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The Review/Feature/

Soul Men

Revisiting Paul Schrader’s transcendental trio of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer

*Late Spring* (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

by James Quandt
Apr 3, 2017

The TIFF Cinematheque series Transcendental Style: Spirituality in the Films of Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu begins on Saturday, April 8.

No art form would seem less suited to expressing the transcendent, of eliciting and refining what Calvin called the sensus divinitatus, than cinema. The medium’s fealty to narrative and realism, the high cost and collaborative nature of its “apparatus,” and its reliance on complex technology all dictate against the pure, individual expression of the transcendent that one can find in the contemporaneous arts of painting (Kandinsky, Rothko), music (Messiaen, Feldman), or literature (Bernanos, White). Robert Bresson was one of the rare artists who attempted to force film’s instruments and intransigent realism to yield the numinous (what he named “the divine”), developing a rigorous system he dubbed le cinématographe to those ends. Because of his spiritual subjects and monastic aesthetic, his Jansenist influences, and the often mysterious, ethereal quality of his imagery, Bresson has long been identified as a “transcendental filmmaker” — an interpretation that was sealed and certified by Paul Schrader’s immensely influential book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, in which the author’s Calvinism finds a parallel in Bresson’s (supposed) Jansenism.

However, because “transcendentalism” is so inchoate and capacious a concept, it became increasingly suspect in the intervening decades since the publication of Schrader’s volume — what, after all, does “transcendentalism” truly mean when it is applied to such disparate directors as Stan Brakhage, Andrei Tarkovsky, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, Alexander Sokurov, or indeed Schrader’s original triumvirate of Ozu, Dreyer and Bresson? Against the transcendentalist approach, revisionist critics have extricated the latter three directors from the scrims of reverence that have accumulated around each, instead locating them in their respective social, commercial, and political times. Bresson has been recast as a materialist filmmaker, one whose images are solid and ineluctable as facts, whose use of sound places us in a dense, material world, and whose editing is based on principles of the relations between things, not abstractions. (The title of Pickpocket was originally Incertitude; the former, shorn of its modifying article, has a solidity, a “thingness,” where the latter is abstract, indistinct.)

Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)

Just as critics and scholars such as Brian Price and Colin Burnett have radically amended our sense of Bresson’s career (even going so far as to ascribe radical leftist sympathies to a hitherto Jansenist), so too the venerated Ozu, whose international fame has long rested on a half dozen of his (mostly late) films: muted, minimalist domestic dramas esteemed for their “eternal verities” about family, death, transience, tradition, for their poignancy, Zen serenity and quiet sense of resignation (subsumed in the concept of mono no aware or “sensitivity to things”), and for their delicacy, restraint, and formal rigour.

Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

It would be pointless to deny these qualities in Ozu’s late work: atmospherically, with their limpid, summery calm; formally, with their low-slung, symmetrical and stationary compositions, cut straight and punctuated by gorgeously extraneous “pillow shots” or disorienting ellipses; and emotionally, with their roiling undercurrents of disappointment and smiling despair. But their decorous sense of dissolution has too often been mistaken for Zen transcendentalism and probity, and in the process much of what comprises the Ozu universe has been ignored or suppressed. Booze, brats, and boxing, gangsters and prostitutes, scatology and fetishism, dragnet girls, femmes fatales and gun-wielding wives stipple Ozu’s prewar filmography, as do such seemingly antithetical genres as crime films and proto-noirs, neorealist narratives and melodramas, vulgar comedies and knockabout student satires (of the subgenre known as “erotic-grotesque-nonsense”).

Dragnet Girl (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Unlike the evenly lit, statically shot, and abruptly cut late films, the earlier works feature chiaroscuro, virtuoso camera movement, and fluent transitions; many are so movie-mad that their overt references to Ozu’s beloved directors (Lubitsch, Lloyd, Sternberg) make him occasionally seem like an erstwhile Godard. As the monist impulse of auteurism tends to suppress multiplicity by ignoring or explaining away variation, so Ozu’s oeuvre has often been made coherent by regress to an overarching theme — the Japanese family and its dissolution, which was also a favourite subject of Kon Ichikawa, Mikio Naruse, and many of their colleagues — and a convenient ranking of the “problematic” early films as negligible works or as intimations of incipient mastery (Ozu before he was Ozu, as it were).

However, it would be a grave mistake, as a corrective to this unified view of Ozu, to privilege the little-known early work over the famous late films, or to reject the sense of his aesthetic as austere, formalist, or rigorous. It is easily demonstrable that Ozu’s style became more singular, radical, and exacting as he proceeded: the restriction of camera position and movement, the avoidance of wipes, fades, and dissolves, the breaking of the 180-degree axis and shot/countershot rules of conventional cinema, all attest to the voiding disposition of his late work. But, as David Bordwell points out, too often these undeniable aspects of Ozu’s films have been exaggerated in order to create the impression of a stylistically seamless, wholly unified body of work: “Always the same camera position? No, the setups vary constantly, in response to quasi-geometrical principles. No camera movements? The camera tracks or pans in every Ozu film up to Equinox Flower.... Simple cutting? Far from it; [Ozu] elaborates the editing experiments of his contemporaries in extraordinary ways.”

In response to the clichéd descriptions of Ozu as “the most Japanese of directors” and a Zen elegist and tragedian, such studies as Shigehiko Hasumi’s sly reading of Ozu’s “excess of clarity” and Bordwell’s magnificent film-by-film traversal of the career have, if not overturned, certainly inflected and complicated the traditional narratives around Ozu. No longer subjugated to notions of traditional Japanese aesthetics, the director’s formalism is read in terms of international modernism, the studio system and its “rethinking [of] American découpage” (Bordwell), and of Ozu’s own peculiar, playful way with space, colour, and shapes, while the plotless “purity” of the postwar family dramas has been reconsidered to take into account their strains of satire and melodrama, their often brusque humour, and their immense debt to American cinema (Tokyo Story, it is often noted, was inspired by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow).

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Initially rejected by directors of the Japanese New Wave (including his former assistant Shohei Imamura) for his conservatism and rigidity, Ozu has since been championed for his “anti-cinema” in a book of that name by New Wave giant Kiju Yoshida. Once rarely mentioned or probed, the politics of Ozu’s films have increasingly been examined, both by those who consider his anxiety over the loss of tradition profoundly reactionary and others, such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has called Ozu “a trenchant social critic throughout his career,” with a sometimes “devastating understanding of social context ... full of radical implications.”

To turn to the third member of Schrader’s trio, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s visual style (with its flat tableaux and chaste décor) and his themes of control, repression, and hysteria were no doubt influenced by Lutheran asceticism, but one wonders if the “spiritual” nature of the Dane’s cinema has been overstated. Certainly, up to The Passion of Joan of Arc, the nature of struggle in his films seems more social than metaphysical, more historical or humanist than divine, even when dealing with the power of evil and the persecution of the recusant or saintly. And in his subsequent sound films, which are peopled with pastors, saints, witches, and heretics, and which deal with the supernatural, crises of faith, and the nature of love — even, as in Ordet, with resurrection from the dead — Dreyer’s psychological realism anchors the mystical in a social, material world.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

The term “realized mysticism” has been used to emphasize the simultaneity of the materialist and the spiritual in Dreyer’s work, but religious readings of his films often confuse the numinous and the nebulous, aswirl in a Vampyr-like fog of indefinite ideas and cabalistic terms. Amédée Ayfre’s famous work on Dreyer, for instance, is miasmic, turning Dreyer’s abstract, rigorously realized sense of space and time into a neo-Rosicrucian field of “invisible, magnetic forces and currents,” “porous, sponge-like spaces” and “mysterious fluids.”

“All is grace,” the utterance at the end of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, contrasts with “Love is all” (Amor Omnia), the phrase that Gertrud wants inscribed on her gravestone in Dreyer’s last film. Grace and love are indivisible for many Christians, but Gertrud’s “love” is secular, humanist, even carnal, while the country priest’s “grace” is divine, of God. It does not much matter how one apprehends the character of Bresson’s priest — is he a martyr to the iniquity of his parishioners? a repressed homosexual, longing for release? both? — to interpret the meaning of the grace that Bresson invokes in the film’s famous final image.

How one perceives Gertrud, however, is central to understanding Dreyer’s ambiguous meaning. Those who see her as a tyrannical, narcissistic woman, bent on an empty and impossible ideal, tend to interpret Gertrud as “an examination of unbelief and the emptiness of existence apart from faith in God, and the film shows the futility of chasing after a worldly love that can satisfy the longings of the soul,” as the appropriately named Christian Hamaker suggests. As Gertrud herself says, she first saw Amor Omnia inscribed on a stranger’s grave, and the phrase is associated with her own entombment — it is, in other words, a love as cold as death. Obversely, if Gertrud is that rare thing in Dreyer — a free woman — who is heretical by her own choosing, isolated by her quest for a man with whom she can share her immense intelligence and private suffering, then her “having loved” (earthly, corporeal love), as she suggests in a poem that states her “gospel,” is indeed All; God is superfluous in this pursuit.

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964)

One can cite many connections between Bresson and Dreyer: their religious or spiritual themes; the asceticism of their styles (which often arrive at a startling sensuality); the emphasis on anguish, loss, imprisonment, and human cruelty; the many projects each abandoned or left unrealized (including Dreyer’s life of Christ and Bresson’s recounting of Genesis); their aloof and perfectionist natures. Perhaps less determinedly than Bresson, the private Dreyer resisted biographical or historical readings of his work. Maurice Drouzy’s 1982 biography, however, has turned subsequent Dreyer criticism towards psychological interpretation; in particular, the treatment of suffering, traduced, and martyred women in his films (a strange affinity with Mizoguchi’s cinema) has been read in terms of his traumatic relationship with his birth mother, whom he discovered died in a horribly botched self-induced abortion, and with his adopted family, who were grievously unloving.

One need only compare Bresson’s version of the trial of Joan of Arc with Dreyer’s more famous one to perceive the stylistic gulf between them. The parched, parsimonious quality of Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc is indicated in its almost total absence of water or fluids; it is resolutely sec, whereas Dreyer’s shocking topography of mortified flesh sluices with ablutions of blood, tears, and spittle. “For want of truth,” Bresson notes dryly, “the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti’s way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer’s film, used to make people weep.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson, 1962)

The expressionism of Dreyer’s style, with intense close-ups that “expose the souls” of his anguished characters (which Bresson derided and Godard adored), evolved from contemporary silent cinema (German, Scandinavian, and American — particularly Griffith). But it is Dreyer’s late films, especially Ordet and Gertrud, that achieve — in their use of theatrical long takes, austere settings, stasis, and limited compositional range — the “purity” and severity that critics often wrongly ascribe to Bresson’s work, which was increasingly crisply rhythmic in its elliptical editing, voluptuous in colour and texture, and contemporary in setting. (Though it should be noted that Dreyer, who set all of his films in the past, had wanted to make Gertrud in colour.) Bresson’s later films became more terse and laconic, Dreyer’s longer and more loquacious. But the dialogue in Ordet and Gertrud is ritualistic; like so much in Dreyer, it has a paradoxical quality — amplitude become austerity.

Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)

Whether one appreciates Dreyer as a radical stylist and modernist, as a mystic who employed the earthly and profane technology of movie-making to invoke a sense of Calvin’s sensus divinitatus and the possibility of miracles, as a psychological realist or even — as some have claimed — as a proto-feminist, he must be counted among the great “soul men” of the cinema. Rarely have images of the world — especially of the flesh — bodied forth states of being with such intensity. (The same might be said of Bresson, though not the chaste Ozu, fond of flatulence but chary of sensuality.) Transcendental or materialist, the former achieved through the latter, or…? This series considers the standoff and proffers the evidence.