Robert Bresson, one of the most important names in classic French cinema, is often overshadowed by the New Wave filmmakers who followed in his footsteps. His filmography is often unjustly relegated to the confines of film studies classes and the shelves of Criterion DVD collectors. The TIFF Bell Lightbox hopes to bring new eyes to Bresson’s work by featuring all thirteen of his films in a retrospective called The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson.
‘Meticulous and deliberate’ best describes Bresson’s films. His shots are steady and carefully selected. The films themselves are often driven more by static images and editing than sensational plot or performances. In fact, Bresson had a tendency to use non-actors, keeping them nearly expressionless in some cases, allowing the sequence of images to get the heft and emotions of the story across.
Bresson’s career spanned forty years, from 1943 until 1983, and in that time he directed only thirteen features. Hardly a prolific output, but the thoughtful craft of his films suggests he took his time to develop ideas and stories that would best suit his style. There’s a stark quality to his films; a sense of untarnished reality. His mode is stylized, but more in perspective and situational mood than visual expressiveness. Close-ups are a big part of Bresson’s visual vocabulary, and the number of shots of hands in his films is probably unmatched by any other filmmaker. His shots often linger on characters or objects, directing the focus deliberately while allowing the audience to soak in the meanings and emotions of each situation.
Les anges du péché, Bresson’s first feature, is the story of a nun who works to rehabilitate female convicts. One woman is unwilling to accept help because she claims to be innocent of her charges. The story leads down a dark path involving revenge and murder, and while the film is perhaps Bresson’s most conventional in many ways, this actually makes it a great place to start in order to ease into his later work. The film uses professional actors, a rarity for Bresson, who would limit that after his next film, but this helps to draw in the uninitiated. Though the acting may be more normal and expressive, the plot follows a more classic structure. The major themes that would pop up in his later films are all here. The Catholic religion and the guilt associated with it; human suffering and misery at the hands of others; tragic, violent acts; attempts at redemption and salvation. The simple and direct style of filmmaking is also present, though not quite as bold as would be seen in future Bresson films.
1951’s Diary of a Country Priest is the film that would then cement Bresson’s core style. This story of a small parish priest, too young for his work and afflicted with illness, fits in perfectly with the themes already established. The cruelty he encounters in people is dismaying, and in the one case where he does help ‘save’ a woman, her untimely death gets blamed on him. His strict moral code doesn’t help him, and he’s essentially cast out by the society he so desperately wants to help. This was apparently a huge influence on Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese when they made Taxi Driver decades later.
In Bresson’s next film he uses his now fully established style to tell a strictly mechanical story. In A Man Escaped, a POW in a Nazi jail mounts an escape. There isn’t much more to it than that, but the devil lies in the details. The film gloriously exemplifies the power of human perseverance, and this comes through most clearly during a sequence in which the protagonist slowly and methodically chips away at his wooden door until he can remove enough boards to actually step out of his cell. The film isn’t bombastic about the escape — Shawshank this ain’t — but in its quiet and direct nature we get a sense of how difficult even such a mundane task would be.
The subject of his next film, Pickpocket, also makes great use of Bresson’s directness, but much like Diary of a Country Priest, the results are surprisingly emotional. The film is about a pickpocket with a dying mother who is evading arrest and still finds time to fall in love with a girl. This is also the film where Bresson first goes nuts with close-ups. If pickpocketing is like magic, with sleight-of-hand being the main tool of the trade, Bresson’s magic trick is to use close-ups to follow the hand movements of the pickpocket. The film would almost be a lesson in pickpocketing, except that even with such close scrutiny, the delicacy of the skill still makes it look like magic. The scenes of theft are ingeniously tense and fascinating all at once. Once scene in which the main character, Michel, plans and attempts to carry out a wallet theft on a subway train is extremely involving and fun to watch.
Au hazard Balthazar is like the anti-War Horse. It’s the story of a girl and her donkey separated by circumstance and treated to the cruelty and suffering that can only be felt at the hands of other people. What little hope there is in the film’s presentations of love is knocked cold by the sheer weight of the ongoing tragedy. As the donkey is passed from one owner to the next he’s a victim of society and humanity, as is the girl. The way the donkey so innocently and nobly goes through all this torment alludes to the purity in the suffering of Christ, and a thorny crown makes this all too clear. But Balthazar the donkey doesn’t suffer for the sins of humanity. Instead he suffers because of those sins. It’s a dark story, and about as depressing and affecting as any film ever made.
Not to be outdone by his own work, Bresson’s next film, Mouchette, continues the darkness and depression of Au hazard Balthazar without missing a beat. Mouchette’s father is a mean drunk and her mother is sick and dying. She’s mocked by her fellow students and bullied by her teacher. She’s taken advantage of by an older man and raped, and worse still she is judged harshly for that sexual activity. Her abusive father quashes the one ray of hope she sees when she meets in a nice boy at the fair, and when her mother passes away she finally has nothing left. It’s a difficult film to sit through and made all the more devastating by the way Bresson’s camera refuses to become emotionally involved. That distance only serves to pull the audience in, to live in each horrible moment.
Lancelot du Lac is a unique departure for Bresson, not in style, but in content. He takes the classic Round Table story and presents a highly revisionist take on the love between Lancelot and Guinevere. While his previous films often contained violence, the sheer level of gore on display in parts of this film is quite stunning. Without any sort of build-up, the film opens with images of gruesome killings and decapitations. The love story in the film gets treated with little romanticism, but complete seriousness.
Bresson’s final film might be his most amazingly prescient. L’argent begins by following a counterfeit bill as it’s passed from a rich kid to a storeowner and then to a gas man. That gas man, Yvon, tries to pay for a meal with the bill only to be arrested. His arrest essentially leads his entire life to complete ruin with extremely violent ends. The indifference and cruelty of the rich and the upper class comes to weigh down and destroy the lower class man who then resorts to needless cruelty and violence. The film is a pretty brilliant exploration of the power of money and classes in society, and how very often the misdeeds of the wealthy hurt and warp only those least fortunate. In this post-financial crisis world, L’argent proves a surprisingly relevant work on both an intellectual and human level.
The Lightbox will be presenting screenings of every one of these films and more. If you haven’t seen any Bresson or you’re already a big fan, surely these screenings are not to be missed. If you’ve never been exposed to Bresson before, it’s probably advisable to take things a little slowly. His style can take some getting used to, but as evidenced by the breadth and relatively consistent quality of his work, Bresson is a director very much worth sinking your teeth into. And what better way to begin an education in Bresson than by seeing his films presented on the big screen at the Lightbox?
The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson begins February 9 at 6:30 PM with University of Toronto professor Bart Testa presenting a brand new restoration of A Man Escaped. For showtimes, titles, and tickets, please visit TIFF.net.