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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Reflections on Bresson 2: Doors

Dozens of doors, gates, drawers etc are opened and closed in L’Argent: I counted about eighty, roughly one a minute. This is Bressonian grammar for ‘and then’, a key element of his syntax of film. He likes to tell stories as a sequence of main clauses, e.g. ‘X did this. Then Y said that. Next, Z happened.’ (This style is used in the Bible: try Genesis.) This is called paratactic narrative, to be distinguished from syntactic narrative which mixes subordinate clauses with the main clauses in order to expand or qualify what is being said: try Cicero or Proust or many modern novels.

This sequencing of events in Bresson, made sharper still by his stripping away of superfluous backgrounds, conversation and dead time, gives his films terrific narrative impetus. So doors are used to mark crucial stages in the story, but more than that, the shot of the hand on the door expresses a character using his or her own free will. For example, in A Man Escaped, Fontaine’s labourious dismantling of the door to his cell stands for the sustained effort of will he needs to make in order to escape. By contrast, the simple opening of the door by Norbert in L’Argent in order to ask his father for money to pay his debts reveals by the end of the film how such a trivial act can precipitate a horrifying concatenation of trouble: ‘A leads to B, which leads to C . . . which leads to Z.’ The sin of murder in the end is different in degree, but not in kind to the sin of petty greed at the beginning.