On Robert Bresson and Filmed Animals

Nico Baumbach

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Interviewer: What about Robert Bresson? How do you feel about him?

INGMAR BERGMAN: Oh, Mouchette! I loved it, I loved it! But Balthazar was so boring, I slept through it. Mouchette… is a saint and she takes everything upon herself, inside her, everything that happens around her…. That is my feeling, but this Balthazar, I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring.

Interviewer: But, you could almost say the same thing about the donkey, that when the donkey has taken on other people’s suffering…

IB: A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.

Interviewer: Do you like animals in general?

IB: No, not very much. I have a completely natural aversion for them.

The primary objection to Bergman is that even if we were to grant him that a donkey is not interesting in itself, Au Hasard Balthazar is not really about a donkey, but like Mouchette, also about a girl and the donkey is nothing but a double for the girl. But this objection would do a disservice both to Bergman and the donkey and for reasons that are related. After all, how can we object to Bergman’s “natural aversion”? He was bored, he slept.

Giorgio Agamben claims in his analysis of Heidegger that boredom is paradoxically what brings us closest to animal captivation and yet, at the same time, is the mark of the human as such. “Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored.” Bergman’s animal-like disengagement is, in effect, his way of asserting an indifference to and difference from the beast.

According to Eric Santner, “precisely that dimension of human life where we seem to be utterly reduced to animality, is actually that point at which our difference from animals is in some ways most radical.” This paradox is at the center of Bresson’s cinema. Perhaps Bresson’s most distinctive gesture is the attempt to evacuate acting from his work. This does not mean, as it means for many other filmmakers, an emphasis on improvisation or an incorporation of documentary techniques. On the contrary, for Bresson, it means the opposite. The “model” in Bresson’s terminology does not play another character, nor does she play herself, nor in Brechtian fashion is she to play both herself and the character, but rather, she is to not play at all. The model, according to Bresson’s direction, speaks mechanically—reduces her body and voice to a vessel for the text, which in turn becomes the vessel for a body and a voice.

Jean Renoir famously claimed, “Everybody has their reasons.” Bresson’s cinema reveals the opposite. Grace is encountered only once we have relinquished reasons: hence, his narrative of being and doing, of situation and event, but without the false assurance of psychological motivation. Balthazar the donkey is not just a double for the girl, but a double for the cinematographer—a witness endowed with voice and gaze but deprived of language and reason.

Recall the fascination with animals in the earliest years of cinematography. The first few years of cinema sought subjects that seemed to affirm the presence of the image—notably, crowds, children and animals—because they were unselfconscious and unpredictable. A distance from theatricality was the mark of the contingent and this highlighted the miracle of the new apparatus. As the polymorphous perversity of early cinema with its vaudeville roots gave way to an industry marketed toward the middle class, narrative cinema became codified and the animal was excised for the same reasons that it had been a focal point so many Lumière and Edison films at the end of the 19th century—its inability to act.

The animal was to return, of course, but only in its proper place. It would become domesticated through animals that could act—the comic relief or sentimental gesture of the well-trained dog or monkey. (It is worth remarking that something similar happened to children.) The significant exceptions to this rule within mainstream cinema are within the realm of the fantasy and allegory. The animal achieves starring roles only through its absence in the mighty anthropomorphism of Walt Disney or is figured as the return of the repressed though the largely off-screen or special effects generated dangerous beast. As Edgar Morin points out, we shouldn’t discuss anthropomorphism without acknowledging its corollary “cosmomorphism”. As animals and objects took on human attributes in this new medium of projective identification, humans became “stars”—a term to be taken literally.

In the same way that the charm of the Asta or Lassie comes from being both like-a-human and not-human, the charm of the star is that he is both celestial body and human body. Underneath this charm lurks violence. In a perverse irony, it is ultimately humans that become subject to anthropomorphism as our stars, we are continually told, are “only human” and “human,” it turns out, means mere flesh and blood, subject to uncontrollable vices and mindless pleasures, victims of circumstance and fortune. Human, we learn, is another word for animal. A human is an animal who has become bored with its stars.

When Bresson cast the donkey in Balthazar he was worried:

I was very much afraid, not only while writing on paper, but while shooting the film, that the donkey would not be a character like the others, that is to say would appear a trained donkey, a performing donkey. So I took a donkey that knew how to do absolutely nothing. Not even how to pull a cart. I even had a great deal of trouble getting him to pull the cart in the film. In fact everything I believed he would give me, he would refuse me, and everything that I believed he would refuse me… he gave me. Pull a cart, for example, one says to oneself: a donkey will do that. Well, not at all!… And what I have said to you somewhat rejoins if you will, what I was saying about actors… I wanted that animal to be, even as an animal, crude matter.

Bresson seeks an autonomism from his models to match that of the camera to refuse both anthropomorphism and cosmomorphism. For Bresson, as for the earliest filmmakers, the truth of the medium is found in chance/hasard. But true chance, when it is grace, is at the level of the signifier and is only recovered from the evacuation of the dramatization of chance at the level of the signified. For Bresson, chance has another name: humanity. Humanity emerges only when logos and pathos are not seen as the properties of language and bodies but emerge from them in the rare moment of an encounter. Humanity, for Bresson, is the absence of anthro-cosmomorphism and can be found in the mute speech of a donkey who doesn’t know how to act.

Nico Baumbach is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke University. He is working on a dissertation on the history of film theory.

This story is included in issue #40: Animals. Copyright © 2007 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.

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Posted on: December 1st, 2013 by admin No Comments