“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.
"Les Anges du Péché" (1943)
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]
“Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne” (1945)
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]
“Diary of a Country Priest” (1951)
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]
“A Man Escaped” (1956)
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+]
"The Trial of Joan of Arc" (1962)
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]