Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Four Nights of A Dreamer (1971)

by on April 24, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed May 2 at 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

Bresson’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights seemed to be everyone’s favorite rarity discovery when the retrospective screened at Film Forum earlier this year (perhaps, in part, because it is far more light-hearted than his usual ennui). And if you never made it out of that standby line BAM grants you a second chance. Kristin M. Jones recommends catching this projected, “screening in a new print that allows an appreciation of its symbolic use of color—updates the story with sensuality, absurdity and a complex vision of contemporary loneliness.”

Let Dave Kehr also assure you, since the images for this film – never made available on VHS or DVD – are of lamentable quality, for the Chicago Reader:

Robert Bresson’s 1971 film is an exploration of romantic love rendered in the precise, austere style of his better-known studies in spirit (Lancelot du lac, Une femme douce). In the secular turn Bresson reveals an unexpected sense of humor and worldly irony. The transformation of Paris at night into a dream landscape pulsing with electric mystery is reminiscent of Minnelli, although the economy of expression is clearly Bresson’s. A very beautiful and essential film.


The mastermind behind this touring retrospective, James Quandt, for TIFF Cinematheque:

Certainly the rarest of Bresson’s films — see it now or never — Four Nights of a Dreamer has a dreamy beauty unparalleled in the rest of his work. A luminous transposition of Dostoevsky’s White Nights (earlier filmed by Luchino Visconti) to the contemporary Latin Quarter of Paris, Four Nights of a Dreamer is a nocturne of hypnotic beauty — the sequence of the bateaux mouches on the Seine is justly famous — and unsettling power. A reclusive young painter, obsessed with the ideals of medieval courtship, saves a woman from suicide, sustains her hope in a series of night-time rendezvous, then watches as she returns to the man who spurned her.


Doug Cummings for LA Weekly:

Bresson’s reputation for “austerity” has become critical cliché, a shortchanging of his playful penchant for coincidences and reversals; it also overlooks the lovely Four Nights of a Dreamer, which, mired in rights issues, has never been released on video anywhere. It’s an affectionate tribute to the beauty of Parisian youth with a keen eye for the friction caused when whimsical idealism meets the messy demands of interpersonal reality.
Four Nights of a Dreamer offers a chance to appreciate Bresson’s continued fascination with personal isolation, his facility with untrained actors and the way tantalizing soundscapes enliven his images; the sounds of passing cars and periodic street musicians provide the audible glue that binds his protagonists together. One of the film’s best scenes are uncharacteristic of the filmmaker: a lovingly rendered nude reverie, an exquisite example of Bresson’s underappreciated light touch.


Time Out Film Guide:

Adapted from Dostoevsky’s story of a couple’s chance encounter and the advance of their parallel obsessions over four successive nights. The hallucinatory light and colour of Paris at night act as both mirror and landscape for their fragile relationship. Shot through with a mystical, almost frosty compassion, the film is rescued from occasional moments of pretension by the gentle eroticism and absolute conviction with which it is made


Charles Thomas Samuels interviews Bresson from the set.
Acquarello for Strictly Film School:

Perhaps the lightest and most idiosyncratic film in Bresson’s body of work, Four Nights of a Dreamer nevertheless broaches his recurring themes on the division between the physical and the ephemeral. Within this framework, the film serves as a deconstruction of the romantic myth in all its manifestations and illusions. This idea of artificiality is first explored during Marthe’s recounted story of receiving tickets from her then presumptive lover to attend the premiere of a trite potboiler entitled The Bonds of Love that ran the gamut of popular film conventions from extended shoot-outs to the clutching of a beloved’s photograph – accompanied by swelling music – in the moments before death. But Jacques coming to Marthe’s aid at a bridge is also a familiar scenario – the proverbial rescue of the damsel in distress – a romantic sentiment that is further reinforced by his continued arrangements to meet her on the same bridge as their relationship develops (the bridge itself suggesting a metaphoric point of convergence between these two drifting souls). This sense of contrived romantic destiny is also reflected in Jacques’s recorded messages describing his beloved’s separation from him for six months that alludes to Persephone’s descent into Hades (further elevating the idea of love into the realm of mythology), as well as the musical interludes that seem to coincidentally insert themselves during key moments throughout their brief encounters. In this respect, Bresson reflects on the role of the artist as a creator of images, where the ideal lies in the pursuit of the elusive – in the empty spaces that reveal the essential “gesture which lifts its presence from the object” – the illusion of transcended love.


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

White Nights, distilled — Dostoevsky wrote it, Visconti embraced the romanticism, Robert Bresson makes it a sardonic beating around the bush. His dreamer is some stand-in for Jean-Pierre Léaud called Jacques (Guillaume des Forêts), who thumbs a ride and shrugs when asked of his destination, then, feeling happy in the meadow, turns a cartwheel. He spots grave, caped Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) by the edge of the Pont Neuf; she removes her shoes and stares into the water below, Jacques halts the suicide, she steps back and puts her shoes on. “My story? I have no story,” he says. “Histoire de Jacques” flashes on the screen, a knowing serving of Truffaut — Jacques spots a looker through the shopping window, follows her through the streets only to turn 180° as he passes another girl, who hops a bus and disappears. An even richer send-up pivots Marthe’s story, which sends her to a movie premiere courtesy of her boarder (Maurice Monnoyer), a thriller that has the hero shot in the head yet still able to lavishly pull out a pic of his beloved and give it a final smooch (“We have fallen into a trap,” she whispers to her mother, whose face streams with tears). Bresson provides prismatic views of the heroine’s nakedness before her mirror, segueing into her love vow to Monnoyer, delineated as a remembrance of The Awful Truth. The barge propelled by bossa nova gives a rare instance of the auteur sitting back and enjoying a performance, for the rest he’s implacable about the characters’ dreams. Jacques murmurs into a recorder about the purity of love and even plays the tape in his breast pocket so that the girl’s name palpitates like his heart, but the truth is that he cannot give himself over to emotion like Marthe — he resents and envies her wholehearted stance because his is only a notional one, love “with no one, an idea, the woman in my dream.” Bresson rounds out his leveling comedy with shaggy troubadours and painterly jibes (which vexed Manny Farber), leaving romance disembodied and the hero bent over his canvas, waiting to be picked up again twenty years later by Leos Carax.

Jonathan Rosenbaum points out his cameo! (Claire Denis was also an extra, she tells Film Comment “You can see me walking by the Seine in a night scene.”)

This is right towards the tail end of the penultimate sequence, and that’s me on the left, in the suede jacket and the orange-red sweater, carrying something–I no longer remember what –under my right arm. I had a moustache in those days. It was a fall evening, as I recall, not too far from the Palais de Chaillot, and a bit on the chilly side


Molly Haskell for The Village Voice:

It is Bresson’s second “contemporary” film, shot in color in Paris. And it is is first with pop music on the soundtrack and porno lit on the coffee table. With this film, Bresson moves further back from the water’s edge of mysticism into the giddy materialism of the modern world, confirming a pattern – presumably a kind of judgement – whereby the more sensual the surroundings, the more austere and impoverished the characters.
The first extreme close-up in “Four Nights” is a very Bressonian shot of the heroine’s black leather shoes, planted on the railing of the Pont Neuf over which she is preparing to jump. The exude a mute, bulky defiance that goes beyond the orthopedic ungainliness of the current fashion, and they are certainly not the kind of shoes to go hurtling into the Seine. Unlike the white scarf which mimicked the soul’s ascent in “Une Femme Douce,” the shoes and their owner will rest firmly on earth. But in both these films, the thread connecting the animate and the inanimate seems to have broken. Objects and fragments have a definition and purposefulness the characters lack, as if Bresson were concentrating his artistic energies on the spool of string instead of on the kite. The material environment – the look and feel and sound of things – which previously served as counterpoint to the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by the spirit, not takes over and dominates to the point of self-parody. By rarely using camera movements, which would indicate complicity, continuity, interpretation, and by emphasizing the isolation of objects and the ritualization of conversation, Bresson is no longer dealing in symbols but in signs. He seems to have rejected the unknowable and spiritual for the knowable – labels on a van of paint, words on a tape recorder, the marble sin of the heroine – the plastic, even the pornographic. The result is a film which, in its vivid one-dimensionality, manages to be erotic, even lighthearted, but a little light-headed too.


Kent Jones for Film Comment (1999):

Four Nights of a Dreamer is at once the most maligned of Bresson’s films and the most ignored. Cinema has dealt with youth since its beginnings, but it’s difficult to think of another movie that is so attentive to the budding consciousness of postadolescence, the sense of a person still in the process of forming, latching on to routines, charmed objects and fixations as a part of that process. This youthful stab at identity, where so much is willed and so little is left to chance, is like a beautiful chord that Bresson hits early on and follows throughout the film as it slowly degrades. It’s strikingly different from Une Femme douce, Bresson’s previous work and another Dostoevsky adaptation, as well as his first film in color. The color in Une Femme douce is warm, yet the relentless progression of the images has a cold bite as it follows the horrible spiral of Dostoevsky’s narrative down every turn. Four Nights of a Dreamer is less driven, and more concentrated on the emotional awakenings of Jacques and Marthe. Hence there are greater pockets of narrative relaxation, lovely stretches that sparkle with light, color, and sound.
The unity of Four Nights of a Dreamer is in the act of looking. Few films have ever been so devoted to secretive gazing, and visualized it so well. Looking can be both a private ritual (as in the scene with the redhead) and an inquiry into the nature of one’s own body. Or, in the scene where Jacques and Marthe are entranced by the lighted bateau-mouche and the Brazilian music played on its deck as it glides down the Seine, it can be an escape, a rapturous (and willful?) immersion in romance during which the world simply disappears. But to merely identify this thread that runs through the film is to make it appear overly schematic. “You must always hide your themes,” Bresson counsels in Notes on the Cinematographer and as in all his work the balance between physical, moral, and emotional exactitude on the one hand, and a unified work of art on the other, is breathtaking.
We often remember youth as we imagined ourselves while we were living it, reality through a romantic filter that is difficult to discard. But the sullen, pouting, darkeyed narcissism of des Forets and Weingarten, he with his sunken shoulders and she with her quiet, supernatural delicacy, seems exactly right to me. Watching these two beautiful creatures play hide and seek with the world is one of the loveliest things in all of Bresson.


M. C. Zenner for Senses of Cinema:

Rarely have meaning and mise-en-scene interlocked as closely as in this film, or been made to react with such subtlety on each other. There are continual reminders of the fragility that feelings and yearnings nocturnally based must pay as their price for existing without an anchor in the business-hours. The brightly-colored corollas accompanying the pair won’t stand daylight: dingy and perishable as moth-wings burned to ashtray dust, at dawn when the neons, laundry-bright the previous dusk, are dull and soiled. “Glass: do not drop”, warns a stencilled sign (in English) on one of boxes Jacques drags into his studio. As if to underscore the point, a close-up later shows Jacques sheathed by the glass of his high window during a rainstorm, trickles apparently running down his face and lending it a malleable, fragile something, helped by the pensively solemn look with which he regards the view (which, like the window edge, is not shown). A Baconian pebble-glass effect without the Baconic extremes, it reminds us of occasions on which real tears have been, or might well be, shed — both serious and not. And perhaps not inappositely: of the truth that a hankering for the unattainable, though a purely imaginary affection, is no less a real hankering, done with a breakable part of the affected being.
Being wise after the fact is so easy that I have saved the broadest retrospection until nearly the end. It comes as a shock to realize that three decades have passed since Bresson caught those summer evenings by the Pont Neuf. And those throngs: all those faces, somehow unbearably familiar, over their T-shirts and bell-cuffed jeans — now in their fifties! Already the twentieth century takes the place, in our mythology, that the nineteenth had in theirs: it is the last century. And Bresson too is now gone.
To look at, Four Nights might have been released yesterday. Little in its matter and nothing in its manner has dated: so authentic is the reek of its present and so close to us does its ambience still seem, as a testament to the fidelity with which Bresson pointed, rolled, and selected. “Retouch some real with some real,” commands the only repeated note in his Notes on the Cinematographer.



Tim Brayton says this film shows another side of Bresson, for Antagony & Ecstasy:

Four Nights demonstrates an aspect of Bresson that doesn’t get quite so much attention as his other characteristics. If you know a single thing about him (“He was French” doesn’t count), it’s that he was a sober-minded fellow to a semi-absurd degree: the whole gamut of his filmography is generally made up of movies about the worst in humanity beating the best in humanity to a pulp, while God watches silently. He is perhaps the only prominent filmmaker next to whom Ingmar Bergman looks cheery. Four Nights, the 10th of Bresson’s 13 features, pretty nimbly avoids that sort of emotional severity; in point of fact, it’s a comedy for at least a considerable portion of its running time, and not a comedy in some ironic sense, but in the more direct “laughing out loud at sex jokes” sense. The longer it goes on, the less this proves to be the case, for good storytelling reasons, but even so: Bresson’s comedy. Bresson’s parody, even, for a lot of the first third of the movie plays unabashedly like a giant piss-take of the recently completed French New Wave, of which he was not a part, though he was spoken of by that movement’s Jean-Luc Godard in terms suggesting religious awe.
There’s no mistaking this for the work of any other filmmaker, although Four Nights is something of a thematic and tonal outlier. Gone is the blistering, fatalistic Catholicism for which he is (reductively) famous, to be replaced with an unusual sort of humanism that is cynical but quirky, detached but sincere. The film straddles two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives towards its subject: on the one hand, there’s little doubt that Bresson doesn’t take Jacques, his artistic pretensions, or his earnest attempts to Feel Things Deeply, all that seriously, and is quite willing to mock him for it; and it’s equally as obvious that Bresson still views his protagonist with a level of perhaps condescending affection and understanding, the generosity of an older man charmed rather than affronted by the foolishness of the young.
I would almost call it a lyrical film, except that lyricism is incompatible with Bresson’s aesthetic: fragmentary moments that are constantly interrupted by intrusions from off-screen space, close-ups and insert shorts which are at times deliberately grotesque in how they deny the physical wholeness of whatever they’re focused on (the filmmaker’s noted focus on depicting hands in close-up has always, to me, worked less as synecdoche – “these hands represent the human attached to them” – than as deconstruction – “these hands are the only important element of the human attached to them”), and of course his famous and infamous treatment of actors as fleshy props, working them through their paces over and over again until they are incapable of any real affect, not so much “performing” as “existing” on camera with empty eyes. The customarily savage formalism is a curious match to the narrative, in both its ironic and sincere modes; the result is borderline surreal at times, and it certainly gives the entire feature the exact dreamlike aspect referred to in the title. About as fascinating and essential a piece of cinema as you’re likely to see, intellectually remote and emotionally compelling in perfect balance.



Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →