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Quarterly Review of Film and Video

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Bresson, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin: Adaptation as

Intertextual Dialogue


To cite this article: EVA MARIA STADLER (2003) Bresson, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin: Adaptation as
Intertextual Dialogue, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 20:1, 15-22

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10509208.2003.10708704

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001: 10.1080/10509200390118399

Bresson, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin:

Adaptation as Intertextual Dialogue


Robert Bresson's career as a filmmaker spanned more than forty years, yet his oeuvre
comprises only thirteen films. This relatively small output is due, in some measure, to the
austere quality of his films, to his emphasis on form and detail and to his unwillingness
to cater to an audience's desire to be entertained. Bresson conceived of his work as quite
apart from that of other filmmakers and often stated that his films are neither spectacle
nor "filmed theater" but rather a new kind of "ecriture," unrelated to commercial cinema
and also, of necessity, radically different from other art forms. In his critical writings and
his interviews, he spoke disparagingly of films contaminated by literature and maintained
that ideas drawn from reading will always be bookish ideas (Notes 59, 65, 132). Yet,
with the exception of Les Anges du peche (1943), Au hasard, Balthazar (1965-66), and
Le Diable, probablement (1977), all of Bresson's films are based on pre-existing texts,
sometimes historical, but most often literary. The sources of inspiration for his literary
adaptations range from the medieval Lancelot poems, to the prose fiction of Diderot,
Bemanos, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
There is a striking faithfulness to diegetic detail and the externals of plot development
between Bresson's films and their fictional sources. At the same time, however, this
apparent textual servility, as Andre Bazin called it in a frequently quoted article on
Bresson's first literary adaptation Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944-45), is undercut
by the cinematographic stylization of the formal elements of the film. Bresson's repeated
use of pre-existing narrative material seems to derive to a large degree from his overriding
interest as an artist with issues of form. The literary text functions as a point of departure,
a source of narrative material and an impetus to formal experiment. From this perspective,
adaptation became for Bresson a reinterpretation of thematic and structural features of
the literary text-an intersemiotic transfer which involves not only transposition but also
imitation, citation and commentary. Bresson's relationship to the works of Dostoevsky is
complex and revolves around many central issues of text production for the filmmaker.
It underscores thematic elements, gives new insight into Bresson's formal concerns and
helps clarify his concept of adaptation.
Throughout his career, Bresson expressed particular admiration for the work of F. M.
Dostoevsky. The two artists' shared preoccupation with issues of evil and sin, with abused
and battered women, with a venal and money oriented society have often been commented

Translations of all teltts originally written in French are my own, eltcept as otherwise indicated.
Eva Maria Stadler is Director of the Literary Studies Program at Fordham University where she teaches
Film Studies, English and Comparative Literature. She holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Her published
articles include studies on the film/literature relationship; the works of filmmaker Robert Bresson; African film;
avant-garde cinema; the early 18th century novel in France and England; Marcel Proust. During the summer of
1976, she had the privilege of observing Bresson for one month on location during the shooting of Le Diable,
probab/ement. She is presently completing a book-length study on The Films of Rohert Bresson.

16 Eva Maria Stadler

upon. Mireille LeDantec even notes a Dostoevskyan aura in the subtle ambiguities of
interpersonal relationships in some of the earliest Bresson films. The story line and
characterizations of Pickpocket, a film made in 1959, actually reflect strong echoes of
Crime and Punishment, as T. Jefferson Kline and others have shown, although Bresson
claimed to have written an original screenplay. In the late 1960's Bresson finally turned to
Dostoevsky works as direct and overt sources of inspiration. Une femme douce ( 1968-69)
and Quatre nuits d'un reveur (1970--71) are both films based on novellas by Dostoevsky,
"A Gentle Creature" and "White Nights" respectively. While he was working on these two
films Bresson was also writing Notes sur le cinematographe and his comments on film
theory and practice showed specific interest in the formal aspects of Dostoevsky's fiction.
"Dostoevsky is particularly original in terms of composition. His works are extraordinarily
complex and tightly structured, purely internalized, with currents and cross-currents like
the sea. [Their] counterpart would work well in a film" (Notes 126-7).
Une femme douce and Quatre nuits d'un reveur could, therefore, be studied as
experiments in the application of some of the formal, compositional attributes of Dos-
toevsky's discourse to the film medium. In the analysis of these films, concepts and
analytic tools such as dialogism, heteroglossia, chronotope, and intertextuality proposed
by M.M. Bakhtin in his studies of Dostoevsky and the novel could also be applied to
the study of film form and the analysis of the filmic text. As Robert Stam has argued
in Subversive Pleasures, Bakhtin himself seemed to authorize such an extension of his
method to an analysis of film when he noted that the word "text" understood in the broad
sense applies to "any coherent complex of signs," and "even the study of art (the study of
music, the theory and history of fine arts) deals with texts" (Speech Genres 103). Stam's
book provides a broad exploration of the analytic relevance of Bakhtinian categories to
diverse textual and contextual aspects of the cinema, with particular emphasis on cultural
criticism. It is my aim here to explore the impact of Dostoevsky on Bresson's film lan-
guage by applying Bakhtin's insights on formal issues to the textual analysis of several
films. Using this approach, the filmic text, like other forms of discourse, can be studied
as ~n intersection of earlier texts and as "an orchestration of voices" contending "among
texts and within texts" (Speech Genres 105). Dialogic relations between the film and its
pre-texts, between sound and image, between juxtaposed images as well as among var-
ious elements of the sound track can introduce multiple competing voices. Incorporated
genres within the film can expand intertextual possibilities while the structuring of filmic
space can thematize the threshold position of characters.
The two films directly inspired by the Russian novelist's work form an interesting
unit in Bresson's oeuvre. They are his first color films; both are films about modern-
day Paris, and the city, with its lights, its noises, its traffic, its parks, its museums and
its theaters, is a living presence just as St. Petersburg lives in much of Dostoevsky's
fiction. What Bakhtin calls "the markers that give [... ] language its social profile"
also become more salient in the Bresson films related to Dostoevsky's works (Dialogic
Imagination 356). The cultural life of the modern city has a structural and thematic
impact in both films through the self-referential use of the film within the film and
theater within the film. Both films deal with the lives of modern young people and
quite specifically with sexual love. They also explore techniques that can be seen as
filmic applications of what Bakhtin described as Dostoevsky's experiments with narrative
The short story "A Gentle Creature," written in 1877, on which Une femme douce
is based, is a lengthy meditation of a husband over the corpse of his young wife who
has just committed suicide. The husband, who is the narrator, attempts to reconstruct
his marriage to justify himself to himself, to his implied reader, and to the society this
Bresson, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin 17

reader represents. Yet, as Mikhail Bakhtin points out, there is no evolution of ideas in the
narrator's consciousness, rather the entire monologue is an internal ideological struggle
to choose from among the already present semantic possibilities, to force himself to see
and to admit what he had known from the outset and to come to terms with his solitude
and his guilt (Poetics 247). Despite the apparent continuity of what he says, the husband
contradicts himself both in logic and his emotions. In terms of literary convention, he is a
completely unreliable narrator; in terms of structure, his voice expresses, both internally
and externally, Dostoevsky's dialogic approach to human life. In this sense, he also
typifies the Dostoevsky hero who is "not finalized and not predetermined by his image"
(Poetics 102).
The sense of "unfinalized" character translates easily into Bresson's world where
psychological causality yields and motives are suggested but never explained. This
a-psychological presentation of character is sustained by the impassive faces and the
flattened, unemotional voices of the actors. In the narrative structure of Une femme
douce the sense of indeterminacy is intensified through rhythmic editing between scenes
representing the present and those representing the past while tensions between sound
and image underscore emotional ambiguities within many of the sequences. The suicide,
which opens the film, is suggested by a turned-over balcony table and the image of a
white shawl, which gracefully floats toward the street accompanied, on the sound track,
by the screeching noise of cars slamming on their brakes. The next scene shows the body
of the young woman on a bed as her husband paces up and down and begins his attempt to
recapture the past in words addressed to a kneeling housekeeper. As the husband speaks,
his voice becomes voice-over and the screen shows the first of a series of scenes from
the past. The structure of the entire film is punctuated by this shift from present to past to
present again with repeated shifts from the death bed scene to scenes of the couple's past
life together. Sometimes the voice-over acts merely as a transition to dramatized scenes,
at other times it becomes commentary, often ironic in its seeming lack of comprehension
of what the image shows. The temporal shift, which also implies a shift from subjective to
objective narration, gives a sense of discontinuity while emphasizing the displacement of
narrative point of view. Through montage and manipulation of voice-over Bresson creates
a dialogic relationship between sound and image as well as between sound and sound.
These techniques multiply the possibilities of psychological ambiguity suggested by the
form of Dostoevsky's story and give the spectator an independent view of the wife instead
of only showing her through the eyes of her disturbed husband. The silence of the corpse
doubles and reflects the enigmatic words and actions of the young woman in her lifetime.
Tensions are created between the present and the remembered past, between experience
and language. Questions of guilt and responsibility are not resolved; in fact, they move
into the background as Bresson's dialectic transforms Dostoevsky's material into a story
of silence, closed worlds, and eternal lack of communication. Strong verticals--doors,
screens, bars, and banisters--cut the image and further separate people. Filmic space is
shaped to become the locus of solitude and anguish.
Quatre nuits d'un reveur, made about two years after Unefemme douce is also a film
about solitude. The Dostoevsky novella "White Nights" on which it is based, was written
in 1848 and is subtitled "A Sentimental Love Story (From the Memoirs of a Dreamer)."
Dostoevsky's dreamer is a very young man, a potential poet and lover who one night,
by chance, meets a girl of seventeen, desperate and apparently ready to commit suicide
because she has been abandoned by her lover. They talk; each tells the other his story,
and, on the third night, a sentimental relationship seems to develop between them. On
the fourth night, all is ended; the girl finds her former lover, and the dreamer is left alone
finding solace in the "torment of happiness" which he has just enjoyed.
1~ Eva Maria Stadler

In terms of plot materials, Bresson again remained very close to Dostoevsky's tale.
He wrote the screenplay very quickly since, as he said, "the basic material furnished
by Dostoevsky is very good" (Amis du film 16). The division into four nights, with
the interpolations of the stories of the young people whom Bresson names Marthe and
Jacques, also remain. However, the Petersburg of the 1840's is transformed into the Paris
of the 1970's, and, in an accompanying change, the dreamer Jacques becomes a painter,
and Marthe, a modem, independent young woman.
In addition, important transformations in the discourse are made through modification
in the use of narrative voice, as well as the transmutation of verbal units into images. In
Dostoevsky's "White Nights," the dreamer functions as a first person dramatized narrator
in constant dialogue with an implied reader. He reconstructs for his reader an event
which took place fifteen years earlier and, at the same time, through an implicit dialogue
with himself, explores the possibilities of yielding either to the attractions of the dream
world or to those of artistic creativity. In Bresson's film, the spectator lives the story of
Marthe and Jacques in the present through the direct narration of the camera. Even the
two lengthy flashbacks, the interpolations of the characters' earlier lives, are presented
almost completely as scene and are perceived directly by the viewer. Contrary to Une
femme douce and some of the earlier films the use of voice-over as a narrative technique
is minimal. Subtleties of voice are introduced by other means, however. Jacques lives in
a closed and silent world. He paints, roams the streets of Paris quietly following beautiful
young women, and when he is alone in his studio, preserves and elaborates his romantic
fantasies on a tape recorder. At first his dreams center on a fanciful romance, but when
he begins to fall in love with Marthe, it is she who becomes the object of his recordings,
which are simplified and finally mere repetitions of her name. Jacques' inner life is
stored in the machine and, despite his silence, his obsessive dreams acquire an acoustic
reality-the ever present voice of memory and desire. In formal terms, these sequences
present the rather ambiguous example of a voice, to use Michel Chion's terminology, that
is both "in" and "off' at the same time-a voice that belongs to a character seen on the
screen but that does not emanate from his body, a voice which wanders on the surface
of the screen, a cinematic voice in dialogue with itself. By showing how this voice was
created, the filmmaker also self-consciously calls attention to one of the machines with
which he transcribes the world. Bresson often spoke of the prodigious machines with
which he worked: the movie camera and the tape recorder (Notes 140). In this instance
we are actually watching the fabrication and recording of fragments of a story. The film
rhetorically calls attention to itself as an aesthetic object by creating this implicit dialogue
between reality and artifice.
Film within film is also used in Quatre nuits d'un reveur as a self-referential narrative
device. A sequence, purportedly from a gangster movie entitled Amour tu nous tiens
(The Bonds of Love), is interpolated when two of the characters, Marthe and her mother,
go to a film premiere. This footage, shot especially for Bresson by Ghislain Cloquet.
shows the bloody death of a gangster who has been shot and who expires to the sound of
sentimental music. In his last moments, the dying man takes a photograph of a girl from
his pocket, kisses it, and dies. This parody of romantic fidelity ironically underscores
one of the themes of Quatre nuits d'un reveur while the melodramatic film technique is
in striking contrast to the rigorous, elliptical reserve of Bresson's style. In Une femme
douce, the interpolated scene from Michel Deville's popular film Benjamin ( 1968), as
well as the ten-minute sequence from a theatrical performance of Hamlet (V,2), play a
similar role as both self-referential device and thematic commentary.
Both of the films which Bresson adapts from Dostoevsky novellas include a variety
of discourses from other media and other authors within their textual space: television
Bresson, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin 19

broadcasts, theatrical performances, paintings reproduced in art books or hanging on the

walls of museums, literary passages quoted or read. Bakhtin's and Lotman's work on
incorporated genres offer interesting models of how these texts within the text of the film
fragment boundaries, comment on issues of fiction versus reality, expand and complicate
semantic questions. The complex intertextual relationships thus created illustrate how
heteroglossia is incorporated into the film and how other "voices" can function to "refract
authorial intentions" both formal and thematic. In Quatre nuits d'un reveur the quoted
film sequence, the abstract canvases painted by Jacques and the brief shot of a page
from a mildly erotic romance underscore the ambiguities about interpersonal relations
and issues of representation raised by Bresson's film.
The closed, secret worlds of the young protagonists of Quatre nuits d'un reveur
allow an exploration of the theme of love as illusion. Marthe falls madly in love with a
roomer whom she rarely sees but whose presence she feels behind a wall; Jacques' love
for Marthe seems completely unmotivated as are the abrupt departure and return of the
roomer whom Marthe loves. This accent on the illusory qualities of love represents a
shift of emphasis from the Russian novella. The film also introduces an erotic element
missing in Dostoevsky and rarely so explicit in Bresson.
One of the most beautiful and most erotically charged scenes in the film reflects, in
formal filmic terms, the "cross-currents" of contending voices which Bresson so admired
in Dostoevsky's work. Marthe, drawn by love for the unknown roomer, looks at her naked
body before a mirror while a radio plays popular music. By means of a rapid series of
cuts (eight shots in less than two minutes) the camera moves back and forth between
images of her torso reflected in the mirror and close-ups of her face looking at herself.
When she turns off the radio, steps are heard outside her room and there is soft tapping on
the wall. Eroticism is born "from the sound and the image which give rise to a dialectic
between the gaze of the young girl and the gaze of the spectator while the camera and
the montage fragment and recompose the naked body in the mirror" (Esteve 71 ). The
invisible presence of the young man who taps on the wall further eroticizes this complex
juxtaposition of points of view.
Bresson's camera explores not only the beauty of Marthe's body but also the physical
beauties of the city of Paris: the Seine, the streets, the lights, and, most particularly, a
tourist boat that moves, brilliantly lit, down the river at night to the sensuous accom-
paniment of a Brazilian string band. The strange blue nights with their dazzling lights
and the bright red color, which punctuates the film as a motif in Jacques' paintings and
in other objects, create a sharp visual contrast to Bresson's other color films. In fact,
objects while maintaining intact the weight of their reality become bearers of the ideas
or dreams of the hero. In the words of Mireille LeDantec "they structure a universe of
mixed desire, happiness and anguish which reflects accurately the state of mind of the
narrator of [Dostoevsky's] White Nights" (16). Quatre nuits d'un reveur is Bresson's only
film in which no one dies; it is also a film in which the visual clearly dominates and
verbal discourse is subordinated to image. The gradual subordination of word to image
can be seen as a distinct movement in Bresson's work. The almost ritualistic rhythms of
doubling, repetition, ellipsis and allusion, more than words create the semantic impact
of the later films.
This technique becomes quite apparent in Le Diable probablement released in 1977.
Although this film is not based on pre-existing literary or historical texts, its theme,
structure and film language indicate a very marked intertextual relationship with the two
"Dostoevsky" films. It takes place in Paris and has the same "look" as Une femme douce
and especially Quatre nuits d'un reveur. The film is shot in color, and the streets, the
buildings, and the quais of the Seine are a part of this story of four young people who rebel
20 Eva Maria Stadler

against the values of their upper middle-class parents and live on the margins of a drug
sub-culture. The physical appearance, the dress, the extreme youth of the protagonists,
the fact that the film begins and ends with the account of a suicide make Le Diable,
probablement seem like a dark transposition of Quatre nuits d'un reveur.
In this film the narrative discontinuities and the fragmented image underscore, one
could almost say exaggerate, Bresson's signature reliance on reductive structural devices.
Ellipsis and synecdoche are the ordering figures; the temporal development is dominated
by elliptical cuts, which frequently disorient the viewer while the frame is often occupied
by disjointed bodies or empty spaces. On the sound track, silence, music, magnified nat-
ural sounds, and very minimal conversations blend. When the main characters do speak,
the sound of the human voice-its soft, flat, unmodulated quality-is more remarkable
than what is said.
The only striking exceptions to this minimal use of language occur in the several
sequences when the lives of the young protagonists cross with the establishment world:
a conversation with a venal, sensual bookseller; a session in a psychoanalyst's office; a
hollow theological discussion; and a facile, reassuring classroom lecture on the impli-
cations of atomic fall-out. Through this ironic introduction of voices representing social
institutions, articulate verbal discourse is tied to the "demons" of modern society. Among
all the noises on the sound track--cars, explosions, falling trees, vacuum cleaners, and
the tinkle of coins-the human voice is either barely audible or contemptible.
As meaningful, articulate language moves into the background, the image, in coun-
terpoint, focuses more insistently on the concrete, material objects which surround the
people in Le Diable. probablement. There are close-ups of banknotes, telephones, worn
clothing, Coca Cola bottles and hypodermic needles; long takes of a half-empty metro
station or the fruit and vegetable display of a street vendor. The banality of everyday
reality confronts the viewer of this story of empty lives. In this dark film, which begins
and ends with signifiers of death, the dialogue of image and sound projects a radical
rejection and condemnation of contemporary society and its values.
Bresson's last film, L'Argent ( 1983), is an even more bleak account of the corruption
and despair that grow out of modem life. Again the story takes place in and around
contemporary Paris. It begins in a typical Parisian upper middle-class apartment, shifts
to an oil truck making a delivery at a shop on the boulevard Henri IV, moves to a
courthouse and a prison and finally to a nondescript suburb. In brief, it tells the story
of two young well-to-do boys who, as a prank, circulate some counterfeit money; an
innocent working man, Yvon, is caught with the fake bills, is falsely accused, loses his
job, is forced by pressing financial need to participate in a bank hold-up, goes to prison
and then, in desperation and hopelessness, upofl his release becomes a mass murderer.
This dark, somewhat Dostoevskyan tale, is actually drawn from a late Tolstoy novella,
The Forged Coupon which, as the credits indicate, serves as the filmmaker's inspiration.
The Forged Coupon first published in 1911, a year after Tolstoy's death, is a parable
in two parts which teaches a clear lesson. An insignificant transgression can unleash a
torrent of sin and evil but, in a parallel manner, a fleeting moment of good-a glance,
the look on a face--can bring about a miracle. The action touches many people across
classes and geographical regions in late nineteenth-century Russia. The sin perpetrated by
the young man who forges the coupon moves from person to person even into the highest
social circles. The Tsar loses touch with his humanity. Finally, a murderer becomes a
In making his adaptation Bresson cuts character and incident and focuses closely
on the dark aspects of the first part of the novella, the "avalanche of evil." The second
part, where the contagion of good triumphs, is cut almost entirely. Only one incident. the
Bresson, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin 21

murderer's contact with an elderly woman, is expanded. Her goodness is elaborated, her
suffering and exploitation are exemplified in the modem context. Yvon comes to realize
her special qualities, her love, her sense of sharing and forgiveness, yet he kills her along
with the rest of her family.
In this harsh confrontation with Evil, Bresson depicts a world that has lost its moral
coordinates and this is reflected in the manner in which cinematic space is structured.
The film's action begins and ends with images of passage through doors-even the
credits are photographed against the dark gray rectangular surface of the closed door of
a cash dispensing machine. Doors open and close, they hide and they reveal. Elisions
give an intimation of spaces outside the frame; the off-screen space revealed through a
crack in a door creates a dialectic of the visible and the invisible. The closed doors on
which the camera often lingers intimate mystery as well as estrangement and alienation.
Movement through doors materially underscores the horizontal motion of the film while
it also thematizes both the quest and the fatality of suffering. On his arrival in prison
as well as during the final massacre in the suburban house Yvon seems to be propelled
through entire series of doors. When immobilized, however, the position at doors and
on thresholds, becomes a figure of separation and entrapment and, in Bakhtin's terms, a
chronotope of crisis or break in a life. Streets and houses shot in ambiguous, unexpected
ways also become the locus of indeterminacy. A hold-up of a bank is photographed as
the camera follows an unsuspecting elderly man who walks down the street, surprised at
the sight of policemen crouching behind cars. For long moments the camera dwells on
sidewalks. A get-away car chased by the police is shot as a series of alternating medium
close-ups of a foot on a gas pedal and the reflections in a rear view mirror. Whether
indoors or out, space in Bresson's films loses its homogeneity, that is to say its linear and
cubic dimensions, as well as the interconnection of its various parts. Continuities could
be created in an infinite number of ways. It is a space that in its very indeterminacy
gains potential power and richness of possibility (cf. Deleuze 153-165). The streets
and houses of Paris like the spaces of St. Petersburg in Dostoevsky's novels, become
the places "where crisis events can occur-the falls, resurrections, renewals, epiphanies,
decisions that determine the whole life of a man" (Dialogic Imagination 248).
The banal modem world is transformed by Bresson's camera, and the visible becomes
the embodiment of the invisible. Space is restructured and the subtle displacements
between sound and image allow new ways to see the commonplace and the familiar.
"Poetry slips in through the ellipses," the filmmaker told an interviewer when questioned
about how meanings are created in his films. "You must know how to listen, when to cut
and how to show things only at a certain moment" (Cinematographe 29). The analytic
models developed by M. M. Bakhtin provide a theoretical framework for the study of the
polyphonic and dialogic relations which result from these elliptical cuts. The shadow of
Dostoevsky provides the perspective which fully underscores the complex composition
and the rich intertextuality of each of Robert Bresson's films.

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