What’s with this film?! The more it settles in my mind, the harder it becomes to think of anything else. To be sure, it’s not a perfect film, and has moments that are quite amateurish compared to Bresson’s other work. The bits of humour are somewhat lame, ethnic, and perhaps unintentional — the action film sequence is hilarious, though.
Regardless, I couldn’t help but be fully enveloped by the atmosphere created by the film, and, even now, I cannot resist feeling the mood — so dream and fairy-tale like — distilled by the sum of its parts. From the vivid spotlights to the gorgeous reflections in the water to the songs of the bards and gypsies, Four Nights of A Dreamer entrances the viewer and sets them into an enchanting Bressonian world; for one and a half hours, the fluidity of time and one’s attunement with the rhythm of life, is altered and transcended. It’s not merely a film, but an experience.
While the Dostoyevsky-based film feels like a fairytale, and certainly has romantic inclinations, it is — in typical Bressonian fashion — heart-wrenching, honest, and disturbingly sincere. There is no “happily ever after” here, but the expression of a kind of beautiful sadness: the tragic lonesomeness and idealizing of the dreamer. This sensibility — the sensibility of the dreamer — is translated to the viewer through song. Gypsies, vagabonds, and bards recite traditional songs as if one were watching a film set in the medieval era. Most of the songs are in English, one which I believe to be an Irish/Scottish folk song, and one which I recognize as a variant of the classic, well-known but origin-less blues track Crow Jane.
With classical acoustic guitars, recorders, and, of course, the gypsy attire, the music sets a romantic, yet melancholy mood that would befit the stir of emotions within the lonesome hero of a fairytale or play. The use of Crow Jane, in particular, blows my mind. Skip James is one of my favourite blues artists, and that song is one of his best. It’s one of the saddest, most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, and it fits the mood of the film perfectly. The idea alone that Bresson, a foreign filmmaker, acknowledges the history and meaning of that classic American blues song is astounding.
Similar to how I couldn’t shake the sensibility instilled by Mike Nichols The Graduate, the music here has me transfixed. In the same vein, the soundtrack of The Graduate, my favourite soundtrack of all-time, capitulates the experience of the films’ protagonist. In both cases, one isn’t simply told the story, but thrust into the mental faculties of the character it so examines.
Visually, the film is extraordinary. Much of it occurs at night — at a bridge — and the lighting is virtually entirely done by naturalistic means. Lampposts, shops, boats, reflections of the moon and bright objects in the water: these Parisian “city-lights” are what illuminates the image. The consistency of this, as well as it’s quaintness, radiates a charming, yet sincere atmosphere, akin, I would say, to Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. Perhaps there really is something special about midnight in Paris — I will see this for myself in a few months. The image of the cruise ship traversing the tunnel, while music plays in the background, is amongst the finest moments of Bresson’s filmography. There’s something special about how slowly it enters, exits, and attracts little stars of light amongst the darkness.
Throughout the film, there are several instances of brilliant philosophical dialogue. The most important of these, insofar as it sets a framework for the film and, simultaneously, reflects on Bresson’s aesthetic tendencies, is the conversation between Jacques (Guilliaume des Forets) and his artist friend. They speak about what I — and several distinguished writers, including Noel Carroll — now consider a fundamental truth in the appreciation of artwork: what matters isn’t what is there, but what isn’t. For example, with a painting, art arises from the spaces between the lines — what is not shown — rather than what is physically evident. Even the Simpsons understood this. In an episode I cannot quite recall, Lisa tells Bart to listen to the notes “they are not playing”. In just the same way, it’s the space that is created that instills art.
This speaks volumes about Bresson’s approach to filmmaking. As all who have seen his films recognize, he is a master of asceticism, simplicity, and form. Many of his visual dialogues are only partly seen, while the rest is off camera. Only what is necessary — integral to the story or the artistic vision — is maintained within a film; everything else is stripped away. Like a sculptor, he picks his subject to that perfect point, careful not to tear apart what is essential. With an aesthetic mind, he identifies and reveals nothing — space — in order to express something. This something is not defined or physical, and, thus, allows the beholder to transcend the limits of fixed consciousness; this something is art.
Moreover, this ascetic mindset reveals a startling truth about the dreamer. In the same way, the dreamer sees women as objects of beauty, and therefore, like nature, art may be extracted from the appreciation of their form. Until Marthe (Isabelle Welngarten), Jacques never truly felt love, he was simply smitten by one girl after the next, always following and appreciating, but merely of an idealistic integrity. That he does not know these women allows him to look with the eyes of an artist; they are creatures of form, and nothing more. This nothingness inspires him.
Later, upon knowing Marthe, he falls deeply into something real. A love that is not merely ascetic or artistically inspired; a love for something rather than nothing — a something that experiences life and may also appreciate nothingness. “What are you doing to me?”, he asks. At this point, the dreamer puts away his foolish other-worldly desires, and recognizes an overwhelming desire for something tangible — a person, a companion, another body with whom to dream with.
PS: I also saw A Man Escaped last night, but, since I’ve posted on it before, I will not repeat myself. Nothing in my mind has changed; it remains one of, if not my favourite Bresson. If film is akin to storytelling, it’s a perfect film. There’s nothing more to say.