In his two part appreciation of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), published on consecutive weeks in 1969 in the LA Free Press on the occasion of the film’s US release, Paul Schrader began to formulate his theory of “transcendental cinema.” This eventually resulted in a monograph, with Bresson making up a trifecta of filmmakers who Schrader though characterised the style, alongside Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujirō Ozu.
Even accounting for some youthful propensity to hyperbole — in the opening passage, he compares Bresson not to other filmmakers, but to “Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Breughel” — Schrader’s critical writings on Pickpocket have proven to be an important factor in understanding his own films as a writer and director. In breaking down the French filmmaker’s “rigid personal style” for a mass audience assumed to be ignorant of his work, Schrader hoped to “demonstrate how Bresson brings the viewer to his knees in the moment of ‘transformation’.”
In the case of Pickpocket, Schrader identifies the film’s closing scene, with the titular petty criminal Michel (Martin Lassalle) caressing love interest Jeanne (Marika Green) through the bars of the jail cell in which he has been imprisoned, as a moment of spiritual elevation. He goes on to explain that the highly formalised style of Bresson’s film, as well as his Brechtian disdain for “realism” in both the writing and acting of Pickpocket, all build to eventually allow the audience access to some higher spiritual pay-off than the “cheap thrills” of set pieces, plot beats or non-diegetic music would allow.
Over a decade after writing those words, Paul Schrader would directly homage Pickpocket’s ending with the climax of his own American Gigolo (1980), as stylised a motion picture as the critic-turned-filmmaker has made before or since. While he leans heavily also on the dictums he views Bresson as setting down with regards to realism and lack of moral judgement passed upon the characters (here Richard Gere stars as a high-class male escort whose disturbing hollowness when not servicing clients is a clear predecessor of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman), he cannot help himself from diluting the recipe with some populist techniques.
There is a (superb!) musical score throughout, composed by legendary Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder, much of which interpolates the melody of Blondie’s “Call Me,” which plays over the opening credits. For the first hour or so, the film follows Gere’s Julian Kaye as he builds a tentative romantic relationship with married client Michelle (Lauren Hutton), a process seriously impeded by his inability to reveal anything true or authentic about himself; he is always putting on an act, and behind the mask there appears to be only a void.
Then it’s as if Schrader bottles it. The filmmaker has always had more art house interests than his pulpy, mainstream work would suggest, yet he’s also no dummy. He has noted in numerous interviews over the years that, in the American marketplace, he would simply find neither the funding nor the audience for films made in the transcendental style. The influence of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer remains in his own films, as well as the ones he wrote for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and others.
However, narrative-driven Western cinema remains the dominant gene, and so the back half of American Gigolo follows Julian’s desperate attempts to clear his name when a vengeful pimp (Bill Duke) frames him for murder. It’s this turn of events that leads him to be jailed, and for the climactic Pickpocket-inspired moment where Michelle, talking to him between a pane of glass on a visit to the jail, agrees to provide him an alibi, in effect ending her marriage by admitting to infidelity, yet opening up the possibility of a real romance with Julian.
While I’m not interested in judging whether Schrader was “successful” in replicating an elevation of the spirit akin to Robert Bresson in American Gigolo — much as I enjoyed Pickpocket, I did not have the same profound, rapturous response to it as he did; I was also, perhaps crucially, not raised in any sort of religious milieu, as Schrader notably was and which has informed more or less every film he’s made from Hardcore on up — I am interested in seeing the ways he implemented the style of filmmaking he identified, while diverging from it in ways that produce differing effects.
After decades of insisting he would not, or could not, ever make a film in the style, Paul Schrader recently unleashed the one-two punch of an updated edition of his Transcendental Style in Film, complete with a new introduction by the 72-year-old, as well as a film explicitly steeped in both the formal and thematic preoccupations of Bresson. First Reformed is, in many ways, easily identifiable as a Schrader film, with yet another lost (white, male, American) soul at its centre, unable to bear the moral degradation of the time he’s living in and pushed by the sorry state of things to do something drastic.
Where First Reformed breaks away from the likes of Julian Kaye, Travis Bickle and Willem Defoe’s character from Light Sleeper (1992), another film for which Schrader borrowed Pickpocket’s ending, is in its style. Apparently inspired by the success of Paweł Pawlikowski’s modern “slow cinema” classic Ida (2013), he saw that it may at last be possible to follow the tropes of the transcendental style he identified more closely. In doing so, First Reformed withholds a great number of aspects of film mainstream Western audiences take for granted, and which those familiar with Paul Schrader films have also come to expect.
Scenes unfold in long takes, the camera almost entirely stationary and trained directly at the actor’s faces. There is no traditional score, with Welsh ambient musician Lustmord intermittently providing fitful drones and portentous sounds. While it grapples with contemporary themes — Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller is asked to counsel an activist (Philip Ettinger) despairing over the apocalyptic fall of the environment by his heavily pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) — like Jacob wrestling with the angel, its goes aggressively against the grain of modern American cinema by being explicitly concerned with Christian faith without being a God’s Not Dead-patterned piece of Church propaganda.
It’s a film that is agnostic, if that’s not a loaded term in this context, about the divine rights of men and the mercy of a Lord who would allow all manner of sins to occur unimpeded, from the senseless death of Toller’s son during the Iraq War to the ongoing desolation of the climate undertaken by corporate interests, including one which donated a significant amount to the upkeep of the Reverend’s 250-year-old Dutch Reformation chapel.
The Robert Bresson film First Reformed is most closely modelled on is Diary of a Country Priest (1951), with scenes and characters explicitly inspired by Claude Laydu’s similarly embattled and afflicted pastor attempting to soothe the souls of his Ambricourt parish. Toller and his struggles also owe a debt to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), where Gunnar Björnstrand’s priest struggles to conjure a Biblical exegesis capable of reassuring a parishioner (Max von Sydow) scared to death of an imminent nuclear apocalypse.
It’s in the intermingling, or more accurately intentional cross-contamination, of these influences that Schrader again “fails” to fully replicate the transcendental style of Dreyer, Ozu, or more pertinently, Bresson. Where much of First Reformed is quietly devastating, thanks to Ethan Hawke’s self-contained performance as a the abnegating, grieving priest in the process of losing his faith and his health and the off-handed epiphanies noted in his diary in voiceover (itself a nod to Bresson’s film), past a certain point it becomes notably driven more by the machinations of plot than character.
Once Toller takes on the radical mission of the environmentalist as his own, with the reconsecration of his church coming up and one of the chief polluters in New York state confirmed to be in attendance, classical Hitchockian tension (”The bomb is on the pastor…” rather than “The bomb is under the table…”) takes hold, and the violent inevitability of First Reformed’s climax underscores every scene which follows. In some places, that aggressive charge leaks directly into Toller’s exchanges with Cedric Kyles’s Pastor Jeffers, reverend of the neighbouring mega-church which bankrolls Toller’s smaller and more sparsely-attended institution, and Victoria Hill as his ex-wife Esther.
Again, I place “fails” in square quotes because I am not interested in judging how successful Schrader is in creating a work of transcendental cinema, as he has classified it. Nor do I think he is interested in simply following a rulebook, even if it’s one he himself wrote. Besides the ruptures noted above, First Reformed most notably breaks from its austere, ascetic style more definitively in two instances, both of which come relatively late in its running time.
The first is when Hawke’s Reverend Toller indulges Amanda Seyfried’s Mary (and you know subtlety is off the table to a certain extent when you name a pregnant character that in your movie about the Christian faith) in a ritual she and her husband would do. One would lay atop the other, fully clothed, and attempt to place as much of their body in contact with the other. Without moving, this act of physical intimacy would open them up to “explore” in a way that would be difficult to visualise.
So, in a sequence which is being compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s stargate finale but might be better understood with comparison to Schrader’s experiments in visual effects and visualising subjective internal experiences in 1985′s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Hawke and Seyfried begin to levitate in mid air, before the humble surroundings of his chapel-annex home dissolve first into hyper-real stock footage of lush vegetation and snow-capped mountains, then into piles of burning garbage and oil-slicked wildlife.
The second is First Reformed’s promised violent ending. Initially Toller intends to detonate a suicide vest constructed by Mary’s late husband, who committed suicide the day after she revealed the explosive to Toller and the pastor spirited it away to his home for safekeeping, at the church’s reconsecration ceremony. He abandons that plan when he sees Mary has ignored his warnings to stay away and turned up for the ceremony.
Rather than embracing martyrdom, but already committed to ending his own life, Toller instead wraps himself in barbed wire (evoking the thorns which bound Jesus upon the cross) and intends to down a lethal dose of drain cleaner from the glass he had spent much of the film drinking a mixture of scotch and Pepto-Bismol from. If that were not heightened enough, Mary then appears just at the moment he tips to the glass to his lips. He instead throws it aside, embraces Mary, and the camera becomes uprooted from its stationary three-quarters perspective to spin deliriously around the couple as they kiss passionately.
As the previous rule-breaking scene is perhaps best understood with reference to Mishima, so too is this finale most directly recalling the bloody ending of Taxi Driver, a moment which appears to entirely abandon the rules of the “reality” created in the film, its happy(ish) ending not the result of a studio mandate, but widely interpreted as being a hallucination or delusion on the part of the main character. Discussion over First Reformed’s ending has been fierce, with many putting forward the theory that Toller and Mary’s epic make out session is in fact an “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”-style trick played on the Reverend’s mind at the moment of death, or else a visual depiction of his eternal afterlife; although whether or not it’s a heavenly gift of hellish embrace of sin only inspires further discussion.
Despite some clear and admitted antecedents, First Reformed is first and foremost a Paul Schrader film. While a hyper-literate filmmaker with wide-ranging tastes and a freakishly good memory, Schrader is not of the Quentin Tarantino postmodern, metatextual school of filmmaking, wherein a feature can be constructed entirely of pastiches and lifts of characters, scenes, or plots from previously-seen movies, without the need for any serious personal invention of reflection. That the film borrows from Winter Light and Diary of a Country Priest is obvious, but it those suggestions are in service of a clear vision of the writer/director (as well as his cast and crew, with special mention for cinematographer Alexander Dynan).
Still, I return to the place where we started, and wonder how we might judge First Reformed when placed against Schrader’s now-decades-old analysis of Pickpocket? He certainly does cede the floor to the “cheap thrills and spectacle” which may be seen as “giving the viewer an easy way out of dramatic situation” (these are his words from his two LA Free Press articles), yet the film’s ambiguous conclusion surely precludes an “easy way out,” unless taken as being a “happy ending” where love conquers all, a reading which requires some amount of jumping through logical and emotional hoops to justify.
It’s certainly not an elliptical film, with a traditional plot structure of the sort which has been present in almost every Schrader picture from his directorial debut Blue Collar (1978) to 2016′s Nicolas Cage-starring crime romp Dog Eat Dog. Yet in its final feint away from the ending which appeared for much of the film to be “inevitable,” First Reformed does withhold the expected conclusion to its narrative. He also cannot resist but make much of the film visually arresting, beginning with the slow crawl up the road to the imposing and beautifully monochromatic titular chapel, and peaking with that bravura visual effects sequence; a far cry from what he identified as Bresson’s instance that his “images, like his acting and plot…be flat and unexpressive.”
The big, bold — some might say obvious — symbolism of First Reformed most definitely ticks off the elision of realism which Schrader suggests is another key aspect of Pickpocket, although it engages in very real and timely themes such as climate change and its denial by the self-same corporate interests which propagate it. It would be naive to say that Paul Schrader does not, at least in part, seek to “deprive the viewer of superficial pleasure, yet keeps him in tow by hinting at greater and more lasting pleasures”; equally, it would be naive to say he didn’t also maintain a populist’s desire to entertain, even if those moments are less frequent than in his other features.
I must reiterate, I do not intend to judge whether or not Schrader follows Bresson’s steps close enough to result in a successful moment of “transformation” as he describes it; identifying Pickpocket’s climax as such was highly subjective for him when he was writing in 1968, and so it remains today with regards to First Reformed. What I will say by way of conclusion is that, for a viewer (that’s me, subsumed into a rhetorical device) without religious belief, the film did manage what Paul Schrader believes Robert Bresson did: to make you “believe in something you don’t want to believe in — the supernatural and the spiritual. And not just because his characters believe in the spiritual, but because there is a spiritual.”