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The Films Of Robert Bresson: A Retrospective

Features
by The Playlist
April 18, 2012 1:40 PM
4 Comments
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Pickpocket

"Pickpocket" (1959)
“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+]


Au Hasard Balthazar

Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966)
"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+]

Mouchette

Mouchette” (1967)
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]

A Gentle Woman

A Gentle Woman” (1969)
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+]

Four Nights Of A Dreamer

Four Nights of a Dreamer” (1971)
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-]

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4 Comments

  • StephenM | April 20, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    This is great, I love that you guys are doing these. Gotta disagree with your capsule on Lancelot du Lac, though. I saw it on the big screen a month or so ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and I thought it was an absolute masterpiece. I'd probably put it behind Au Hasard Balthazar and Diary of a Country Priest among the Bressons I've seen, jostling with Mouchette for third. Its plot is not thinly sketched, as you say, but enormously complex and subtle, with all sorts of shifts in allegiance and power that require intense concentration to understand. It's probably easier to get if you're already thoroughly familiar with Arthurian legend, though, and know who all the characters are from outside sources, because they won't be explained. A powerful, apocalyptic vision.

  • Bubs | April 19, 2012 4:27 AMReply

    Bresson is the greatest artist of all time.

  • Carmen | April 18, 2012 10:03 PMReply

    Great article! Bresson is one of my personal favorites and "Pickpocket" and “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne” are A+++! How can anyone forget Hélène eyes?!

  • Bogart | April 18, 2012 9:47 PMReply

    I'm absolutely loving these new retrospectives and '5 Things You Didn't Know' articles... there are no other sites that delve into the films and directors that inspire and intrigue me as much as the Playlist... so, Muchos Gracias for all the hard work.

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