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Priesthood in classic French cinema PAUL BAILEY

Doomed angel

The actor Claude Laydu, who died in July this year, stunned cinemagoers in 1951 and ever since with his uncompromising depiction of an ascetic country curé. It was a performance that gave an insight into the paradoxes of Christianity and of total self-giving


laude Laydu, the Belgian-born French actor who died recently at the age of 84, gives one of the great- est performances, in one of the

greatest films, in the history of cinema. As the young, dying priest in Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), based on the 1937 novel by Georges Bernanos, Laydu never appears to be acting. From the very beginning of the movie, when he arrives at the village of Ambricourt, his character’s first parish, he has the appearance of a man marked out by intense suffering. There is no escaping the pain etched on his features. Bresson interviewed more than 100 young men, all Catholics, before he settled on Laydu for the leading role. Laydu had been intro- duced to Bresson by the director, Jacques Becker, whose Casque d’Or, starring Simone Signoret, would be one of the big successes of the 1950s. Laydu was playing small parts in the com-

pany led by Jean-Louis Barrault and his wife, Madeleine Renauld, when he met Bresson, who insisted that they continue to meet every Sunday for a whole year before shooting began, literally, in earnest. It is said that it was Bresson’s intention to free the ingénue film actor of all traces of self-awareness. Laydu, by now immersed in the priest’s

character, lived for several weeks among a group of priests, absorbing their ways of speaking and bodily mannerisms. And when Bresson, his cast and technicians went on location in 1950 to the French countryside in the Pas-de-Calais, a few miles from Ambricourt, Laydu forsook his regular eating habits and fasted severely “so as to acquire the authentic mask of illness”, to quote the critic, Raymond Durgnat. The cassock and boots he wears in the film were lent to him by two of the priests he had recently befriended. Bresson’s script stays very close to Bernanos’ book, with one essential differ- ence. On the screen, the priest’s diary is a student’s carnet, with its owner’s scratch- ings-out, a visual record of the novice’s spiritual progress. Of especial poignancy is his inability to pray, a failing he sets down on the page alongside his other inadequacies. Bresson gave the part of the worldly wise

Curé de Torcy to his own doctor, a well-fed individual whose presence makes the Curé

17 September 2011 | THE TABLET | 9

A ‘unique piece of film-making’: Nicole Ladmiral as Chantal and Claude Laydu as the curé in Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un Curé de Campagneof 1951. Photo: Getty Images

They both attend the

funeral of the gruff but kindly Dr Delbende, who has diag- nosed inherited alcoholism as the principal cause of the young man’s illness, and they are both saddened by the

d’Ambricourt look even more emaciated than he really is. The younger cleric’s diet is eccen- tric by any standards – stale bread soaked in coarse red wine. No wonder he has stomach pains that render him faint and breathless. The scenes between these two dissimilar parish priests rank high among the many wonders in this unique piece of film-making – the older man representing common sense and indeed compromise, defending the Church’s place in the real, sometimes brutal, world; his junior believing in dangerous matters such as purity and sacrifice.

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agnostic’s death, probably by his own hand. Implicit in the dialogue is the terrible fact that we cannot assume to understand the workings of another human being’s mind. The film critic David Thomson, an admirer

of Diary of a Country Priest, has complained that the curé pays scant attention to his poor- est parishioners, concentrating his depleting energies on the rich people in the castle – the count, the countess and their troubled daugh- ter, Chantal. For my taste, we see more than enough of the suspicious peasants (who also (Continued on page 10.)

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