Notes on Bresson
Published on January 7th, 2012 | by Charles H. Meyer0
BRESSON: Retrospective of French director Robert Bresson at Film Forum, January 6-26. Followed by National Tour.
French filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999) made only thirteen feature films in his forty-year career, but each of those films (or at least the twelve that I have had the good fortune to see) is a masterpiece, so much so that trying to write about them is daunting. Kent Jones has said that “Bresson is probably more deserving of extravagant praise than almost any other filmmaker, living or dead.” I would agree, except that I would omit the words “probably” and “almost.” Jean-Luc Godard has made the intriguing analogies that “Bresson is to French cinema what Mozart is to German music and Dostoyevsky is to Russian literature.” He isn’t being hyperbolic. I would add that Bresson is to French cinema what Rembrandt is to Dutch painting. And the analogies could go on for a while. But you get the point. Filmmakers simply do not get any better than Bresson.
And yet Bresson’s films are not intimidating to watch (with the possible exception of his penultimate film, “The Devil Probably”). They are simultaneously devastating and exhilarating, but not intimidating. What makes writing about them difficult is that, being perfect works of art, they leave nothing left to say. To try to interpret them, to explain them, or to add something to them would be to insult them. But Bresson’s films do require multiple viewings. Perhaps this is why I am so hesitant to comment on them: I want to see them many more times so that they have soaked into me like sugared wine into hardened bread.
From January 6-26, Film Forum is showing all thirteen of Bresson’s feature films, from “Les anges du péché” to “L’Argent.” If you want to see some of the most gorgeous, most profound, most moving, most heartbreaking works of cinematic genius ever committed to celluloid, Film Forum is where you should spend your every free moment for the next three weeks.
“Les anges du péché” (1943)
Bresson’s debut feature “Les anges du péché” (“The Angels of Sin”) introduces many of the major themes (suffering, redemption, death) and characters (persecutors, martyrs) that will preoccupy his films.
Renée Faure plays Anne-Marie Lamaury, a rich young woman who decides, much to her mother’s frustration and disappointment, to enter a convent whose other residents are almost exclusively ex-convicts. Faure is angelically beautiful, her prettiness made only more apparent by the way her habit frames her face. As Anne-Marie, she is fascinating to watch because she so deftly walks the line between pride and humility, meekness and boldness, as she takes it upon herself to recruit bitter, wrongly imprisoned Thérèse (Jany Holt).
Showing: Tuesday, January 10 at 8:20 P.M.
“Les dames du Bois de Boulogne” (1945)
The Spanish-born actress María Casares (who in 1945 also starred in Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise”) wears such a witch-like gaze as the rich benefactress Hélène in “Les dames du Bois de Boulogne” that we know that something sinister is afoot when she installs the dancer/prostitute Agnès and her mother in a small apartment and provides for their needs. Under the pretext of rehabilitating Agnès’s reputation, Hélène essentially imprisons the two women. Agnès is too famous for her dancing (and other talents) to go out in public without being recognized. Meanwhile, Hélène slyly sees to it that the ex-lover who scorned her, Jean (Paul Bernard)–who is completely unaware of Agnès’s checkered past, believing her instead to be the picture of innocence–falls madly in love with the young ex-dancer/ex-prostitute, his infatuation only exacerbated by her inaccessibility.
Showing: Sunday, January 8 and Monday, January 9
“Diary of a Country Priest” (1951)
With “Diary of a Country Priest” Bresson made the bold decision to work from then on almost exclusively with non-actors, whom he called “models,” which, of course, meant never working with the same model twice. The effectiveness of this decision for bringing a naturalism both complex in its realism and simple in its directness is made immediately apparent by the quiet intensity of Claude Laydu’s emotional, yet restrained performance as the eponymous priest.
Of course, Bresson had such a knack for discovering raw talent that most of his “models” went on to become “actors,” and Laydu, who passed away in 2011, with twenty credits to his name, was no exception. Laydu’s priest is surely Bresson’s most endearing hero, never more so than when he smiles sweetly in one of the rare moments when a member of the townsfolk treats him with genuine kindness.
Showing: Sunday, January 15 and Monday, January 16
“A Man Escaped” (1956)
François Leterrier, who went on to become a filmmaker himself but who performed in only one other film (Alain Resnais’s “Stavisky”), plays the prisoner-of-war Fontaine in “A Man Escaped.” Especially evident in this film is the special attention Bresson’s camera gives to objects, but more importantly, to one individual’s patient interaction with the handful of objects at his disposal as he painstakingly plans his escape from prison. Fontaine, who is based on a real person, André Devigny, whose memoir inspired the film, might be the most impressive and inspiring of Bresson’s heroes. Bresson himself spent a year in a military prison during World War Two, and the first-hand knowledge he gained therein of the brutal living conditions of such a prison contributed greatly to the realism of “A Man Escaped.”
Especially noteworthy in this film is the virtuoso editing by Raymond Lamy, working with Bresson for the first time, who would go on to help make “Pickpocket,” “Au Hasard Balthasar,” and “Mouchette” the great films that they are. (He also edited “Une femme douce,” but having not seen it yet, I cannot comment on his contributions to that film.) Lamy’s editing of the complicated series of shots constituting the escape sequence is so admired that it’s taught in film schools.
Showing: Friday, January 20 through Thursday, January 26
“Pickpocket” is the first of many Bresson films to focus on an anti-hero. Martin LaSalle plays Michel, who has a provocative passion for picking pockets. Like nearly all of Bresson’s central characters, he is attractive but thin–gaunt even–almost like one of the elongated figures in a painting by El Greco–this gauntness underscoring the desperate poverty that has inspired his life of crime. In this film, as in Bresson’s previous two, voiceover is employed, and yet in all three films it is used so appropriately, so effectively, in each case giving eloquent voice to the hero’s struggles, whether we’re hearing the priest as he writes in his diary, Fontaine explaining the month-long process of using the sharpened handle of a spoon to dismantle the wooden door of his cell, or Michel narrating a letter. “A flood of words does a film no harm,” Bresson wrote in his book “Notes on the Cinematographer,” “A matter of kind, not quantity.” Indeed, Bresson’s films are replete with floods of words, but they never detract; his films are never talky. And he was adamant that sound and image not act as each others’ crutches. “Image and sound must not support each other,” he wrote, “but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.”
Showing: Friday, January 13 and Saturday, January 14
“The Trial of Joan of Arc” (1962)
Reject historical films whose effect would be ‘theatre’ or ‘masquerade.’ (In my Trial of Joan of Arc I have tried to avoid ‘theatre’ and ‘masquerade,’ but to arrive at a non-historical truth by using historical words.) –Robert Bresson
Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc” is not nearly as well known as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” nor is it very well known within Bresson’s oeuvre. And yet it is a fine film richly deserving of attention. Aware that comparisons between his film and Dreyer’s would be inevitable, Bresson wrote in criticism of the latter, “For want of truth, the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti’s way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer’s film, used to draw tears.” Without casting similar aspersions, I must admit that what draws me especially to Bresson’s Joan (Florence Carrez) is the incredible stoicism she conveys with the reserved delivery of her line readings, whose text Bresson drew directly from the records of the actual trial. “The Trial of Joan of Arc” captures with an economy both temporal (65 minutes) and spatial (the courtroom and Joan’s cell) Joan’s stunningly steadfast conviction.
Showing: Tuesday, January 10
“Au Hasard Balthasar” (1966)
Probably the most famous still image from “Au Hasard Balthasar” depicts Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) tenderly caressing Balthasar the donkey. From this image, it’s easy to assume that the film is as focused on the donkey and its suffering as Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” is on the horse and its survival. But part of what makes Bresson’s film so tragic is just how incidental Balthasar is to the lives of its various human owners, including Marie. And in constrast to “War Horse” and to Bresson’s great credit, “Au Hasard Balthasar” never anthropomorphizes its animal character. The emotional and experiential distance between Balthasar and his handlers is never bridged. We are asked to look at a donkey as a donkey while still finding it within ourselves to feel compassion for this fellow creature.
Showing: Friday, January 6 and Saturday, January 7
Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is surely the most tragic of Bresson’s characters because of the absolute hopelessness of her existence. Her mother is dying and her callously abusive father is given to slapping her and shoving her away from any momentary chance at the slightest, most fleeting happiness. On top of that, the schoolboys call her “Rat-Face” and expose themselves to her, while the schoolgirls laugh at her and shun her. In spite of all this nastiness shown towards her, however, we admire Mouchette more than we pity her. She sticks out her tongue at the boys and throws clumps of dirt at the girls. She walks home from school through the woods rather than on the road with the other girls to avoid their juvenile teasing and taunting. And as much as the world has hurt her, she is not completely numbed to its pleasures. The brightest moments in the film–and revelations perhaps of the happy Nadine hiding beneath the sad Mouchette–are the bumper car scene, in which she smiles and laughs while looking back over her shoulder, and her shy approach to the boy she has just flirted with while on the bumper cars–the latter moment dashed instantly and forcefully by her father’s slap-and-shove child-rearing technique.
In writing of “Au Hasard Balthasar,” I forgot to mention one of its finest characteristics, one shared by “Mouchette”: Ghislain Cloquet’s unforgettable black-and-white cinematography, which in both films captures the pastoral loveliness of the French countryside in such a way that the characters’ respective hells (both Marie and Mouchette are raped) ironically exist within settings of earthly beauty rivaling that of any heaven conjurable by the imagination.
Showing: Wednesday, January 11 and Thursday, January 12
“Une femme douce” (1969)
Having not yet seen “Une femme douce,” which Bresson adapted from a story by Dostoyevsky, I really cannot comment upon it. I will point out, however, that, having been shot by Ghislain Cloquet and edited by Raymond Lamy, it promises to be extremely well made. Thankfully added to the program just days before the retrospective began, it is among the hardest of Bresson’s films to see, was the first of his films to be shot in color, and stars the stunning actress Dominique Sanda, who immediately went on to star in Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece “The Conformist” (1970).
Showing: Tuesday, January 17
“Four Nights of a Dreamer” (1971)
Bresson’s adaptation of “White Nights,” a short story also by Dostoyevsky, “Four Nights of a Dreamer” is perhaps the most beautiful of the five films in color with which he concluded his career. (I will have to see “Une femme douce” to know for sure.) It was shot by the great Pierre Lhomme, who was fortunately on hand to assist with the creation of a brand-new 35mm print made expressly for this retrospective. Considering that this film has, to my knowledge, never been released on any home viewing format, and has rarely been seen in the United States in the last two decades, and that it will transfix and transform you with its beauty, you would be ill-advised to skip it.
For those averse to suffering, “Four Nights of a Dreamer” is by far the least painful and least tragic of Bresson’s films. Walking through Paris one evening, Jacques (Guillaume des Forêts) spots Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) as she prepares to leap to her death from a bridge. He stops her, and a friendship ensues in which Jacques reveals his unending quest for the woman of his dreams and Marthe reveals her undying love for the man who abandoned her. Jacques is among the noblest of Bresson’s characters in that the love for Marthe that he develops is so pure that, even though he longs for her himself, he does everything that he can to help her reunite with the man she has lost.
“Four Nights of a Dreamer” is also one of the most pleasing of Bresson’s films to the heterosexual male gaze–or indeed any gaze that admires the female body–as the scene in which Weingarten disrobes and admires herself in her bedroom mirror–the camera caressing her and being caressed by her–is one of the most sensually erotic in 1970s cinema, all the more so for placing us in a blatantly voyeuristic position.
Showing: Thursday, January 19
“Lancelot of the Lake” (1974)
Evidently, “Four Nights of a Dreamer” was the calm before the storm, because Bresson’s final three films are relentlessly brutal both physically and psychologically. The opening of “Lancelot of the Lake,” with its knights beheading and stabbing one another, causing blood to positively gush forth, suggests that the director was experimenting with the visceral gore that began appearing, along with sex and nudity, in certain films during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The message the film sends in beginning immediately with vicious bloodshed, captured in long shot, is an anti-romantic, anti-heroic one. King Arthur’s Knights are presented as a sad, impotent, pathetic bunch. The heavy awkwardness of their armor is emphasized by its constant clanking as the men walk about. Cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis, who also shot “The Devil Probably” and “L’Argent,” frequently aims his camera at the men’s and horses’ feet, suggesting the actual lowliness of these supposedly noble men.
Showing: Thursday, January 12
“The Devil Probably” (1977)
I found the ending of “The Devil Probably” to be the most chilling in all of Bresson. We know from the film’s beginning what that ending will be–the suicide (or murder?) of a young man; we just don’t know how we will get there or how exactly the ending will come to pass.
“The Devil Probably” is the hardest of Bresson’s films to “get,” filled as it is with so many political, philosophical, and religious debates that it sometimes evokes the aggressive didacticism of a Godard film. It also has the loosest, most wandering narrative of any of Bresson’s films, making it both interesting and somewhat maddening. Holding it together are the beauty of the young people Bresson has assembled, the beauty of Paris, and the beauty of Pasqualino de Santis’s cinematography, which again, frequently focuses on characters’ feet instead of their faces, upsetting our gazes’ expectations so that we look at the world through fresh, unsuspecting eyes.
Showing: Friday, January 13
“L’Argent,” based on Tolstoy’s posthumously published short story “The Forged Coupon,” was Bresson’s final film and arguably his darkest, most cynical vision of human behavior. Two schoolboys intentionally pass a forged 500-franc note, thereby setting off a chain of events that will ultimately lead to the imprisonment of an innocent man, followed years later by a series of mass murders.
Showing: Tuesday, January 17 through Thursday, January 19