Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Andre Bazin: The stylistics of Robert Bresson

continues from: A Certain Tendency and the Bernanos letter

from Andre Bazin What is cinema? Essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray. [Foreword by Jean Renoir]

Admittedly Bresson has done his best to cover his tracks. His avowal of fidelity to the original from the first moment that he embarked on the adaptation, his declared intention of following the book word-for-word conditioned us to look for just that and the film only serves to prove it. Unlike Aurenche and Bost, who were pre-occupied with the optics of the screen and the balance of their drama in its new form. Bresson, instead of building up the minor characters like the parents in Le Diable au corps, eliminated them. He prunes even the very essentials, giving an impression as he does of a fidelity unable to sacrifice one single word without a pucker of concern and a thousand preliminary twinges of remorse. again, this pruning is always in the interest of simplification, never of addition. It is no exaggeration to say that if Bernanos had written the screenplay he would have taken greater liberties with his novel. He had, indeed, explicitly recognized the right of the adaptor to make use of his book according to the requirements of the cinema, the right that is "to dream his story over."
However, if we praise Bresson for his fidelity, it is for the most insidious kind of fidelity, a most pervasive form of creative license. Of course, one can not adapt without transposing. In that respect Bernanos was on the side of aesthetic common sense. Literal translations are not the faithful ones. The changes that Aurenche and Bost made to Le Dialble au corps are almost all entirely justified in principle. A character on the screen and the same character as evoked by the novelist are not identical. (page 126-127)

After Bresson, Aurenche and Bost are but the Viollet-le-Duc of cinematographic adaptation. (page 143)

For those who can not make the "Viollet-le-Duc" allusion, the Encyclopedia Brittanica site says this about the 19th century restoration architect Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc "his later restorations show that he often added entirely new elements of his own design. Twentieth-century archaeologists and restorers have severely criticized these fanciful reconstructions and added structures posing as restorations, for they often destroy or render obscure the original form of the edifice."

That closing reference to Viollet-le-Duc in The Stylistics of Robert Bresson seems on a contemporary reading somewhat gratutious as little said in the essay to explain it. However, in the summer of 1951 less than four years after the publication of Bernanos's letter most readers of Cahiers would have grasped its topicality.
In 1952, after being released from military prison, François Truffaut move in with André and Janine Bazin in Bryce-sur-Marne. As Janine Bazin explained later on, Truffaut and her husband would spend hours in mutually educative conversation which would leave one unsure where person ended and the other one began. Bazin ended his essay with that bald statement comparing Aurenche-Bost to Viollet-le-Duc. Truffaut's essay starts out from that statement and attempts to justify it. When one realizes that the information that Truffaut uses to make his argument was information that was available for Bazin to appraise, one has now to ponder the question, "Where exactly in 'A Certain Tendency' does Bazin end and Truffaut begin?".

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