Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Reflections on Bresson 8: Flashbacks

Take Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945): it starts with Al Roberts in the diner and then uses flashbacks to trace how he got there. In essence, this is the result of a piece of bad luck, a bad meeting that gave him a loser’s life. The final shot of him being picked up by the police, to whom he offers no resistance, is the outcome of his destiny; in running from the police, Roberts was only deferring his fate.


Bresson favoured linear narrative – A then B, then C etc., with the viewer making the mental leaps from one to the next. He does not complicate things with flashbacks: look at the narrative for Les Dames du bois de Boulogne, Mouchette, Lancelot du Lac or L’Argent. But in fact some of the films do very much favour the narrative circularity that flashbacks map out. For a start, Diary of a Country Priest hangs almost the whole story on the priest’s diary entries so that it goes in a series of circles, each act of memory triggering a present-tense narrative.


Other examples abound. In two films, we are told the end first:

  • Une Femme Douce starts with the young wife’s suicide and the rest of the film reconstructs how she came to throw herself off the balcony.
  • Le Diable Probablement begins with two newspaper headlines concerning the suicide/assassination of a young student, and the rest of the film recounts the story up to this point.


In another two, the title tells us the ending:

  • The Trial of Joan of Arc ends in Joan’s burning, but we know that from our history books. The question for the viewer is: what happened at the trial for it to end this way?
  • A Man Escaped does not use flashback, except that the title tells us how the film ends, so the story is of the means of escape, not the fact of it.


As well, four of the films could be said to be circular or quasi-circular:

  • In Les Anges du péché Madeleine is released from prison at the beginning; Thérèse returns to prison at the end.
  • Pickpocket begins with Michel pickpocketing at the racetrack at the beginning, and he is arrested for pickpocketing at the racetrack at the end. Except, and in hindsight one can see that this was unusual in Bresson, there is a coda in which Jeanne rescues Michel in prison.
  • Au Hasard Balthasar begins with the donkey being born, and ends with his death, the circle of life.
  • Four Nights of a Dreamer begins and ends with Jacques existing in isolation.


One can add that both Mouchette and L’Argent, while being strongly linear narratives, could have begun with Mouchette’s drowning and Yvon’s arrest and showed the events leading up to them, so that, like Ulmer’s Detour, a sense of inexorability could have been imparted to the narrative. However the intriguing question remains: do Mouchette’s suicide and Yvon’s arrest have to be inevitable?