August 17, 2008
Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971
Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story, White Nights, Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer may also be seen as a paradigm for José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia, capturing the romanticism of longing, the voyeurism inherent in an artist's gaze, and the creation of idealized memory. Like the dreamer in Guerín's film, Jacques (Guillaume des Forêts) is a restless artist searching anonymous, city streets in pursuit of an elusive, ideal woman (the dreamer's journey in In the City of Sylvia is similarly chronicled through enumerated nights spent in his hotel room). For Jacques, the quixotic quest would lead him one night to the Pont Neuf, where a despondent Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) has stepped out onto the ledge to end her life by jumping into the river. Convincing her to climb back just as a patrol car stops to intervene, Jacques takes her hand and walks her home with the promise that he would appear at the same time at the bridge on the following evening. The encounter would mark the first of the dreamer's four nights with the fragile Marthe, bound together by their fateful connection and the melancholy of elusive love - Jacques, in the fleeting pursuit of unattainable women with whom he has fallen in love from a distance (and whose embodied idea becomes the inspiration for his fanciful, tape recorded messages and a series of faceless, work-in-progress portraits scattered in his studio), and Marthe, in the apparent rejection by a lover (Maurice Monnoyer) who did not return to her after studying abroad. Offering to act as an intermediary and deliver a letter to the wayward lover's friends in an attempt to reconcile the couple, Jacques becomes increasingly drawn to Marthe and, in the process, finds his new, unrequited object of desire.
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.