The Bressonian Quarrel
There has been, for 40 years now, a quarrel about the meaning, value and legacy of the cinema of Robert Bresson. Bernardo Bertolucci once evoked the cinephilic cult of Bresson very well:
"Today, the name of Bresson has become an emblem, an entity, a sort of cinematographic manifesto of poetic rigour. To be Bressonian signified, for me and my friends, aiming for a moral ideal, an unattainable, sublime and mortifying ideal of cinematographic ascesis: I describe it as a mortifying ideal because his films are always strongly sensual experiences, but deprived of any ultimate release (other than aesthetic release, which is, however, a source of intense pleasure all by itself)."
There is a lot packed in here: the minimal purity of Bresson's cinema, plus its sublimated sexuality. Also, the intriguing idea that his films evoke a perfection which is, in fact, unattainable, but demanding the ritual exercise of self-purification. There are many contemporary filmmakers profoundly influenced by this Bressonian ideal, no matter what individual direction they may take it in: Olivier Assayas and Philippe Garrel in France, Darezhan Omirbaev in Kazakhstan, Paul Schrader in America, the Dardenne brothers in Belgium, Ivan Sen in Australia, and Kumar Shahani in India.
This activity feeds into the quarrel that begins with Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film (1972): a book with an explicitly religious intent, defining a special group of spiritual or transcendent filmmakers — Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu. Within two years of this book, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, himself a passionate champion of Bresson, began the counter-attack upon Schrader's transcendental system. Rosenbaum wrote in 1974:
"To a certain extent, Bresson's films are about mystery, but their manner of arriving there is always quite concrete, just [like] the fictions of Kafka and Beckett [...] For this reason, it seems useful to speak here of Bresson's art as one of immanence, not one of transcendence, and one where the inside is always revealed by remaining on the outside."
24 years later, on the occasion of the epic James Quandt anthology on Bresson, Rosenbaum was even harsher in his battle against what he perceived as the misguided religious appropriators of Bresson's cinema. Here he added: "There is also a powerful and wholly material eroticism in his work that makes a quantum leap around the time of Pickpocket — an eroticism interactively dependent on other material elements of sound and image."
I am more than sympathetic with Rosenbaum's position, but I believe that he makes a few 'category errors' which have helped to sow a confusion that has polarised the Bressonian quarrel:
1. There is a slippage between materiality as a property of cinema, and materialism as a philosophical or political principle. One can have materiality without materialism; indeed, that is exactly what happens in recent films by Bruno Dumont, Terrence Malick or Apichatpong Weerasethakul; it was also true, further back, of Stan Brakhage or, indeed, Ozu.
2. To assert that Bresson's films are categorically not spiritual is to work with an extremely reduced caricature of religion. Rosenbaum's anger on this point seems to me classically anti-clerical, anti-church, anti-institution. But that is not the spirituality of Bresson's cinema. If Bresson is a religious artist — and I believe we must take him seriously as such — his artistic process is one of constant questioning, doubt, agonised self-interrogation over the nature and practice of one's own faith. A spirituality closer to Simone Weil or many similar religious philosophers than the Vatican.
3. Rosenbaum states his premise that, because Bresson's films are powerfully erotic, they are therefore not spiritual; eroticism goes with materialism. But Bertolucci posed the sexual aspect of Bresson's cinema completely differently: for him, the films are suffused with an almost unbearable sensuality — only it is 'without release', without orgasm, pent up and thus all the more charged.
Eroticism, in short, is not the opposite of spirituality — and there are many saints and mystics who could surely verify that one for us.