Robert Bresson (September 25, 1901 – December 18, 1999) was a French film director. Working within the medium of narrative cinema, he created a film grammar and syntax that was uniquely his own, although he had a significant influence on some other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky, Jim Jarmusch, the members of the French New Wave of the early 1960s, and director, writer, and critic Paul Schrader, whose book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, includes a detailed critical analysis.
Bresson dispensed with spectacle and drama in favor of a lean and minimalist cinematic style that, according to many critics, points to spirituality and transcendence. He is often referred to as a "patron saint" of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. Bresson's films have a spiritual quality that goes beyond any mere religious dogma, but because of the deliberate austerity and mannerliness of his style, Bresson was and remains controversial. His films have never been large-scale popular favorites, although there is a dedicated and enthusiastic core of Bresson fans.
Biographical information about Bresson is incomplete and somewhat vague, as he was stingy with self-disclosure in the few interviews he permitted. Some reference works (mistakenly) give his birth date as September 25, 1907, but it now seems to be established that he was actually born six years earlier. He was born in Bromont-Lamhe, France, attended the Lycée Lakanal à Sceaux in Paris, receiving a bachelor of arts degree. In December 1926, he married Leidia van der Zee.
Bresson studied painting and philosophy before he turned to film, and his first career was as a painter, from the 1920s to 1933. When he finally realized that he would never be a first rate painter, he turned to film instead, attempting to create an art of cinema.
Bresson was a Roman Catholic and was heavily influenced by Jansenism, an ascetic form of Catholicism that stressed predestination and grace, much like the theology of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin. Many film critics have seen in all of Bresson's film oeuvre the shadow of Jansenism's emphasis on those two concepts. The most striking example of that may be in the ending of his Diary of a Country Priest, in which the final image—during or just after the death of the priest—shows a cross against a white background while on the soundtrack, the words, "All is grace," are heard.
Bresson directed the twenty-five minute short film, Affaires publiques, in 1934, now partly lost. He wrote several screenplays for other directors, and served as assistant director to René Clair on Clair's unfinished film Air pur. He was a prisoner of war in Germany in 1940-41. After that, Bresson went on to make thirteen full-length features over the course of four decades.
In 1943, Bresson made his first feature, Les Anges du péché (Angels of Sin in English), with dialogue by Jean Giraudoux; set in a convent, this is a story of a nun who sacrifices her life to save the soul of a murderer. Bresson's next project, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), (Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne) was based on Denis Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître, with dialogue by Jean Cocteau, the latter providing one of the film's immemorial lines: "There is no love there is only proof of it."
In the 1950s, he made Journal d'un curé de campagne (1950, Journal of a Country Priest), based on the novel by the same title by George Bernanos; Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956, A Man Escaped), based on Bresson's experience as a prisoner of war and also on André Devigny's account of his own actual escape from a Nazi prison; and Pickpocket (1959).
In the 1960s, Bresson made Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1962, The Trial of Joan of Arc), using the actual official transcript of the trial that still exists in the public records in Rouen; Au hasard, Balthazar (1966); Mouchette (1967), based on Bernanos's Nouvelle historie de Mouchette; and Une femme douce (1969, A Gentle Creature), based on a story by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
In the 1970s, he made Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (1971, Four Nights of a Dreamer), also based on a story by Dostoevsky; Lancelot du Lac (1974, Lancelot of the Lake); and Le Diable probablement (1977, The Devil Probably), a story wholly original with Bresson.
Bresson's final film was L'Argent (1983, Money), based on a story by Leo Tolstoy.
Bresson's films can be divided into two groups. The first group of eight, from Les Anges du péché to Mouchette, were all made in black and white, and the last five, from Une Femme douce to L'Argent, were all made in color. The films of the first group can all be said to search for or suggest transcendence, grace abounding, the discovery of meaning and purpose, and ultimate transformation even from within earth's corruptible materiality and human cruelty, humiliation, and degradation. That is so even when some of them end in death and even, as in Mouchette, suicide. (Mouchette could be seen as a transition piece between the two groups.) As a central feature of Bresson's Jansenism, he believed in both predestination and grace, which, at least on the surface, might seem to be contradictory. But his was a notion of grace that bridges the theological and logical gap between the all-knowing and all powerful action of God and human free will. As Paul Schrader wrote, "The drama is whether or not the character (or the viewer) will accept his predestined fate. …Man must choose that which has been predestined."
In this first group of films, the ultimate conclusion points toward positive transformation. At the end of Les Anges du péché, Thérèse reaches out her hands joyfully to accept the handcuffs from the police who are arresting her for the murder she committed. The priest dies at the end of Diary of a Country Priest, but it is finally a confident, hopeful, and grace-filled death, despite his near-complete failures in his ministrations with his parishioners. In A Man Escaped, Fontaine and Jost do indeed escape from the prison, but, even more, Fontaine escapes from the lethargy and fear that would have consumed him if he had remained a prisoner. In Au hasard, Balthazar, the leading character, Balthazar, a donkey who was mostly mistreated throughout his life, finally dies, but he dies in an alpine meadow surrounded by sheep—free at last. At the conclusion of Pickpocket, the petty criminal Michel finally reaches through the bars of his prison cell to Jeanne, the woman who loves him, to say "What a strange road I have taken to reach you." Even Mouchette, although it ends with the suicide of the young girl Mouchette, can be said to point to possible transcendence because, through her death, Mouchette is finally freed from the pain, squalor, and misunderstanding of her poor life.
The films of the second, color, group, however, do not point to transcendence and the breaking through of grace, but instead to pessimism and despair. As someone noted, these films present predestination without salvation. Moreover, they also present no explanation of why the characters behave as they do, why they fail to find or achieve transcendence. The wife in Femme douce jumps from a window, committing suicide, for no apparent reason, especially as her life seemed to be happy. In Lancelot of the Lake, the knights end up dead from petty and useless fights, the promise of the Round Table shattered. In Le Diable probablement, the young protagonist has himself murdered in lieu of his committing suicide, for no good or apparent reason. L'Argent, Bresson's last film, ends with a horrible multiple-victim ax murder.
The irony here is that black and white, whether deliberately or inadvertently, seems to have meant transcendence and grace for Bresson, but color led to pessimism and despair, as if material absence of color corresponds with presence of spiritual color, and material color corresponds with spiritual blackness.
There is no good explanation of why Bresson, in his films if not his personal beliefs, took such a large turn from hope to despair. There seems to be no self-disclosure in which Bresson explains this. Some critics have claimed that Bresson moved from faith to atheism, but there seems to be no evidence that Bresson himself abandoned his former faith later in his life.
The slogan, seen on a calendar picture, "Vision is seeing more than is presented," could serve as an epigram for all of Bresson's films. Critics and commentators sometimes focus on content and plot, and Bresson's films do have those, but what they are most notable for is their cinematic style. Bresson wanted to show the viewer less, and thereby suggest more. He wanted the viewer to infer, imagine, and discover for himself, rather than see directly; to be an active agent instead of a passive recipient. The ax murder that ends L'Argent, for example, is not shown—the audience sees the bloody ax and sees a dog running frantically through the building as it discovers the corpses.
Bresson typically shows fragments of a scene in close-up: Hands, feet, faces, a section of an apparatus or vehicle, a part of an animal. He has a fondness for doors and doorknobs, for windows and pieces of window frames, for stairs and elevators. Long shots—especially establishing shots—are rare in his films. Although his camera does move, its moves are subtle and do not call attention to themselves. Quite frequently, a scene is continued long after the action has stopped or moved on; another director would have cut the scene, but Bresson allows it to continue, as if forcing the viewer to meditate on what has just occurred or what might occur in the future.
In addition to what he did with images, Bresson's original directorial language can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous "actor-model" methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors.
A good insight into Bresson's films was given by David Thomson in the third edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film. He wrote:
To see his films is to marvel that other directors have had the ingenuity to evolve such elaborate styles and yet restrict them to superficial messages. It might be said that watching Bresson is to risk conversion away from the cinema. His meaning is so clearly inspirational, and his treatment so remorselessly interior, that he shames the extrinsic glamour and extravagance of movies. For that reason alone he is not an easy director to digest.
Or, as Richard Corliss put it in his review of L'Argent:
Walking into a Robert Bresson film can be like walking up on top of Mount Everest: The air is thin and chilly, no living thing disturbs the silence, and the view is spectacularly disconcerting… Even the most adventurous viewer is advised to bring an oxygen mask (Review of Cinema, "The Spring Collection from Paris," TIME 123:16).
Bresson's early artistic focus was to separate the language of cinema from the theater, which often heavily involves the actor's performance to drive the work. With his "actor-model" technique, Bresson's actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of "performance" were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw, and one that can only be found in the cinema.
Attempts to capture Bresson's style in descriptive words have led to use of terms such as "pure cinema," "transcendental style," "simplicity," "minimalism," "elliptical film," "austerity," and even "dumb"—depending on whether the commentator liked or disliked it.
The severity and economy of Bresson's style, his Catholicism and, especially, his Jansenism with its emphasis on predestination and grace, and his subject matter have led most critics and commentators to see Bresson as a religious filmmaker, not in the sense of adherence to or presentation of received dogma and religious institutions, but in the sense of being concerned with the spiritual, with an investigation of themes and concerns that touch on finding transcendence amid the mundaneness of earthly life.
An illuminating and useful contrast can be made between the styles of director Oliver Stone and Bresson because they are completely opposite. Stone's films are designed and executed in maximalist fashion to directly arouse feelings, whereas Bresson's go "through the route of intelligence," as Susan Sontag put it, with deliberate minimization of such stylistic flourish, to evoke thought.
Many film critics, directors, and cineastes say that Bresson is one of the greatest directors in world cinema, and a few consider him to be the greatest of all. But there are strong dissenters to that view, including John Simon and Dan Harper. Dissenters claim that Bresson's style resulted in films that are unnecessarily and boringly flat and dull. Bresson was noted for making many multiple takes of the same scene, shooting it over and over dozens of times—even fifty or more times—in order to drain the actors of all expressiveness. Viewers may be either entranced or appalled and bored by that result. But Jean-Luc Godard, an admirer of Bresson, has said of him, "Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music." Bresson was one of the heroes of the young French directors, such as François Truffaut and Godard, who constituted the French New Wave in the early 1960s.
Critic Kent Jones compared Bresson's style to such modernist atonal composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, or Olivier Messiaen, saying that in their music emotion is always present, but it is an intellectual, reflective emotion rather than an immediately produced, unreflective, visceral one.
Critic and filmmaker Susan Sontag wrote of what she called Bresson's "spiritual style," meaning that his films are a form of art that is detached and provokes reflection rather than art that directly arouses feelings. Paul Schrader has called Bresson's films "transcendental," although Bresson himself seems not to respond to that term. While Bresson was still living, Schrader declared that Bresson "is the most important spiritual artist living," now that painter Mark Rothko is dead. Rothko's paintings are also noted for the spareness of their expression—they are typically large canvases of strong color with a minimum of variation. Rothko's work was frequently said by commentators to evoke a spiritual dimension because of its spareness and because it tended to lift the viewer upward rather than cast him down. So it is, Schrader held, with the films of Bresson.
Some feel that Bresson's Catholic upbringing and Jansenist belief-system lie behind the thematic structure of most of his films. Recurring themes under this interpretation include salvation, redemption, defining and revealing the human soul, and metaphysical transcendence of a limiting and materialistic world. An example is A Man Escaped, where a seemingly simple plot of a prisoner of war's escape can be read as a metaphor for the mysterious process of salvation.
Bresson's films can also be understood as critiques of French society and the wider world, with each revealing the director's sympathetic, if unsentimental, view on its victims. That the main characters of Bresson's most contemporary films, L'Argent and The Devil, Probably (1977), reach similarly unsettling conclusions about life indicates to some the director's feelings towards the culpability of modern society in the dissolution of individuals. Indeed, Bresson himself said, "Mouchette offers evidence of misery and cruelty. She is found everywhere: Wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations."
Bresson was a Modernist; his work conformed to the "less is more" aesthetic espoused by Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. By showing us less and being less emotionally pushy than other filmmakers, Bresson can be seen as actually implying more and provoking a a greater emotional involvement.
Different critics have preferred different ones of Bresson's films, with most such nods going to A Man Escaped, Mouchette, Au hasard, Balthazar, and occasionally one of the others. Critic Andrew Sarris, for one, especially esteemed Balthazar, and Jean-Luc Godard said that it is "the world in an hour and a half." It is, arguably, Bresson's masterpiece.
A number of critics, some but not all of them homosexual themselves, have seen homoerotic themes in some of Bresson's films, especially A Man Escaped and Pickpocket.
In 1975, Bresson published Notes sur le Cinématographe (Notes on Cinematography), in which he argued that cinematography is the higher function of cinema: Whereas a movie is in essence "only" filmed theater, cinematography is an attempt to create a new language of moving images and sounds via montage. By "cinematography" Bresson meant not cinematography as it is usually used as a name for the process of making motion picture images on film with a motion picture camera, but for film creation and directing as he understood it. There he wrote, "The ideas, hide them, but so that one can find them. The most important will be the most hidden." Ambiguity is also frequently present: It is unclear, for example, whether Agnès dies at the end of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne.
Some of Bresson's comments in Notes on Cinematography:
Two types of film: Those that employ the resources of the theatre (actors, direction, etc.) and the use of the camera to reproduce; [versus] those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.
[Speaking of what he wanted from his "models," as he called them, as opposed to professional actors.] The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.
To your models: "Speak as if you were speaking to yourselves." MONOLOGUE INSTEAD OF DIALOGUE.
Cinematographers film where expression is obtained by relations of images and of sounds, and not by a mimicry done with gestures and intonations of voice (whether actors' or non-actors'). One that does not analyse or explain. That re-composes.
Flatten my images (as if ironing them), without attenuating them.
Critics of Bresson's austere style reply that Bresson did indeed not just flatten but attenuate his images, to no good purpose except Bresson's mannerism.
As a group, Bresson's films were long unavailable in North America. A few of them were available in poor prints, and some in video transfers that do not do justice to their original images. Thus, despite Bresson's international reputation, most of his films were unknown, or at least widely unavailable, to the English-speaking world. About 1998, the Cinémathèque Ontario in Toronto, in cooperation with the Bureau du Cinéma, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Paris, the Service Culturel du Consulat Général de France, Toronto, and Robert and Mylène Bresson (Robert's second wife—his first wife had died), saw to it that new 35mm prints were made of all the Bresson films and made possible a traveling retrospective exhibition of the complete Bresson-directed oeuvre. By summer 2007 eight of the Bresson Films are available from Netflix; the missing ones are Les Anges du péché, The Trial of Joan of Arc, Une Femme douce, Four Nights of a Dreamer, and The Devil Probably.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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