But what made the piece lodge in my mind and reorient my perception of the movie was two sentences: “The locals gossip that he’s a drunk, because of his diet, but we never see him drunk. Bresson often fills the frame with his face, passive, and the stare of his unfocused eyes.”
Roger was a recovering alcoholic. He talked about it in blog posts and in his memoir “Life Itself,” and it’s described in the same-titled Steve James documentary about Roger and Chaz. That’s why I’m moved thinking about Roger watching Bresson’s film and realizing, “Somehow, that person is me.” I was always surprised and then gratified whenever he put a piece of himself in his reviews, but especially when he wrote about alcoholism, because I was the child of alcoholics and did not realize or admit it until later in life. Roger didn’t, either. He’d been in recovery for a long time before he started to publicly discuss it. Bresson’s film is not a story about a guy who drinks too much, but part of the process of projecting yourself onto movies is seeing your own story there even if it’s not your story.
“He is thin and weak,” he writes, “he coughs up blood, he grows faint in the houses of parishioners, one late night he falls in the mud and cannot get up. It is a bleak winter. The landscape around his little church is barren. There is often no sign of life except for the distant, unfriendly barking of dogs.”
It’s a Bressonian review of a Bresson film, and as such, it can spark a different understanding of how films can communicate information, and how that can reflect the way people and works of art hide things—but not so carefully that we can’t see them if we generate what artists sometimes call “imaginative empathy,” and project ourselves onto a character, then look at the movie around them, and think about what’s there, and not there, and what it means.
Both my mother and my stepfather were alcoholics, of what’s often called the “high functioning” sort. Most of the people who dealt with them in everyday, workaday life didn’t think of them as alcoholics. They weren’t drinking cheap wine all the time because they had a stomach condition. They drank every day or night for a certain number of hours. They were productive citizens, as they say. They only occasionally had terrifying, endless screaming matches that escalated to violence, with my mom and my stepfather hitting each other and throwing things, and my stepfather knocking down doors she’d locked to keep him out, or putting his fist through drywall, or sometimes firing off guns at baseboards or at the ceiling to express his anger.