The Invention of Robert Bresson: The Auteur and His Market

By Colin Burnett | Go to book overview

3
Purifying Cinema :
The Provocations of Faithful Adaptation
and First-Person Storytelling in “Ignace de
Loyola” (1948) and Journal d’un curé de
campagne (1951)

Let me begin by acknowledging the heroic effort of Robert Bresson, who
intended to make the film of “perfect fidelity.” But this paralyzing fidelity
prevents Bresson from communicating with more than an infinitesimal
number of spectators. Maybe he wanted it that way, and maybe he would not be
willing to admit that this makes a film flawed. Yet, it is a flaw…. The search for
“quality” means nothing if it is carried out at the expense of most viewers, if it
turns its back on the public.

—critic Roger Boussinot1

RELEASED ON FEBRUARY 7, 1951, Robert Bresson’s adaptation of Georges Bernanos’s 1936 novel Journal d’un curé de campagne is now regarded as one of the classics of world cinema. But it initially garnered a mixed response. Roger Boussinot’s provocative L’écran français review, titled “Un film qui suscitera peu de vocations,” dismissed the director for being behind the times, his interest in faithful adaptation one that would attract few followers. French cinema had left the idea of quality, “formalist” filmmaking for the select few behind it: “Recall that four or five years ago much ink and a torrent of saliva flowed in the newspaper columns of experts and in ciné-clubs over the question of whether a film could do anything but betray the book it was adapting. Over the last several years, the birth of a French realism … has quite rightly reduced interest in discussions of this kind.”2 Responding to debates waged among specialized critics and cinephiles a half decade earlier, Bresson’s highbrow adaptation struck Boussinot as evidence that, despite being one of France’s finest directors, Bresson had become seduced by academic pursuits.

The claim that Bresson’s film was made strictly for a few detached elites, with no connections to broader viewing culture, is, to say the least, hasty (Journal d’un curé de campagne, as I intend to show, tapped into a widespread interest in

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