Robert Bresson’s fourth film — after Affairs Publique (1934), extant only in a fragment; Angels of Sin (Les Anges du péché, 1943); and The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 1945) — Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951) is generally regarded as the director’s first mature work, the first in which what would be his distinctive approach to filmmaking — the use of untrained actors as “models,” the elliptical narrative, manipulation of offscreen space, spare and judicious use of music — finds full expression. And while it perhaps lacks the unassailable brilliance of A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Balthazar, and Mouchette, the film is both a considerable formal achievement and a crucial precursor of the modern cinema of alienation.
Diary is based on Georges Bernanos’ well-regarded novel (1936) of the same title. The story follows the travails of a naïve, sickly young priest who is sent to the village of Ambricourt to minister to its petty, vicious parish, a kind of penance in itself. The arrival of the priest (Claude Laydu) at the film’s opening, on a bike next to a large gate, seems to herald a horror film, and in fact Diary can be read on one level as just that. Ambricourt is indeed a horror — a stark, spare, forbidding environment, with large stretches of what appears to be empty farmland, foregrounded by the priest’s small, pathetic figure, decked out like Bergman’s Death in a severe black cassock. This could be Renfield trembling before Dracula’s castle.
Ambricourt represents a world of spiritual drought, in which the mechanics of religion exist without its heart. The locals go to church, catechism, and confession, but these are as much a pretext for humiliating the priest as for religious exercise. His attempts to perform his duties are constantly under siege. His first encounter is with an old man, Fabregard (Léon Arvel), who reviles him for charging anything for the funeral of his wife, disarming the priest with his venom. His best student, a little girl named Seraphita, beguiles him with phony compliments, while her schoolmates, in on the joke, laugh heartily just beyond the door. When she purposely drops her schoolbag, he retrieves it, trekking through the mud to return it, only to be met by the girl’s very ungrateful mother. This is surely the “hell that is other people” that Sartre described.
On the other hand, the priest appears to be on his own slow suicide course. He cuts out meat and vegetables from his diet, subsisting, barely, on cheap wine and stale bread, an obvious symbol of his Christlike martyrdom. Given a rabbit to cook, he demurs, thinking only that it represents an impossible expense as he will have to pay someone to cook it. He knows he is sick — “I am seriously ill,” he writes — but his stomach cancer is as much emblematic of the “sickness unto death” of a world devoid of meaning as it is a physical condition.
The priest’s faith vacillates wildly between reassuring belief and debilitating doubt. He is drawn into the intrigues at the grand manor of the town’s richest citizen, the Count, who is having an affair with his daughter’s governess. The daughter, Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), is bitterly angry at her father for having the affair and her mother for seeming to condone it. She also provokes the priest: “I will sin for sin’s sake!” she threatens. Convinced he must visit the Countess and try to set things right for the whole family by performing his priestly duties, he goes to the Manor house. His encounter there is the heart of the film and its single most powerful sequence.
The Countess’s demise isn’t the only sign of death in Ambricourt; the village is consumed by it, from the priest’s first encounter with the niggardly Fabregard, quarrelling over funeral expenses; to the (off-screen) suicide of his friend Doctor Delbende (Antoine Belpêtré), whose stoic motto “face up to it!” is ironically played out as Delbend obviously cannot do so; to the priest’s own decline as he increasingly vomits blood; falls into semi-consciousness, and in one memorable sequence, collapses in the mud, unable to move — a potent symbol indeed of abject humankind, inchoate and groveling. Virginia Woolf’s description from The Waves, “Death is woven into the violets. Death and again death.”, could refer to Ambricourt. The priest’s escape in the last part of the film, when he goes to the city of Lille to see a doctor and visit an old friend, is only temporary, though it’s perhaps the one moment in the film when he experiences happiness. Bernanos’s novel and Bresson’s film were lauded by Catholic and other religious commentators at the time, but it’s surely significant that the priest’s most peaceful moments are when he’s leaving Ambricourt and, symbolically, the impossibility of salvation and transcendence that it represents.
Claude Laydu, who went on to host children’s television, excels as the tormented priest. This is about as difficult a performance as one could imagine. Bresson’s camera unflinchingly surveys his face as he contemplates and suffers, and Laydu’s range of expressions within these emotional confines is quite amazing. It must be said, conversely, that the other extrordinary performance here is by Marie-Monique Markell, one of the few trained actors in the film. There are plenty of exceptions to Bresson’s oft-stated preference for moldable amateurs in his work; this is one of them, with Markell’s towering shifts from resignation to bitterness to self-righteous attack approaching the operatic.
Diary’s visual style has a formal beauty and intensity that link it to French poetic realism — chiaroscuro lighting, luminous soft focus of objects — while hinting at the kind of “perverse elliptical” approach that would peak in the director’s almost faceless Lancelot du Lac twenty-three years later, when the crucial process in Bresson’s filmmaking was fracturing the action into a series of decontextualized objects/body parts.. In a memorable sequence in Diary the priest takes the confession of the treacherous Chantal, and Bresson strips away all background from her, showing only the face in a sea of black. Elsewhere the film conducts dialogues in which only one of the characters is seen. As always, with Bresson suggestion is all.
Criterion’s DVD does well by Diary. After years of lousy videos and 16mm prints, this version’s shimmery, nuanced black-and-white is very welcome. It’s a bit light on extras: a new essay of slight interest by critic Fredric Bonnaud, and a running, sometimes rambling commentary by historian Peter Cowie. This is a Region 1 DVD in French with English subtitles if desired. $39.95 list price; cheaper at various online venues.