Four Nights of a Dreamer

Four Nights of a Dreamer ★★★★★

This was, somewhat improbably perhaps, the first Robert Bresson film I ever saw (via a severely degraded VHS rip). Despite the subpar quality, it has remained my favorite Bresson film ever since, I suspect at least in part due to the fact that it stands as something of an outlier in his oeuvre. Although Bresson had an extremely singular and rigorous filmmaking method (famously utilizing handpicked nonprofessional "models" in place of actors, all the better to deliver their dialogue in his patented non-expressive style), which makes any "difference" between his films a very relative thing to say the least, Four Nights of a Dreamer nevertheless stands as perhaps his "loosest", "easiest", and even "romantic" film (albeit with a decidedly ironic tinge).

Revisiting it now (in a new, far higher-quality copy, I'm happy to say), I was particularly struck by how uncharacteristically funny the film is, compared to Bresson's other work. Not that it still isn't an overwhelmingly "dry", "rigorous", and "austere" film by any conventional standards (this is still a Bresson film, after all), but there's definitely a very detectable sense of humor present (most notably in the self-parodic film-within-the-film one of the characters is seen watching at one point). There's also the completely uncharacteristic and oddly placed musical interludes performed by a wandering group of hippie-ish buskers (including a particularly nice bossa nova interlude performed aboard a passing boat). Although many of Bresson's films included young characters, this may be his only film that seems like it might have possibly been targeted at them.

Yet the film's relative accessibility isn't the only reason it remains my favorite of the director's efforts. There's also the matter of the source material, taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky's much-adapted short story "White Nights". Dostoevsky was a writer whom Bresson returned to many times throughout his career (in addition to Four Nights of a Dreamer, he had also filmed Dostoevsky's short story "A Gentle Creature" as A Gentle Woman two years earlier, Pickpocket is loosely based on "Crime and Punishment", and even The Devil, Probably is titled after a line from "The Brothers Karamazov"), and a convincing argument could be made that the director understood the author better than any other filmmaker ever has. At the very least, Bresson's own pessimistic yet intensely spiritual outlook shares a great deal with Dostoevsky's own Christian existentialism.

There's certainly no doubt that "White Nights" is an iconic and far-reaching story in its own right (the sheer number of cinematic adaptations it has received is a testament to such), instantly appealing to romantically self-absorbed loners everywhere. However, here, Bresson manages to make the story almost entirely his own (not least by removing a great deal of the dialogue, as was his tendency in his quest to remove any elements deemed "inessential" in his work). When I think of the tremendous debt that filmmaker Leos Carax clearly owes to Four Nights of a Dreamer, particularly in his debut Boy Meets Girls (itself a story of doomed romance set around Paris' Pont-Neuf bridge), it is not Dostoevsky's "White Nights" but rather Bresson's film specifically that I'm referring to.

As a familiar cinematic archetype, the film's solitary dreamer Jacques is very much an iconic Bresson creation as much as Dostoevsky's (a figure who one sees traces of not only in Carax's work but also Tsai Ming-liang's among others). Four Nights of a Dreamer is not the "most" Bressonian of Bresson's work (that honor belongs to his final film, L'Argent), but it is the one that perhaps resonates the most strongly within contemporary cinematic language (perhaps alongside it's darker companion piece The Devil, Probably). As such, I'd say that it might be an ideal starting point for audiences either new to the director's work or otherwise skeptical of his approach, especially now that a good-looking print is now available (if you know where to look, that is).

Rating: 98/100

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