Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)

23 03 2020

In the two weeks since America has shut down, walking has re-emerged as a hobby of mine. I had a passion for it when I was younger, but it has since been replaced with other physical activities. Biking and going to the gym were given top billing, and walking backed down to what it is to many people: the most primitive form of transportation. Obviously, the circumstances are anything but ideal but walking as an activity has become an inspiration for much thinking, especially when there is no destination or goal in sight. The protagonist in Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer has a similarly peculiar relationship with walking: he wanders. He glances at attractive women, follows them leisurely, and then backs off when something else catches his eye. As Bresson’s most humorous film, I’m going to make some leap to say that he has unlocked some deeply embedded truth about humanity. Instead, Jacques’ walking is bitterly in step with ours. He walks, despite not having anywhere to go and nothing much to do.

One night, while aimlessly wandering about Paris, Jacques happens upon Marthe, who is about to throw herself off the bridge. He manages to talk her down, and the two begin to talk about their lives. As Jacques himself admits to Marthe, “I have no story.” He tells her his non-story. He lives alone, and paints. He starts several different projects but doesn’t seem to complete any. When a friend from art school comes to visit him, the two barely seem to recognize each other. Jacques nods his head to signal “no” when this acquaintance asks to come in, but then says yes. The acquaintance then launches into a monologue about art. The seriousness that many newcomers to Bresson grant him sight unseen is here twisted into something amusing. The austerity of the cinematic language is the syntax of the joke here, if you will.

Marthe follows with her story, which has a bit more information than Jacques. She lives with her mother, who rents out a spare room in the house to a lodger. She makes a remark to her mother that all the lodgers are male and suggests that her mother’s intentions are to find a husband for her daughter. Marthe and the lodger becomes lovers, but only fleetingly so. While declaring her love for him, the lodger informs Marthe has he to leave for the United States to start a graduate program at Yale. He promises to return to her in a year, if she is still willing. Back in the present, that year has passed. The lodger has returned from America, but he hasn’t contacted Marthe. This was the context of the suicide attempt where Jacques first met her.

In retelling her romance with the lodger, Marthe tells of an incident where he invited her and her mother to a film premiere. Marthe is disgusted by the film, a simplistic romance punctuated with grotesque violence. Marthe’s disgusts is not reflective of Bresson, though. He takes some glee in this short parody. The film’s presumed protagonist is killed in a shootout, but before he takes his last breaths, he retrieves a photograph of his lover and says goodbye with one last kiss. While the tone is humorous, again, it’s hard not to also think of the similarly sentimental conclusion to Bresson’s own Pickpocket. The parody here never reaches the point of moral superiority, as there’s a familiarity on the part of the filmmaker himself. Tellingly, Bresson’s next film Lancelot of the Lake, also bears some resemblance to the short parody film, but this time in the cartoonish violence.

I’ve resisted using the word “parody” up until this point because I do think there are some negative connotations that I can’t wrestle away from the word. Still, there are parodic elements in this film, more so than any other Bresson film. Parody doesn’t inherently mean to mock, because I’m not sure such a tone was within Bresson’s grasp, nor do I think it was of interest to him. Jacques’ aimless wandering is itself something of a parody itself. To be out at night is something against societal norms. The ideal capitalist subject is in bed and preparing themselves to be a good laborer for the next day’s nine to five. In his book, Nightwalking, Matthew Beaumont goes deep on this dynamic and traces it back to the Middle Ages. The night walk is the territory of the criminal first and foremost, but also of the cultural interlopers that might rub against such a personality. In a way, the aimless wander at night is deemed criminal because the act of nightwalking makes a parody of law enforcement. As Beaumont says, “To nightwalk is to enact a malign parody of the watchman’s patrol; to nightwatch is to enact a malign parody of his supervision or surveillance of the community and its individuals.” One of the ironies here is that Jacques’ nightwalking and nightwatching actually delivers him to perform a civic good: he saves Marthe.

The dreamer referred to in the film’s title is most likely Jacques. This is character, after all, the dreamer in the film’s source text, Dostoevsky’s “White Nights.” At one, Dostoevsky describes said character as neither man nor woman, but instead as “a creature of the neutral gender.” In the text, our dreamer has his head so much in the clouds, so lost in reverie, that he is constantly playing a game of self-deception. In the film, it works for both Jacques and Marthe. They’re both playing a game on their own hearts. This is not a tragedy to Bresson, the way it might have been to Visconti, but it still hurts. Bresson lets the pain flow, as Marthe and the lodger walk into the night. Jacques returns home, likely to move on to another dream. They’ve both fallen in love with an ideal, rather than an actual person. As Marthe says, “That’s stupid.”


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