Re-viewing The Diary of Country Priest

Many have noted a peculiar formal aspect of Bresson’s films, especially in his prison trilogy : Journal d'un curé de campagne (1951), Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (1956) and Pickpocket (1959). In every one of these films, the voice-over narration is most of the time redundant to the visual channel. Not only we are shown the diary entry, or notes, that the voice is reading, we are shown often immediately the actions indicated, described by the words. This double of triple redundancy proved to be a headache for most critics for they have yet to find a way to incorporate it into their theoretical framework.

Same for me. But this recent re-viewing of the Journal has given me some inspirations on this issue. I came to realize that the voice over in Bresson’s films (as well as a bunch of others, as I shall name later) are not narrative devices. They represent rather a sonic presence of the ‘spiritual power’ of our protagonist. Although most of time diary entries are connected with pen, with the act of writing, in the opening shot however, a hand simply remove the blotting paper and reveal the inscriptions underneath. Many events echoed in voice over, as we have reason to doubt, are not registered in the diary. But that does not prevent certainly our hero’s reflective mind acts upon it in its occurrence. I came to realize that voice over in this film is a stylistic device but not a narrative convention. As for this latter category, The Letter or an Unknown Women (1948) immediately came to mind, as I have seen it only last week. Letter represents the situation that we are so conditioned to this convention that we refuse to allow other possibilities take place. Instead of talking about the distinction between VO as narrative convention and VO as stylistic device, we talk about the reliability or unreliability of the VO, as if it is our task to determine the moral stance of the voice.

In light of these arguments, I also contend that those visual sequences of writing a diary (or anything else in this case) is in function equivalent to the sonic presence of spiritual power. I have an evidence to support my view. In the end of Diary, Claude Laydu still strives to write what are probably his last words, that he had referred his friend Dufrety to his old master, Curé de Torcy. Not only we see that these lines are written in pencil, without the usual neatness, but the VO is absent. An unusual silence accompanied the images. Then the pencil itself fell.

Now it is time to think about other films which, like this one, employ VO as a stylistic device. Terrence Malick is the most prominent contemporary example. Both of his Thin Red Line and The New World are excellent demonstration of this concept. It is not that only in his films we have the monologue, but that without this non-stopping monologue the images will not hold up as a meaningful construction. There is yet another possibility that I can think of: Leanne dernier a Marienbad and L’homme qui ment. In these two films the voice over is an element that manipulated by the cinematic narration to create inner tension, contradiction.

Films like these one reveal the poverty of our existing theoretical efforts. Plato divided narration into diegetic and mimetic ones. This formula is later repeated by David Bordwell, Gérard Genette and many others. But this division is evidently no longer able to account for the specificities of cinema.


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