ms Nevill and her team have been told that their plans would cost £200 million. The value of the Stephen Street would be a fraction of this and although the institute might be able to raise a loan against future earnings, no one doubts Government and lottery money would be needed. Would it come? Ms Nevill and the board are hoping for news next week on their appeal for Government cash to save the BFI film archive. They asked for £34 million and another £6 million year to safeguard more than 150,000 films and 600,000 television programmes, believed to be the biggest collection in the world.

Four years ago — before Ms Nevill took over — the BFI was accused by the National Audit Office of allowing the archive to rot. Older film made with nitrate is considered dangerous because it can spontaneously combust and the institute has consigned it to a Cold War nuclear missile silo in Gaydon, Oxfordshire. Newer film is held at Berkhamstead but neither place is considered suitable. The BFI wants Government money to build modern storage facilities with refrigeration to stop the reels disintegrating. Arts secretary James Purnell has made reassuring noises but nothing has been promised yet.

Stephen Frears, Oscar-nominated director of The Queen and a BFI governor said: “The BFI is underfunded. That is the issue. More importantly, the archive is underfunded. That’s to do with films decaying and that’s a serious problem.”

Ms Nevill’s supporters say she is desperately trying to cope with a money crisis. The institute’s £16 million-a-year grant from the Film Council has been frozen for four years, and with increasing demands from the Olympics budget no one expects much improvement.

BFI governor Leslie Hardcastle said “Yes, there is conflict but the fact is Amanda is struggling. The Angel Gabriel would come in for stick trying to do what she does. There is a very important issue here: do we want to preserve this important part of the nation’s heritage or not? If we do, it will cost money. I believe there would be no problem if we were dealing with books or paintings but government has always had difficulty seeing the cultural importance of film.”

Ms Nevill’s critics agree that lack of funding has not helped but some question the use of resources. Revamping the NFT site and rebranding it as BFI Southbank cost more than £5 million and the project ran a third over budget

Critics say money was wasted on consultants and image makers, while scant thought was given to the fact that plans for a tramway on Waterloo Bridge overhead in 2012 will render the site useless for the purpose of showing films.

Ms Nevill was brought in to run the BFI four years ago after a successful stint at a museum and photography archive in Bradford. At the time, the institute was under fire for allowing its film archive to deteriorate. Ms Nevill claims she has reversed that situation. “We have taken the archive out of danger,” she said.

Certainly if the rescue plan she devised is given the money it needs, the immediate threats to the mainly older film will ease. But what about moving the stills and possibly the library out of London? She accepts that access to the stills will be restricted at Berkhamstead, but she defends handing over the publishing arm: “Palgrave MacMillan can invest money in books and authors that we could never find,” she said. “We have a joint editorial board and books that should be published will be published.” She says her aim is to create a modern film centre where the archive, stills and library can be housed and accessed under one roof. Her vision is of an iconic building incorporating a number of national film theatres and anciliary facilities.

No one doubts such a major project would benefit London but is it realisable? Ms Nevill says it is, if she can find £200 million. Her critics say she is pursuing a dream that is unlikely to be fulfilled and she should concentrate on preserving great cinema and its history. Meanwhile, the prankster who doctored the Uma Thurman posters has been identified as a male member of the library staff. What will happen to him? “Nothing,” Ms Nevill said breezily “We do have a sense of humour, you know”