There's been a lot of chatter lately, among a certain kind of cinephile - my kind, I will admit up front, though I don't really talk about it here - about the impending death of celluloid film as a production, distribution, and archival medium in the United States. Naturally inclining to pessimism, I suspect that this battle is over and lost, in despite of the petitions and testimonials about what a rich slice of film culture will be effectively over once it finally becomes impossible, or at least financially prohibitive, for campus societies and revival houses to get their hands on film prints.

Which makes the present touring retrospective of the works of legendary French director Robert Bresson, curated by the TIFF Cinematheque, sort of the last hurrah of film projection; not that even I am cynical enough to assume that the end of 35mm film rental is going to happen like right this second any day now, but it seems probable that we're not going to witness again the kind of moment happening right now, with movie lovers from cities across North America all taking part in shared experience, albeit one trickling from place to place over a five-month span. And I take this to be self-evidently too bad; at least here in Chicago, watching a Bresson double feature at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the room is filled with the electric crackle of An Event, with everybody feeding a communal awareness that this is rather a privilege and we're lucky to be there. You don't get that with every European art film that comes down the pike.

That's romantic and all, but it's not actually the best proof of what we're going to lose when 35mm revival houses breath their last. Now, despite what the hard-core tech nerds and media futurists want you to believe, we don't live in an age of complete digitalisation. Despite the very fine efforts of historians and archivists, and the presence of wonderful if sometimes problematic programs like the Warner Archive Collection, there are a hell of a lot of movies yet that aren't available in a digital form at all, and a hell of a lot only available illegally, or in terribly degraded quality, or both. And that's the other reason that the current Bresson retrospective is so important, because it represents the first time in a generation that the never-on-video Four Nights of a Dreamer of 1971 has been available in the U.S. and Canada, making it one of the chief triumphs of the retrospective that some of us actually have the chance to see the rarest of this tremendously important director's mature works. A chance that, I want to repeat at the risk of sound didactic, we would not have if there weren't places to see old movies on 35mm. And it is partially for this reason that I'm reviewing this particular Bresson picture out of all possible Bresson pictures, such as the more readily accessible A Man Escaped, which I watched in the same double-feature.

(Though, if you want to know my opinion on A Man Escaped, it is that I would like to make babies with it).

Another good reason: Four Nights demonstrates an aspect of Bresson that doesn't get quite so much attention as his other characteristics. If you know a single thing about him ("He was French" doesn't count), it's that he was a sober-minded fellow to a semi-absurd degree: his arguably best-known film, Au hasard Balthazar, is an allegory for the life of Christ in which a donkey lives a miserable life and then dies; his penultimate film, The Devil, Probably, was banned for a time in France for the perception it was inciting teenagers to suicide. And the whole gamut of his filmography is generally made up of movies about the worst in humanity beating the best in humanity to a pulp, while God watches silently. He is perhaps the only prominent filmmaker next to whom Ingmar Bergman looks cheery.

Four Nights, the 10th of Bresson's 13 features, pretty nimbly avoids that sort of emotional severity; in point of fact, it's a comedy for at least a considerable portion of its running time, and not a comedy in some ironic sense, but in the more direct "laughing out loud at sex jokes" sense. The longer it goes on, the less this proves to be the case, for good storytelling reasons, but even so: Bresson's comedy. Bresson's parody, even, for a lot of the first third of the movie plays unabashedly like a giant piss-take of the recently completed French New Wave, of which he was not a part, though he was spoken of by that movement's Jean-Luc Godard in terms suggesting religious awe.

The film, adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story "White Nights" (very well-adapted, too; at the risk of spouting heresy, I actually think that Bresson improved upon what was not among one of the Russian's finest works) tells of Jacques (Guillaume des Forêts), a painter who is much more of a dreamer, who one night finds a woman, Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) about to jump off the Pont Neuf. He stops her, and convinces her to meet him again the following night; it is at that point that he learns her story, and she his, though his takes much less time, given that it is basically "callow young man with artistic ambition stands about Paris being introspective". Hers is that one year ago, she was seduced by her family's lodger (Maurice Monnoyer), who left for America the very day after taking her virginity, with the promise that he would return to start a life with her. He returned all right, but made no effort to contact his former conquest, and so it goes.

There's no mistaking this for the work of any other filmmaker, although Four Nights is something of a thematic and tonal outlier. Gone is the blistering, fatalistic Catholicism for which he is (reductively) famous, to be replaced with an unusual sort of humanism that is cynical but quirky, detached but sincere. The film straddles two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives towards its subject: on the one hand, there's little doubt that Bresson doesn't take Jacques, his artistic pretensions, or his earnest attempts to Feel Things Deeply, all that seriously, and is quite willing to mock him for it; and it's equally as obvious that Bresson still views his protagonist with a level of perhaps condescending affection and understanding, the generosity of an older man charmed rather than affronted by the foolishness of the young.

I would almost call it a lyrical film, except that lyricism is incompatible with Bresson's aesthetic: fragmentary moments that are constantly interrupted by intrusions from off-screen space, close-ups and insert shorts which are at times deliberately grotesque in how they deny the physical wholeness of whatever they're focused on (the filmmaker's noted focus on depicting hands in close-up has always, to me, worked less as synecdoche - "these hands represent the human attached to them" - than as deconstruction - "these hands are the only important element of the human attached to them"), and of course his famous and infamous treatment of actors as fleshy props, working them through their paces over and over again until they are incapable of any real affect, not so much "performing" as "existing" on camera with empty eyes. The customarily savage formalism is a curious match to the narrative, in both its ironic and sincere modes; the result is borderline surreal at times, and it certainly gives the entire feature the exact dreamlike aspect referred to in the title.

The story, fixated on youth culture, is reminiscent of the New Wave films of the previous decade; and given that Bresson typically cast his non-actors based on their appearance and not their skills, it surely cannot be an accident that des Forêts looks like the kind of young man whose friends always tell him that he resembles Jean-Pierre Leaud, though he doesn't really (if that makes any sense at all). Jacques is exactly the kind of character Leaud might have played at the time: artistic, romantic, friends with politically engaged people - there is a lengthy monologue from an agitated fellow painter that reads so much like parody of Masculin féminin that I truly cannot believe it's unintentional - and Bresson can't resist poking fun at him for it, lovingly detailing all sorts of strange "artist" behavior involving a tape recorder in scenes that never quite stop being funny even when they are also sad. Certainly, seeing this kind of scenario executed in Bresson's style is weird; weirder, even then when it full commits, if only for a while, to being a straight-up romantic drama.

I will not accuse the film of suffering in these moments, for the whole thing is too damn precise and uncanny for that to be true. I'll admit that I prefer when the humor comes more from Bresson's underutilised sense of play (fun fact: one of his absolute favorite filmmakers was Charles Chaplin), such as when a jangly pit of acoustic rock greets the opening credits, only to drift into nothingness; then, when the title card for the soundtrack pops up, the guitar returns, hopefully you might say... only to fade again as it remains clear that Bresson will not indulge it. There's a joke that would have been painfully broad in 1930, where Jacques pointedly denies to Marthe that he has a story worth recounting, with an immediate cut to the words "Histioire de Jacques" superimposed. It is, when it needs to be, a completely silly movie, and seeing that done Bresson-style is the weirdest of all, and also the most gratifying in a way, revealing that the director's formal approach, so atypical even for arthouse drama, is actually a rather natural fit for comedy; informing the rest of his cinema, that is, while being a engaging watch all on its own.

And it even, when we get right down to it, works as a romantic fable; the acting might be hollow, but the characters are still sweet enough - particularly Marthe, who never comes under the director's sarcastic eye, maybe because she has already suffered enough - that their story is effective anyway; for all that his movies reduce characters to their most basic elements, Bresson was a fairly incisive psychologist; for all that his movies are about everything on earth other than their own stories, he was a sharp storyteller, who here makes a strange and idiosyncratic romance to go with his equally idiosyncratic thriller, biopic, crime picture, and costume drama. Four Nights of a Dreamer isn't, ultimately, one of my personal favorites in the Bresson canon, but it's still about as fascinating and essential a piece of cinema as you're likely to see, intellectually remote and emotionally compelling in perfect balance.