Two of the most elusive auteurs tell all, or at least some.
ROBERT BRESSON: WITHOUT A TRACE
A documentary about Robert Bresson (1901?-1999), with the director cooperating – indeed, appearing positively chatty – seems unthinkable, given his daunting combination of intellect, testiness, and hauteur. He wasn’t averse to interviews per se, and there are plenty around (James Quandt’s Robert Bresson, published in 1998 by the Toronto International Film Festival Group, collects four of them). But as Francois Weyergans notes in his 1965 portrait Robert Bresson: Without a Trace, part of the Cinema of Our Time series made for French television, he tends to “rewrite the questions because he likes answering questions he asks himself.”
Bresson is surprisingly indulgent here, perhaps taken by Weyergans’ youth and engagement and the fact that, like Bresson’s model/actors, he’s a kind of tabula rasa on which the master’s ideas can be inscribed. (Compare this situation with the typical begrudging or downright hostile interview with, for example, Paul Schrader, whose conclusions on Bresson’s work were not at all to the latter’s liking.)
The documentary was shot in austere black-and-white at its subject’s country home during the planning stages of Au Hasard Balthazar. This setting proves ideal in provoking an exceptionally fluent near-monologue in which Bresson, responding at length to brief questions by Weyergans, outlines his philosophy of filmmaking and, by inference, of life. He’s as compelling with words as with celluloid, and there are many gems in the 64-minute running time that have the quality of aphorism: “Emotion is born of consistency and restraint”; Using theatrical means to make a film is like hammering with a saw”; “Cinematography is suffocated by theatre” – that is, the theatrical impulse, to overdramatize, use special effects (which he loathed), let actors dominate. He’s also not as otherworldly as the legend indicates. He’d recently seen Goldfinger,enthusiastically recalling the scene in which 007 sees an attacker behind him reflected in the eye of a woman he’s kissing (the scene is excerpted). Who knew Bresson would even have seen Goldfinger,much less liked it? He’s also prescient in denouncing modern media as “a school of inattention. We don’t really see or hear.” Like Cocteau, he believes filmmaking is a process of “stealing”; he wittily indicates Weyergans in this regard: “What you’re doing now is like taking possession of me.”
It’s not difficult to find resonant sequences from a career of this caliber encompassing just thirteen films, but Weyergans quotes stunning scenes from Pickpocket and Joan of Arc. Bresson is at his most poetic in the image of Joan’s bare feet noisily hitting the cobblestones as she walks rapidly toward her doom, but it’s also a highly typical scene in implying the whole by showing the part. He comments extensively on his frequent motif of body parts divorced from the surrounding body, concluding that “Feet and hands have a will.”
Bresson’s theory of the “three births” of a film is worth repeating: “First, the film is born in your head and dies on paper. You bring it back to life with living characters, the characters and real objects you use. They die when fixed on film. Then in the third birth, never seen in filmed theatre, what you captured on film, sound and image together, suddenly take on a sort of life, which is the palpitation from this constant transformation of connected images.” Good stuff.
Weyergans appears twice outside the documentary proper, contextualizing it at the beginning and waxing wistful at the end. He regrets, for example, the difficulty of seeing Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, to which we can add a further lament: the lack of a single Bresson film on DVD. Even on VHS the films are either out-of-print, or released in grainy dupes or hard-to-find bootlegs. Unforgivable.
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CHANTAL AKERMAN ON CHANTAL AKERMAN
Chantal Akerman has less excuse than Bresson to be evasive; unlike him, she’s still alive. But the Belgian-born director of Jeanne Dielman, Jet u il elle, and other masterpieces has been equally reticent to play the role of star-director. This isn’t merely self-effacement; as Akerman herself recalls in this engaging self-portrait also made for the Cinema of Our Time series (speaking in the third person): “Few people saw her films and she asked no one for money.” She’s speaking here of her pre-Jeanne Dielman period, but in a sense the phrase continues to apply. Despite a high critical reputation and occasional flirtations with commercial cinema (the 1995 screwball comedy The Couch, for example), Akerman remains a marginal figure who explores to telling effect the concept of marginality, a subject well known to her not only as a matter of temperament, but also because she’s both Jewish and lesbian.
Originally asked to make a film about a director of her choice, she suggested herself as the subject. But there was immediate regret, which she treats whimsically. She asks the viewer to “be kind” and accept her as a “shifty narrator.” Unlike Bresson, she seems purposefully tentative, questioning, though doing so sardonically. She looks back at her films and says “How could I have done that? It wasn’t me. It was a stranger. I’ll never make another one.” The first half of this self-portrait shows Akerman’s droll side, a mock hand-wringing over the pressure to expose a personality that likes a degree of anonymity, and to live up to a similar documentary on her mentor Jean-Luc Godard. Finally reconciling herself to doing the film because “a contract’s a contract,” she notes “the trade-off: some Akerman by Akerman, filmmaker of our time, for some money. I always respect my contracts.” Adopting the guise of the nervous raconteur, she even throws in a few jokes.
The second half of the film is the rest of the “self-portrait,” an Akerman mosaic created from pieces of her films. She perversely lists the films to be quoted only once at the beginning rather than tagging each excerpt, another way of distancing herself, retaining her marginality and by extension, perhaps, her freedom. So anyone not versed in her work will find the excerpts both intriguing and confusing, which may be the intent. Still, there are telling images that indicate a powerful presence behind the camera: a painfully long close-up of a beautiful young girl who, having danced delightedly with another girl at a party, is suddenly left alone while the soundtrack plays James Brown’s haunting tune “It’s a Man’s World”; tableaux of seeming strangers standing on the street, captured by a relentless dolly; Akerman herself appearing in an early short in which she and a pal invade a posh restaurant, singing loudly before being escorted out. Several sequences appear from Jeanne Dielman, most tellingly a lingering shot of Dielman sitting motionless in the kitchen, the room imbued with light in the manner of Vermeer.
Ultimately Akerman, who emerges here as a charming, charismatic presence despite her efforts at camouflage, opts to retain her mystery. In a brief finale she reappears with the incontestable “truth” of who she is in four short sentences: “Last attempt at self-portrait. My name is Chantal Akerman. I was born in Brussels. And that’s the truth.”