Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
You could say that Robert Bresson’s pickpocket, Michel, moulders as a rather odious and provocative instance of, if not the entirely unexamined life, the crudely examined life. How different an alert, then, emits from the tale of Bresson’s nameless young priest, in the early film, Diary of a Country Priest (1951)! He would seem to come to us as an instance of the overexamined life, sensitivity to exigencies of love the multiplicity of which has left him so conflicted as to become massively ineffectual.
The two protagonists, however, do seem to sustain a close affinity with one another in regard to pronounced carnal enfeeblement. What with Michel pulleying himself through locales where embarrassment always reigns (his feet apparently never finding cogent traction with earth), and our new Man of the Hour largely using his bicycle for a walker, dressed in a shabby long black cape and a beret which complements his trompe l’oeil presence as an aged widow, the viewer is afforded a portal for engaging the shambles of these lives along lines of a physical challenge sorely neglected and at the basis of the catastrophic relentment informing the narratives. We receive from the incisive rigors of Bresson’s film craft, as driven by distinguished reflective art, a crisis of protracted lurching of someone unable to swim, but still keeping up a semblance of survival.
In contradistinction to Michel, the young divine’s physical malaise includes a virulent, undeniable (and rebellious) incursion of matter eating away at his (more than material) body. The proceedings enact the report of his diary—the textured paper of which seen receiving sequential entries from a wet-nibbed pen, and read aloud by him to prime the action—and in the first such long take we behold him arriving at his rectory for the first time, rather tortuously pushing his plough-like vehicle, mopping his brow and being glared at by a couple behind the gates of a monumental estate starkly superior to the rest of the community. In pointed contrast to his distressed stagger into his new home (and drawing even more attention to his bearing as a form of road kill), we hear a dog’s chipper bark and someone going by (also off-camera), whistling. Indoors, and struggling for some semblance of creature comfort, he informs us that of late he has given up on meat and vegetables and has come to some kind of coping with a diet of bread soaked in wine (the Eucharistic features of which are soon to be stressed). His descending into a quagmire of intractable parishioners moves apace with a worsening state of physical health.
Also unlike Michel, the amateurish cultural rebel, our protagonist is an ordained product of historically-steeped Catholic education, a front line warrior on behalf of a venerable patrimony. As the journal entries accumulate, it becomes apparent that the young invalid has as much difficulty with Church dogma as he has with meat and vegetables. These two threads of indigestion are allowed to fester with dramatic bravura. They come to poetic concentration and wit, in a characterization of him by the crusty veteran leader of a flock in a neighboring village, to whom the put-upon youngster frequently resorts for devices to buoy his sinking campaign. Referring to the now widely thought to be alcoholic young man’s ravaged gut, he touches upon the wide-spread fetal alcohol syndrome of the district. “You were born pickled.” But in so doing, he inadvertently invokes the less critically challenged imbibing of the classical rational heritage as including Christianity. This veteran of the millennia-long vigil to sustain causal order readily diagnoses in the young priest a lapsing of militancy about ensuring that those born in their jurisdiction would be so intimidated, so saturated, by the status quo as to never think beyond its borders. At one point he tries to rally the non-combatant along lines of, “We’re at war after all. We must face up to the enemy. Our victories today become losses tomorrow.” The impetus to primordial rebellion is in fact running at an advanced level right in front of his nose, in the colleague who does not simply decry the malice of his recalcitrant charges but admits being no longer able to pray, and that, “Behind me there was nothing…And ahead, a wall.” He had been close to despair on being denounced by a widower after imposing routine funeral costs. On hearing of this presumed crisis, the old mentor snaps, “You should have shown him the door! My generation of priests knew their obligation to be real leaders, not choir boys like you.” He tears into the rookie for obviously wanting to be loved by his parishioners. At another juncture, with the old soldier buying into calumny that could end the young pacifist’s tenure, the fair game for the whole countryside, confides to us, “I discovered with joy that I had nothing to say!”
One more episode, and we’ll get down to the film’s intimating an aptly historical mentoring to introduce some strange joy into what threatens to become mired in pronounced gloom. (Incidentally, with his crabgrass hair to go with a demeanor of endless appallment, our protagonist has a lot to do with the long shudder of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.) A cheeky blonde girl from his catechism class tells (with tongue in cheek) the shaky authority figure she’s behaving herself (unlike the rest of the mob of little monsters) because he has such “beautiful eyes.” As a chaste young sweetheart embarking on a perilous adventure of the heart as well as the body, he coincides with the protagonist of a film produced not long before that of Bresson, namely, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946).
In being at home in transcending self-justification, the nameless one (who could be called Belle) enters the precinct of transformation, the domicile of a Bête also intent upon change and so presumably not to be found here, amidst hard core atavists. But Bresson, navigating as noted, has a rich and mysterious surprise in store for us. As with Cocteau, there is a palace, a place ripe for change, and it is forbidding. The initial sally consisted of stumbling upon that couple in an ardent embrace—as it happens, the Count and his mistress, the governess. The Count pays a visit to the spine-challenged newcomer, bearing a brace of freshly killed rabbits that would have to go uneaten (Bête, too, having a thing about herbivores). The priest had recently mooted opening some of the estate’s unused buildings and grounds to facilitate charitable activities; and, in that vein, the nobleman remarks, “I approve of your ideas. But the people are malicious. Don’t try too hard to gain their love.” Then things go from theory to practice, and that spells serious heat for the would-be Grand Marshal. He had encountered the governess in performing Mass, and heard her tearful complaint about the great man’s home-instructed (murderously jealous) daughter. “Miss Chantal enjoys tormenting me!” Rather than coming to this minefield with the kind of circumspective wit Cocteau’s Belle evinces, this conspicuously graceless functionary first puts the main man’s nose out of joint—“I’m concerned about your daughter’s sadness…”—then goes on to visit his wife, the Duchess (who is totally consumed by the death of her other child some time ago), and tries to get her interested in her husband’s infidelity which has put Miss Chantal (the day-to-day Beast of this palace) into the mode of an elusive and shrewd Public Enemy #1. (Even the hard-nosed old advisor exclaims, “She’s a demon!”) The old lady—who makes very clear she cares not a whit about what her husband and daughter may be up to—levels to the visitor (whom she austerely regards as a small joke), “It’s a strange task you’ve been entrusted to.” He nearly faints from the tension of the moment; and she, seeming all at once to be far younger than he, supports him as she leads him to the door.
Immediately on whining to his functional colleague, “Where have I gone wrong?” and being told, “You’re too fussy!” and in being unable to pray at his pulpit at three o’clock on a sleepless night, the clash with Miss Chantal (so bereft of the eerie fun at Cocteau’s palace-cum-Surrealist installation, where improbable love takes fire between adversaries whose hearts comprise depths of eagerness to learn wise truths from each other) begins to kick up some dust. (In the preface to his diary, he had referred to himself as, “… someone lacking any trace of mystery.”) He receives an unsigned letter “on cheap paper,” advising him to transfer to another parish. As we can well predict now, this vote of non-confidence cuts him to the quick. Then he has to endure her graphic account of murderous moves underway against the rival. “She’s sly as an animal [Chantal’s Beast would know]… I’d like to tear out her eyes and crush them with my feet… I’ll kill her, or kill myself!… No, I don’t want to confess, I want justice! I know they’ll get rid of me somehow. Mother swallows everything they say, like a frog eating flies… I no longer respect my father. I’ll disgrace myself and make sure he hears of it!” Having confirmed by way of the script in the governess’ prayer book that she had begun a poison pen campaign by forging her enemy’s handwriting, he correctly imagines she’s carrying a second bullet and demands, “Give me the letter.” She gasps, “You must be the Devil!” A rooster crows and she runs off, in the focal space of the rough but readily disconcerted Beast. Such endeavors for the sake of retributive justice leave him even more depressed, more horrifically on a collision course with the general population. “I was nothing but a miserable, unworthy priest.” By the time he sees her next, her mother has died, the governess has been sacked and Chantal has spread the rumor that, in a conversation with the Duchess just prior to the night she died, the misfit priest has caused such anxiety as to kill a frail old lady. Along the same trajectory of bathos (“I got what I want,” says the dangerous Beast, lacking the taste for mystery in Cocteau’s creation, “I must be happy”), the Count (a sort of double-image of a Beast) weighs in, “No priest shall meddle in my family affairs. Your character and habits are a danger to the parish.” Measurement of the abyss separating this constellation of Belle and Bête from the earlier entry is neatly afforded by their last encounter. “May I ask what you think of me?” is her ravenous gambit. “A priest has no opinions,” is his counter-thrust, in the spirit of the joy of silence. And those of us who know the prototype can only marvel at this hopeless impasse, and wonder where its ilk leaves the sprightly touch of Cocteau’s post-War discovery of fertile depths of love. “If you only knew what I think of life,” the resentful Beast preens. “I’ll try anything… I’ll damn myself if I please.”
Atop this head-on collision, with its luridly infected sensibilities, Bresson allows us to discover weirdly compromised, chimerical traces of sensual integrity. In the aftermath of the Countess’ death, and his viciously installed infamy therefrom, the pariah-priest takes a drink from an enterprising parishioner, ends up collapsing in frozen mud and receives care from the hitherto contemptuous schoolgirl who mentioned his “beautiful eyes” by way of striking it rich with her similarly carnivorous chums. For starters, in marked contrast to Chantal, she is blonde and easily beautiful (like Belle). These optics light the way to a momentary re-take upon the Cocteau template—the man in billowy black messing in the muck (and his own vomit) being the Beast, and the well-groomed girl (very much so for a society of impoverished peasants) being a source of loving rejuvenation. The old bartender had, perhaps facetiously, told him, “This will put you right,” and, on falling on his face amidst gracefully composed trees and terrain, he thinks to glimpse “the Virgin,” then “Him.” In fact we see the nubile pupil (“Seriphita,” here a true seraphim, angelic bearer of light), who cleans his face and gently tells him, “You shouldn’t let yourself get in such a state… Thanks to me, they won’t have their way…” Holding a light, she walks with him in the darkness and deadened terrain, their hands joined. “I’ve said too many awful things about you…” He wakes up in his bed, his eyes full of tears. Later that morning, heading for Lille and a medical check-up, but packed as if never to return, he encounters Chantal’s cousin, a young man riding a motorcycle along the highway out of the village and toward a train station. The stranger offers a lift (the second in as many days) to the pedestrian casualty of strangeness, and what do you know?—he loves that full-scale motion! His face brightens with such a rare smile as we are, some years later, to see cross another sombre visage, that of Mouchette, during her only moments of delight, riding a bumper car. He tells himself—along lines of his promoting the blonde girl to the status of the Virgin Mary, and then God—“How could I feel so miraculously young, then? Things suddenly seemed simple. God didn’t want me to die without knowing of this risk… Just enough for my sacrifice to be complete when its time came.” The driver, Olivier, mercifully unlike his cousin and his uncle, is on leave from the Foreign Legion and tells him, “I like you. We could have been friends… Without that black robe you’d probably look like one of us [with their motto, ‘all or nothing’]… There are many former priests in the Legion.” (After a run-in with the old priest, he had found himself in tears at the realization that his sensibility was always for “returning to the Olive Grove.” Olivier would, then, bring, however vaguely, to his attention another, less formulaic, destination, ending. On discovering he has stomach cancer—and remarking that that is a condition which “rarely strikes one my age”—he enters an old church and finds that he’d never had “such a physical revulsion to prayer.” During a drink at a bar, he does get somewhere: “I knew to keep calm I had to stay silent.” (Notwithstanding, on dozing off, he’s back to branding only too diligently absorbed: “I must write it down… the cock’s crow and my window.” On the other hand, he’s awakening to the sensual gifts all around him.) He looks up a former friend who had bailed out of the seminary to pursue the life of a private scholar. He now readily sees through the latter’s crippling asceticism (“We intellectuals, poisoned since childhood…”), and finds hope for him in what he once would have regarded as living in sin. “Better love for a woman than what you call the intellectual life.” His host declares that going out and taking a menial job is “a question of will and guts.” In a state of collapse, he asks his dropout freelancer to grant him absolution. But after his death (closely linked to a train whistle, a bit of physical forward thrust), the friend delivers, as requested, to the similarly calculative, old-school priest, this parting shot (in the wake of being out of luck as to absolution): “What does it matter? All is grace!”
The final and most thematically rich instance of the protagonist’s brush with something “more real” concerns his off-kilter success with the third incarnation of Bête, namely, the Duchess, in her sanctuary-accorded obviation of peasant pieties and concomitant entrapment within an arrogant display of heartfelt grief. Beholding the upstart in his poor excuse for mourning weeds, she asks (in taking up his alarm about Chantal’s possibly heading toward suicide), “Are you afraid of death?” “Yes, Madam,” he replies. Then, thinking to find a chink in her armor, “To die is difficult. Especially for the proud…” “You can’t sway me,” she retorts. “I’m too sensible.” On his implying that she will be punished for essentially forgetting that Chantal exists, she tweaks him with, “What can He do to me?” Not accustomed to anything getting so far out of line as that, he bristles, “The coldness of your heart is blasphemy!” She flicks him aside as if he were a piece of lint. “Yours are a sick man’s dreams. No sin on earth could make such a punishment [as her dead son] right.” Reaching back to seminary exercises, he declares, “God is the Master. He is love.” “This is insane!” she insists. He plods on, but now in a sense touching upon that interiority of love that brings so much confusion to his sensibility. Clearing his head a bit, he embarks on a less reflexive route. “I believe God grants us a chance to accomplish our obligation to love one another.” On hearing of her having considered suicide, in being totally unimpressed with a wide distribution of love by a remote expert, he presses a case for a most inflected sense of love, which enters upon a largely unnoticeable improvisation upon the dogmatic version of love. (He had, at a moment of anguish, reached down for a wrinkle not apt to be emphasized in any Jesuit curriculum. “I couldn’t pray. But desire for prayer is already prayer. God couldn’t ask for more.”) She bats away his prescription, “You can’t bargain with God. You must resign to him unconditionally,” with, “I’d say to God, ‘Do your worst!’ God no longer matters to me.” But, in his rejoinder, that such power as they are raging over cannot be approached in the spirit of rational, calculative argument driven by resentment, being “impervious to assaults” [because not assailable, not an entity within a shooting range between conscious, self-contained entities], he recasts the previous cliché about a loving Person, to come up with, “God is Love Itself;” and his eerie distress well completes that thought. In her physical bearing, it comes to us that the Countess begins to direct the interaction on the basis of a surprising discovery adhering to a figure who, just a few minutes ago, she was certain to be clueless. The out of focus but still compelling architectonic of an interchange of love in the bounty of carnal life (a bounty she, as favored by creature comforts large and small, bears responsibility to acknowledge in the course of shutting down bathetic bravado) disarms her proud but now seen to be incomplete, unconscionably merely negative seeing, skepticism. “Give Him your remaining pride,” he quietly urges her, with a wobbly vocabulary no longer misleading to her, and, amazingly enough, to him. By means of his seldom articulated (and never so ardent) heresy, he had found his way to her heart; and, in her challenge to him to, for once, enter the region of “all or nothing,” she had stolen into his heart. Cocteau’s transformative drama, marvellously recharged. (There are many dashing and witty enactments of the mystery of Belle and Bête, in the history of modern film. But this could be the richest of all.) She tells him, “You have left nothing standing.” In that earlier interview she had haughtily rapped his knuckles to the tune of, “How little we know what human life is.” Now those words come back to haunt her, and bring her to a true elevation. She tosses the locket with her boy’s image into the flames of the fireplace. He quickly pulls it away from harm, comprehending, where she falters, that the stellar might they have fired up must not induce discounting death-bound mortals. She bends over, crying. Still largely in thrall to an ancient script, but with something special making itself felt, he says, “Peace be with you.”
This scene is binary in nature, with a sequel that threads its way through the inexhaustible subtleties of the discovery. On his return home, he immediately receives a package from her, consisting of the locket and this note: “It seems as if another child has drawn me out of it [her somewhat vapid homage to the departed boy]. I hope I don’t hurt your pride by calling you a child. You are, and may you always be. I don’t know how you did it. Now resignation is possible. In fact it was not resignation that came over me. I’m not resigned, I’m happy… I desire nothing. We must never speak of it again. That word, ‘never,’ expresses what you gave to me.” On learning of her death that night, he rushes to her body and notes, “She wasn’t smiling… My arm felt like lead in rising to bless her… What a wonder that one can give what one doesn’t possess.” Tasting some wine at home, he muses, “The joy and fear when I blessed her… Where did it come from?” We see his hands tearing this entry from the written account, “…this greatest deception of my poor life…”
Just as the page and its wondering wisdom become excised from history, the protagonist himself vanishes without any lasting tribute. This is a film about the ineluctable hardness of existence. (A wry emphasis of this condition plays out in the case of the old priest’s friend, a doctor, who finds the young man to be a comrade of the two long-term residents. “All three of us are of the same race, the race that holds on. Why? No one knows… I like your eyes… faithful eyes… dog’s eyes…” Soon after this reflection, the doctor commits suicide.) It will be teamed, for reasons of development of its discoveries, with a recent film, von Trier’s Antichrist, the atrocious hardness of which has already induced panic and anathema. But, in embracing the intimist depths of the constellation of Beauty and the Beast (a constellation von Trier cherishes as much as did Bresson), Diary of a Country Priest exposes those quiet and discounted strivings exuding rare beauty never to be superseded by ideology-engorged mayhem. In the aftermath of the Countess’ death, the manslaughter suspect speaks with a clergyman/relative of the deceased. “Why do they hate me?”/ “Because you are what you are. Your simplicity is like a flame that burns them.” Far more pervasive and protractedly painful than brief episodes of slaughter, the impasse struck between figures like the young priest and the salt of the earth constitutes for Bresson a lifetime obsession and a shattering revelation about the phenomenon of historical dynamics. On first assimilating the acrid hostility of his new home, the young man with the perpetually stricken presence realizes with indescribable pain, “I’d have done anything for a word of compassion or tenderness.” At the same time, as our film here intimates, those infinite storms touch upon reservoirs of interactive wit and love such that beauties and beasts alike may, however rarely, be transformed, and, in so doing, enrich an impoverished nature. In a final candid conversation with an unrepentant but curiously anxious Chantal, the anonymous central player finds a thread of historical hope amidst her ruinously effective machinations. “Mother’s face was so gentle [as her eavesdropping saw and misrepresented]… What’s your secret?”/ “That secret is such that we’ll lose it and find it again. And others will pass it on.”