Published by Max Yakin,
“We are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films," Martin Scorsese said in the 2010 book “A Passion For Film," describing the often overlooked French filmmaker as “one of the cinema’s greatest artists."
But while he may be revered by some as the finest French filmmaker bar Jean Renoir, outside hardcore cinephile circles he and his films are virtually unknown (perhaps regarded as too opaque or nebulous). Just consider the fact that almost every definitive book on the elusive director was published during the aughts to feel the full truth of Scorsese’s statement about how we’re still in the process of appreciating and understanding his life and work. Even Bresson’s actual birthdate is contested, adding further the ambiguities surrounding the director.
“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen," the meticulous Bresson once famously said, hinting at what might have been his raison d’etre: to transcend the trappings and conventions of the moving image and distill all things down to their essence of all things. This unending, almost religious, quest for a type of cinematic divinity — the desire to go beyond the corporeal — coupled with Bresson’s Catholicism has compelled many a critic to describe him as a spiritual filmmaker or even, more categorically, a flat-out religious one. And while there is, as Scorsese puts it, a “peculiar power" to Bresson’s enigmatic art, an ineffable quality that does carry an elusive spiritual mien, to box Bresson in as a religious filmmaker is far too reductive. Author Kent Jones also rejected this notion, instead preferring to focus on what he described as “the sensual details" of Bresson’s art in his 2008 BFI book about the filmmaker.
Described as a “painter" of films and known for his formal austerity, economical rigor, contemplative distance and minimalist approach, Bresson is still one of the most counter-intuitive filmmakers ever, receding where others would pull in and abandoning powerful techniques of cinema, like the close-up and musical underscoring. Yet perversely, by employing pretty much the opposite of traditonal film grammar, he almost always achieved the peculiar effect of coercing the viewer to pay deeper attention.
This singularity of approach extended across all aspects of his productions: Bresson famously stopped using professional actors after his sophomore film and even began referring to his thespians as “models" instead of actors. “Films can only be made by by-passing the will of those who appear in them, using not what they do, but what they are," he once said, again, speaking to his desire to strip all things down to a quintessence, a self, a soul. His was always an idiosyncratic and uncompromising vision.
Directing only thirteen films (and one missing short) over the course of 40 years, Bresson moved at a deliberate pace, but created a lasting and indelible body of work that is still being examined, debated and pored over. With no autobiography and a paucity of interviews available — at least compared to the average auteur — the filmmaker has attained an even deeper mystique, compelling viewers to project their own emotional and psychological interpretations onto his spare images. Perhaps that was the point all along: the ascetic, objective and sparse nature of his work creates a wide canvas that invites and envelopes the careful viewer, and leaves us enraptured.
But whatever the individual responses, Bresson’s stark poetic meditations on suffering, salvation, alienation and the human condition are profound, striking works that operate on a plane few filmmakers can touch. Following a revival at Film Forum earlier in the year, we thought BAM Cinematek’s currently running retrospective of the filmmaker’s work was an opportune moment to explore and examine this undersung titan’s oeuvre. And so, below we start with his early, almost conventional works, move on to his second-phase spartan portraits of human misery and suffering, and take you right through to the third act of his career, comprising unsentimental social critiques, often based on the books of Dostoevsky. We hope it inspires some of you to seek out his work.
Made in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France, nine years after his short, “Les Affaires Publiques," (which was a comedy, no less), “Les Anges du Péché" was Bresson’s first full-length feature film. A collaboration with playwright Jean Giraudoux and Dominican priest and writer, Father Bruckberger, the story follows a well-to-do young woman Anne-Marie (Renée Faure) who decides to join a convent, where the nuns work at rehabilitating female prisoners (the convent had a real-life model). At the prison she meets Thérèse (Jany Holt), who refuses the nuns’ help, as she maintains she is innocent of the crime of which she was convicted. After she is released from prison, Thérèse gets revenge on her former lover, the man who framed her, and hides out afterwards in the convent, much to the delight of Anne-Marie, who believes she is seeking salvation rather than simply hiding out from the police. It’s something of a spiritual thriller, with the two female leads both seeking redemption from two different perspectives, that of sinner and would-be saint. However, in the end, they find their redemption in each other, though Bresson refuses absolutes, and finds neither woman wholly good nor entirely evil. Unlike most of his films, here the cast are professional actors, and the two leads shine, particularly Jany Holt. It is regarded as the director’s most “conventional" feature in terms of acting, music (his only film featuring an original score), dialogue and plot, but the spiritual subject matter and the relative sparsity of the filming style foreshadow Bresson’s future films. [B]
If the films of Robert Bresson are characterized by their ascetic minimalism, diegetic sound and overall austerity, then his second picture, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne," is perhaps his most dynamic, and is therefore an anomaly right down to its opulent milieu. While still relatively quiet and slowly paced, here we get flourishes of dramatic scoring, mood and narrative that bear at least some resemblance to a Hollywood melodrama or a film that perhaps could have been directed by Jean Cocteau (who wrote it) or even Jean Renoir. This is largely because ‘Bois de Boulogne’ was Bresson’s last film to feature a cast entirely composed of professional actors and the true, spare, stripping down of his work would not begin in earnest until his next film. The story is of a woman scorned, and if Hell hath no fury like one, you ain’t seen nothing til you see this vengeful shrew. The film plays out as a near-romantic tragedy centering on two long-time but casual lovers, Hélène (María Casares) and Jean (Paul Bernard), who also enjoy relationships with others. But things suddenly shift when Jean confesses to Hélène that his love is waning and he would like to gear down their relationship to a “just friends" status. Too prideful to show her dismayed true feelings, she feigns indifference and concurs, and they decide to go their separate ways. But rather than mourning their love, Hélène plans to exact cruel retribution by angling the sweet, young, Agnes (Elina Labourdette), a cabaret dancer and prostitute into Jean’s path. In a manipulative pretense of generosity and compassion, Hélène decides to pay the girl’s mother’s debts to have her move into a nearby apartment — putting into play a masterful plan that quickly hooks the smitten Jean who knows nothing of Agnes’ past. When her secret is revealed after they are married, disgracing Jean, Hélène takes her wicked slowburn revenge with a deep, devilish satisfaction that must have been shocking for its day. However, a tearful happy ending feels like Bresson second-guessing his true nature — something he would not often do from here on out. [B]
Serving as the prototype for Bresson’s firm cinematic language, his third film is an incredibly moving account of a guileless holy man (an astonishingly good Claude Laydu) tending to his first parish in an unwelcoming country village. Jotting frank thoughts in his journal, the priest finds himself suffering from day one: his stomach has trouble handling anything other than stale bread soaked in sugary red wine, the elder preachers often belittle him, and locals frequently give him the cold shoulder. The lack of hospitality by the townsfolk likely stems from his youth and also some unfortunate timing, as his first sight in Ambicourt is of a Count smooching with his daughter’s tutor. Given the gossipy nature of nearly everyone in the film, it’s certain that Laydu was the victim of a nasty whispering campaign, but the dedicated priest refuses to give up his responsibility to the people, regardless of whether they respond or not. Though the director’s philosophy on filmmaking, given free rein for the first time here, initially sounds alienating (specifically he demanded countless takes to drain his “models" of any calculated emotion), actually it results in something immensely powerful. By relying on the natural look of his principal model — Laydu, whose face is the pinnacle of innocence and patience — he births a very pure emotional response, where even a scene involving the rush of a motorcycle ride (and the smile it awakens) becomes incredibly impressive. In spite of the many elements beating the cleric down, he more or less retains his faith, and this positive assurance is echoed within the film’s aesthetic: amidst the isolating framing, Bresson frequently connects scenes with abnormally long cross-dissolves that give the film a smooth, soothing quality. This choice also makes this one stand out from the pack, avoiding the pessimistic feel that many of his movies exude. Bresson’s working style on this picture would influence and echo throughout the rest of his career, but the film is and was a standalone triumph too: coming after his poorly received “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" it went on to win eight international awards, including the Grand Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. [A]
The profound effects of Bresson’s personal experiences during his 18 months in a German POW camp are deeply felt in what is arguably the apex of his catalogue, “A Man Escaped." Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who escaped from Fort Montluc in Lyon in 1943 during World War II, Bresson’s fourth feature is intense, breathlessly suspenseful and yet perhaps one of the quietest and most minimalist “thrillers" ever made. As naked and sparse as any of his films, on one side of the prison walls lie Nazi soldiers with their pistols, while on the other side sits a ravaged, gaunt soul of a man, with a burning will to survive. Told in the whispered hush of prisoners trying not to draw attention to themselves, the quietude in “A Man Escaped" is unnerving and in Bresson’s typically counter-intuitive manner, it ratchets up the tension inch by inch with silences, moments of intimate detail and the ever-present threat of being caught. Certain that his fate is execution, Lt. Fontaine (an unforgettable Francois Leterrier) aims to escape by any means necessary whether it means colluding with other would-be escapees, or building ingenious homemade tools out of stolen spoons. As in “Pickpocket," Bresson is fascinated by the process, details and mechanics of escape, and while the film can be an almost excruciating study of incarceration, it is also an illuminating and deeply felt examination of the interior self. For all the talk of divinity and religion in his work, this deeply austere and claustrophobic portrait of a man seeking deliverance, truly exists in a state of grace, and is the holiest of Bresson experiences. [A+]
One of Bresson’s shorter works, running at just 61 minutes, it is evident that with “The Trial of Joan of Arc" the director understood the power of economy and refused to pad out the story unnecessarily. It begins with Joan (Florence Delay) already captured and facing trial at the hands of the English judicial system for her part in leading the French troops to war against the English. During the trial the 19-year-old Joan reveals she acted on the insistence of the saints, with God Himself appearing before her in visions. Joan, attacked for everything from her clothing to her claims of virginity, is charged with witchcraft. However she sticks to her guns, even if it means being burnt alive. Similarly to Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc," Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc" relies on the source material of the historical transcript of Joan’s heresy trial. With classic Bressonian naturalism and low-key, neutral performances, the film has a restrained quality to it, stripped of every conceivable embellishment to the dialogue, sets and costumes. As he’d proven many times before, however, Bresson thrives in simplicity, and the monochromatic framing is controlled and precise, while his admiration and sympathy for Joan are clearly indicated throughout the film, making her victimization almost unbearable to watch. The film is performed with utmost fidelity to reality, with no overacting or contrived shots, and the transcripts are delivered almost word for word, bringing to sober life the solemn gravity of the trial. This even extends to its heroine; Delay looks small and weak in stature, neither the pseudo warrior Joan we are often given in pictures and films elsewhere, nor the ethereal Joan of Dreyer. Her strength, as far as Bresson is concerned, lies in the spirit of her convictions and her faith. [B]
“An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it," Bresson once said, perhaps referring to this 1959 film. A cocky thief who flirts with apprehension by the authorities, the demure girl he’ll come to love and the patient cop waiting for the criminal to to make his one false move: all these are the classic ingredients of a crime film. But in Bresson’s hands, these traditional elements are anything but, and what transpires would border on a deconstruction of the form if such a thing interested the filmmaker at all. Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky‘s “Crime and Punishment" and allegedly influenced by Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street," Bresson’s “Pickpocket" inspires almost religious zeal from its many ardent admirers. In his “Transcedental Style" tome on Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, director/screenwriter Paul Schrader (screenwriter of “Taxi Driver") describes this unique portrait of the criminal mind, which he calls his most influential work, as an “unmitigated masterpiece." A scant 75 minutes (many of his films were precise and to the point), and naturally, a tale of crime and redemption, “Pickpocket" centers on an arrogant young thief (Urguayan unknown Martin LaSalle) who becomes so enamored of and addicted to the art of pickpocketing that it becomes a compulsion he cannot stop, even though he knows he’s flirting with disaster. Almost silent (most of the dialogue is voiceover), and like the protagonist, almost entranced by the art of legerdemain, Bresson’s taut camera choreography is breathtaking; almost a zen-like study of sleight of hand. But while the sequences focusing on the mechanics of prestidigitation and the thrill of almost getting caught are deeply absorbing and grippingly tension-filled, the film is more than just well-crafted. Bresson plays his own emotionally aloof game of cat-and-mouse with the viewer, filling us with anxious dread right up until the explosion of unexpected emotion in the final, luminous climax of salvation. [B+]
“Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished, because this film is really the world in an hour and a half," wrote Jean-Luc Godard, a fierce admirer of this 1966 masterpiece. Arguably his finest hour next to “A Man Escaped," Bresson’s fifth feature is also his most compassionate and emotional, while still retaining that trademark reserve, in the bleak observation of his honest, innocent protagonists’ tragic fates. Deriving inspiration from Dostoyevsky‘s “The Idiot," the plot chronicles the life of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky, one of the rare Bresson non-pros who went on to a notable acting career afterwards), a shy farm girl, and follows the story of her beloved donkey (which she names Balthazar) as he is passed on from owner to owner — some inhumane, others mildly sympathetic, but mostly tending to the sadistic. Sadly, and ironically, Balthazar’s hellish existence parallels that of Marie as the young girl is similarly emotionally, psychologically and physically abused over the years. A heart-rending and deeply moving picture, which features one of the most noble and powerful “performances" by an animal on screen ever, the largely accepted interpretation of ‘Balthazar’ is as an allegory for a saint who reaches spiritual transcendence by bearing his trials without complaint in the face of exploitation and malice. Whatever the case, there’s no denying that Bresson’s is a cruel, cruel world and this examination of unfair and unjust human suffering is devastating, profound and heartbreaking. [A+]
The director returned to the work of Georges Bernanos for his first feature following the landmark “Au Hasard Balthazar," in a quick turnaround which likely influenced the similarly bleak tone. Berated in school and forced to care for her ailing mother and baby sibling at home, the titular character (Nadine Nortier) has little to be cheerful about, with even a moment of potential legitimate human connection at a carnival quickly squashed by her drunkard father. However, she finds herself with a brief sense of purpose after a night with an epileptic poacher — thinking he might have killed a gameskeeper in a scuffle, he makes her part of his alibi and then proceeds to deflower her. This event changes the young girl, who subsequently holds herself more confidently. Regrettably, her inner change does not affect the dreary and impoverished world around her, and she goes on to find the burden of living this existence altogether unbearable. Bresson is often noted to be minimalistic in form, but while he does cut fat like he’s a Yahoo executive, it’s important to note the difference between him and more severely minimalistic filmmakers: scenes are filled with numerous movements and actions, all amplified by the director’s inquisitive camera, and cut together in a specific rhythm. This film arguably has some of the best constructed scenes he’s ever done: the gameskeeper observing the nefarious poacher at work is quiet and mysteriously suspenseful (Hitchcock would be proud), while a scuffle between Mouchette and her schoolteacher over her singing feels like a slice of life, an uncomfortable memory we’d all rather forget. Again, Bresson is working on figures isolated by their societies, but he avoids being repetitive by his consistently striking imagery, such as final moment of Mouchette giving herself to the lake (a sequence again immortalized in 2003 for Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers"). A concentrated portrait of human suffering, “Mouchette" is often held in high regard next to its brother ‘Balthazar’ and also received the stamp of approval from Jean-Luc Godard, who cut a trailer for the film, which shows his respect, in his own (of course) “cute" little way. [A]
Bresson’s first film in color, “Une Femme Douce" (“A Gentle Woman“), is based on the Dostoevsky short story “A Gentle Creature." The story focuses on the unknowable inner world of ‘the gentle woman,’ Elle, who we meet at the beginning of the film right after she commits suicide. The story is told in flashbacks narrated by her pawnbroker husband, Luc, as he tries to understand what led her to kill herself. They met at his store, and he, struck by her beauty, followed her home, married her despite her initial protestations. An odd pairing from the start, the pawnbroker finds himself unable to fully understand his wife as he wants: he appeals to her with trips to the opera, buying her records and books, but still she isn’t happy. Luc becomes more oppressive and Elle becomes more withdrawn, until one night she reaches for a gun to kill him, but is unable to pull the trigger. Instead she escapes the only way she can, through death — a common escape for Bresson’s characters. As we are told the story from the husband’s point of view, his wife’s world remains mysterious, always hidden just out of frame. Interestingly, though Bresson referred to all his actors as “models," this one featured an actual 1960s model, Dominique Sanda in her screen debut (she later went on to star in Bertolucci’s “The Conformist"), though oddly enough Sanda was cast on the basis of her voice. The performances are typically Bressonian, with little emotion or reaction given away by expression, though the gentle subtleties of Sanda’s face and movements hint at her inner turmoil. Bresson’s view on materialism vs. spiritual fulfillment are made clear in this film, with hints that the pawnbroker’s obsession with money and “things" led to his wife’s despair, and ergo her death. [B+]
Bresson returned again to Dostoevsky’s short stories for inspiration with “Four Nights of a Dreamer," based on a story called “White Nights“; an understated and highly stylized look at the unexplained power of love, whether returned or unrequited. The film follows Jacques, the dreamer of the title, a solitary painter, whose artistic process involves recording himself and replaying the recordings aloud. He walks the streets of Paris but is always alone. At Pont Neuf, he meets Marthe, a young girl standing on the edge of the bridge about to jump. Her lover went away to America, and was supposed to meet her on the bridge that night but didn’t turn up. Together they decide to contact Marthe’s lover, with Jacques acting as messenger. From then on Jacques cannot escape the thought of the unattainable Marthe, recording her name and listening to it constantly. He meets her on the bridge for the next three nights with no reply from her lover to deliver, until on the fourth night Jacques confesses his love to her, albeit with classic Bressonian restraint. As Marthe tries to work out her feelings, they walk the streets of Paris together and Marthe runs into her former lover. After hesitating for a moment she runs to his arms, leaving Jacques to return to his studio, once again alone, to paint. “Four Nights of a Dreamer" could be seen as Bresson’s most romantic film, both in subject matter and visual style, and the ethereal night scenes where the two meet are incredibly evocative of the first blush of romance, one-sided or no. However, there is an arch sense of absurdity and irony within making it perhaps his most playful effort. Everything seems heightened, the city of Paris, people, lights, rivers and songs — here we get Bresson’s only use of popular music, but again it is all diegetic, from wandering buskers to a house band on a passing boat, to a circle of hippies sitting and singing. “Four Nights of a Dreamer" is also one of the few Bresson films still unavailable on DVD or VHS, which hopefully someone will be able to rectify sooner rather than later. [B-]
While for Bresson enthusiasts “Lancelot of the Lake" is often cited as the purest distillation of the director’s unique language of image and sound, newcomers may well find the film a particular challenge. First conceived in the early ‘50s and finally released in 1974, Bresson’s third color feature sees the director adopt a resolutely revisionist approach to Arthurian legend, subverting all expectations of chivalry and visceral spectacle. Particularly when experienced for the first time, its consummately “cinematographic" style results in a jarring mixture: a lavishly realized period setting, peopled by a cast of clanking, armor-clad somnambulant robots. In addition to the actors’ affectless performances, Bresson departs with tradition by beginning the film with the knights of Camelot already vanquished and returning empty-handed from their vainglorious pursuit of the Holy Grail. What little is shown of their actual quest is confined to a Monty Python-esque opening montage, which, with its stiltedly barbaric exchanges, immediately forestalls conventional notions of knightly heroism. The thinly sketched plot concerns the illicit liaisons between Lancelot (Luc Simon) and Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas), though in typical Bressonian fashion, these are thoroughly de-romanticized. Bresson’s true concern is with the moral decline the affair represents, and the manner in which lapsed allegiances threaten to destabilize Arthur’s already disenchanted entourage. Arguably, however, “Lancelot" is most notable for a celebrated central scene, which abstracts a jousting tournament into a hypnotic audio-visual loop of horns, fluttering flags, and clattering hooves. [B-]
Bresson’s bleakest, most controversial film, 1977’s “The Devil, Probably" has been among the greatest beneficiaries of the critical reevaluation that has taken place since James Quandt curated North America’s first major Bresson retrospective in 1998. Which isn’t to say the film was entirely without its early champions. At the 1977 Berlinale, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder famously threatened to boycott the festival jury if the film went unrecognized, and it was duly awarded the special jury prize. But censors in Bresson’s native France were less appreciative, and banned ‘Devil’ from exhibition to viewers under the age of 18 as an incitement to suicide. Self-annihilation is the chosen fate of Charles (Antoine Monier), the film’s protagonist, a young intellectual who resignedly concludes that he can neither affect change in, nor adapt to, a world in irreversible physical and social decline. The failure of 1968’s upsurge in global student radicalism hangs heavily over ‘Devil,’ with the disillusioned Charles unable to embrace his cohorts’ political activism. He finds himself similarly unfulfilled by organized religion, sexual companionship, and psychoanalysis, blithely protesting to his therapist that his only illness is in “seeing too clearly." And it’s difficult to argue with his assessment, such is the potency of Bresson’s withering condemnation of contemporary society, punctuated by documentary excerpts of stricken oil tankers, nuclear bomb tests, and the clubbing of a baby seal. But if thematically, ‘Devil’ occasionally threatens to subject viewers to a similar hammering, the director’s customary detachment ensures it never becomes an overbearing, sanctimonious screed. Bresson’s lament is resonant, but also laced with deadpan irony, down to the fact that it’s the witless therapist who ultimately tips off Charles to the perfect way to off himself. [A-]
His final picture, made at the age of 82 (he lived on for another decade and a half, passing away at the age of 98 in 1999), “L’argent" is one of Bresson’s most disheartening and darkest films. But to simply describe it as cynical or a moral censure is to miss the filmmaker’s coolly objective distance (and its caustic sense of irony). Earning its maker the Director’s Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, “L’argent," is loosely inspired by “The Forged Coupon," a short story by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, and illustrates how greed sets off a chain of events that affects the lives of dozens. A counterfeit 500 franc note is used by a pair of callow and well-to-do middle school students at a photography and camera store, but instead of tracking down their parents, the unscrupulous photo manager vows to pass off the note himself. Yvon, an honest, unsuspecting gas man (Christian Patey) pays the price when he comes in with a bill, is duped, and then is later arrested for trying to buy dinner at a restaurant with this phony note. While he is spared jail time at the trial, the desperation of losing his job and means of supporting his family eventually leads this victim to become the getaway driver in a friend’s attempted (and foiled) bank robbery. During his three-year prison sentence, Yvon learns that his young daughter has died and his wife is now leaving him. And it only gets bleaker and more heartbreaking once Yvon is released from prison. While its mordant take on class, social injustice, and arguably the evils of money can be viewed through a Marxist lens, as Vincent Canby wrote in 1983, its outlook is actually “far too poetic – too interested in the mysteries of the spirit." Ultimately, “L’argent" is one of Bresson’s late-career astringent, cruel jokes; deeply depressing and haunting, it’s an unsentimental and dissociated look at amorality, and how its effects trickle downward. [A-]
The Lost Film: All but missing from the Bresson oeuvre is “Les Affaires Publiques," a 1934 comedy short whose only surviving print is evidently slightly abridged (missing what is said to be one or two musical numbers). Unfortunately, this has been absent from most or all Bresson retrospectives.
Not convinced of Bresson’s mysterious power? “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman," the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said. While “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music," opined Jean-Luc Godard. And it should be noted: so enamored was the “Breathless" filmmaker with “Au Hasard Balthazar," he would go on to cast its unknown star Anne Wiazemsky in his own films thereafter (starting with 1967’s “La Chinoise“) and married her the same year. – Rodrigo Perez, Julian Carrington, Samantha Chater & Chris Bell
An update: Criterion has released “A Man Escaped" on Blu-Ray/DVD (finally a terrific version) and have delivered their video “Three Reasons: A Man Escaped" and the video essay “David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson Listen to A Man Escaped." Watch below.