Bresson’s Choreography of Writing

Curator's Note

Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1954) opens with handwriting and concludes with typewriting, bracketing the narrative arc of the protagonist's journey and his endeavor to chronicle his inner turmoil. The narrative, set in a rural French village, centers on a young, beleaguered priest, portrayed by Claude Laydu, grappling with a crisis in faith amidst an indifferent and occasionally hostile parish. The film—an adaptation of Georges Bernanos's novel of the same name—per Michel Chion, portrays “the making of cinema from the 'un-writing' of a novel.” It is as if Bresson took Bernanos's freshly printed manuscript—which, in letter, is the fictive diary of the titular priest—and fed it back into the typewriter, reproducing its key-struck production through cinematic reproduction, rendering this formative impulse into the freshly penned diegetic words imaged by the film.[1]

The opening sequence of the film unveils a closed journal abutting ink and pen—together, the quintessential apparatus of handwriting. A hand—the Bressonian signature—enters from screen left, opens the journal, and is followed by a second hand wielding a second pen, thus anticipating without initiating the longhand that inks the filmic text, seemingly. For preceding all priestly penmanship is the film’s opening credits, typographically overlaying the handwriting assemblage, an overwriting concluded—underwritten—with “Scenario adaptation et réalisation de Robert Bresson”; in other words, non-diegetic writing precedes the diegetic. After the credit’s closing and the journal’s opening, we see not script but a sheet of blotting paper. Abstraction precedes the text—whether as calligraphic figure or line-bound signification. This small piece of paper—an abstract imprint of thoughts, a remainder of diaristic pre-production—serves as a dry run to the inscriptive act, figuring a rehearsal space for thought and motion, highlighting thereby the preparatory steps leading up to writing. Thus, detached from scenographic content, the blotting paper marks itself as writing emancipated, an imprint of formal process without dramatic ends (Fig.1-6).

As if repressing this creative potentiality, the pen-wielding hand removes the blotting paper to uncover a page bearing the handwritten text: “I don’t think I am doing anything wrong in writing daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery”; meanwhile, a voice-over imbues the scene with a layer of auditory texture, creating harmonious dissonance. The image then dissolves into a road sign—one for “AMBRICOURT”—signaling a shift in narrative space. A close-up of the priest wiping his face, a gesture iterating the blotting paper’s removal, punctuates this opening sequence, thereby closing its formal overture, its prefacing of the film’s fragmentation and modulation of typography into abstract cinematic gesture, into that which writes its clerical writing.

For Vilém Flusser, the gesture of handwriting is not a bringing forth but a scratching into—a gesture not of construction but of penetrating insistence. “Writing means making an in-scription,” he writes, suggesting a physicality in the pressing, a corporeal movement, but one that belies its habituated movements, its dressage. Conversely, for Flusser, the typewriting act, with its hammers and keys, more closely, more materially, resembles playing a piano, yielding creativity through mechanical constraint: its striking soundings permitting rule-breaking beyond the “freehand” of the pen. In short, the typewriter is not a shackle but a liberator of thought—the keyboard’s distribution of letters, its systemic abstraction, beckons their metamorphosis. In this mechanized gesture, one does not simply write, one “becomes-with” the typewriter in a procedural dance of formative selection, choreographing semantics, syntax, and orthography in its rhythmic materialization of text.[2]

Thus, Bresson’s mechanized gestures, his cinematic writing, rhythmically counterpoints those depicted in the diegesis, requiring us to bracket simple phenomenological study. This formal patterning begins with punctual writing shots gradually giving way in both length and frequency to visual studies of priestly (or “modeled”) introspection, a transition emblematized by a shot at about halfway of a page of journal text crisscrossed with strikethroughs. But writing is not erased here, it’s simply put under erasure, restoring through resemblance a potentiality promised by the blotting paper’s form-making formlessness, a capacity displaced across the text, distributed across the frame, transfigured into the mise-en-scene as surface abstraction: a concretion of mark-making becomes a tree-branch lattice, cross-hatched on a dusk sky’s canvass; splotches of ink are transubstantiated into spills of wine-become-black, just as with the Godardian line: “it’s not blood, it’s red.” Which is to say, image transcends figuration: not ink, wine, nor blood, but the formed inscription of dark liquid. Through a formal deconstruction of the text, hinted at the opening with the abstract image dominating, the blotting paper over the written text abstracts, Bresson introduces le cinématographe, writing with camera (Fig. 7-9).


[1] Chion, Michel. Words on screen. Columbia University Press, 2017. P.119

[2] Flusser, Vilém. Gestures. U of Minnesota Press, 2014, PP. 20-21.

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