Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Diary of a Country Priest

Robert Bresson's aesthetic is famously stark and austere, with a stripped-down approach to narrative and performance. In Diary of a Country Priest, his third feature, Bresson examines the daily life of a tormented young priest (Claude Laydu), the head of a country parish, who suffers both from a stomach ailment and from the doubt and insecurity that plague his ministry. Laydu's performance, like most performances in Bresson's ouevre, is drained of expressiveness. The priest, though often captured in closeup, only rarely betrays more than a hint of the turmoil afflicting him inside. His face is a blank mask, his mouth slightly downturned, his eyes often closed or looking down, hidden from the camera's gaze. This restraint is a hallmark of Bresson's cinema, and it is a big part of what makes his work so challenging: he resists conventional expressiveness, instead turning inward, and encouraging his actors to do the same. Curiously, the effect Bresson achieves through this restraint is often not blankness, not exactly, but more like sadness and disconnection. His characters, with their empty expressions, seem to be suffering quietly and internally, isolated from others, out of touch with their emotions. The general restraint also enhances the impact of those moments when the priest's quotidian suffering becomes too much to bear without expression, as when he's overwhelmed by a sudden attack of nausea and rolls his eyes in pain, his face contorting as he nearly faints from the pain. The film becomes locked into cycles of repression followed by momentary lapses in which the priest's carefully controlled emotions boil over; it is as close as Bresson ever gets to emotional catharsis, and a very modest and unshowy catharsis at that.

The priest's story is told through a series of diary entries that serve as divisions within the film: each incident or moment is separated from the subsequent one by an image of a journal page, with the pen scratching across the paper, writing the words that are then read aloud in voiceover. The diary provides an elliptical structure to the film, building the priest's story through what he himself chooses to recount, creating a sense of the daily rhythms of an isolated life. The priest is young and has been placed in charge of a small country parish, which proves to be a difficult task for him since the town's people are mostly hard peasants and farmers with little use for religion. Masses are sparsely attended; in fact, only one person in the film is ever seen attending a mass said by the priest. The priest finds his faith continually challenged by the people he's supposed to be serving. The children are uninterested in his lectures, and the one student who he at first thinks is attentive and spiritual turns out to be nearly as unreceptive as the others.

The core of the film's story concerns the priest's fraught relationship with the family of a local dignitary, a Count (Jean Riveyre). The count's wife (Rachel Bérendt) is deep in mourning for the couple's dead son, to the point where she's cut herself off from the world, including her still-living daughter Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral). Chantal, for her part, is miserable growing up in this troubled home, especially since her father is rather openly carrying on with Chantal's governess (Nicole Maurey). The film revolves, in a subtle way, around a conversation between the priest and the Countess, as the priest tries to pull her out of her self-imposed isolation, to convince her that she should re-engage with God and with the world despite the devastating loss of her son. This extended back-and-forth is, in its quiet way, the film's dramatic climax, a moment of profound significance for both participants.

When the priest gets home afterward, he writes in his journal that the conversation was a "struggle," and that's precisely what it was. The priest and the old woman were fighting over her soul, engaged in an invisible tug-of-war over her fate in the afterlife. Their words, harsh and direct, are like weapons aimed at one another, each one seeking to open a wound deep enough that the battle will end. The film makes spiritual struggle a kind of war, as violent and emotionally exhausting as any physical struggle, if not more so. The priest's mentor makes the same comparison, saying that they are at war, that they must face their enemy, though he never says who that enemy is. The Devil? Sinners? Hell itself? It hardly matters: it's the sense of never-ending struggle that defines these men of God, even if the struggle itself is vague and metaphysical, occurring on an invisible plane, its effects on Earth ambiguous and uncertain. The priest believes that he has triumphed with the Countess, that he has left her in peace and lifted a tremendous burden from her through the power of his words. But any effect of this transformation must by necessity be displaced from the material world. The priest goes to the woman's deathbed hoping to see some sign of his good work in her dead body, but there is no smile on her lips, no hint of the serenity that he believed she met death with, no evidence of his effect on her. She died like any other human, and her essence departed from her body.

Towards the end of the film, Bresson makes the war metaphor even more explicit by introducing the character of Olivier (Jean Danet), a soldier in the Foreign Legion and a cousin of Chantal. He arrives on a motorcycle, first heard but not seen, a buzz in the distance, until he picks up the priest one afternoon and gives him a ride. The scene where the priest rides on the motorcycle is remarkable, as the priest vacillates between moments of carefree joy and serious introspection. Bresson watches the priest's face in closeup, as he smiles, feeling the wind on his face, enjoying the sensual rush of this ride, and then the smile melts away and his expression again grows distant and blank, as his voiceover returns on the soundtrack, delivering a running interior monologue of his thoughts about God and death and faith. It's a wonderful portrait of a man who thinks too much, allowing his constant internal monitor to overshadow the immediacy of a present-tense experience. He feels the rush of the motorcycle ride only briefly, in flashes of an unworried, spontaneous smile, which is then erased by the return of his self-consciousness. Because this is Bresson, there is also a note of homoerotic tension between the priest and the young soldier, particularly when the soldier drops off the priest at his destination and speaks to him with a knowing leer as he tells him that they could be great friends. It's more than just a hint of illicit sexuality, though; the soldier sees in the priest a kindred spirit, someone made for battle. He tells the priest that he could easily trade in his priest's robes for a uniform of a very different kind, the uniform of the soldier, waging physical rather than spiritual battle.

In its simple, graceful way, Diary of a Country Priest deals candidly with the mysteries of faith and the nearly uncrossable divide between the material and spiritual worlds. As if to prove the point, the film itself is inextricably rooted in the material world: the details of the priest's limited diet, the lower-class mess and clutter of a former priest's urban apartment, the inky darkness of the night, as the priest sits inside staring at the sheets of rain streaming down his window. When the priest, walking home late one night, falls to the ground, the mud beneath him has a moonlight sheen as his fingers sink into the wet soil. The grounds of the Count's manor are mostly filmed in long shots that emphasize the scope and sprawl of the flat lawns, often with a crooked branch hanging down in the foreground, zigzagging across the frame. The film is about wrestling with the spiritual, with what happens after death, but physicality and materiality are its real métier.


DavidEhrenstein said...

The motorcyle ride is clearly a moment of sexual bliss.

Claude Laydu sets down the pettern Bresson will use in the future for his "models." but there are still conventional actors in this film, principally Nicole Maurey -- who would go on to co-star with Bing Crisby, Tuesday Weld and Fabian in Blake Edwards' High Time

Ed Howard said...

The motorcyle ride is clearly a moment of sexual bliss.

Absolutely! It's such a sensual sequence, and really surprising after so much austerity. Even just seeing the priest smile for a moment is startling, it's like a light gets turned on for a moment and you realize how much is missing from this man's normal emotional range.

DavidEhrenstein said...

There's a ton and a half of homoeroticism in Bresson. Quite obviously in Pickpocket, more subtly in Le Diable Probablement and Au Hasard Balthazar

Carson Lund said...

I haven't seen this film in a while, but this review made everything rush back into memory quite vividly. It's one of my favorite Bresson films. I find its ending quite moving.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Carson. Not every Bresson does it for me, but this one certainly does. My favorite is A Man Escaped - just sublime, that one - but this comes close.