Burnham and Bresson Break Their Rule
One way filmmakers develop a “language” for their film is by establishing rules in its form they intend to break. Sometimes those rules aren’t found until editing, sometimes they’re deliberated while shooting. About as often, they’re neither discovered nor intended. A basketball film might establish that when its athlete is on the court, its camera is always on the rails and tracks smoothly. But when they’re off the court, out of their comfort zone in the “real” world, the shots are handheld, unstable. So when the film breaks that rule — the jitters of the athlete’s outer life pervades their life on the court and the dolly is eschewed for handheld — we feel it. The film has told us something in a way that it only can.
Aki Kaurismäki orchestrates a beautiful break in Le Havre (2011). He presents that the film’s characters — a shoe shiner, his ailing wife, and the police inspector, chiefly — will be framed uncomfortably center in close-up, camera height at brow level, and with an eye line that practically spikes the lens.
But when he introduces Idrissa, an illegal immigrant boy from Gabon who police find cooped up inside a ship container, he does so from well below eye level and Idrissa’s eye line peering far into the top right corner of the frame. He has been distinguished from the rest, and as the film unravels you might come closer to or farther from why that might be. You may wonder, for instance, why the film regresses Idrissa from that introductory break back to the rules of the other characters.
The film’s lighting is elevated just a notch from naturalistic. Everything casts a fuller shadow. Characters’ eyes beam from an eyelight, their faces from a bright key. The light presents a world between naturalism and studio schemes that probably fits Kaurismäki’s kookier reality breaks better than the barer looks he and his longtime cinematographer Timo Salminen developed in their early collaborations. Ariel (1988), akin to Le Havre as a Kaurismäki “fairy tale” in that they can only end in good faith of the human condition because they take place in an alternate and better reality, may not need the wattage boost. But in Le Havre it primes us for a lighting gag that breaks the world’s immersion. In a scene where the two lovers Roberto and Mimie reunite, existing lights in the scene are dimmed and a new spotlight (unmotivated by the practical lighting in the scene’s environment) turns on to illuminate their meetcute. This effect helps sell a subplot that is practically resolved upon its entrance in the film. Because the lighting has warmed us to its artifice, Le Havre has earned this indulgent break.
Bo Burnham and Robert Bresson make comparable breaks to signify opposite but parallel lead character denouements. In Eighth Grade’s (2018) opening shot, Burnham establishes that, when middle schooler Kayla Day records her video journals, we will see them in the pixelated rendering of her webcam. Burnham breaks that rule for her penultimate vlog, foregoing the webcam for the all-seeing RED camera that the rest of the film is shot on. The limitations of the webcam hides Kayla’s blemishes; the RED is sharp, unforgiving, and embraces the actual middle school-aged cast in all their grubbiness.
In Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Bresson establishes, again in the opening shot, that the wan priest of Ambricourt’s diary entries will be heard in voiceover narration. As Burnham did, Bresson will wait to break his rule until the end of the film. The fading priest tries one last entry before his journal slips from his fingers, managing just legible scribbles. We only read it. It is the only entry we do not hear in voiceover. A line from Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer puts that decision in its broader context: “The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer.”
Though perhaps not explicitly applicable, it’s worth mentioning Paul Schrader’s three stages of transcendental style as a parallel concept that could potentially cross. Schrader proposed that transcendent or holy expressionism is universal, pointing to formal commonalities in preeminent films from East (Ozu) to West (Bresson). “The everyday” is the first universal stage. In what we call rules, Schrader suggests formal “limitations and restrictions” evoke a “cold” world “devoid of meaning.” In the second stage, which he calls “disparity,” an “irrational” passion finds it way into that cold, or an “…action (such as crying) that breaks through the unemotional structure of every day.” This is not unlike our breaks. Finally, in “stasis,” the form of the film “returns to the hard stylization of the everyday,” but in a new light. “The world is as it once was, but now one understands that the transcendent is just beneath every realistic surface.” But Schrader limits the rules and their breaks to one holy connotation, not irrelevant here, but narrow and neglecting their flexibility. Eighth Grade doesn’t fit Schrader’s criteria for a film that assumes a reductive cold, but it does follow the arc of the rule that breaks and finally settles back into its rule.
Voted quietest girl in school, Kayla records her vlogs in character. That character teaches shy viewers to take on the throes of middle school with confidence. She’s not just embodying the popular kids through this persona and how she imagines they perceive her, she’s projecting an idealization to reach for. It’s a self-reflexive exercise, a discussion with herself more than with others.
To the chagrin of popular girl Kennedy, voted best eyes, her mother invites Kayla to her birthday pool party one day after school. Kennedy hardly grants Kayla the luxury of her eye contact, but she’s kept in focus as her blurry mother does the talking (Kennedy’s parents are kept out of focus, off screen, or small in the frame). Later, when Kayla anxiously approaches the pool party, we hear vlog Kayla, presented again on webcam per Burnham’s rule, reversing the roles to perceive herself in Kennedy’s shoes: “This one time I was having a bunch of friends over, and my dad made me invite this one weird girl, or whatever, and, you know, I didn’t really want to invite her, because at school she was always just weird, so I didn’t like her… So then she came over, and I got to know the real her. And she was actually really cool and funny, and like just awesome.” In truth, Kennedy barely acknowledges Kayla at her party and is put off by her gift, a card game “like Go Fish, but better,” Kayla tries to explain.
Vlogging allows Kayla to extend out from herself. The priest of Ambricourt’s journal is a frank and fast chute inward. He desires love, but he only repents that want. Instead he dreams of electric light at his parish or of manifesting a youth club and sport’s association with the means of the commune’s count. When the deputy mayor brings news that the town council has agreed to install electricity at their expense, the priest wishes to inquire of the mayor’s cabaret, knowing “it attracts even the young girls whom the boys enjoy getting drunk,” but does not dare.
He doesn’t wear his repression reputably. His foul health and brooding demeanor besmirch the parish and its forefathers in the eyes of the commune. Soon after the priest convenes with the countess to console her regarding her greater “ordeals,” she dies, hatching malicious rumors that his unorthodox methodology willed her to. In his pride, he curls inward and does not deign to correct them. He mistakes the shelter of his inward spiral as “relief,” and discovers his lust for the “peace of the dead.” Flirting with reveries of suicide, he jots: “One must pay for that, surely.” Later, his mentor, the priest of Torcy, catches him ingesting toxic rotgut in his home. The young priest swears ignorance of its poison. But exposed, the initial “relief” of his pride reveals itself as shame. He leaves town to consult a doctor and can’t find himself to return with the news of his stomach cancer. The priest cannot pray. He ekes the need with his journal, but its dialogue only folds back on itself. His guilt begets guilt and coagulates into pride, begetting more pride.
Kayla Day prays once in Eighth Grade. She bargains with God: let tomorrow be good, even if the days that follow must be bad. In a rare allowance of contemporary “Christian mildness” (a phrase once used very differently to describe Au Hasard Balthazar), Kayla continues to push forward and out. Tomorrow is good. She shadows a buoyant high school student, Olivia, who reassures her. The future feels promising. She records her next vlog with new sincerity in the present. With this progression, Burnham will half break his rule. He moves from the webcam to the RED, but obfuscates half of her face with the laptop screen in the foreground. Kayla is not ready for Burnham to frame her totally void of buffers.
Sick and inebriated, the priest stumbles to the ground. He journals that he thinks he yells. We see that he does not, at least audibly. His mouth opens as if to try. A vision of the Holy Virgin lifts him off the ground; he pursues her visage until he faints. Bresson has always framed the young priest from below eye level looking up. It has the distinct effect of drawing out the girth at his chin, pointing to his youth, trapping him in a power angle that he can hardly bear. But in his steps towards the Holy Virgin we come at him from above for the first time. He is blessed by an eye and hairlight that did not exist in the shot before. Does he actually see the Holy Virgin? The divine intervention of movie lights only confirms he believes he did.
Olivia invites Kayla to reconvene with her and her high school friends at the mall. Kayla notices the quietest of the bunch, Riley, cranes toward him, and relates, “You know, I used to be, like, really quiet too,” to which he retorts, down at her volume, “No, I’m not quiet. No. You’re quiet.” Later, Riley drives Kayla and Olivia home. He drops Olivia off first, leaving him and Kayla alone. He stops the car to make persistent advances toward her. “No!” She yells, fed up and surprising herself. She corrects her riposte by apologizing. He guilts her for the remainder of the ride home and she nods in agreement to the rest of his verbal lashings.
This trauma informs Kayla’s penultimate vlog, a confession: she is not the person she has portrayed in all of her videos. She is not the person she tried to seem to Riley. We are close on Kayla with total clarity. Burnham removes the lie of the webcam and clears the frame (a passionate break that might suit Schrader’s disparity stage). She burns her sixth grade time capsule with her dad and disencumbers it from the weight of her projected self. She can face her issues one at a time in the present, and, at graduation, rends Kennedy for all injustices absorbed. As Burnham’s rule of the webcam meant a schism, this break meant its dissolve. Kayla loses a voice that was necessary to her for a time, but that she was always meant to let go.
Burnham regresses back to the webcam (as the world returns to its “hard stylizations” in Schrader’s stasis stage) for the film’s final vlog. Now an incoming freshman, Kayla records a video for her future self to watch after she graduates high school, “So stay cool, and I can’t wait to be you.” She has to reach away from herself again to discover what she ought to manifest next.
In sickness, the priest of Ambricourt holes up with his old colleague Abbot Duffrety who, the priest informs us, “took leave from his parish for health reasons.” He finds him ambling in just the undergarments of his cassock. He has abandoned his faith to nourish his intellect. “A doctor once told me,” Duffrety relays to the priest, “‘Intellectuals, underfed since childhood.’” With a faith only tested by his urge to love, the priest cannot relate to his colleague’s sacrifice for wisdom’s sake. Later, the priest logs his final entry: “He [Duffrety] agreed to meet the priest of Torcy. My old master.” But the line goes unspoken, the rule is broken, and the diary hits the floor. We internalize the line differently, perhaps without any merit the words might have had before. He has lost his voice literally and the narration is picked up by the priest of Torcy who delivers our old narrator’s dying words himself, “Does it matter? All is grace” over the film’s final and only figurative image: the shadow of a cross.
The priest can no longer bear the frame or deliver his own words. We have left any literal sense of the world. The priest of Torcy grants his friend reluctant absolution only in our own manifestation of his telling. The priest of Ambricourt does not hear his master’s contention or hesitation and clings to his rosary, finds comfort in his version of faith which has long lost its channel to God and now the viewer, and dies.
Both breaks shed a voice. For Kayla Day, that loss means moving forward in the present. For the priest of Ambricourt, the loss of prayer to an unmoored and solipsistic channel to faith means his end. He narrows until he closes. Kayla expands until she can see herself anew and expand again. But you might make a different content-based argument with these same patterns of form. You might propose that the priest has found the only pure faith, that his masters and reactors are wrong and that he only finds grace in isolation. The same breaks might align to make distinctions in favor of that. But I am not certain you can make a case against Kayla. That loop feels closed. Its form might narrow itself to one read.