Tim Cawkwell's Cinema
Reflections on Bresson 7: Timelessness
Place may be vitally specific in Bresson’s films (see the Sixth Reflection, ‘Milieux’) but time is treated differently. The picture in his films of twentieth-century France is relatively inexact, at least compared with contemporaries such as Godard and Rohmer.
All the films are set in contemporary surroundings except the two films from the Middle Ages – and A Man Escaped, which is set in 1943 and filmed in 1956, although that exception is allowable: the film set recreates Montluc Prison and clothes its inmates with such authenticity that the film feels contemporaneous.
Because Bresson’s thematic preoccupations were timeless, so the films take on a timelessness, heightened by his suppression of background. See his Notes on the Cinematographer: ‘Don’t let your backgrounds (avenues, squares, public gardens, metro) absorb the faces you are applying to them.’ And again: ‘The picturesque hinder[s] [your] film from taking off.’
Do the two mediaeval films (The Trial of Joan of Arc, Lancelot du Lac) contradict this? No. In my view, they reinforce it. Jeanne d’Arc’s martyrdom is an archetypal one, applicable in all ages. And Lancelot du Lac is done in a way that sheds light on the twentieth-century films, as if to say: “Look, these modern films are not modern. Take the Middle Ages – life was cruel, people were corrupt, salvation hard to come by. So then, as now.”
And his unrealised project to film the Book of Genesis, which would have been the ultimate set-in-the-past drama would surely have underlined the point about the timelessness of all his narratives.