Bright Lights Film Journal

All Is Grace: The films of Robert Bresson

Lancelot du Lac

Poetry in motion: Bresson resurrected and renewed

There aren’t many art forms where commercial success is relentlessly equated with aesthetic worth. In painting, the idea that Walter Keane is a greater artist than Robert Rauschenberg because many a 1960s tract house had a Walter Keane painting in it would be laughingly dismissed. And anyone claiming that Rod McKuen’s spew outranks the work of Ezra Pound because it sold more might invite censure, or even impeachment. Among the major arts, it’s only in film that popular hacks — Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spring immediately to mind — merit innumerable awards, miles of media exposure, and armies of imitators trying to re-create both their standing and their success. This distressing cultural trend has resulted in some serious cinematic casualties whose work is largely unseen because there’s no sense of proportion and no reasonable critical standards in film. The most notable victim here may be French director Robert Bresson, whose work can be judged anew by those able to access it, thanks to newly struck, cleaned-up prints that recently (1998) made the rounds of repertory (Toronto’s Cinematheque and Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive for starters).

Bresson, born in 1901, is a true anomaly even by the exacting standards of intransigent auteurs a la Sternberg or Carl Dreyer. A “Christian atheist” by his own paradoxical description, he began directing feature films in 1943 with Les Anges du peche (Angels of Sin), but only made a total of 13 during the next 40 years. His sources were almost invariably classical — Diderot, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky — but his radical reinterpretations of the material frequently made it almost unrecognizable. A superb manipulator of narrative incident, he focused increasingly on slight, seemingly irrelevant details in the story, often obscuring or hiding major plot twists. A masterful director of trained actors, he refused to use them after his first two films, turning instead to what he perversely called “models” — amateurs whom he ruthlessly rehearsed to rid them of any traces of theatricality. Even the standard running time of a feature could be cast aside; his 1962 version of the life of Joan of Arc clocks in at a mere 65 minutes.

Bresson’s early films are stylized melodramas with the luminous look of French poetic realism. The second of these, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), was based on a Diderot novel, with dialogue — always difficult for the visually minded Bresson — by Jean Cocteau. Here we see the seeds of his later style. When Hélène (the glorious Maria Casarès) discovers her lover is bored with her, she exacts a cruel revenge, luring him into a romance and marriage to a woman she later tells him is a prostitute. Cocteau’s dialogue has its own poetry — Hélène ‘s lover says he’s glad he’s “spared the ghastly convalescence of a waning love” — but the film is clearly Bresson’s. The characters move through the melodrama with a kind of icy calm that points to a vast interior world of alienation; this would evolve in subsequent films into an even more evocatively spare, monotonal style.

The director’s preoccupation — some would say obsession — with spirituality and transcendence is evident in his next film, the justly revered Diary of a Country Priest (1951). From the beginning Bresson used a combination of dialogue and voiceovers to describe an interior world constantly impinging on reality. Here he uses the device of the diary kept by the tragic title character, a naïve young vicar whose attempts to bring salvation to an insular, vicious French village trigger his destruction and, perhaps, salvation, if we judge from his final fading words: “All is grace.” Here Bresson’s ability to conjure profound emotions out of untrained actors and an elliptical narrative reaches an early peak; especially noteworthy is a wrenching sequence where the vicar tries to save a bitter, aging countess.

Bresson’s most famous, and to some his best, film is A Man Escaped (1956). Like its hero, Fontaine (François Leterrier), Bresson spent time as a prisoner of war, and this may account for some of the film’s intensity. The director’s sometimes maddening methods — omitting important plot points, disorienting the viewer with shots of body parts — have brought charges of a lack of suspense, and a look at the script alone might support this. But Bresson gets enormous tension out of the excruciating details of confinement and attempted escape. The mounting effect of these details — Fontaine’s methodical unraveling and reworking of clothing into ropes and mattress springs into hooks, the pitiless marches through the prison yard — creates a virtual dream state and a sense of anxiety in the viewer because, in spite of the detail and the film’s title, it’s not clear Fontaine will escape. Less noticed by most critics is the sweet, almost homoerotic bonding between Fontaine and his 16-year-old cellmate and Christlike redeemer, Jost.

With A Man Escaped Bresson perfected his use of unschooled players whose line readings are seemingly blank, montonal. This has the paradoxical effect of generating an extreme emotional response as the audience is forced to locate the emotions in the faces of the director’s “models,” who are “being” rather than “seeming,” in Bresson’s words. The narrative corollary to this is the effort the viewer must put into fleshing out events and plot developments that the increasingly single-minded Bresson refuses to elucidate.

Based on Dostoevsky, Pickpocket (1959), like several of the films, opens with a shot of hands; and again like some of the others, there’s a voiceover mingled with dialogue to hint at a hidden world. This world belongs to Michel, an alienated young man compelled to steal, a process that Bresson’s camera describes in loving detail. One of the film’s most entrancing sequences occurs when Michel meets a more sophisticated thief who shows him some new tricks. Their bond, again, has homoerotic resonances; with the scene’s rapid cuts, close-ups of hands moving in and out of each other’s jackets, there’s a palpable sense of pleasure exchanged. The ending of this film — which eternal copycat Paul Schrader quoted verbatim for American Gigolo — shows the kind of emotional payoff Bresson conjures from his supposedly emotionless players. The rough kisses between Michel and his steadfast neighbor Jane separated by prison bars is all the more powerful for its rarity as a point at which two desolate souls merge.

Bresson’s films were often controversial, and none more so than Mouchette (1966), banned in some quarters as an incitement to teenage suicide. The title character is a 14-year-old girl living in the same kind of spiritual confinement as many a Bresson hero. The director typically avoids showing overt violence; Mouchette’s rape by a local drunkard is the more harrowing because we only see the events leading up to it and the aftermath. The director’s provocative idea of transcendence is unsettlingly evident in the film’s extraordinary ending, which is better experienced than described.

Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969) was Bresson’s first film in color, and also one of the few starring a “model” who would go on to become an “actor” — Dominique Sanda. His skill in creating a sense of an inner world very different from the outer one is brilliantly evident in this story of an increasingly impossible relationship between a pawnbroker and his wife. Typically, Bresson drains the drama from the start; the film begins at the end, with the wife’s suicide. But in reconstructing their life together through a series of flashbacks, he explores to grim effect the unbridgeable gulf between them and, by extension, between all of us watching them.

Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot, 1974) was a pet project for Bresson, a period drama based on the story of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and the search for the holy grail. The grail, though, is the least of the matters here. Internecine fights, failed tournaments, bloody ambushes are interwoven with long philosophical dialogue sequences. Bresson’s pessimism pervades the film, but his formal sleight-of-hand makes scenes like the joust come to life through a seemingly impossible strategy — shooting most of it at the level of the horses’ legs. The director’s penchant for beautiful male faces is also manifest in the saintly Gawain (Humbert Balsan).

Bresson’s last film, L’Argent (Money, 1983), based on Tolstoy, describes a world of corruption in its story of a basically innocent young man, Yvon (Christian Patey), sucked into a vortex of crime. The plot sounds like classic film noir, but this is a color, often brightly lit, almost documentary examination of the mysterious forces — predestination, in Bresson’s Jansenist religious view — that can at once preempt lives and offer them that always elusive state of grace.