We’re all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.
Photo by Duane Michals, 1964.
“A significant, specialized ‘rhetoric’ of face, hands, and feet is at work in his films, a logical system I can only outline here, but which calls for far greater development, given the richness of the construction elaborated by Bresson each time. Briefly, the main ‘language’ of the face is based on the motif of the mirror: the human face being examined for what it ‘reflects’—of exterior events that might call for a reaction, of inner drives or emotions, or of a relationship with an idea or a transcendent force; conversely, it may not reflect what we expect, but remain opaque or veiled, regardless of what is there to be reflected. The second rhetoric is that of the hands, which for Bresson are capable of an extremely rich language, and occasionally even seem to have a life of their own—remember the hands that grip daggers in the attempted ambush in the castle in Lancelot du Lac or, in the same film, the hands clasped in sign of alliance—sincere between Lancelot and Guenievre, duplicitous between Lancelot and Mordred. But above all, hands are the visible agents of the idea of action, the executors of decisions of the mind or the will, whether the deed to be accomplished is something that everyone will find morally admirable (creating the tools of escape in A Man Escaped) or morally questionable (for example, the thefts in Pickpocket; although for Michel these actions of his hands are charged with a sense of liberation that, in his eyes, lifts him up out of his common status, even if he will be judged morally reprehensible).
“And finally feet, also often filmed, are placed in two different contexts. Bresson often frames them in movement, serving a particular dramatic purpose both kinetically and rhythmically: they indicate action and, at the same time, set a tempo. But there are also bare feet, naked and motionless; these can be the object of a specific, fetishistic expression of desire…Beyond the specifics of faces, hands, and feet as motifs filmed both in isolation and ‘in action,’ Bresson carves up the human body (and is, in fact, the only director to do so as frequently), and by isolating in the frame this or that part, he gives an unexpected presence to the body. This is most obvious in the case of a young woman’s breast or thigh, and it is never inadvertent. But it is also part of a strategy that presents any part at all of the human body—hip, waist, knee, shoulder, chest—as the site of affective power. To the famous affirmation in Notes on the Cinematographer [linked here], ‘All face,’ there is a natural and symmetrical response: ‘All body,’ in the sense of the body being wholly charged with erotic presence, in addition to its representational value as a human figure.”
- Jean-Michel Frodon, in The ‘Being There’ of the Physical World and the Ejaculatory Power of the Eye: Eroticism in the Films of Robert Bresson.
The complete essay can be found in this recently reprinted book.