Transcendental style in film Part One: The Ascetic Aesthetic

I know, I know, that’s the least inviting title to a blog post ever but don’t go! There’s videos and everything!

Still here? Okay then. First of all you should know that  I adopted/poached/stole the term ‘transcendental style’ from the great Paul Schrader‘s only kind of great book Transcendental Style in the Films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. The term ‘the Ascetic aesthetic’ is all mine though, which I guess is something of a Pyrrhic victory but anyways, the point is that there exists a kind fo religious film that exhibits a certain style suited to religious topics. Sure, movies about religion and religious topics have always existed but no-one is ever going to mistake the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer for this thing, for example:

Or even for that weird-looking Heaven is For Real movie that was the number 2 box-office film in America after Captain America: Winter Soldier but not even released in cinemas here because of the UK’s general, if diminishing, trend of not being insane.

Also, I’m not arguing that there is a definitive, objective thing that we can call ‘transcendental style’ and then piss our pants when a film does or does not conform to that particular style because A) who gives a shit? and B) there already exists some debate as to the merits of Schrader’s analysis and its efforts to produce what Colin Burnett calls an, ‘hermeneutical monopoly’ which leaves no room for other interpretations. And the last thing any of us wants is to accidentally create a hermeneutical monopoly. No sir.

However,  ‘transcendental style’  seems like a useful model or metaphor for considering how certain films choose to present  spiritual and religious themes. It also gives us a way of suggesting a link between the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer that Schrader analyses, with the more recent films such as Darren Aaronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) , Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). The bridge between them being, I want to argue, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). More on all that in part two. In these posts I’m going to suggest that the different forms of ‘transcendental style’ in these films is akin to the differing approaches to transcendence in various mystical and religious schools. One is ascetic, based on self-control, abstinence from sensual pleasures and deep, quite contemplation of the ineffable. The other is ecstatic, finding transcendence in sudden ego-loss, immersion in sensual pleasures like sex or drugs, and the experience of cosmic consciousness.

Colin Burnett’s interesting article, Reassessing the Theory of Transcendental Style, notes that in film criticism the term ‘transcendental’ (and others such as ‘spiritual’, ‘ascetic’ or ‘austere’) emerges:

from a common religious sensibility that argues that the filmmakers that can be characterized as such engage intellectual and formalistic approaches in order to “maximize the mystery of existence” (Schrader, Transcendental Style 10), to “induce a certain tranquility in the spectator, a state of spiritual balance” (Sontag, “Spiritual Style” 180) and to invite “reflection” upon the “mystery of action” (Sontag, “Spiritual Style” 181).

Burnett cites Schrader’s book as the seminal work in this type of criticism, particularity in his focus on the works of Robert Bresson. In paying attention to in particular to Diary of Country Priest (1950), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962):

the contention is made that the formal qualities of the films convey the theological concerns of “free will,” “predestination,” “spiritual confinement” and “spiritual release” (59-60)… [through a filmmaking process which] consists of a steady paring away, or “dépouillement” (Quandt 3), of the “easy pleasures” and “screens” (such as ‘flabby’ plot elements, the more ostentatious facets of performance and film music, and so on—all instruments for rendering the surface reality of things opaque) of conventional films, of an emphatic immersion into the everyday (through the stark realism of the image) 

Another way to put this is to say Schrader argues that the transcendental cinematic style depends on a stillness and severity of cinematic form. In films of the transcendental style, normally significant elements such as ‘plot, acting, characterization, camerawork, music, dialogue, editing’ are all eliminated, “thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power” (Schrader 1972: 11). As such, the audience/viewer is forced/encouraged to consider more religious or spiritual interpretations.

That’s assuming the audience can sit through the film of course. In the films of Bresson, for instance, everything that we have come to expect from typical Hollywood fare such as character arcs, conventional musical cues, spectacle, acting with a capital A, are all shunned. In order to achieve this such films are slow. Sometimes extremely slow. Slow, by the by, does not imply boring. The stillness is contemplative rather than empty. Never the less, Martin Scorsese once wondered whether the very stillness of Bresson’s films would make them incomprehensible to modern audiences:

Martin Scorsese : It’s a strange experience to watch a Bresson film at this particular moment in history, because a great deal of today’s popular cinema is so big, loud, kinetic and, in many cases, grotesque. In other words, the antithesis of Bresson’s cinema. I saw A Man Escaped again recently, and it’s such a completely pure experience, with absolutely nothing extraneous—it functions like a delicate and perfectly calibrated hand-made machine . I have to wonder whether or not young people w ho have grown up on digitally engineered effects and DTS soundtracks can actually find the patience required to watch a film by a Bresson or , for that matter, an Ozu or an Antonioni. In a way, it seems impossible: it’s as though they’re from different worlds . To be honest, I also find Bresson’s films difficult at times. But once I settle into his particular orbit, the experience is always rewarding, because he focuses on things that are beyond the reach of most movies. 

(Read what other film-makers have said about Bresson here)

This video below, of the opening scene from Bresson’s A Man Escaped gives a good introduction to the style. Notice how sparse he is in his choice of shots. How many elements in this scene – the escape from the car, the recapture by the police, the apparent beating – would be played for maximum emotional and sensory affect in a typical Hollywood film. By the way, that’s not a pejorative criticism of Hollywood films, simply a question of choosing the right style to achieve the desired transcendental effect. Bresson isn’t trying to excite the viewer, he’s trying to make the viewer really consider what they are watching.

The second of Schrader’s masters of transcendental style was Yasujirō OzuWhile still as formally precise and exacting in his use of pace, stillness and movement,  Schrader suggests that Ozu’s films approach transcendence from a perspective based in eastern spiritual and aesthetic traditions rather than the Westsern Christian heritage arguably exhibited by Bresson. Mark Freeman’s essay on Kitano’s Hana-bi and the Spatial Traditions of Yasujiro Ozu  describes an exemplary instance of Ozu’s style in this early scene for Equinox Flower (1958).

As Freeman writes:

 In it we see a length of corridor, at the end of which is mounted a painting of Mount Fuji. People walk past this corridor, some hurrying, others taking their time. No one at any stage walks towards the camera – they all pass by this space and vanish. The passing parade slows to a trickle, then ceases completely, leaving the space empty. Ozu keeps the camera rolling – the corridor, bereft of people, continues its existence long after the people have gone. Such is the world according to Ozu, a place where people come and go, where objects are used, admired, or are ignored. What remains, though, is the space; what is absent is clearly as important as that which is present. Kathe Geist identifies this as the mu, “an emptiness that is nevertheless full of possibilities” (2), and the ma, a ” kind of moving mu” (3), where space is inhabited and deserted, such as the corridor in Equinox Flower. This interplay of mu and ma are central to the transcendental approach identified by Schrader, and reinforces the traditional Japanese ethos where, like the Japanese art of ikebana, space is central to meaning. The empty corridors of Equinox Flower and Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) for example, encourage us to perceive these passers-by as transitory. They exist for only that moment, and their destinations are hidden from us. The lengthy pause after the last person strolls past emphasises both the void and provides a sense of fullness and weight. What we see is the space – it possesses an eternality that the people clearly do not. The bridges, corridors and rooms Ozu leaves deserted will continue with or without the people who populate them, and thus humanity does, in a sense, play out scenes on an eternal stage.

The last of Schrader’s directors, Carl Theodore Dreyer, remains the most difficult test case given his stylistic experimentation from film to film. Even so, two films in particular deal with transcendental ideas specifically, The Passion of Joan of Arc (whose story was also, not coincidentally, filmed by Bresson), and Ordet (AKA The Word, 1955).

Both of these films, though differing in style overall, display elements of Schrader’s transcendental style. The Passion of Joan of Arc was shot in chronological order for increased verisimilitude and was filmed on what was then one of the most expensive sets ever constructed. Ironically, the set is rarely seen because the film achieves much of its affect from its startling use of extreme close-ups (none of the actors wore make-up). In the scene below we can see the unique rhythm Dreyer achieves through his editing of these close-ups.


Dreyer displayed the same obsessive attention to detail in his later masterpiece Ordet, outfitting the studio kitchen set with over a hundred implements and then carefully removing most of them, one at a time, until arriving at  the essentials which would not distract the viewer. For Schrader, as described earlier, this stripping away of distractions for the viewer is meant to rob the viewer’s conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power, moving them to consider the transcendent instead. Then, as in the kiss that ends Bresson’s Pickpocket there is, “a totally bold call for emotion which dismisses any pretense at everyday reality. The decisive action breaks with everyday stylization; it is an incredible event within the banal reality which must by and large be taken on faith”. For Schrader, this manifests in it’s most dramatic form in Dreyer’s Ordet where,

this decisive action is an actual miracle, the raising of the dead. In its less drastic forms, it is still somewhat miraculous: anon-objective, emotional event within a factual, emotionless environment. [… ]The everyday denigrated the viewer’s emotions, showing they were of no use,disparity first titillates those emotions, suggesting that there might be a place for them, and then in the decisive action suddenly and inexplicably demands the viewer’s full emotional output.(Schrader 1972: 46–47)


We don’t have to agree wholeheartedly that there is a definitive type of ‘transcendental style’ in cinema (indeed, there appears to be a considerable amount of academic debate about Schrader’s thesis if you’re interested in that kind of thing. We are probably on fairly safe ground to suggest that there is a type of movie that deals with religious or, more broadly, spiritual themes in a very slow, patient, thoughtful and, let’s just call it art-house way. The point is that we can identify what we might call, (blog post title, this is everyone. Everyone, this is blog post title), an “Ascetic Aesthetic”.

Part two of this series (is it a series if there’s only two parts?) describes a possible second mode of transcendental style, one with the same aims as the Ascetic Aesthetic but a wilder approach, which I’m calling the Ecstatic Aesthetic, a kind of psychedelic sensory explosion that shocks the viewer into awareness of the transcendent rather than hypnotizing them into quite contemplation of it. Same ends, different means.




About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at View all posts by Scott Jeffery

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