It sounds simple enough to say that the film Le Dialogue des Carmélites was released in 1960, but what a convoluted history that hides, one that might have drawn in Robert Bresson but didn’t, and gave it instead to the composer François Poulenc. It is his opera, currently (June 2014) in a fine production at the Royal Opera House, which has made this extraordinary story famous.
Let's go back to the beginning. In 1794, sixteen Carmelite nuns from Compiègne were condemned to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined. One of their number, Sister Marie, escaped arrest, and therefore death (chance or Providence?) and it was she who wrote an account of the nuns’ martyrdom before she died in 1836. From this small seed, the story began to grow. In 1906, the nuns were beatified, and then in 1931 a German writer, Gertrude von Le Fort, wrote up the story as ‘Die Letzte am Schafott’ / ‘The Last to the Scaffold’. In doing so, she introduced a fictional character, Sister Blanche de la Force (= von Le Fort) who wrestles with fear throughout the story and, overcoming it, is the last to be guillotined.
Enter the intriguing character of Père Raymond Bruckberger (1907-98), Dominican priest and writer, and – as comes naturally to the French – a person who took the cinema seriously. In 1947, Bruckberger gets hold of von Le Fort’s novel and, along with Philippe Agostini, writes a treatment for the cinema. To take it further, he commissions the French writer (actually the great French writer), Georges Bernanos, to write the dialogue. However, Bruckberger is then removed from the story (to return later) when he is designated chaplain to the French Foreign Legion in Morocco.
Yes, a Bernanos screenplay. No, not right for the cinema it was said, so it goes into store, and Bernanos dies three months later, the screenplay becoming (chance or Providence?) his last will and testament. Its resurrection begins with the publication of the screenplay in 1949, from which it becomes a stage play, performed first in Zürich in 1951 and a year later in Paris. You would think that it is now ready to become a film but what happens is that the Ricordi publishing house in Milan, one of the world’s leading music publishers, commissions François Poulenc to write an opera. To make an opera not a film of the Bernanos play was an inspired judgement by someone, because it is music that makes the most of this intensely dramatic, melodramatic, overheated story, a cauldron of fear, self-righteousness, revolutionary murder, and martyrdom, "symbol of the destiny of the Christian before History" (Michel Estève). Poulenc looked to the past century for his composing models and dedicated the opera to "the memory of Claude Debussy, who inspired me to compose and to Monteverdi, Verdi and Mussorgsky who served as my models". Yet the opera does not feel dated, partly because Poulenc's music is firmly of the twentieth century, and partly because the story has such resonance with contemporary history: how would you conquer fear and oppose the Nazis (Gertrud’s story)? How would you take up resistance in Occupied France (Bruckberger’s story)? How is Catholic France to be judged in the face of Fascism (Bernanos’ story)?
This zenith then has an anti-climax possibly, because in 1958 Père Bruckberger returned to France and, with Agostini again (who by now had directed a number of films), finally shot his cherished film in 1959. I have not seen it and it is now forgotten, and although it may spring back to life I suspect the opera has quite eclipsed it. (It is a footnote, forgettable but still intriguing to add, that Claude Laydu, the ‘choirboy’ who played the part of the curé in Bresson’s film, here plays the part of Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier.)
Back to Bruckberger and Bresson. In 1943 the two had collaborated on the treatment of Bresson’s first feature Les Anges du péché (on which Agostini had done the camerawork). So when Bruckberger and Agostini started work on ‘Carmelites’ they surely had Bresson in mind to direct. However a Bresson treatment somehow does not feel appropriate; perhaps Bresson knew this instinctively, and he did not get involved. On the other hand he is clearly drawn to the work of Bernanos. Intriguingly the French Wikipedia [www.fr.wikipedia.org s.v. Raymond Bruckberger] writes: “[Bruckberger's] assignment to Morocco in 1948 seems to have interrupted his adaptation of Bernanos’ novel, ‘Journal d’un curé de campagne’. . . as well as the plans to shoot ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’.” Is Wikipedia right about this? It does seem to me possible that it is Bruckberger who stimulates in Bresson the plan to make a film of ‘Journal d’un curé de campagne’, although I do not believe it needed any intermediary to connect Bresson to the Bernanos universe. Bruckberger had a remarkable life (see his entry on French Wikipedia) and I suspect we owe a debt to his memory for having helped to start Bresson's film career.
© Tim Cawkwell 2014
[I have been fortunate in being able to draw upon Michel Estève’s carefully researched note on how Bernanos got involved with this project in the NRF edition (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade) of Bernanos’ writings, published in 1961.]