Based on the same novella that Luchino Visconti filmed using Dostoievski’s title, White Nights (1957), Robert Bresson’s Quatre nuits d’un rêveur is a stunning comedy that (nearly) begins with a diverted suicide rather than ending or book-ending with a suicide (Mouchette, 1966; Une femme douce, 1969).
In contemporary Paris, Jacques meets Marthe as she contemplates jumping off the Pont Neuf. Over the course of four nights, Jacques learns that Marthe has been abandoned by the boy she loves, who promised before leaving France to meet her on the bridge one year later. She knows he has returned to Paris. Marthe’s vulnerability, “pastness” and capacity to love engage Jacques, who falls in love. Jacques’s sympathy, “presentness” and capacity to love engage Martha, who falls in love with Jacques as invisibly as she had fallen in love with the other boy, who on the fourth night does show up, but not necessarily with her in mind. Leaving Jacques, to whom she has just pledged her heart, she kisses the other boy hello, kisses Jacques goodbye and goes off with the first boy. Back in his apartment, Jacques adds red to the painting he has been working on.
In Bresson, close attention to materiality yields a store of spirituality. Here, materiality—Bresson’s usual closeups of objects, clanking sounds, noisy traffic, etc.—yields more materiality. The comedy proceeds from the matter-of-factness as Bresson deconstructs love, baring its willfulness and apparent arbitrariness. The red paint picks up on the red scarf that Jacques bought Marthe on their last night: passion’s objectification.
The Seine provides a residual symbol consigning Nature (here, the heart’s affection) to river engineering, pointing up the direction that we apply to romantic love as a way of expressing our willfulness and willingness to take risks.
Who is the “dreamer”? We are.
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