Priding the Performance
Various words come easily to mind when we think of acting. Vain, narcissistic, pretentious; amorphous, flexible, rangy. But what about proud? One thinks of the word when thinking of Robert Bresson’s films, and of what he calls his models. These are not actors who express their emotions, but figures in space containing an aspect of self that demands pride is most pronounced. Yet this is a positive pride, no matter the word’s usually negative connotations. It is a pride that refuses the neediness we often find in acting: the social dimension of the performance that is perhaps a reflection of acting as a theatrical craft. If theatre performances usually aim for the back of the stalls, and cinema acting often no more than a muted version of this projection, the type of acting we find in Bresson’s work is introspective rather than projective. Its pride resides in its resistance to the social. It is the acting of the soul, an inward movement of feeling that turns its back to the audience (so often in Bresson we see backs) and turns it face towards the ineffable.
Bresson isn’t alone in seeking the ‘proud’, we can also find it in Dreyer’s films, Marcel Hanoun’s A Simple Story, Bill Douglas’s Trilogy and some of Philippe Garrel’s work. It isn’t acting that these films rely upon, but if anything its absence in the twin sense: the people cast rarely perform, and barely offer action. They are contained and constrained by a further dimension, perhaps, by a belief through disbelief: they don’t believe in the world they are in, but in life as a trial towards a potentially better one. We could almost call this thespian Jansenism, the Catholic movement from the seventeenth century that followed “the Augustinian arguments regarding the necessity of grace for any good act, the infallible efficacy of grace, and the absolutely arbitrary character of predestination. Consistent with this pessimistic view of human nature and freedom were the rigoristic views on the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion and on moral issues.” (Encylopedia Britannica) This doesn’t mean that all directors who utilise proud acting have a religious vision; more that they resist a social one. Again, not all other acting styles are socially oriented. Much that passes for the Method appears to be a retreat from the societal, or at least in conflict with social expectation. Brando, Dean and Clift often turned their performances inwards, and we see its influence on Nicholson and De Niro, Penn and Phoenix. Yet these are performances that are gnarled and restless, anguished and agonizing. They give to acting a greater density than was hitherto expected: a sense in which the performance passes through the sinews of behaviour and the modulation of personal feeling.
This is absent from the type of acting we are discussing. As Bresson says: “HUMAN MODELS: Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.) The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them. Between them and me: telepathic exchanges, divination.” (Notes on the Cinematograh) If we have in conventional film acting the idea that the actor asks the director what his motivation might be, in the modular the director would be inclined to ask the actor to ignore the immediate notion of motivation altogether: the director will try to find the meaning through mise en scene and cutting. In such works the actor doesn’t expose him or herself – the director finds ways in which to reveal the performance. It robs from the very notion of acting many of the assumptions we attach to it. For example the idea that the actor acts – that they are figures of agency, that the actor has clear motivation that they can express; that they possess presentational qualities that can be conveyed to an audience.
Let us think first of Bresson’s A Gentle Creature. Here we have a film about two people in crisis but in different time scales. The first is Dominique Sanda who tales her own life; the second is her husband who relates the events from after the deed has been done: the film opens with the gentle creature’s demise: an offscreen suicide that emphasises the indices of the action rather than the action itself. It is like a cinematographic equivalent of the acting: an event we have to imagine rather than witness, just as the psychological states of Bresson’s character we often have to guess at rather than assuming we know. We see a door, a woman passing through it (the maid), and a disturbance by the window, as a rocking chair rocks and a table is overturned. The film shows a scarf slowly falling, and cars abruptly breaking. We then see Sanda (whose character remains throughout unnamed) lying dead on the ground.
Though adapted from a tale by Dostoevsky, Bresson’s approach is the antithesisis of the Dostoyevskian – all the more odd perhaps considering Bresson made only eleven films and three were adapted from the great Russian – Pickpocket out of Crime and Punishment, A Gentle Creature and Four Nights of the Dreamer from White Nights. After all, Dostoevsky’s figures aren’t ruled by pride but by humiliation. They are hysterics and maniacs, given to wild, expressive gestures. Bresson demands that pride rules the self, so that no emotion can be expressed except by restraint. In The Living Novel, V. S. Prichett describes the Russian writer’s characters thus: “the people…are notable not for their isolation but for their gregariousness. The infection is common. They run in crowds. If they plan to suicide or murder they tell everyone…even when alone they are not absolutely alone; they have at least two selves.”
In Pritchett’s notion of the two selves in Dostoevsky we sense a character who moves in two directions at once: the actual and the spiritual. The force of each leaves the character in two minds and as though occupying two bodies: hence the erratic, hectic body language that leaves them in states of agitation, a slave to the body but demanding a release from those torments through the possibility of a being beyond. In Bresson’s work, and in Hanoun’s film, in Garrel’s oeuvre, in Dreyer’s works, and in Douglas’s trilogy, the division of self doesn’t create a figure reflecting an internal melodrama, as in Dostoevsky, but instead a reflectiveness that undermines even the dramatic. The characters seem less in conflict with themselves than in dialogue with themselves. If in Dostoevsky’s work the body rules the mind; in these film it is more that the mind rules the body. This doesn’t mean that the characters are thinkers, though they might be. It is that they are in philosophical terms more given to thought over extension: that their movements in the world seem secondary to a thought about the world. In a A Gentle Creature Sanda seems to be in conflict about her feelings towards her husband and interested in other men. Her husband. when he looks back on his relationship with his now late wife, ought we might believe to be in a state of great agitation as he recalls their time together. Yet this is not what Bresson allows the actors to express in the past or in the present. In a scene with Sanda and her husband at the cinema, another man sitting next to her shows interest and Sanda isn’t impervious to his glances. The husband gets up and swaps places with Sanda. If we were watching the moment that they swap, without any broader context, we would be more likely to assume it is because a head in front of her is in the way, rather than that the husband is jealous of another man. After they leave the cinema the stranger looks at her again, and she once more meets his gaze. Yet the husband (Guy Frangin) doesn’t react. Usually a filmmaker would be inclined to emphasise the jealousy or suggest the husband’s obliviousness. Bresson instead indicates a high degree of internalised feeling. The stranger is clearly attracted; Sanda is clearly interested, and the husband is undeniably jealous. But no melodrama or even drama comes out of the sequence. This is a lot more than subtlety. It is a variation of Kierkegaard’s idea that there are certain movements of the soul that disarm psychology, allied to a remark by Pascal. “Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in him we find both God and our wretchedness.” (Pensees) Bresson’s approach to performance indicates that the action always passes through the soul and slows down the body. Imagine if all our gestures insisted that they pass through Pascal’s formulation and Kierkegaard’s comment. Subtlety wouldn’t be the word; complexity would be more appropriate. We find in Bresson’s modular method a refusal to assume that psychology is the inner thought of the outer action. Instead there is a thought that is both inside and outside psychology, and this leads to Bresson’s capacity to suggest in his characters the deepest of thoughts and the least motivated of actions. We could watch A Gentle Creature and say the film is about a woman who has constant thoughts of suicide, or someone who impulsively throws herself off the balcony. Neither interpretation would be wrong, and Bresson’s use of the actor allows both possibilities to sound equally plausible. It is as though he has found a variation of the Kuleshov effect for his own ends: for a radically spiritual cinema over a materialist political aesthetics.
The Kuleshov effect was of course an aspect of Soviet montage, with Lev Kuleshov showing that what counted wasn’t the expression on an actor’s face but how the shots were edited togther. Show an audience a man with an impassive expression and cut to a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin or a woman on a divan, and the audience will think the man is hungry, grieving or desirous. The actor remains impassive, but the editing will indicate to us what he is thinking. The Kuleshov effect has its uses, and we expect for example when a director cuts from a villain’s face to a gun lying on the table that he will try and reach the gun and shoot our hero. The expression can show a man looking nervous, amused, excited or desperate, but the cut will make us read his thought. Yet the more complex the potential thought, the harder it is to apply Kuleshov’s principles. From Bergman’s close-ups to Antonioni’s unusual use of shot/counter-shot we see that the cut from a face to an object can’t always tell us what to think. Bresson is part of this proper cinema of ambiguity: one that asks us not to read a face and wait for the cut to illustrate what the expression means, but to assume there is a gap between the two that we have to work with and work on. We might comprehend that Sanda is attracted to this man in the cinema, but the nature of that attraction remains obscure. Is she desiring, or does she just feel desired? Does she meet the man’s glance because it can get a reaction from her husband; is it a look her husband never quite gives her? The pride we see in such behaviour is that of the inscrutable, as if the self isn’t predicated on what it reveals but by what it hides. If the Kuleshov effect reveals what the face initself conceals, then Bresson wants to wonder what a face cannot reveal; what it doesn’t know about itself. In a scene at the zooological gardens in Paris, Frangin asks Sanda to marry him, but she appears reluctant. It all seems impossible she tells him, the relationship between men and women. He asks her if she has been in love and she says no, not yet. Afterwards, they are seen standing and looking into a monkey’s enclosure. Shot from behind the fence it is as though Sanda and Frangin are the enclosed as he says that millions of women wish for marriage. Sanda replies, perhaps, “but there are monkeys too” as they both look at a monkey on a branch. The film then cuts to the next scene; a shot of a street sign indicating no entry, before cutting to Sanda and Frangin in the car. The Kuleshov effect cannot help us here, and a symbolic reading doesn’t quite answer the problem either. We might insist that the fencing suggests characters whose marriage will be like an imprisonment and that her acceptance will be the death of her. Yet if Bresson is one of the world’s most important filmmakers it doesn’t rest in the eschewal of the Kuleshovian for the discovery of the symbolic; the director seeks the means by which to suggests a resistance to the meaningful. Pride here represents absence, not an abstract presence. Sanda does not know what she wants, and the image structure reflects this; it doesn’t symbolise what she does want.
When we talk of pride we do so with the idea that it isn’t a negative condition that religion and social value often proposes. So many phrases suggest the negative: “pride before a fall”; “pride will cost you everything and give you nothing; “It is better to lose your pride with someone you love rather than to lose that someone you love with your useless pride.” And so on. However, it can also be the necessary condition of the negative. We are proud in the face of a meaning that we cannot accept. When Sanda says that she hasn’t been in love, this could be seen as a devastating slight to her suitor, yet perhaps it allows her to get closer to her feelings than he gets to his as he proposes to her. He wants to marry this ‘gentle’ creature, but is the idea of marriage more pronounced than his feelings of love? Sanda doesn’t want to fake a feeling for the purposes of social decency, and this is perhaps closer to feeling than someone who conforms to society’s expectations and shows happiness and enthusiasm. Pride here is not refusing to show feelings, which is consistent in some ways with the above quote about losing someone with your useless pride, but about accepting that you will not generate false feelings: that you must be true to your lack of emotion. We cannot falsely generate a positive out of the negative, of the nothing that demands a something much deeper than the social surface.
Here we are talking about a philosophical problem, of course. The whole idea of why there is not nothing, was picked up on especially by Heidegger and Sartre. As Heidegger says, “Now the nothing is what we are seeking. Is there ultimately such a thing as a search without that anticipation, a search to which pure discovery belongs?” (‘What is Metaphysics?’) Sartre insists, “it is obvious that non-being always appears within the limits of a human expectation. It is because I expect to find fifteen hundred francs that I only find thirteen hundred. It is because a physicist expects a certain verification of his hypothesis that nature can tell him no.” (Being and Nothingness) Yet our interest here is also aesthetic: what is nothingness as a type of acting; how can one hint at it as a condition? We have proposed it is modular, and we can contrast it with the modulated. In the latter the acting resides in the actor as much as in the cut. Whether it is a method performance or a piece of melodrama, the actor shows feeling. No matter what else is going on in the mise en scene or how the film is cut together, the actor acts. When we see Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces crying in conversation with his dad, this is acting no matter the setting and the editing. As the film cuts back and forth between Nicholson and his mute father sitting in a wheelchair as they talk outside in a field, so we see Nicholson offering a fugue of pain, attempting to explain the decisions he has been making in his life. As the actor would say in Patrick McGilligan’s biography, “on take one, away I went. And I think it was a breakthrough. It was a breakthrough for me as an actor, for actors. I don’t think they’d had this level of emotion, really, in almost any male character until that point.” (Jack’s Life) Of course some will see in the scene as well a variation of the Kuleshov effect. The father cannot speak, and his face is expressionless, so we don’t know how he is responding to Nicholson’s monologue as his son talks about his life not adding up to much, and that he moves around “a lot not because I’m looking for anything really but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay…” Is his father irritated, sympathetic, bored? We cannot know, as if the director Bob Rafelson combines the Method with the Kuleshovian, and yet counters the Kuleshovian too: we cannot expect the shot of Nicholson and the shot of his father to yield a concrete response. Yet we are in little doubt that Nicholson’s performance is modulated, requiring a subtle emotional register of feeling, and an exposure of the actor’s self. When interviewed he would be asked whether he was drawing on thoughts about his own father and Nicholson replied, “the answer is, of course, I was.” (Jack’s Life)
The modular performances does not assume an inner life, and we might think here of two comments: the Kierkegaard remark that we have already invoked, about profound movements of the soul disarming psychology, and a Zizek observation concerning Kant and Kleist. “Precisely because they do not come from within,” Zizek notes in The Fright of Real Tears “direct access to the noumenal domain [for Kant] would deprive us of the very ‘spontaneity’ which forms the kernel of transcendental freedom: it would turn us into ‘thinking machines’.” “What Kleist does”, Zizek says, “is to present the obverse of this horror: the bliss and grace of marionettes, the creatures who have direct access to the noumenal divine dimension, who are directly guided by it.” In each instance, in the Kierkegaard example and the Zizek comment, there is an excavation of purpose and the possibility of grace. The performance cannot draw on inner emotional history or even situational immediacy. The place of agency is beyond place and space, self and other. Bresson would insist in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels that “I want the essence of my films to be not the words my people say or even the gestures they perform, but what these words and gestures provoke in them. What I tell them to do or say must bring to light something they had not realized they contained. The camera catches it; neither they nor I really know it before it happens. The unknown.” (zakka.dk) What seems to happen is that neither Bresson nor the actors have the motivational forces in them that can lead the actor to ask what their motivation might be, and for the director to explain it to them. Instead we have a modular style that builds around the actor rather than through the actor. By way of contrast we can think of a scene from Pickpocket and a moment from Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both are directors who build their scenes with an aspect of modularity, but Hitchcock’s figures do not disarm psychology, do not suggest they are puppeteered by higher, metaphysical forces. In Pickpocket the central character receives lessons from a thief as he learns his trade, yet the scene hardly conveys Michel’s enthusiastic entry into the world of crime. As Bresson combines music, voiceover and brief shots of how pickpocketing is done, and how to improve one’s fingerwork by playing pinball, so we sense a man drifting into a world rather than asserting his place in a criminal environment. The actor Martin La Salle is round-shouldered and unassertive. When he walks along the street following the pickpocket, we see a man who seems secondary to the shots that reflect his actions. There are shot/counter shots between Michel and the other pickpocket, but it looks like Michel doesn’t quite know why he is following him, just as the pickpocket is wondering why he is being followed. Michel’s jump on the tram and his entrance into the cafe contain within them a hesitancy that seems much greater than social disapproval. He looks like a man condemned before the event, just as in A Man Escaped Bresson’s titular revelation indicates that the escape initself isn’t the question. The shot construction is modular as we see that what matters is the film’s desire to put the shots together in a manner that leaves Michel at the mercy of opposing forces: a Manichean dialectic as editing form. Will he become a criminal or not, and is there a force pushing him towards it all the better so that he can find grace by the film’s conclusion? In Psycho, Hitchcock gives Marion so much agency that there are shots he offers us that indicate Marion’s thinking without indicating point of view. As Marion looks in the direction of the money, she then turns to the closet to grab a blouse, and Hitchcock’s camera tracks into the cash, leaving us in no doubt that she will steal it. This is Hitchcock’s genius for creating a strong identification without always offering the most obvious shots in which to do so, but identification he wants. He manages to personify the camera in this instance to suggest want and greed. The camera looks like it wants the cash. It isn’t only or even especially that the acting is modulated, more that the acting contributes to a broader narrative motivation that is Hitchcock’s. If Hitchcock wants us to identify with Marion, it is all the better to manipulate us: we feel immense shock when she dies, a shock that would have been muted if we didn’t share her plight and wish to go off with the money.
Bresson has no such interest in manipulation, and a better word might be rendering; that he wants to shape the material in such a way that character and narrative get absorbed into a question to which none of us has answers. When Hitchcock would often talk of playing God with the audience, he would do so without fretting over whether there happened to be a higher being or not. The higher being in this instance was Hitchcock. But what sort of images does a director create if he is puzzled by spiritual questions? How would he thus shape the material, and more especially the performances?
To take this question further, we can think of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud and Ordet. In the final scene, Gertrud and her ex-lover meet again. They are now approaching the end of their life, and Gertrud reads him a poem that she wrote when she was sixteen where she talks about the importance of love over all else. Yet Dreyer films the reunion as if the actors are half-mummified. At one moment they walk towards the door and it is as though their bodies are glued together as they move at exactly the same pace, and with no space between them. The purpose here is not to register a great feeling between them in the here and now, but to hint at another self at work within them. We needn’t call it religious, but we might call it transcendent. There is a dimension of the performance that goes beyond the performance, a sense that Gertrud is very close to the figure Zizek explores in relation to Kant and Kleist. It is perhaps close to a transcendental style as Paul Schrader describes it in Transcendental Style in Film. Dreyer might be the filmmaker Schrader believes worked with transcendental style less rigorously than the others he mentions (Bresson and Ozu), but Dreyer is surely exploring what interests us when he says of Ordet, “it is that latent tension, that smoldering discomfort behind the minister’s family’s everyday life that I have so urgently been trying to bring forward.” The acting in Ordet is closer to the modulated rather than the modular except for Johannes, the brother who reckons he is Christ and who throughout the film offers doleful statements as he shuffles around. In one scene with his brother he gets up from the chair and moves like he is twice his own age: a man carrying the burden of the noumenal on his shoulders. Usually seen with a rod in his hand like a divining stick, Johannes if looking for God rather than water. Or rather expecting others to believe in the holy as he does. By the end of the film, the miracle that takes place will prove him right: the holy fool made wise by God’s sleight of hand. Dreyer’s approach to the modular is much less rigorous than Bresson’s, but it is there nevertheless in the Johannes of Ordet, in the ex and especially the wife in Gertrud. It is an acting style that relies less on editing and more on a somnambular move through space. This is an aspect evident in Bresson’s style too, but the slowness of the performance is often countered in Bresson by the pace of the editing. In the axe murder scene near the end of L’argent, the killer’s movements are desultory but the cutting gives force to the sequence. As Bresson cuts numerous times in the scene so we have the modular editing containing the acting. We know he has killed because he has an axe and there are bodies, but Bresson refuses to show explicitly the killings themselves. In one moment he shows the swing of the axe knocking down a lamp and leaving blood on the wall. As in A Gentle Creature, Bresson shows the violent but without the explicit. He gives the cut its etymological force. The actors too are cut up. They exist more on the editing table than in the scene, and in this sense it is more the reverse in Dreyer’s Ordet and Gertrud.
Bill Douglas’s My Childhood works between the Bressonian and the naturalistic, with the editing suggestive of the modular, but the acting not too far removed from the modulated performances Ken Loach usually searches out. In the film, the two sons are living with their grandmother, and we see the father come round to visit offering the older son a bird in a cage for his birthday. The son asks if it is really his birthday and the dad is surprised he doesn’t know. The grandmother just wants her son to get out and take the present with him. The dramaturgy is quite conventional, but the shot choices are not. The scene’s establishing shot is of a bike outside while we hear the opening of a door and the father’s voice introducing himself. As the father speaks in voiceover the film holds on the grandmother and then cuts to the two sons, and back to the grandmother before showing the father putting the birdcage on the table in a shot seen from behind the boys. Before then we have no idea of the layout of screen space, and this might be where editing so obviously trumps mise-en-scene. One reason why a film offers an establishing shot is to make clear the screen space that the filmmaker will then cut within. Moving to shot/counter-shots afterwards still privileges the original shot. Often called the master shot, editing from this point of view is the maid and not the master. This was what the Soviet montage filmmakers wanted to counter. When in Film Form Eisenstein discusses the standard way of filming a murder sequence he talks about how a hand lifts a knife, later the knife is jerked up, blood gushes out and so on. This is pure cliché he acknowledges, but says “nevertheless in regard to the action as a whole, each fragment-piece is almost abstract. The more differentiated they are the more abstract they become, providing no more than a certain association.” By removing the conventions of the master shot, the shots themselves can take on an intensity greater than the cliché. Instead of a grammatical equivalent of: We now see the villain and hero in the same shot. We cut to a knife on the table and back to the villain. The hero looks at the villain’s face, sees he is about to grab the knife, and pushes it off the table as he grapples with the other man. Instead it will be closer to: Knife, gleaming eye, quick thinking, tussle. The faster the thought process, the more the conventional shots are eschewed, the greater possible intensity the film can achieve.
Douglas wants, like Eisenstein, like Bresson, to achieve a modular density, a filmic method that can eschew in this instance not conventional suspense as we might see in our previous example, but sentiment. In My Childhood the central character Jamie is unloved and unwanted, but this isn’t a Dickensian opportunity for the lachrymose, but a hard-headed aesthetic that insists it would be unfair for the form to have an overflow of feeling which the character cannot access. What feeling we might wonder is being expressed in a moment when Jamie pours water from the kettle into a cup and lets its overflow, throws the contents away, then goes over to his grandmother, and cups her hand as she cups the cup. There is potential feeling here but it is abstracted and obstructed. From the dead flowers we see on the table, to the hands cupped, we know that feeling is being expressed, but not at all with the certainty that can allow for a cranked-up emotion. While a modulated scene like the one in Five Easy Pieces is a marvellous example of constrained feeling because of the restraint in the form and the resonance of Nicholson’s performance, Douglas insists on a modular expression that demands feeling be withheld because meaning cannot easily be ascertained. The editing insists that we think through the images rather than taking the images as offering instant emotional gratification.
This notion of constraint is also vital to Marcel Hanoun’s A Simple Story. Much of the tale is conveyed in voiceover, with a woman looking for work in Paris with her young daughter but unable to find any, and slipping further and further into poverty and destitution. Hanoun announces in a preceding title that this is a story that could happen to anyone; the antithesis of the exceptional story that has to to be told, it is mundane poverty that needs literally to be talked up. By using voiceover Hanoun insists on giving voice to a woman who would in many instances feel voiceless. Someone whose place in the world is to have no place in the world, Hanoun gives her a place at the absolute centre of his film. This idea of the voiceover giving centrality to character is perhaps partly why many believe that voiceover is contrary to great cinema, but Hanoun suggests it is the apotheosis of a certain type of feeling. Instead of pleonastially overstating one’s case, it can understate it all the better to restrain emotion while expressing a self. If we think of how many films use music to express an emotion to the detriment of individual expression, we can understand this more clearly. It might even be a useful definition of the cinematically sentimental: if we believe we understand less about the character than the emotion we are supposed to be feeling then we have the sentimental. What A Simple Story asks is that we always understand the character over the specific emotion, so that though hers is a simple story and a tale that could happen to anybody, it is one that is happening to her. In one scene the central character returns to the cafe where she met a kindly man previously, but he isn’t there. The barman recognizes her and tells her that Jean is a nice man but can be a bit strange. We hear this from the barman’s mouth but also in voiceover too. It makes the same point beyond the diegesis that is evident in the scene, and give us no information that couldn’t easily be conveyed in the sequence. But is music not often deployed in a manner that is tautological too? Umberto D. and Kes are fine examples of realist films that use music to tell us how to feel, and it would be a limited cinema history we would be accessing if we ignored films that do so. Whether it is the title character in the former film trying to find a home for his dog or Billy with the kestrel in the latter, music informs us in how we should respond to the scene. What we share in each instance is the feelings of the character without sharing their thoughts. They remain sympathetic because of this closeness on the one hand and removal on the other. Though music is used in A Simple Story, it is the constant voiceover which makes it distinctive. It suggests not that Hanoun is stating the obvious non-diegetically as well as diegetically (so many films using music do that), but that there is both a character and a self, a person walking around in the film, and someone whose life film cannot so easily access.
Literature has more obviously both a character and a self, as we find in many third-person narratives where a character is shown doing something and the narrator then exploring the motives behind it. This is a typical example from Balzac’s Old Goriot: “By the time Eugene had finished the letter he was in tears. He thought of Father Goriot crushing his silver keepsake into a shapeless mass before he sold it to meet his daughter’s bill of exchange.” The first sentence is the action; the second cogitation. This is what A Simple Story offers as it indicates both a character (in the action) and a self (in the thoughts the character has). It is so rarely done one supposes because it is deemed uncinematic, but if we accept it is a tautology than can singularise rather than universalise, can show a sense of self as well as character through action that film does very well and most of the time, then it is surprising more films don’t offer it. When we say universalise we mean that music accompanying an action can tell us how to feel, but it doesn’t quite tell us how the self within the character feels. In our example from Kes, we don’t know what the boy is thinking as we know what the woman in A Simple Story thinks. We assume universally that the boy is very happy at that moment watching the bird soar in the air, but we don’t know because we are not privy to his thought process. Loach’s fine film is still very consistent with a neo-realist emotional immediacy allied to a cerebral absence. Hanoun’s film asks us to follow the woman’s proud singularity as well as her desperate plight. The film might call itself a simple story as though acknowledging that her experiences are far from unique, and hence a pressing socio-political problem, but he also seems to believe that no one would wish to be a source of pity or an emotional statistic. The lines are delivered flatly but the subjectivity is apparent. This is a woman who, whatever her situation, is first and foremost a self. As Pascal says: “I feel that it is possible that I might never have existed, for my self consists in my thoughts; therefore I who think would never have been if my mother had been killed before I had come to life; therefore I am not a necessary being. I am not eternal or infinite either, but I can see that there is in nature a being who is necessary, eternal and infinite.” (Pensees) Emmanuel Levinas echoes it: “an individual is other to the other. A formal alterity; one is not the other, whatever its content. Each is other to each. Each excludes all others and exists apart, and exists for its part. A purely logical and reciprocal negativity in the community of the genus.” (Entre nous)
Finally, we come to Philippe Garrel, a director who uses music but rarely allows it a universal quality. We cannot know what the character thinks or feels on the basis of the score provided; it instead becomes like a secret. If it doesn’t tell us what to think or feel, it doesn’t quite tell us what the character thinks or feels either. It instead manages to convey a sense in which a thought is a secret the music can expose as a secret. In other words, we sense a very private world within the self but accept that we cannot access that private existence. Music often conveys to us what is going on in a character’s mind but we feel in its revealing there is no secret behind it, nothing to be exposed – merely shown. When Marion is driving through the rain in Psycho, Hitchcock brilliantly registers her anxiety at escaping with the cash. But there is no mystery to her thoughts or to her actions. By contrast, in a scene from Le vent de la nuit, Daniel Duval’s Serge is in Naples, at a corner cafe, then walks through the streets of the city, before visiting a tomb. John Cale’s music leaves us none the wiser to what might be on Serge’s mind, all the better to indicate the mysteriousness it would seem to contain. When at another moment he is talking with the young man he is driving around Italy with, he says that women are sacred and that he doesn’t usually talk about his feelings to most people. To the women he has loved he will speak, but not to others, as we accept that the young man will not be able to access Serge’s thoughts. The music won’t be able to either, but it will at least register the sense in which Serge is a private figure and that cinema’s purpose can be to acknowledge that privacy without exposing it.
In La naissance de l’amour, we see Paul (Lou Castel) crossing the street at a seaside town and the film cuts to the camera following a blonde woman walking towards the sea. The camera views her from behind in a travelling shot that can seem like a point of view. Cale’s music comes in as the camera tracks her, and the feeling remains indeterminate. It hints at yearning, but whose? Paul’s perhaps, but also the woman’s as she walks as if disconsolate. Yet the purpose seems to be the containment of a mystery that cannot quite be broken by communication. There are many exchanges in Garrel’s films, including between the woman and Paul, but there is usually a greater sense of its impossibility. In another scene in La Naissance de l’amour, a woman reads a letter to Paul from her sister. She tells the woman that she should accept that at thirty her solitude will not last, that soon she will feel lonely. But after she finishes reading it, she tells Paul that she needs to be alone as we are left wondering for all the self-expression what she thinks, and also what Paul thinks. As he sees her off at the station this is an emotionally complex goodbye, and another moment in a Garrel film where we have people expressing themselves very strongly, but remaining strangers to themselves and to others.
This is often where we feel that the proud aspect will reside. It isn’t that one wants to hide things; one accepts the inevitability of the hidden. The secrets concealed in Garrel films are not plot elements to be divulged, of course, but neither are they an aspect of character capable of ready psychoanalytic exposure. They are the enigmas of being, the sort of pride we find in A Gentle Creature when Sanda cannot express a feeling of love that she doesn’t have; all she can do is express the absence of it. In Garrel’s Le berceau de cristal, we watch Nico smoking and reading in a film that eschews drama to concentrate on the examination of faces. Like Garrel’s previous film Les Hautes solitudes (which has no sound at all), the idiosyncrasy of being can find no dramatic form. The pride of refusal seems to stretch to the nature of what can be included or excluded in the very form. If Sanda (who has a small role in Le berceau de cristal) in , shows resistance in her attitude, Garrel extends this to showing resistance in the filmic means by which a person can register it.
Both Le Berceau de cristal and Les Hautes solitude can be called experimental, and typical of Garrel’s seventies work before he moved towards narrative filmmaking in the eighties. But maybe we should describe the films as radically subtractive rather than experimental, taking into account Alex Ling’s remark on Alain Badiou and cinema. Cinema can be “subtractive in nature (the image is first subtracted from the visible, the local movement subtracts the image from itself, the impure movement subtracts the arts from their proper position).” Ling adds, “Moreover, we have determined cinema’s power to lie foremost in the dis-appearance of space, in the subtractive movement which directs images towards the void.” (Badiou and Cinema) Film often gives the opposite impression – the plenitude of form reflecting the comprehension of the selves passing through the images. Garrel has always been interested in the opposite, whether the film removes dialogue (as in Le berceau de cristal) or sound (as in Les Hautes solitude), he is interested in aspects of the void, as if asking where does being come from; how can we act in such a way that we can believe in our movements through our lives? It is too easy to say Garrel’s characters as drugged, up, depressed and disconsolate, though they might be. It is more they are closer to the void than most, and Garrel’s earlier work often reveals it in radical style; while the later works (usually working with novelist Marc Cholodenko) find it in the hesitations of character. The films are much more verbal, but the assumption that language can speak the void still tentative.
This is the pride of being in the face of the ineffable, and what we have explored is how it manifests itself in a number of filmmakers’ work, and what type of acting seems useful to it. It requires an acting style that is not baroque, nor quite naturalist. As Garrel says, “I know very well that parts of the films are naturalistic, but I try to avoid that. “ (Interview Magazine) Or as Bresson insists: “Model. Preserved from any obligation towards the art of drama.” (Notes on the Cinematographer) This would bring the films too close to real life and away from the question we proposed Garrel and others have been asking. It is as if the films have to find a high degree of resistance; then out of this resistance start to put aspects back into the film. As Bresson believes, “Models. No ostentation. Faculties of gathering into himself, of keeping, of not letting anything get out. A certain inward configuration common to them all. Eyes.” (Notes on The Cinematographer). It is this inward configuration that suggests a pride in the face of the cinematographic act quite distinct from the usual mode of naturalism, expressionism and Method performances. We can find variations of the modular in the work of others of course, in Eugene Greene, in Straub/Huillet, in Oliveira, but this is no more than a tentative and provisional exploration.