From January 21st through February 29th the Gene Siskel Film Center will hold a complete retrospective of the films of my favorite director of all time, the French master Robert Bresson. In anticipation of this happy event, I am pleased to present an interview with London-based filmmaker and teacher Jonathan Hourigan, who worked on the crew of L’argent, Bresson’s great final film.
Jonathan is a graduate of Oxford University and the National Film and Television School. His own short and feature-length films have played to acclaim at festivals around the world. In addition to his work as a filmmaker and teacher, he continues to be involved in preserving Bresson’s legacy. Jonathan and I became acquainted when he contacted me after reading a post on this blog about Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer.
I conducted this interview via e-mail and tried to avoid asking him about his work on L’argent (since he has already spoken about it at length in this great interview: Offscreen Interview)
MGS: You were responsible for organizing a Bresson retrospective in London in 1981 before you ever met and worked with the man. How did you first discover his films and do you remember what your first impressions were?
JH: At 18 or 19, during the year between school and university, my interest in photography began to be superceded by an interest in cinema. I was living in Worthing at the time, a seaside town on the south coast of England and that year I saw Altman’s A Wedding and both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now in the cinema. I also saw Victor Erice’s magnificent Spirit of the Beehive in 16mm, projected onto a white sheet at the West Sussex College of Art and Design, where my uncle was teaching. It was Erice’s film which kindled in me the initial desire to make films but there were, at that time, very few opportunities to see other films of this kind.
So I began reading books about the cinema and that’s how I came across Bresson, first through articles by Andre Bazin, Roy Armes and Gavin Lambert. Something about his formal concerns attracted me I think. And then, in my first term at university, I saw Au hasard Balthazar at the University Film Society. I was transfixed and still think it’s one of Bresson’s most seductive films, despite its very tough narrative. Soon afterwards I discovered that Une femme douce was being screened in London and so I went to London to see that film. It’s been a source of long-term regret that Une femme douce is not more widely available and better known, as I think it one of Bresson’s most expressive films and a particular favourite of mine. It was a big influence on my own first film. And with these two films, Au hasard Balthazar and Une femme douce, my love for Bresson’s films was secured.
I was drawn consciously, I think, to Bresson’s impeccable, austere aesthetic. But I can also see, in retrospect, that the Catholic and redemptive themes and inflection of his narratives must at least sub-consciously have attracted me, having been brought up Catholic, even if lapsed by that time. I organised the retrospective primarily so that I could see the remaining films. Actually, I did meet Bresson whilst preparing the retrospective. I visited him in Paris in, I think, the Spring of 1981 and I wrote both about the films (some of them, I now confess, unseen by me at the time!) and the meeting with Bresson in Paris in an early edition of Stills magazine.
MGS: Unlike Paul Schrader, I actually think Bresson’s movies got better over time, or at least the end results seemed to correspond more closely to what he was trying to achieve. (I’m thinking particularly of the way they became increasingly minimalist, with the last few movies featuring only diegetic music.) Of course, neither Bresson nor you could have been aware that L’argent would be his final movie but I think it does feel, appropriately, like a last testament. Were you aware while working on it that it would be a special film even within his extraordinary body of work?
JH: First of all, the later films certainly seem more austere, more closely corresponding to some of the rigours explored in Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, among them the exclusive use of diegetic sound but also including, for example, the use of a single standard lens, non-professional ‘models’ and the creation of flattened images.
But secondly, these elements, on their own, aren’t the summation of what Bresson was ‘trying to achieve’. Bresson contrasted his notion of Cinematography with conventional Cinema, with the latter indebted to theatrical traditions and methods. What, I think, Bresson pursued, in short, was what one might call a documentary of emotions, with the mechanical means of apprehension – camera and tape recorder – capable of capturing models’ authentic, unconscious states of soul. Hence, to some extent, the non-professional models and the numerous takes for which Bresson was renowned. And these fragments, captured in flattened and uninflected images, are then given structure and meaning – for Bresson, are transformed – through a rhythmic editing strategy and of course, with the creation of a resonant soundtrack – Bresson’s approach to sound, as you’ll know, is unique and noted by many commentators. This is all complex, subtle and far from self-evident stuff – and I’m only scratching the surface here – but one does not have to accept all of it in order to find Bresson’s films uniquely expressive. However, much of this territory is explored and clarified in Bresson’s short, aphoristic Notes on the Cinematographer which is, along with the films, a crucial source for those interested in Bresson’s films and his approach to filmmaking.
As to the improving quality of Bresson’s oeuvre, well, that strikes me as a third issue. There are certainly fierce debates around this issue, with Schrader and others suggesting a mid-career pinnacle, with the later films perhaps losing the redemptive or transcendental aspect of the earlier films. The shift to darker territory – Bresson might have said more “lucid” territory – does not alienate me, or, in and of itself, suggest a tailing off in the quality of the films. Leaving aside L’argent, which I will come to, Une Femme Douce and Lancelot du Lac, in particular, amongst the ‘later films’, seem to me to be masterpieces.
As for L’argent, for me it was my first experience of being involved in a film’s production and so quite hard to assess. But I was aware that it was a difficult film to make, with tight production parameters. Equally, viewing rushes and edited sequences suggested something very special, to my eyes and ears at least, from very early on and soon after the completion of Principal Photography, a first cut was screened which was already powerful and compelling. And the film only became tighter and sharper as post production continued.
I suspect that making a relatively small number of films in a long career ensures that each and every one of them feels ‘special’, at least at the time. On the other hand, at the time Bresson was hoping – even expecting – to make his long-cherished film Genesis in the near future and so there was no sense, in 82/83, of L’argent being his “last testament”. In addition to which, the film’s reception at Cannes in 1983 was less than fulsome.
Looking at L’Argent now, however, the film inevitably takes on the aspect of “last testament” and it’s certainly a remarkable and profound film, worthy of assuming that role. It is passionate, prescient, humane and quite simply, a truly great film. And after all, it’s not for nothing that it was the “Top Film of the 1980’s” in one of your own recent lists. There are any number of wonderful moments and sequences in the film but I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the film’s remarkable and ambiguous final shot, the crowd still looking into the cafe, although Yvon, flanked by police officers, has passed through the crowd and been taken away. It’s such a resonant image, so perfectly drawing together the thematic threads of this extraordinary film and perhaps, even, of Bresson’s entire oeuvre.
MGS: One aspect of L’argent that really sets it apart from Bresson’s previous work is the presence of Christian Patey as Yvon. When I think of Bresson’s male “models,” I think of them as typically being physically graceful, slightly feminine and possessed of a soulful, almost ethereal, beauty. Patey really bucks this trend and brings a masculine energy to the part, coming across almost like a monster at times. Why do you think Bresson chose to cast him?
JH: Christian Patey is certainly striking in L’argent and he has a powerful physical presence. His weight – physical and moral – is palpable throughout the film. But I wonder if he is really so different from Bresson’s other male models. Or, rather, I wonder if they are quite so homogenous as you suggest.
I suspect that the ‘typical’ Bressonian male ‘model’ might be Claude Laydu as the Curé d’Ambricourt in Journal d’un curé de campagne, or Martin LaSalle as the eponymous Pickpocket, perhaps even Francois Leterrier as Fontaine in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé. But even these three are somewhat different from one another. Graceful, yes. Soulful, yes, although in some cases only belatedly. Slightly feminine? Well, perhaps Laydu. LaSalle, by contrast, is almost feral – or perhaps feline and thus feminine? – for much of Pickpocket, whilst Leterrier has masculine – even martial – honour and conviction throughout.
Antoine Monnier as Charles in Le diable probablement and Guillaume de Forets as Jacques in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur both have a certain feminine beauty but at the very least, it seems to me that there’s no single dominant type for Bresson’s male ‘models’. I can certainly see some of Christian Patey’s sturdy masculinity in Luc Simon as the eponymous Lancelot du Lac and not simply because of Lancelot’s encasement in armour. There is physical and moral weight – flawed and burdensome – in Simon’s Lancelot, just as there is in Patey’s Yvon.
Why did Bresson choose Christain Patey? I don’t know. Intuition I suspect. Certainly it was inspired casting, as was Vincent Risterucci as Lucien, the thorn in Yvon’s side. And also Caroline Lang as Yvon’s wife Elise, Marc Ernest Fourneau as Norbert and Bruno Lapeyre as Martial, the young, bourgeois Parisian students, as well as Sylvie Van den Elsen and Michel Briguet as the woman and her father in the country. It is, almost throughout, a brilliantly ‘cast’ film, with the vibrant and differentiated presences of Bresson’s ‘models’ so luminous. It’s one of the things that really stands out about L’argent.
MGS: Funny, I was thinking of Leterrier specifically when I used the word “feminine” because of his slight physical stature and manual dexterity. I also think it’s significant that he describes making ropes based on memories of watching his mother braid his sister’s hair.
To be continued . . .