‘Two halves of the same sphere.’ This idea comes from the comparison of Bresson and Melville in my book, ‘The New Filmgoer’s Guide to God’. I wrote there about their pessimistic universes, about Melville’s imprisoning of the American gangster in the French existentialist universe, about how in his prison cycle (A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Trial of Joan of Arc) Bresson interpreted prison as damnation from which escape was only through grace. This counterpointing of ideas was reinforced by a similarity of style: Melvillian is Bressonian, Bressonian is Melvillian. Bresson spoke of actors as models: the word can be appropriated, with a different meaning, to describe Melville’s mythological criminals, without psychology or apparent interiority. But there is a difference as well: Melville’s characters are ‘soul-less’, without a soul, whereas Bresson in his 1950s films was concerned with finding the soul of his protagonists and releasing it on screen. Compare too this counterpoint: Bresson used his models only in one film, whereas Melville liked to reuse the same star in different films, even if they always played the same character. This was notably true of Alain Delon, star of Le Samurai, Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic.
Corey in Cercle Rouge
One small but definite strand to Le Cercle Rouge is the philosophical musing of the Inspector General policing the police, in this case Mattei (the Bourvil character) up against the criminals, Cory, Vogel and Jansen. The IG tells Mattei about the corruptability of man: “all men are culpable – all men, Mattei.” The idea recurs to Mattei at the end of the film, not just as a final adornment to the story, but as if to appoint a moral.
Corruptability is an Augustinian/Calvinist idea: we are born into sin, and the only way out is through grace. However the IG does not talk about grace – and from the evidence of his films there is no indication that Melville believed in it. (This marginalizing of grace seems to me to be the snare into which Jansenism/Protestantism risks falling – by maturity we are steeped in sin, grace is a long way off, and it’s a suffocating outlook. Is Melville asserting its absence in Le Cercle Rouge specifically to thumb his nose at Bresson? It is intriguing to think so.)
So, if all is irredeemably corrupt, what might virtue look like in the Melvillian universe? It is to be found in honour, which means you practice total professionalism and total savoir-faire as a criminal, and you practice loyalty so that you never renege on a fellow criminal. The criminal code is a code of loyalty.
Michel in Pickpocket
Compare Bresson’s view of criminality: one archetype for him is Michel in Pickpocket, who snaps out of criminality by the advent of grace in the form of Jeanne. There is no role for honour in making him do his duty, but is there a role for guilt? It would be a neat contrast between the two directors – to say Melville’s world is a shame culture (like Homeric Greece, like Mafia culture), and Bresson’s is a guilt culture (as in a Catholic culture) — yet such a contrast is not an obvious one since Bresson’s characters never embody the idea that they are suffering from or are strongly conscious of guilt (as they do, say, in Graham Greene’s novels). However, in the 1950s, Bresson was Augustinian in outlook, and human corruptability was a given, requiring no spelling out.
- A Man Escaped – Fontaine escapes from damnation by his own hands aiding the operation of grace.
- Pickpocket – Michel escapes from damnation by the love of Jeanne, the vehicle of grace.
- The Trial of Joan of Arc – Jeanne is released from earthly trial: she suffers human justice but is saved by her faith in divine justice.
With Au Hasard Balthazar, Bresson takes this idea of corruptability to a deeper level, counterpointing the Christ-like sufferings of the donkey with the story of Mary, who falls from grace, or more precisely, who is an angel made to fall by the corruption of the society around her.
‘Two halves of the same sphere.’ Bresson’s portrait of a rural priest in Diary of a Country Priest must surely have been strongly in Melville’s mind when he made Léon Morin, prêtre, but that’s another story.