On the Odd Satisfaction of Bresson

Curator's Note

In a recent video essay on his YouTube channel, film and video game scholar Ian Bryce Jones hypothesizes about the satisfying qualities of watching manual labor in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Jones suggests that being lulled into meditative absorption by the titular character’s skilled movements in the kitchen may be partly a historically motivated response, one that seems to contradict the film’s status as a feminist provocation that forces its spectators to endure the drudgeries of housework in real-time (which is largely how the sequences were described by critics in 1975).[1] In other words, it may seem somewhat ironic to walk away from the minutes-long sequences of potato-peeling or shoe-cleaning feeling refreshed. As one Letterboxd reviewer cited in Jones’s video puts it:  

“I was not expecting [Jeanne Dielman] to be therapeutic […] I‘ve had a godawful…week at work. I long to spend slow hours in the kitchen. I got vicarious thrills from watching Jeanne carefully quarter potatoes. I think I had exactly the opposite reaction that you’re supposed to have.”[2]

As Jones hypothesizes, such a mode of reception may be symptomatic of an economic climate driven by cycles of hustle and burnout, the same climate that, as some have argued, has made “slow cinema” a therapeutic respite from the hyper-stimulation of our current media environment and the neoliberal internalizations of never-ending productivity and self-improvement.[3] It’s that same climate, Jones suggests, that puts the pleasure of watching Jeanne Dielman on a similar plane, however perversely, as ASMR TikToks of beautifully organized lunch-packing and casual video games that simulate family meal prep. 

I bring up the satisfaction of Jeanne Dielman’s labor in order to ask a similar question about the laboring bodies of Robert Bresson, a filmmaker who, beyond influencing Akerman directly, inevitably invites analyses of a similar kind of gestural precision and perfection. I’ve written elsewhere of the gestural precision in Bresson’s films,[4] such as the way that, in A Man Escaped, Fontaine’s hands guide a spoon seamlessly through the grooves of the door that confines him or slide a safety pin into the lock slot of his handcuffs in one impossibly smooth motion. But I’d taken for granted the satisfaction that such gestures provoked in me, not considering the historical or ideological circumstances that may have shaped such a satisfaction. Could it be that, as with the Letterboxd review of Jeanne Dielman, being satisfied by Bresson’s close-ups of hands in dexterous motion is a uniquely twenty-first-century mode of reception that, somehow, is not quite the “reaction that you’re supposed to have,” or at least is a historically motivated mode of viewing?

Symptomatic of this way of seeing, I think, is the popularity of a video essay that has now become a synecdoche for Bresson’s body of work, kogonada’s Hands of Bresson (2014). At the most basic level, the video is a kind of supercut of closely framed hands in various forms of motion and action, edited together to create visual continuities and tensions, and set to the Schubert piano sonata that famously plays throughout Au Hasard Balthazar. It goes without saying that the video is a deeply satisfying ballet of hands in motion. Of course, the video is also more than that, as a number of scholars and fans would attest. In writing about teaching the video essay, Roberto Letizi and Simon Troon cautioned their students not to “conflate the seductive potential of combining highly affective images and music as a kind of shorthand poetic aesthetic with the nuanced approach of essays like Kogonada’s, which subtly balances affective impulses and analytical ideas within its poetic grammar.”[5] But what about the “seductive potential” of Hands of Bresson? How would those students articulate it?

Would they, as some of my own students have in class discussions of A Man Escaped, make a comparison between those closely framed shots of Fontaine’s nimble fingers and ASMR and “oddly satisfying” videos? It’s an association that I can’t unsee. Both ASMR and “oddly satisfying” videos, each an internet-born genre offering a kind of sensory therapy, tend to feature close-ups of hands manipulating matter in inexplicably satisfying ways, from perfectly slicing tomatoes to delicately executing woodwork to drumming one’s fingers on a fine-toothed comb. Both have also been read as examples of the kind of self-care therapy that sufferers of burnout increasingly turn to, remedying screen fatigue with more screen images.[6]

In pointing out that many oddly satisfying images depict some form of handicraft or manual work, Anna McCarthy makes the case that such images are essentially bite-sized spectacles of perfectly executed labor, thus satisfying our desire to feel productive. Salome Aguilera Skvirsky has made similar arguments about “hands and pans” videos, those high-speed recipe tutorials, shot from overhead, that feature disembodied hands perfectly slicing and dicing. She locates such videos in what she calls the “process genre,” the “sequentially ordered representation of someone making or doing something” that “produces in the spectator a singular wonder and deep satisfaction.”[7] A distinctly cinematic genre that notably includes Bresson’s sequences of dexterous manual labor in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket and the housework in Jeanne Dielman, the process genre is satisfying, Skvirsky argues, partly because it’s pleasurable to see labor, in our capitalist context, as unalienated craftsmanship—perfectly executed, from beginning to end, with discernible skill and demonstrable knowledge of the entire production process.

While the individual pairs of hands in Hands of Bresson appear so quickly that none quite completes a “process” or does “labor,” they do distill the sense of dexterity that Bresson’s actors were famously instructed to cultivate through the exhaustive repetition of simple movements. Isolated from their narrative contexts in the video essay, each pair of hands moves in a manner that is almost athletic in its perfection. The way the hand in a clip from L’Argent readies its grasp of a series of ATM banknotes with a carefully positioned thumb and forefinger is as measured and precise as Michel’s acrobatic thievery in Pickpocket.

The satisfaction evoked by Hands of Bresson, then, does not stem from a vicarious productivity or fantasy of perfected labor, but from an intimacy that derives from closely perceiving a certain quality of human bodily movement. Bresson’s framing and stylistic sparsity afford us the attention to see the athleticism in the mundane, and thus to see the body of the actor shine through the artifice of narrative. This is precisely what critics have noticed in a minute-long sequence in Bresson’s Mouchette in which the title character, marked by unspeakable suffering from the very beginning of the film, makes a pot of coffee with such palpable but unflamboyant skill that it feels like a brief respite from such suffering.[8] The skill, the athleticism, is as much Nadine Nortier’s as it is Mouchette’s. The barrier of the screen and the framing of her hands—qualities that might be seen to distance us from Nortier—are the means by which we are able to see her embodied skill, and thus form what feels like an intimate encounter. By isolating other skilled hands from the artifice of their narrative contexts, and by allowing us to see such embodied skill within their ordinary gestures, Hands of Bresson distills this intimacy across its four-minute runtime.

 A similar form of intimacy, I’d argue, is also fostered by ASMR videos and oddly satisfying videos. Manufacturing the impression of intimacy is of course explicitly the aim of ASMR videos, which often feature ASMR artists performing hyper-feminized care for the viewer.[9] But the genre’s emphasis on the visual and aural qualities of tactility—the sight of dexterous fingers and the sounds of close-mic’ed tapping—is a different form of intimacy, one that seems consistent with the cinematic framing of gestural precision on display in Bresson. And oddly satisfying videos, while not often discursively framed as fostering intimacy, are often explicitly invested in the pleasures of seeing skilled movement, even when those movements don’t seem to be doing skilled labor (as with slime videos, a subgenre in which a performer’s hands manipulate a viscous, gooey substance). While certain aspects of these genres may provide vicarious pleasures of perfected labor, they equally display bodies as intimately perceivable others, offering a respite not quite from alienated labor, but from another symptom of the same socioeconomic conditions—a pervasive sense of isolation.  

The fact that Hands of Bresson was made in 2014, just years into the ascendance of these genres of tactile intimacy, now feels inevitable. I simply cannot think of Bresson without conjuring the visual vocabulary of tactile intimacy that seems to be shared across kogonada’s video essay and its surrounding social media landscape.

So what does this visual vocabulary of satisfaction do for (or to) Bresson’s legacy? In the case of Jeanne Dielman, even though one can imagine a mode of spectatorship that reduces the film to a kind of therapy, Skvirsky and others have argued that feeling satisfaction at Jeanne’s labor is, in fact, an essential feature of the film’s feminist provocation rather than a rejection of it.[10] Instead of a perverse misreading of the film, being soothed by Jeanne’s labors can be seen as a revelatory mode of viewing that has arguably become much more readily accessible due to recent historical conditions. In a similar manner, if we are encouraged to feel “oddly satisfied” by the closely framed hands of Bresson’s actors due to our current historical conditions, we need not dismiss such a feeling as an idiosyncratic cinephilic indulgence or as an irrelevant historical accident. It is a mode of seeing, perhaps now more readily accessible, that helps unlock a form of intimacy unique to Bresson’s films. kogonada’s Hands of Bresson then, may be considered not only a formalist study of one of Bresson’s most recognizable stylistic signatures, but its emergence is also a symptom of a world—our world, not Bresson’s—that may long for such images and the intimacies they offer.


[1] Skvirsky, Salomé Aguilera. The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor. Duke University Press, 2020, 202.

[2] Quoted in Ian Bryce Jones, “SHAPE UP!: Un-Cozy Games.” YouTube. Accessed 21 February 2024. https://youtu.be/TisY1N_3DRk?si=1Js7Ul4Lyn0KhFAS

[3] Jones, “Shape Up”

[4] Schonig, Jordan. The shape of motion: cinema and the aesthetics of movement. Oxford University Press, 2021.

[5] Letizi, Roberto, and Simon Troon. “Teaching writing with images: The role of authorship and self-reflexivity in audiovisual essay pedagogy.” NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies 9, no. 2 (2020): 181-202.

[6] See, for example, McCarthy, Anna. “Visual Pleasure and GIFs.” Compact cinematics: The moving image in the age of bit-sized media (2017): 113-122 and Fest, Racheal. “‘ASMR’media and the attention economy’s crisis of care.” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media 59 (2019).

[7] Skvirsky, The Process Genre, 2.

[8] See, for example, Jacques Ranciere, Intervals of Cinema, trans. John Howe (New York: Verso Books, 2014), 64 and Lindley Hanlon, “Sound as Symbol in Mouchette,” in Robert Bresson (Revised), ed. James Quandt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 401. I discuss this sequence at length in Schonig, The Shape of Motion, 59-69.

[9]  Waldron, Emma Leigh. “‘This FEELS SO REAL!’ Sense and sexuality in ASMR videos.” First Monday (2017).

[10] Skvirsky, The Process Genre, 202-205.

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