“Lancelot of the Lake” (1974)
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-]
The Devil, Probably” (1977)
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.