Feature by: Matt Bailey
Posted on: 17 July 2004
Reviews: Au Hasard Balthazar
Reviews: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
Reviews: Diary of a Country Priest
Reviews: Lancelot of the Lake
Reviews: A Man Escaped
Although Robert Bresson began his film career as a screenwriter in the mid-1930s, he was not recognized as a director until his second feature in 1943, during the height of the German Occupation of France. Les Anges du Péché (Angels of Sin), and Bresson’s third film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Ladies of the Park, 1945), are considered high-water marks of Occupation cinema, although there is little to distinguish them, stylistically and thematically, from other poetic-realist films of the time. Bresson filmed Les Anges du Péché from a screenplay by the celebrated novelist and playwright Jean Giraudoux and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne from dialogue written by Jean Cocteau based on an excerpt from Denis Diderots novel, Jacques the Fatalist. Together, the films make a matched set of stiffly formalized explorations into sin and redemption, isolation and longing.
Following the Liberation of France, Bresson began to strip away from his work many of the stylistic excesses characteristic of the poetic-realist style. With Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1950), Bresson focuses more clearly on the theme of spiritual isolation that had been a present, yet understated, motif of the early films. With form following theme, Bresson adopted a crisper, more direct style of shooting and a plainer, less sentimental type of dialogue. The most important development in Bresson’s maturing style, however, was the use of non-professional actors, whom Bresson referred to as “models.” These models were instructed to speak the words, not act them; to be the characters and not perform them. Bresson directed the models to perform in a flat, unemotional style that would let the emotion of the story flow through the words and images and not be thrust upon the viewer with calculated artifice. This new austerity of style became fully realized in Bresson’s next feature, Un Condamné à Mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956).
Bresson’s postwar films were great critical successes, and the new-found artistic freedom in filmmaking fostered by post-war technical innovations and by the artistic advances the French New Wave allowed Bresson to enjoy a fruitful period of creativity beginning with his 1959 film, Pickpocket,based very loosely on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. With subsequent films, Bresson continued to delve deep into the psyche of his central characters, characters who seemed lost and ostracized in a world of self-serving brutality. Bresson’s films of this period (Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc [The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1965]; Au hasard Balthasar, 1966; Mouchette, 1967; Une Femme Douce [A Gentle Creature, 1969]; and Quatre Nuits d’un Rêveur [Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971]), all focus on characters who experience great suffering and seek release, more often than not, in death. Bresson’s subtlety in sketching the tragedy of these characters is masterful, whether the character is historical (Joan of Arc) or mundane (Balthasar, a donkey), a little girl (Mouchette), or a broken-hearted lover. Despite the close similarities, though, Bresson never made the same film twice. His finest work avoids sweeping statements and facile sentiment. Bresson never condescends to his characters or tries to evoke pity in the viewer, but instead chronicles with immaculate detail the everyday defeats in a person’s life that, over a lifetime, add up to a colossal weight of anguish from which there appears to be no relief.
Incorporating this highly personal theme into the historical epic genre was the task of Bresson’s next film. With Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974), Bresson completed a film he had wanted to make for decades. Recasting the quest for the Holy Grail as a chamber piece played out by characters with a palpable animosity toward each other, Bresson succeeds in humanizing figures of myth and legend, however demonic they might seem.
To round out his career, Bresson turned again to the Dostoevskian loner and made the later masterpieces Le Diable Probablement (The Devil Probably, 1977) and L’Argent (Money, 1983), films that cemented his status as one of the great filmmakers. Bresson, who died in 1999, will never step back behind the camera to film his long-cherished adaptation of the Book of Genesis, but the body of work he has given us is a gift perhaps beyond what any of us deserve in this lifetime.