This is the second part of my interview with filmmaker and teacher Jonathan Hourigan who worked as an assistant on Robert Bresson’s L’argent. Part one was published earlier this week.
MGS: How has Bresson impacted you specifically as a writer/director? What lessons did you learn from watching him work that you were able to apply to your own filmmaking endeavors?
JH: These are difficult questions. By the time I arrived in Paris in the summer of 1982 I had seen all of the films and had read Notes on the Cinematographer several times. I was aware that Bresson was unlike other filmmakers but as I said earlier, being involved in L’argent was my first experience of the film industry, so I had no context in which to assess the experience. In addition to which, on arrival in Paris I spoke virtually no French. The crew, French and Italians (in a year when the Italians won the football World Cup), were generally very kind to me. And Bresson, in particular, spoke to me often, invariably in fluent English and he was always courteous and solicitous about my well-being, even as he worked to the limit on his film. He also had a very keen sense of humour. And as my French improved, I was increasingly given little jobs to do on set. I would also often travel in Bresson’s car to watch rushes in the evening.
So, to address your second question first, I did have the privilege of watching Bresson and his crew work at very close quarters. It’s hard to say what specific lessons I learned. Or rather, what specific lessons I was aware of having learned at that time. I was certainly immersed in the experience but I think I’m both a late starter and a slow learner – not a great combination – and I’m not sure that I derived specific lessons that I could have articulated at that time. My own first film, Jade, made a few years later, was indebted – too much so, in truth – to the surface of Bresson’s style but entirely missed any deeper correlations. I sent it to Bresson and when we next met I think he described it, with affection, as a “sweet comedy.” Suffice it to say, that had not been my intention!
Now, almost 30 years on, the impact and lessons are perhaps a little clearer.
At one level, that making films is complex and challenging and remains so today, even as technological advances have made the technical processes simpler, more accessible and cheaper. That one has to be committed, precise and demanding, principally, of oneself, although without being precious or lacking humour. That one needs to discover one’s authentic territory and to dig deep; an argument for depth rather than breadth, perhaps. Also, Bresson constantly reminds us, through his work and in Notes on the Cinematographer, of the huge possibilities that still remain largely dormant in this extraordinary medium that he had so thoroughly mastered.
Another lesson one might take from Bresson is to learn from other arts and artists; Notes on the Cinematographer is full of references and allusions to painting, music and literature, as well as to philosophy and history. It’s also worth pointing out that Bresson was by no means dismissive of theatre, simply of its spurious dominance of Cinema which, as filmed theatre, had lost both the defining immediacy and expressiveness of theatre and any aesthetic autonomy.
At another level, to attend to the entirety of an image, not in order to make it ‘painterly’ or self-consciously beautiful but to ensure that it is appropriate to one’s purposes. And similarly, to attend to the relationship between sound and image, about which Bresson was always so attentive and skillful. Indeed, from Bresson one might learn the necessity for attentiveness and commitment throughout the process. There is, after all, such a high risk of dissipation when making a film because of both the involvement of other interests and individuals and the extended and complex nature of film production. And alongside this sharp, disciplined creative focus, one might also learn humility and the necessity to live life well.
MGS: You told me that you continue to work on preserving Bresson’s legacy? What exactly does this entail?
JH: In the years since Bresson’s death in 1999 there has, I think, been an encouraging and gratifying upsurge of interest in Bresson’s films. This has coincided with the emergence of both the internet and digital technologies, ensuring the greater availability of material and information. I have simply assisted Madame Bresson in responding to interest and enquiries and in keeping an eye on what is placed in the public domain in relation to her late husband and his oeuvre, especially in the English language.
There have also been various retrospectives and for example, I was very pleased to be invited to speak about L’argent during the BFI’s most recent Bresson retrospective. It’s also been a great pleasure to meet – either electronically or in person – so many people interested in Bresson’s films, yourself included, of course, Michael.
MGS: I will be offering extra credit to my students if they attend any of the films in the upcoming Bresson retrospective here in Chicago. Is there a single movie you would recommend for young people to see to introduce them to Robert Bresson? Is there any advice you would give in terms of what to look out for or what to take away from the experience?
JH: Can I hedge my bets? I’m not, by inclination, prescriptive.
So, first, I think it would be hard for your students to go wrong if they followed my own path and saw Au Hasard Balthazar as an introduction. It’s lyrical, beautiful and also demanding. The film sits at the centre of Bresson’s oeuvre and also close to the fulcrum of the debate – involving Schrader and others – as to the pinnacle and trajectory of Bresson’s career.
On the other hand, L’argent, his final film, seems to me to be Bresson’s late, great masterpiece and perhaps the summation of his oeuvre. But equally, one cannot overlook Pickpocket, in many ways the quintessential Bresson film. Meanwhile, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, whilst giving away its outcome in the title, is perhaps Bresson’s most conventionally exciting and accessible film – which is not to damn it with faint praise because it more than holds its own amongst Bresson’s films. I’ve already expressed my own deep and abiding affection for Une Femme Douce, Bresson’s first film in colour and to some extent a ‘lost film’ as it’s still not available on DVD, whilst both Lancelot du Lac and Les anges du péché, the latter being his feature film debut, might also offer wonderful introductions to the oeuvre.
I will, finally, briefly make a case for Le Diable Probablement, Bresson’s prescient penultimate film, sometimes overlooked and certainly grueling and demanding though it is. It occurs to me that, with young people today ever more sensitive to ecological issues, this might be a great film for your students to rediscover and as such, an interesting place to start.
Now that I’ve mentioned so many of the films, from what is anyway a fairly slender oeuvre, it might seem as though I’m rather damning the remaining films. That’s certainly not my intention. What can I say? It would certainly be great if, between them, your students collectively managed to see all of the films.
OK, gun to my head – just one film? L’argent.
And to look out for, or to take away?
Well, this may be a little pedagogically unsound but I wouldn’t ‘look out’ for anything first time around. Simply experience. And to ‘take away’? Whatever immediate feelings one has from experiencing these films. Nothing intellectual. Simply experiential and emotional. Bresson is so sui generis that it’s almost impossible for an attentive viewer not to struck by some unique aspect of the films.
A more structured engagement with the films might commence with subsequent viewings and the great thing about Bresson’s films is that they certainly repay multiple viewings. And then one might begin to think about, amongst many other issues, Bresson’s extraordinary use of sound, the ubiquity of doors, the nature of Bresson’s ‘models’, the preponderance of narratives drawn from existing sources as opposed to original material, or the ways in which such powerful and authentic emotion is provoked within and by these apparently austere films.
Bresson and the films are sometimes characterised as austere, or studied. By contrast, I would argue that they – Bresson, his working methods and the films – are passionate, emotional, truthful at some deep level and full of spontaneity and inspiration. And in any study of Bresson’s films – and as I’ve already mentioned above – I would also strongly recommend a careful reading of Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. It is a little difficult to get hold of now but it is a brilliant summation of Bresson’s hopes, intentions and working methods. It illuminates, I think, why Bresson is considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century – perhaps the single greatest – and why he has been such an influence on and inspiration to so many other major filmmakers.
For those of you about to encounter Bresson and his films for the first time, I am more than just a little jealous. I am certain that it will be memorable. I hope it will also be an inspiring and transformative experience.