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By Charles Ramírez Berg
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By Richard Porton
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By Hilton Als
Diary of a Country Priest is a film about imprisonment. As he carries out the duties of his ministry, the priest tries to act as a link between his parish and the local population. But he ends up just another body, a dark blotch on the landscape, a mere spectator who quickly becomes transparent in the eyes of his flock. So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.
At the beginning of the film, Bresson executes two dissolves—from a page covered with writing in the priest’s diary, to the name plaque at the center of the village, to the young priest mopping his face. The private diary and the sweaty face symbolize two expressions of the same individual anguish, while the plaque is the sedentary object that can neither be removed nor erased. It is the shackle of reality, a worldly obstacle to heavenly exaltation. In the following shot, positioned behind the gates of the manor, has the priest actually seen the adulterous couple kissing? The cutting suggests that he senses their presence only as they walk away behind him. But having himself been seen, he now becomes a dangerous intruder. Henceforth, they will not rest until he is beaten down, until he understands that he is an unwelcome stranger in their territory. In the game of society, the rules are unchanging.
The priest of Ambricourt has only his duty and his parish to his name. Nonetheless, he’s an outcast without a history, a tainted product of postwar provincial France, formed from the blackest misery and the reddest wine. In this light, Diary of a Country Priest is the linchpin of Bresson’s oeuvre. It’s the last film in which he comes face to face with contemporary clichés. With its slightly decadent nobility, its “godless” doctor, and its collection of wretched bastard peasants, Diary of a Country Priest isn’t so far removed from the norms of then-contemporary French cinema. It reflects the standardized pitch-black rancidness that the critic-filmmakers of the soon-to-arrive New Wave would rail against. (In fact, the desperation of the Georges Bernanos novel isn’t so far removed from the universe of a Georges Simenon or Henri-Georges Clouzot.)
Faced with such worn-out, uninviting material, Bresson responded by creating his very first actor-model, Claude Laydu. In a way, Laydu is like a visitor from the future, from the cinema of Bresson soon to come, from A Man Escaped (1956) or Pickpocket (1959). He embodies the will to change as well as the longing for spiritual elevation, both so precious to Bresson. The film’s impact is built around the relationship between this “model,” still at the prototype stage, and the “actors” who make up the rest of cast, all of them branded with the very theatricality Bresson was trying to escape. For the role of the priest of Torcy, Bresson chose Dr. Adrien Borel, a psychiatrist (he initially refused, then changed his mind on the condition that he appear under the pseudonym “André Guibert”. If Borel’s role is unforgettable, it’s largely due to the violent contrast between his “old-fashioned” acting and Laydu’s feverish reticence.
Actually, the priest of Ambricourt can be read as a thinly veiled projection of Robert Bresson himself. Bresson’s battleground—in the contemporary political sense of the word—is his own conception of “cinematography,” which must be transcended right here and now, its feet stuck in the sludge of cinema but its head pointed toward the sky of a newfound rigor. Rather than an escape, Bresson wanted nothing less than a radical reform of the cinema’s perception of reality. Even before A Man Escaped, he positioned himself as a kind of resistance fighter who was unwilling to heed sensible, measured warnings, just as the priest cannot be satisfied with the commonsensical advice of the priest of Torcy. Rather than avoid the apparent obstacle of a naturalistic representation of the French countryside, Bresson shifts it from the image to the soundtrack. For the first time in French cinema, the less the environment is shown, the more it resonates. Standing in front of his presbytery, the priest watches a wagon go by. But the viewer only hears the sound of horses’ hooves, accompanied by an anonymous whistling. The social reality of the town engulfs the priest and his own universe. As the film goes on, it becomes a constant, murmuring stream, running through his day-to-day existence. Ubiquitous and constant, persistent and unchanging, it doesn’t need to be shown: its evocation through sound is enough. It’s a veritable prison.
Endlessly thrown out onto the roads and pathways of Ambricourt, encased in solitude, yet reduced to the state of a vagabond being continually chased away, the priest writes of his own failure as it eats away his body. Wine and ink have the same consoling function. He gets drunk on words and runs to the edge of the abyss. In order to emphasize the priest’s excessive solitude, Bresson often shows him in an in-between state—between inside and outside, standing before the French windows of the count’s manor or in the courtyards of the local farms. Like many future Bressonian characters, he has no place in the world, and runs the risk of an unlucky encounter. Which arrives in the person of Séraphita, a veritable monster encased in the body of a young girl. Séraphita is scary. Grown up too quickly and bursting with wicked intentions, she seems to have stepped right out of Marcel Carné/Jacques Prévert’s poetic-realist films, and anticipates the twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). She knows too much about too many things, in a manner that’s all too visible. The film stumbles a bit with this character, and yields to symbolism during her nocturnal conversion into a new St. Veronica, a scene that’s far too literal and obvious. Perhaps conscious of this small failure, Bresson would (re)make Séraphita over into Mouchette fifteen years later, in order to demonstrate that even this terrifying character could be incorporated into a completely new system of cinematographic representation that owed nothing to its predecessors.
In the “portrait of the artist as disturber of the peace” that is Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson was still shedding the contingencies of contemporary cinema. But the film left enough of a mark on its viewers to become a milestone in the slow process of the liberation of postwar French cinema. Long after Cahiers du cinéma published his famous article “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema” (No. 31, January 1954), which devotes a lot of attention to screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost’s unproduced adaptation of Bernanos’ novel, only to denounce their alleged inanity and hail Bresson’s genius, François Truffaut would remember Diary of a Country Priest and the words of the priest of Ambricourt to Dufréty when he concluded the angry letter in which he severed all personal ties with Jean-Luc Godard: “If I was in your place and I’d broken the oaths of my ordination, I would prefer that it had been for the love of a woman rather than what you call your intellectual evolution.”
Diary of a Country Priest is truly a rupture in the history of cinema.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Film Comment. It was translated by Gavin Smith and Kent Jones. Revised and reprinted by permission of the author and Film Comment.