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Lancelot du Lac

On the Absence of the Grail

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The interest of the reader (and one reads the Grail stories with a real interest) does not come, one can see, from the question which normally provokes such interest: WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS? One knows very well, from the beginning, what will happen, who will obtain the Grail, who will be punished, and why. Interest is caused by a totally different question, which is: WHAT IS THE GRAIL?

-Todorov, Poetique de la Prose

Obviously Bresson is not aiming at absolute realism. The rain, the murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones … are there deliberately as neutral agents, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery. They are like lines drawn across an image to affirm its transparency, as does dust on a diamond—it is impurity at its purest.

-Bazin; on Diary of a Country Priest

It seems inevitable that Bresson would have eventually filmed the Arthurian legends; in a real way the director’s entire work points in this direction. An important thing to keep in mind is that in France the Arthurian legends are known by heart to virtually everyone schooled beyond the tenth grade. In adapting Lancelot, Bresson is not indulging in a sort of culture-for-the-masses approach or more-intellectual-than-thou snobbery. He is telling a story which has the value of a totally familiar myth or folk tale for francophone audiences, a fact that grants the director extraordinary liberty in his manner of telling his tale (and allows, as we will see, some important contradictions to arise and shape the work).

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The Soul of Cinema: Robert Bresson

Northwest Film Forum is screening six Robert Bresson films, Tuesdays through Thursdays over the next two weeks (May 1-May 10), so we’re reprinting this essay written for the 1999 Bresson retrospective.

[Originally published in slightly different form in The Seattle Weekly, March 24, 1999]

It’s a cliché, but it bears repeating: Robert Bresson is an original. Over fifty years since his first feature, Les Anges du Peche (1943) made during the German occupation of France, Bresson recreated the very nature of cinema for himself in his own small way. In a mere thirteen features in his forty year career he carved out one of the most unique bodies of work in world cinema, a set of films both somber and celebratory in their search for grace. He had long retired from directing when he died in 1999 at 98 years of age, having spent the previous fifteen years attending concerts and perhaps still painting. He refused to speak about his work and had stopped granting interviews for some time, but his legacy of cinema speaks volumes.

To the uninitiated Bresson can seem maddeningly indifferent—his films eschew the kind of dramatic spikes and psychological grounding of his contemporaries (the psychological intensity of Bergman seems downright flamboyant next to Bresson’s minimalist approach)—and even many cineastes are left cold by Bresson’s remove. Insisting that cinema is properly not the marriage of photography and theater, but of music and painting, Bresson dismisses the tradition of film acting as “filmed theater.” He systematically strips affectation and method from his performers by relentlessly drilling them in rehearsals until they master the mechanical, uninflected motions and line deliveries. They aren’t actors but “models,” taking a term from painting to describe their function in his filmmaking practice.

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