Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson, 1951) – As a follow-up to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, it stands as a rather significant shift in style and maybe even overall approach. Whereas that previous film was teleologically sutured to its own narrative, this film has no “plot” to speak of. Les Dames, of course, had a “plot” in the other sense, i.e., Hélène’s plot to get back at Jean. Diary‘s narrative, however, simply follows the dynamic between the inner life and outer life of, yes, a country priest in France. The words that are read as voiceover as we see many of them inscribed onto paper are given consistent attention, and the slow dissolves that transition between the journal and its reference point in reality seem fundamentally designed to blur the distinction between what is written and what we see. In classic terms, we are identified with the priest. The dissolves figure so prominently throughout the film, along with fade-ins and fade-outs, that they seem to function beyond just blurring the boundary between narration and narrative. They also lend a hazy, ethereal, almost otherworldly quality to the film’s aesthetic. Already revolving around some of the great questions of existence, although never verbalized in the trite way that so-called “existential” films often do, the formal fogginess creates a dreaminess that subjectifies, if we can say, all that we encounter in the film. All that we see and hear is processed through the filter of the priest, and so we are given a heavenly view of the most mundane, terrestrial objects and scenes.
But this somewhat heavenly view is not idealized. The haziness that seems to lurk within each scene as well as in the transitions between them also may correspond to the priest’s struggle to locate clearly defined answers to many of his own questions. The final image, on the other hand, frames perhaps the starkest contrast of the film. The image of the priest is now replaced with a silhouette of a cross held in a static view against a wall, as a(n) (previously?) apostate priest recalls the final words of the main character: “What does it matter? All is grace.” Such a sweeping conclusion, in consonance with the clearest, most defined image of the film, combine to give a final clarity in an otherwise muddled film. That is to say, the film itself is not muddled, quite the contrary; but the film presents the struggle of its protagonist as a struggle for definition. Perhaps the stylistic representation of this aura suggests that the way to heaven precisely is this struggle, this crisis of faith and inability to locate one’s true self or identity. For examples of how these dissolves look and vague suggestions of how they may intend toward meaning, see this.