Robert Bresson *

Alan Pavelin


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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Robert Bressonís thirteen features over forty years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers, in the sense that he always tried to create precisely what he wanted without surrendering to considerations of commerce, audience popularity, or peopleís preconceptions of what cinema should be. And although it might be argued that his venture into colour from Une Femme douce (1969) onwards was probably against his better judgement, he shows mastery in its use.

Born in central France in 1901 (not, as some references give, 1907) and educated in Paris, Bressonís early ambition was to be a painter. He ventured into filmmaking with the short Les Affaires publiques (1934), a satire with nods to Clair and Vigo, which was rediscovered in the 1980s after being thought lost. After a year or so as a prisoner-of-war he was approached by a Paris priest with a proposal for a film about the Bethany order of nuns, which became Les Anges du péché (1943). His next feature was also made during the Occupation, and filmmaking had by then definitely supplanted painting. The confusion over his date of birth, symbolic perhaps of his reclusive nature, caused reviewers of his final film LíArgent (1983) to marvel over how a man "in his late 70s" or alternatively "in his 80s" could show such youthful exuberance in his filmmaking.

Three formative influences in Bressonís life undoubtedly mark his films: his Catholicism, which took the form of the predestinarian French strain known as Jansenism; his early years as a painter; and his experiences as a prisoner-of-war. These influences manifest themselves respectively in the recurrent themes of free-will versus determinism, in the extreme and austere precision with which he composes a shot, and in the frequent use of the prison motif (two films are located almost entirely inside prisons).

Three of his works take place in a wholly Catholic context: Les Anges du péché, a metaphysical thriller set in a convent, Journal díun curé de campagne (1950), a rare example of a great novel (by Georges Bernanos) being turned into an even greater film, and Le Procès de Jeanne díArc (1962), inevitably overshadowed by Carl Theodor Dreyerís 1928 classic La Passion de Jeanne díArc. The Jansenism manifests itself in the way leading characters are acted upon and simply surrendering themselves to their fate. In  Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), for example, both the donkey Balthazar and his on-off owner Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) passively accept the ill-treatment they both experience, as opposed to the evil Gérard (François Lafarge) who initiates much of what causes others to suffer. Bresson seemed to become increasingly pessimistic about human nature: his penultimate two films suggest that he had more concern for animals and the environment than for people, while the characters in his astonishing swansong LíArgent are simply the victims of a chain of circumstance; money is the root of all evil.

One effect of the Jansenist influence is Bressonís total mistrust of psychological motives for a characterís actions. The conventional narrative film, indeed the conventional story of any kind, insists that people have to have reasons for what they do. A motiveless murder in a detective story would be unacceptable. In Bresson, however, people act for no obvious reason, behave "out of character", and in general simply follow the destiny which has been mapped out for them. Often a character will state an intention, and in the very next scene will do the opposite. Characters who appear to be out-and-out rogues will unaccountably do something good, an example being the sacked camera-shop assistant in LíArgent who gives his ill-gotten gains to charity. At the same time it should be stressed that Bresson did not predetermine how his films would finally emerge; it was a process of discovery for him to see what would be revealed by his non-professional actors ("models" he designated them) after he trained them for their part.

Bressonís second influence, his early experience as a painter, is manifested in the austerity of his compositions. A painter has to decide what to put in; a filmmaker what to leave out. With Bresson nothing unnecessary is shown; indeed he goes further, and often leaves the viewer to infer what is happening outside the frame. Thus we often see shots of hands, feet, door handles, and other parts of objects where any other filmmaker would show the whole. A Bresson film requires unbroken concentration on the viewerís part, and I have occasionally felt literally breathless after watching one because of the concentration required. So rich in detail and events is Balthazar, for example, that it is easy on a first viewing simply to overlook sub-plots such as the childís death and the long-running legal wrangle over land. It is for this reason that many of Bressonís films are exceptionally fast-moving in their narrative (one exception is the almost contemplative Quatre nuits d'un rêveur [1971], where little actually happens; interestingly the central character is a painter). If LíArgent were remade as a Hollywood thriller it would have at least double the running-time and would dwell at length on the brutal violence in the last section which is merely elliptically hinted at by Bresson. The running-time of his films averages under 90 minutes, yet the viewer can be surprised at the amount that happens in that time.

Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956) and Procès are the two prison-films, and Bresson often uses prison as a metaphor for spiritual imprisonment or, indeed, release. A classic case of the latter is Pickpocket (1959), where Michel (Martin LaSalle) finds redemption from his criminal career only by intentionally being caught, and in the  famous final scene by telling Jeanne (Marika Green) from his prison cell "what a strange road I had to take to find you".

A key ingredient of Bressonís methods is his view of actors, his "models". From Journal on he used solely non-professionals, and was even reported to be upset when two of his actors (Anne Wiazemsky from Balthazar and Dominique Sanda from Une Femme douce) went on to professional acting careers. Only one actor ever appeared in two of his films. (Jean-Claude Guilbert in Balthazar and Mouchette [1967].) Actors were chosen not for their ability but for their appearance, often for an intense facial asceticism like the Curé (Claude Laydu) or the Pickpocket. He trained them to remove all traces of theatricality and to speak with a fast monotonic delivery. Indeed he rejected the word "cinema", which he regarded as merely filmed theatre, and instead used the word "cinematography" (not to be confused with the art of camerawork). All movements of actors are strictly controlled by the director; when they walk they have to take a precise number of steps; and eye movements become extremely important - the lowering of the eyes towards the ground is almost a Bresson trademark. The result of this approach is that the viewer becomes involved not with a characterís appearance but almost with the core of his being, his soul. Bressonís first two features use professionals, even "stars", and though they are both excellent films which anticipate the directorís later themes, they would probably have been even more satisfying if "models" had been used.

Along with Bressonís painterly eye for what should and should not be shown, he makes exquisite use of sound. Off-screen sound is of key importance: the raking of leaves during the intense confrontation between the priest and the countess in Journal, the scraping of the guardís keys along the metal railings and the far-off sound of trains in Un Condamné, the whinnying of horses in Lancelot du Lac (1974), all serve to heighten the sense that a time of crisis has arrived for the central characters. Music is used increasingly sparingly as his career progresses; a specially composed score is used in the early films, but in Un Condamné there are occasional snatches of Mozart, in Pickpocket Lully, in Balthazar Schubert, and in late Bresson non-diegetic music is dispensed withaltogether.

A plot-summary of most of Bressonís films would render them extremely off-putting for a lover of "feelgood movies". In most, the central character either dies (sometimes by suicide) or ends up in prison. Indeed the film with the only unashamedly "happy ending", Un Condamné, was his biggest commercial success. (There is a "happy ending" of sorts to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), but the general tone of the plot would be regarded by many as decidedly gloomy.) Many of Bressonís films are not, however, meant to be in the realist mode. For example, Balthazar is basically a fable, while Lancelot du Lac is a highly stylised portrayal of a mediaeval legend.

All Bressonís features after the first have literary antecedents of one form or another, albeit updated. Two are from Dostoevsky (Une Femme douce and Quatre nuits), two from Bernanos (Journal and Mouchette), one from Tolstoy (LíArgent), one from Diderot (Les Dames), while Un Condamné and Le Procès are based on the written accounts of the true events. In addition Pickpocket is clearly influenced by Dostoevskyís Crime and Punishment and Balthazar has a similar premise to the same authorís The Idiot. Lancelot du Lac is derived from Maloryís Arthurian legends, while Le Diable probablement (1977) was inspired by a newspaper report, as is stated at the start of the film. A long-standing unrealised project was a film of the Book of Genesis (Genèse), but Bresson reportedly said that, unlike the human "models", he was unable to train the animals to do as they were told!

There is no critical consensus on which of Bressonís films is the greatest. The British Film Institute magazine Sight and Soundís prestigious criticsí poll placed Mouchette in the top 20 in 1972, but by 1992, from 132 critics polling for their 10 favourite films, it did not receive a single vote. In that year the leading Bresson film was Pickpocket with 6 votes, followed by Balthazar with 4 votes and LíArgent with 3. In the 2002 poll Balthazar advanced to 10 votes (out of 145), placing it about 20th of all films, with LíArgent still on 3 and Pickpocket fallen to 2, equal with Un Condamné and Les Dames; this swell of critical favour for Balthazar is confirmed by other recent polls. The great French critic André Bazin, who did not live to see most of Bressonís films, championed Journal, in an essay hailed by his English translator as "the most perfectly wrought piece of film criticism" he had ever read. Like the novel this film is essentially a flashback, where we see not a series of events but reflections on those events, whether by the elderly priest who is sent the diary or whether by the curé himself being for the viewer to decide. Un Condamné and Pickpocket are somewhat similar, in that they both rely on voiceover while, for the latter, an account is being written by Michel; again we are seeing either the actual events or Michelís later reflections on them.

Other critics regard Un Condamné as the peak of Bressonís art. With its alternate title, "The Wind bloweth where it will", the director expresses the view that "God helps those who help themselves", and the film makes clear that it is through the workings of fate, of extraordinary strokes of luck, allied to his own efforts, that the hero is able to effect his escape. My own preference, marginally and perhaps temporarily, is for the two great mid-period rural dramas Balthazar and Mouchette, a recent re-issue of which revealed its stunning photography. For a very different view of Bresson, I once heard a well-known academic in the field of French cinema opine that his films are "more interesting to read about than to see".

With his unique and wholly idiosyncratic methods and style, and general contempt for "cinema" as defined by himself, Robert Bresson was little influenced by other filmmakers. The critic and director Paul Schrader links him, not wholly convincingly, with Dreyer and Ozu, while Schraderís own films owe a thematic debt to him (the final shot of American Gigolo (1980) is a direct quote from that of Pickpocket). Films like Alain Cavalierís Thérèse (1986), Maurice Pialatís Sous le soleil de Satan (1987), the Dardennes Brothersí Rosetta (1999), and Lynne Ramsayís Ratcatcher (1999) have been liberally described as "Bressonian".

Robert Bresson died in 1999. To borrow a phrase used by a critic about another film, Bressonís films are among those for whose sake the cinema exists.

Filmography

Les Affaires publiques (1934) (short)

Les Anges du péché (The Angels of Sin) (1943) 

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne) (1945)

Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) (1950)

Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped) (1956)

Pickpocket (1959)

Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (Trial of Joan of Arc) (1962)

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Mouchette (1967)

Une Femme douce (A Gentle Creature) (1969)

Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer) (1971)

Lancelot du lac (Lancelot of the Lake) (1974)

Le Diable probablement (The Devil Probably) (1977)

L'Argent (Money) (1983) 
 

This is a slightly revised version of an essay which first appeared in the Great Directors feature of Senses of Cinema (go to:  www.sensesofcinema.com).
 
 
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