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.

BRESSON AND HIS ACTORS – THE REVOLT OF A ‘MODEL’

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.

Notes

[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).





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