© 2012 by James Clark
In trying to convey the special contributions inherent in the films of Robert Bresson, there emerges, to complicate matters enormously, the question of actually being able to see them. Apart from once-a-decade retrospectives in select venues few and far between, and DVD’s of the few titles (Mouchette, Balthazar…) having been lifted by media frequency into the pantheon of “classics,” a large percentage of this small to begin with output has been rushed into very early obsolescence. Bresson deals with subject matter most people are determined to live without; and, moreover, his methods of treating that matter are so low-key, that the effort seems to be in love with marketing catastrophe, a characteristic those in the business of selling films would be quick to act upon.
We have, however, a way of offsetting this prescription for becoming an Unknown Soldier, a way nicely prepared by Bresson himself. There is a subtext of these narratives—so witty and thrilling as to be enjoyed in reportage irrespective of the widely terrifying and thereby repellent main disclosures. Bresson has set the table for a discursive foretaste blithely detached from actual screening, one of many heresies he delighted in. Notwithstanding failing mass—or even niche—appeal and paralytic distribution, there is, in a film like Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), so much sleight of hand going on as to form the content of a sort of magic show, or, if you like, gossip column. Perhaps if the gossip is tasty enough, one or two readers may actually pull themselves together and go on the lookout for experiencing a film that otherwise might not have seemed to hold rewards. (Contributing to the buzz here, I should add that the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy, The Big Lebowski, is all over the efforts of Four Nights of a Dreamer, as we shall see two weeks from now.)
We have to get over assuming that we’re dealing here with work derived from a sourpuss. Bresson has reached a perspective comprising much damage and pain; but that perspective uncannily includes leeway for fulfilment and delight. In Four Nights of a Dreamer there is to be found a sense of kinship with other participants in a rugged line of work not to be missed for the world. And it is from out of this sharing that there emerges in the narrative a play that could be compared to moonlight immeasurably enlivening a flat and dark manifestation. The protagonist, a young painter who carries himself in the familiar Bressonian key of plodding to the gallows (with a visage saturated by stunned despair—in other words, very like Michel, in Pickpocket), is named Jacques, and that makes a world of difference. In the first seconds, he hitch-hikes a ride out of town (in this case, Paris), comes to a hillside in the country and, before singing to himself, somersaults downwards (awkwardly, of course). We should include in our taking up this eventuation the factor of his being not simply a painter, but a painter very prone to dreaming of being extraordinarily in love with women briefly glimpsed on the streets. He meets up there with the leading lady, and tapes, for inspiration toward his artwork, his repeatedly calling out her name—Marthe—furnishing thereby a strange song, rather off-putting because so mawkish. Now we’re ready to pull the first rabbit out of the hat—namely, Jacques Perrin. In The Young Girls of Rochefort this actor plays the part of Maxence, a painter about to be “demobbed” from military, group constraints in favor of individual initiative, at the naval base in that town. He has produced a portrait of his dream lover to whom he often sings a song with more lyricism but not much more convincing energy than that emitting from the Paris-based Jacques. (Whereas the latter hitch-hikes out of the Capital at the beginning, Maxence hitch-hikes toward Paris at the end of his gig.) Perrin resurfaces in a film from 1970—Donkey Skin—once again in thrall to dream girl, Catherine Deneuve, a Princess terrorized by an incestuous father and eventually coming to (sort of) live happily ever after with a swooning Prince (Perrin) who joins her in expressing ecstasy of a decidedly juvenile character, by somersaulting (uphill).
The second rabbit, as you may have guessed, is the director/writer of Young Girls and Donkey Skin, Jacques Demy, who financially paved the way for Bresson’s Donkey film, Balthazar at Risk (1966). Demy knew as much about corruptible dynamics as Bresson; but his was a muse more insistent upon the possibility of sustaining graceful vicissitudes, warmth and wit even amidst failing courage. As thus endowed with the second opinion provided by traces of the lightness of Demy’s often clouded whimsy, Four Nights of a Dreamer proceeds with its tale of shambles having been subtly inflected to take account of compensatory sensual careers. A tangible step toward that new look is the site of Jacque’s rather creaky fling with the only dream girl good for more than a few minutes (which is to say, all of four nights), namely, the Pont Neuf (New Bridge). That there are strings attached to this venture is implied by the point that this New Bridge is over four hundred years old. More in line with that downdraft are many of the specifics of Marthe, first encountered by the somersault guy as she prepares to drown herself by jumping off that aged (though graceful) bridge, showing us in the process a thrifty recklessness as she removes her pair of top of the line shoes so favored by Catherine Deneuve in vehicles like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, also by Demy, and Belle de Jour, where her sensual deliberations do not include suicide. Marthe also wears a long cape, making her seem to come from centuries past, particularly the Age of Chivalry, an impression which conjures the archaic concomitants of Genevieve (in Umbrellas), being rescued by a less than full-scale Lancelot, specifically by a gems dealer, kind-hearted but tepid. During his bit of derring-do in face of this crisis, Jacques’ sombre mask comes in for a bit of intensification as he crisply deals with curious passers-by and a car full of cops. Marthe, too, unsurprisingly, has a gloomy mask—both of these exponents of self-dramatization never so much as cracking the tiniest valid smile throughout—and an icily-controlled declamatory mode of conversing about having been abandoned by a lover lacking chivalrous instincts.
The scenario unfolds not merely by way of their series of over-assertive têtes-à-têtes always convened at the old bridge which moots moving across to newness (though, to be literal, it links two rigidly defined bailiwicks, the Right Bank and the Left Bank), but also by way of flashbacks wherein each describes to the other the supposed audacity and depth of their sagas. “Tell me your story,” she demands of her rescuer (on the second night), adding, “We have to be very clever” (to preserve a fragile purchase upon sublime discernments). Though prefacing his run at epic poetry with, “I have no story… I see no one. I speak to no one,” he does want her to see him supernally dazzled by many young girls of Paris, and then fascinatingly rushing to his atelier to translate that overwrought and overestimated infatuation into canvases where heavily saturated fields of primary colors enliven rather sterile, contrived and trendy portraiture. He particularly relives for us seeing a babe with an ugly old guy in a suit (at least 35 if he’s a day), and this decidedly ruffles his feathers. He commits his turmoil to audio tape: “The castle is strange [the dirty old man has a black beard, well on the way to being a Beast]… She is there half the year… The pure and the innocent… I find her again in Venice. She is dancing. She tears off her mask and says, ‘I’m free from terror and that old man.’ In the park we walk together hand-in-hand…Our love is pure…” (Maxence had hallucinated about “… a modest florist…I search for her from Bali to Lima…”). “Is that your life?” Marthe hopefully inquires. “Yes,” he humourlessly declares. “I see people in turmoil. My dreams become flat…” That cues another chapter of his story, where he is interrupted, in letting the satisfying fantasy of “pure love” wash over him from out of his tape, by an unexpected visitor to his studio, a former classmate of his from “Beaux Arts” (Art School) who dropped out of the system—the 60’s very instrumental here—to pursue solitary researches in painting that jeopardize the peacock payoffs Jacques seems to require. On first hearing the doorbell, Jacques hurriedly conceals the residue of several meals and the canvases with their residues of nice thoughts. He also retrieves some kind of trophy (perhaps a school prize, a graduation award), treasured for its signalling being initiated into respectable circles, its globular configuration entering the realm of the Round Table. The chum asks, “Jacques, do you recognize me?” Jacques shakes his head to say no and goes on to actually say “Yes,” a disconnection between gesture and speech very germane to the ordeal of traction that propels this work. (When hitch-hiking at the outset, and being asked, “Where are you going?” he shrugs that it doesn’t matter.) The visitor peppers him with a series of mantras redolent of his own catchy output on the basis of half-digested insights. “Craftsmanship is dead… Van Gogh and Godzilla—it’s over! I am for a mature art open to its time, simply a meeting of the painter and the concept. Not one that bursts on contact with nature. The gesture is what counts, not the object—a gesture suspended in and activating space…the disappearance of painter and object…” Jacques responds to this outburst with a mixture of impassivity and quiet alarm in having his stately comfort zone violated. He offers Scotch (hiding his wine), but the other purist turns him down. The latter whips out a couple of photographic plates, each marked with a small spot and a larger spot, explaining that they deal with world and artist. Then he leaves, almost as abruptly as he arrived. But a bit of conversation at the door touches upon some hitherto nebulous desperation about the sufficiency of their courses of action. “See you soon,” the stranger declares. Jacques wants to know, “For sure?” And the boy insists, “For sure.” We can’t help noticing a rather garbled but irony-distributing reprise of the young priest and his dropout friend, at the end of Diary of a Country Priest. Jacques, the upholder of a conventionality that is strongly reminiscent of the Medieval Period, cannot, like his precursor, point to a moment (however brief) of ecstatic truth, inducing him to assure (by way of his frail, maverick associate), “All is grace!”
With the onset of Marthe’s “history,” we are afforded a more complete disclosure of the film’s mandate to expose the corruptibility of sensual “gestures” in the form of cementing into ritualized codes of behavior supposedly ensuring a renaissance of virtue and enrichment. She chooses to treat him to the peculiarities of her home life, being an only child raised solely by her mother in a solid bourgeoise apartment building, but including the canny twist of having a boarder occupying a spare bedroom. One night Marthe, preparing to go to bed, hears on her radio a Brazilian pop song the quietly feisty rhythms, melody and performance of which lead her to remove her clothes and behold herself in a mirror. Most arrestingly, she concentrates upon various gestures she performs in harmony with the music. Her hand gently traces through space an arabesque wherein the wrist turns and the fingers touch off a vibration of silent strings. She raises one knee and turns slowly, and as she lowers her leg she gives her ankle a little uptwist. The boarder, with whom she had clashed during the previous days on account of failing to strike a mutually advantageous partnership, taps on the wall and eventually they are in her room and in each other’s arms. Soon afterwards, he’s checked out, headed for a year’s stint in America as a Graduate Student. Marthe wants to come along but he won’t hear of it, citing the financial complications as paramount. But they strike an agreement to get together again on his return, the contravening of which sends her toward suicide. This oscillating love coming out of that domestic situation reminds us, first of all, of Cecile (in Demy’s Lola), a fourteen-year-old who is befriended by an American sailor, Frankie, whose ship soon must return to home port. Whereas Cecile never thinks of more than easy-going flirtation and soon runs off to become a hairdresser in another city (not exactly where her studies-first Mom wanted her to go), she (who had been an indifferent piano student) at least finds a way to dispense with mawkish umbrage and rock-ribbed correctness. Another friend-only guy in the kid’s life, Roland Cassard, causing a flutter to her Mom and filling Cecile’s head with wanderlust in dinner conversation, plays a part in another live-ammo strike of the mother and daughter constellation going through turmoil when the love interest cuts out, namely, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the latter town not so coincidentally the destination of Cecile. The abandoned damsel, Geneviève, stakes ancient claims and fumes a bit, before (perhaps only too) sensibly (but then again perhaps not) bringing backup, Cassard, onboard. (Such variations coming to light install the rigid range of our protagonists within a wider kinetic leeway.)
Soulmates in dotage toward calculative observances as heavily buying into gestures of courtly romance in their residue of a more viably sensual form of gesture, Jacques and Marthe attach themselves to the task of forcing the Graduate to pass the test they set for him to do justice to his promise to her. “I don’t want to force him,” she coyly begins. “You have the right to,” is Jacques’ prissy retort, closer, in fact, to her real sentiments. Immediately on putting on their calendar his chatting him up tomorrow, they come upon a little parade of hippy troubadours unmusically singing, “Mystery girl, mystery girl… Oh, oh, mystery girl,” with very poor facsimiles of American accents, which add to the mockery toward that hapless pair of self-conscious schemers, precisely engaged in throttling every vestige of mystery their life might introduce. In a nice twist, Marthe, who had been floating the pretense that she was too cool to hector her lover-boy, shows some good old Yankee litigious bona fides in whipping out a well-prepared missive for Jacques to deliver, to have the same effect as a subpoena. Their fretful preoccupation with a letter to clear the air invokes Genevieve left in the lurch by her incommunicado, draftee boyfriend and father of the baby she’s about to deliver. (That same situation comes up in Jacque’s daydream about the Beauty [seemingly imprisoned by a Beast]. He watches them drive up to their condo/estate in a black Rolls Royce [close enough to the black Mercedes Cassard owns]. That would put into play the canny advantages of Cassard, master of cases, lawsuits. Marthe’s academically-inclined dividend dresses like and shows the predatory, well-mannered bloodlessness of Cassard. [He leaves on their coffee table some books for her and her Mom. In Lola, Cassard leaves the little family an English dictionary.] To complete the thought about Geneviève, as they close out that night by the bridge they never cross, the ludicrously-implicated Mystery Girl [in her entanglement with the umbrella trade] assures Jacques it won’t rain next day. It does.)
Amidst this juvenilia, we are treated to a flash of the creative fire driving (invisibly, for the most part) these babbling young bores and their stillborn gestures. She, increasingly piqued by her wayward squeeze, rallies Jacques, on this the third night of noisy dreaming, “I love you because you’re not in love with me. And you are très gentil [very kind].” He (love’s lightning-rod with faulty transmission) is of course in love with her and, with that topspin in the air, the moment takes reflectively potent confirmation by the approach of a bateau mouche (Paris tour boat) which they behold from a bridge getting newer by the minute. The onboard entertainers that night are the guys who had cut that record she heard on the radio, leading her to explore the beauties of gesture. Whereas the musical feature at that former stage is something of a game-changer, it doesn’t really hit its stride until the boat arrives. Akin to the follow-through of Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of the Latino version of “Crying,” from Rita and Betty’s night of love in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, this is a musical vision that, though perhaps not taking you by the throat, comes as a near miracle in its context of seemingly irredeemable torpor and preposterousness. The boat radiates a soft, golden aura from its party lights in a slight fog, and accordingly there are three guitars and a conga drum making lilting waves. The vocalist, though a male, sings with high-pitched, angelic assurance, with a “for sure” sense of the aptness of this late-night celebratory moment. The episode begins with a sharp whistle, and by the ending a second such whistle seems like a visit from an exotic bird. The first such call is taken up by the guitar strings, followed by a passage of quiet-touch scat singing, and only then the soloist completes the excursion into a surprisingly lively mode of romance. As it passes into the distance, the boat becomes increasingly like some kind of space ship, glass-topped and slowly flashing from spotlights at water level, catching both glass and water to create a field of lightness. (This was Bresson’s first movie in color and he used the occasion to give us a new look, something flooding beyond the realm of stark facts. Hence the bateau mouche goes about showing the enlivenment of Mouchette’s watery grave.) Jacques and Marthe, speechless at last, stand riveted at the railing of the bridge during the boat’s approach, his arm around her shoulder; then they rush to catch the departure from the other side, their faces no longer frozen in a pout, but instead with eyes that register understanding beyond bathos.
As soon as the boat disappears, they are back on the subject of, “But it’s him I love…,” their appetite for self-serving melodrama seemingly insatiable. The rare moment of maturity just described has positioned its spotlights upon the film’s most burning issue, namely, the difficulty of sustaining gestural integrity. After a day spent delivering the legal document and playing his tape recorder—“Marthe! Marthe!”—and then taping pigeons cooing (in lieu of the vivacious whistles of the night before), he commences Night Four, finding Marthe unsurprisingly depressed. “Don’t tell me he’ll come. He won’t.” He tells her he loves her, fondles her breasts, and arm-in-arm they come to the paved river bank and hear another musical effort, one that devastatingly coheres with the superficiality of their romance, however venerable its precedents. The band on tap, a couple of kids in their late teens, has squeezed into the hey nonny persuasion, presumably superior to hillbilly. The guitar-playing singer and her flute accompanist might be on vacation from prep school in New England, for she has no trouble sounding American (perhaps not an asset when evoking Camelot). Not quite cringing but definitely ill at ease, Jacques and Marthe confront a puling flute motif and the girl’s overly honest, tremulous delivery of a lover’s lament. “If I had a ribbon to bind my hair… If I was a pretty girl and fair of smile… Not a lad in this world would know my heart…” The two protagonists hold each other throughout this truly scary recital, and plod forward to take their own protestations from the top. Marthe, seemingly loving the sound of her own conflictedness, assures Jacques, “I still love him, but I won’t cheat on you… I hate him. I love you. You are superior to him…” After drinks at a bar, poured from a ski-hill shaped carafe, and a visit to the hyper-cool “Drugstore” where he buys her a filmy red scarf (a sort of blood transfusion), they are spotted by the Graduate out on the sidewalk where they had listened to a guitarist playing jazz riffs with youthful agility but not much heart (the coins strewn on the cement touching upon the book bag contents on the cement, in Young Girls, as signalling a strikeout in taking a [musical] shot at Pandora’s Box). He calls out, “Marthe!” only once, and she (agile, too) rushes to him, some kind of climax aping the days of intense chivalry and chastity.
Jacques goes back to the studio and gets on with his painting, this bit of taped inspirational poetry guiding the way. “The night is marvellous… never such a light in my lifetime… Oh, Marthe! I suffered a thousand deaths, but it’s you I love… I’m blessed by your love…”/ “Jacques, forgive me for being wrong. I was blind… I hurt you and I hurt myself. But it’s you I love.” Earlier, when he day-dreamed of the chick with the rich brute, his work took on some focus by way of concentration upon primary colors; the reverie about Marthe slides into shades of green, its connotation of youth, nature and fruition packing some ironic sting.
Reading the irony of Four Nights of a Dreamer puts us on notice to circumvent pitfalls of simplistic dismissal. Although Jacques uses on his bed a comforter that resembles an animal’s pelt, that installation of both Bresson’s Balthazar and Demy’s Donkey Skin does not function as mere measurement of how ridiculously he falls short of the surreal tang of those earlier initiatives. Our being drawn into essential difficulties by this easily assumed to be fluffy farce, seems, on reflection, to be to the fore in an episode pertaining to the adolescent proclivities of the French New Wave, still sensationally hot at the year Bresson’s film was released (and here unkindly linked to the weaker portion of Hippy music). The boarder shows some interest in Marthe and some beastliness toward her (trapping her in the building’s elevator) due to her not giving him enough encouragement. He goes on to offer his hosts tickets to a movie premiere (you can tell it’s widely anticipated by the well-dressed attendees and the media buzz), her mom being very impressed (as was Cecile’s mom, toward gestures of kindness from eligible bachelor, Cassard) and dragging Marthe along. The film could be broadly taken for Breathless, with much cardboard violence and sentimental histrionics. Marthe bails out, very unimpressed; but a queasy fascination has been spawned, and their subsequent romance is very much in the vein of fads whose glimmers of invention tend to be pumped up to proportions not only dreary but malignant. Bresson’s film gathers together incidents from a flood of personal floundering legitimized by a critical mass of reflexive public collusion. Marthe remarks to her mother, before giving the premiere (a newness that is not in fact new) a pass, “We’ve fallen into a trap.” Four Nights of a Dreamer eschews moralistically berating her and Jacques, Hippies, academics and the New Wave for being suckers, because it is informed with the priority of coping with the death grip thereupon which nearly all of the world’s population performs. The sensuous discoveries about falling into a trap (as catalyzed by other artists having hit the same wall) look to responses able to countenance that venerable oblivion by comparison with which the Pont Neuf is a recent arrival, while puzzling what to make of overtures the newness of which stands in such need of fortification. Bresson’s is a filmic initiative in problematics, which is to say, it invites its audience to relish with it the gestural adventure of sufficiency of dynamic power.