What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
Earlier this month, I decided to finally revisit Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne, Robert Bresson’s second feature, which was co-written by the multi-talented Jean Cocteau. It had been a damn long time since I’d seen it, and maybe I expected to find out that the movie was more ”Bressonian” that I remembered. It’s a transitional and atypically cosmopolitan work, set in Parisian nightclubs and high society bedrooms and made with professional actors, unlike his subsequent films. But instead, I found myself almost awed by its angular sense of figure, which is like that of a black-and-white Art Deco illustration. The stylization is pitched differently; here, Bresson’s direction of the actors and his use of the camera embrace artifice much the same way as his subsequent films resist it. There are even some ingenious camera movements.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Bresson lately. Of course, it’s because I’ve had to write a bit about him: two book reviews, plus a review of his 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar that is too brief to do the film justice. Discovering Bresson as a teenager was a big moment for me. As much as I would like to resist coming-of-age nostalgia, I can’t help but look back on the marathon viewing habits of my late teens and early 20s with wistfulness. Back then, I averaged maybe a thousand features a year, and lived in a perpetual heightened state of exploration. I’ve kept viewing logs sporadically, and when I go through the ones from back then, I’m struck by how many masterpieces and eventual favorites I would see back to back. It made up for the fact that I was often irresponsibly poor, living alone but working only part-time.
I can think back fondly now to the first summer I spent without electricity (shut off due to non-payment), learning the city of Chicago on foot, to avoid the bus and El fare. After a while, I bought a cruiser bike for $15 at a garage sale and it was so ugly and rusty that I never bothered to get a lock for it, because no one would steal it. Then, when I got a better job and a better living situation, I bought a nice old road bike for $100 and a lock to go with it. It was stolen almost immediately. There is actually a story here, because in my memory, this moment is a Bresson scene. I can see my own blank expression and the two simple shots composed with a 50mm lens. The movie theater usher (this would be me) exits the glass double doors and stops. We cut to the reverse angle of the very long bike rack (now long gone) packed with bikes except for one perfectly centered gap.
I can still remember walking home, refusing to take the bus so as to prolong an intoxicating feeling of resentment, and trying to draw something out this moment by imagining it as this film sequence, which lent itself so well to the Bresson style, that it takes effort to remember the real event. When I visualize it, it takes place in a mild midday, though in reality, it took place on a chilly fall evening. I’ve often wondered why it is that Bresson is so easy to internalize. There is a whole sub-category of deadpan arthouse filmmakers for whom this idiosyncratic master represents the foundation for everything else; Aki Kaurismäki and Eugène Green are two of the more obvious examples. I think it’s because Bresson’s mature style, developed from Diary Of A Country Priest on, was also a method. It was a way of drawing, of looking at reality and finding some abstract line or shape from which one could start.