Sontag, Bresson, and the Unfixable

By Price, Brian | Post Script, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Sontag, Bresson, and the Unfixable


Price, Brian, Post Script


Susan Sontag's "Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson" appeared in 1964; it marked the first serious treatment in English of one of France's most difficult filmmakers (then as now). As Sontag rightly observed at the time, Bresson did not have same appeal in the United States as his art-house contemporaries Bergman, Bunuel, and Fellini (179). The severity of Bresson's style, the cold quality of the films, defied the concept of what an art film should be that had already hardened among urban cinephiles. And that included films thoroughly resistant to immediate comprehension and classification. It might thus come as something of a surprise when we see the influence of Bresson's work pervading much of the film production of the American avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, in Richard Serra's film Hand Catching Lead (1968). Serra's film shows only what the title describes: a close-up of a hand trying to catch lead. Close-ups of the hand at various forms of work and play make up the central terms of Bresson's practice in the 1950s, especially in A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959), both of which also adopted very literal titles. Serra no doubt saw Bresson's work, whether in New York, where he attended screenings at Anthology Film Archives (which has kept some of Bresson's work in its ongoing Essential Cinema series), or in Paris at the Cinematheque Francaise, where he admits to having spent time from 1965-1966 (Michelson: 21-22). But it is just as likely that he found Bresson by way of Sontag's essay, whose writing on art in the 1960s countenances an engagement with New York-based Minimalist art and its critics, especially in her call for a renewed attention to an erotics of art in "Against Interpretation." (1)

However, the influence of Sontag's essay extends well beyond its impact on New York based avant-garde of the 1960s. That is, it occupies a very curious place in the history of Bresson criticism more broadly. On the one hand, Sontag's essay is an attempt to define the religious (or at least spiritual) character of Bresson's work up to 1962. In this sense, Sontag's essay extends in anglicized form an already dominant tendency in Bresson criticism in France to understand the work in religious terms. Whether in his first full-length film Les Anges du peche (1943), a crime film set in a Dominican monastery, or in the Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Bresson's films are marked, to this point, by their religious subjects, which provoked an early and extensive theorization of Bresson's style in religious terms by Catholic writers such as Henri Agel, Roger Leenhardt, Amedee Ayfre, and Andre Bazin, all of whom contributed to the Catholic journal Esprit. In particular, this work is characterized by its effort to understand style itself as a vehicle through which (The) spirit might pass.

Sontag never cites this work explicitly, nor is it certain that she had actually read it. Nevertheless, she arrives at a position curiously similar to this generation's thought about Bresson. For instance, in his essay "The Universe of Robert Bresson," published in the same year as Sontag's essay, Amedee Ayfre speaks of the ascetic quality of Bresson's visual style--his refusal of the traditional markers of character psychology (gesture, relational editing)--as the condition necessary for a religious aesthetic. (2) Ayfre explains that "We are dealing with immanent transcendence, or even, one might say, radical invisibility. For the invisible world remains invisible, or rather appears invisible" (52). This seeming paradox of immanent transcendence is resolved for Ayfre in the dead-pan visage of the Bressonian model, the term Bresson used to describe his actors. At Bresson's insistence, these "models" did not act in any conventional sense, but rather moved about with blank visages that Ayfre refers to as their masks: "By expressing nothing, the masks express precisely that which is beyond expression" (53). Of course, the same could be said of Buster Keaton, but that's slightly beside the point. …

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