‘In the early ’80s, a friend invited me to a screening of Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, on the condition that, no matter what, I not say a word about it afterward. He claimed that Bresson’s films had such a profound, consuming effect on him that he couldn’t bear even the slightest outside interference until their immediate spell wore off, which he warned me might take hours. He was not normally a melodramatic, overly sensitive, or pretentious person, so I just thought he was being weird-until the house lights went down. All around us, moviegoers yawned or laughed derisively; some even fled the theater. But, watching the film, I experienced an emotion more intense than any I’d ever have guessed art could produce. The critic Andrew Sarris, writing on Bresson’s work, once famously characterized this reaction as a convulsion of one’s entire being, which rings true to me. Ever since, I’ve imposed basically the same condition on those rare friends whom I trust enough to sit beside during the screening of a Bresson film, and I’m not otherwise a particularly melodramatic, sensitive, or pretentious person.
‘Bresson isn’t just my favorite artist. There’s a whole lot more to it than that, though the effect he has had on me is too enormous and personal to distill. On a practical level, his work constructed my sensibility as a writer by offering up the idea that it was possible for an artwork’s style to embody a kind of pragmatism that, if sufficiently rigorous and devoted to a sufficiently powerful subject, would eliminate the need within the work for an overt philosophical or moral standpoint. Every artist tries in some way to find that least compromised intersection of planes where his or her ideas meet and slightly exceed the world’s expectations, but I don’t think anyone has found a more perfectly balanced style than Bresson. His work communicates an unyielding, peculiarly personal vision of the world in a voice so sterilized as to achieve an almost inhuman efficiency and logic. The result is a kind of cinematic machine whose sets, locations, narrative, and models (Bresson’s preferred term for actors) function together as an unhierarchical unit so perfectly self-sufficient that all that is revealed within each film is the disconcerting failure of the models to fulfill Bresson’s requirements. Their emotions resonate, despite a conscientious effort on Bresson’s part to make them move about and speak as though they have none. The fact that the actors, unlike any other aspect of Bresson’s films, are driven by individual feeling draws attention almost by default, and creates a relationship with the audience so intimate that it’s almost unbearable in its aesthetic restrictions.
‘A full appreciation of Bresson’s work requires moviegoers to approach his films as though starting from scratch. This is a huge thing to ask of an audience, which is why Bresson’s films will always select their admirers with care and infrequency. But the films earn that degree of commitment because, despite their intensive demands, they ask almost nothing for themselves. They’re too plain to be considered experimental or avant-garde, and require no suspension of disbelief. But they’re antitraditional as well, although their respect for the tradition of storytelling borders on the fanatical. They’re neither difficult nor easy to watch, at least not in the usual senses of those words. Instead of flaunting their difference, or feigning modesty by deferring to the conventions of Hollywood film, they offer up an art so unimpeachably fair, so lacking in ulterior motivation that the effect is a kind of mimicry of what perception might be like were one capable of simultaneously perceiving clearly and appreciating th e process by which perception occurs. The only thing these films ask is that one share a fraction of Bresson’s single-minded concern for the souls of young people whose innocence causes them to fail at the cruel, irrevocable task of adulthood.
‘Apart from his first feature, the comedy Les Anges du peche, and perhaps the curiously terse if fascinating Une Femme douce, Bresson never made a film that’s less than sublime. For whatever reason, his early, black-and-white films like Pickpocket, Diary of a Country Priest, and Mouchette are the most celebrated. But, if anything, his later, less widely circulated color films — Four Nights of a Dreamer, Lancelot du Lac, The Devil, Probably, and L’Argent — are the masterpieces among his masterpieces, to my mind. Many of the aforementioned stylistic tropes for which Bresson is alternately reviled and admired reached their full significance in this latter part of his oeuvre, as the lapsed Catholicism that gave his early, doomed characters the remote possibility of redemption and allowed viewers to interpret his work’s introversion as a metaphor for religious self-erasure loses ground to an even more thoroughly hopeless notion of fate as the random and godless chain of events that structures a life. In Bresson’s ea rlier films, the protagonist’s almost inevitable suicide is a tragic segue into the comforting delusion of heaven; in the later films, suicide is the inexorable outcome, given the bleak circumstances; and the staggering numbness induced by Bresson’s cold, mechanical witness to these deaths forms the least opinionated, and therefore only accurate depiction of suicide’s consequences that I’ve ever come across.
‘When I first saw The Devil, Probably at the age of twenty-eight, I wrote Bresson a number of long, desperate, worshipful letters offering to do anything, even sweep the floors of his sets, to assist him in his work. At the time, I would have given up my life, my friends, even my dream of being a novelist in order to help him create films that, to this day, are for me the greatest works of art ever made. It’s an unjustifiable, perhaps even irrational claim, but I’m not alone in my devotion, which might also explain why my pleas went unanswered. Perhaps I was just one of many depressed young people who’d confused Bresson’s stylistic perfection for a perfect solution and my letters went straight into the trash. In any case, I’ve now lived longer than any of the Bresson characters whose hopelessness I once took as a reflection of my own, and I credit his films, whose effect on me remains indescribable, but whose consequence to the novelist I eventually became is simply put: In my own dark, idiosyncratic art, I continue to do everything in my power to carry on a fraction of Robert Bresson’s work.’ — Dennis Cooper
Robert Bresson Website
Robert Bresson @ IMDb
Robert Bresson @ The Criterion Collection
‘The Films Of Robert Bresson: A Retrospective’
Robert Bresson profile @ Senses of Cinema
‘Robert Bresson: Primer’
‘TO SEE THE WORLD PROFOUNDLY: THE FILMS OF ROBERT BRESSON’
‘The supreme genius of cinema’
Robert Bresson’s films @ MUBI
‘Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson’, by Susan Sontag
‘Bressonians on Bresson’
‘Anatomy of a Perfect Film: Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped’
‘Caveh Zahedi Talks Meeting Robert Bresson’
Robert Bresson interviewed by Paul Schrader
‘Robert Bresson as a Precursor to the Nouvelle Vague’
‘Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film’
‘How can I “get” Robert Bresson?’
‘Take the Robert Bresson challenge’
‘Editing and Framing in Robert Bresson’s Films’
‘Robert Bresson: An Introduction’
‘Robert Bresson: Depth Behind Simplicity’
‘Inside Bresson’s L’Argent: An interview with crew-member Jonathan Hourigan’
‘Moments of Grace: The Films of Robert Bresson’
‘NO ACTORS, NO PARTS, NO STAGING.’
‘robert bresson: the failure to find the holy grail’
’10 Great Films Influenced by The Cinema of Robert Breton’
Bresson on cinema
Hands of Bresson
Constructive Editing in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket
Andrei Tarkovsky with Robert Bresson and Orson Welles Cannes 1983
ROAD TO BRESSON. With: Andrei Tarkovsky, Paul Schrader, Louis Malle, Dominique Sanda, Robert Bresson.
from Notes on Cinematography
‘In his reaction against the filmed plays of traditional French cinema, Bresson used his unique sensibility to establish what he referred to, in a special, Bressonian, aesthetic sense (not the technical one) as “cinematography,” that is, a language of image and editing entirely apart from the traditional, narrative mise en scène; one based on cuts, sounds — the very stuff of cinema that makes it unique from every other art form. One of the techniques he used to achieve his ends was to film multiple takes of a scene, until whatever “artifice” in the performance of the actor had been worn away through repetition, and so, by his estimation, a more truthful performance could be obtained. To that end, he wrote his Notes on Cinematography.’ — No Film School
SAMUELS: You’ve said you don’t want to be called a metteur en scene but rather a metteur en ordre. Does this mean that you think the essence of film is editing rather than staging?
BRESSON: For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument — the camera — things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real.
S: That puts you in the tradition of the silent, film, which could not rely on dialogue and therefore created its effects through editing. Do you agree that you are more like a silent than a sound film director?
B: The silent directors usually employed actors. When the cinema became vocal, actors were also used, because at that time they were thought the only ones able to speak. A rather difficult part of my work is to make my nonactors speak normally. I don’t want to eliminate dialogue (as in silent films), but my dialogue must be very special — not like the speeches heard in a theater. Voice, for me, is something very important, and I couldn’t do without it. Now, when I choose someone to appear in one of my films, I select him by means of the telephone, before I see him. Because in general when you meet a person, your eyes and ears work together rather badly. The voice tells more about anyone than his physical presence.
S: But in your films all the people speak with a single, a Bressonian voice.
B: No. I think that in other films actors speak as if they were onstage. As a result, the audience is used to theatrical inflections. That makes my nonactors appear unique, and thus, they seem to be speaking in a single new way. I want the essence of my films to be not the words my people say or even the gestures they perform, but what these words and gestures provoke in them. What I tell them to do or say must bring to light something they had not realized they contained. The camera catches it; neither they nor I really know it before it happens. The unknown.
S: If it is true that your goal is the mystery you drew out of your nonactors, can anyone besides you and them fully appreciate the result?
B: I hope so. There are so many things our eyes don’t see. But the camera sees everything. We are too clever, and our cleverness plays us false. We should trust mainly our feelings and those senses that never lie to us. Our intelligence disturbs our proper vision of things.
S: You say you discover your mysteries in the process of shooting…
B: Yes. Because what I’ve just told you was not something I had planned for. Amazingly, however, I discovered it during my first moments behind the camera. My first film was made with professional actors, and when we had our first rehearsal I said, “If you go on acting and speaking like this, I am leaving.”
S: Your major characteristic as an editor is ellipsis. Do you leave more and more out in each version of a given scene, or do you instinctively elide things while shooting?
B: I always shoot on the dangerous line between showing too much and not showing enough. I try to work as if I were on a tightrope with a precipice at either side.
S: What I want to know, however, is whether you consciously eliminate things during editing or instinctively eliminate things as you go along. Put this another way: Did you eliminate as much in your earlier films?
B: I have always been the same. I don’t create ellipsis; it is there from the beginning. One day I said, “Cinema is the art of showing nothing.” I want to express things with a minimum of means, showing nothing that is not absolutely essential.
S: Doesn’t that make your films too difficult? I’m not even thinking of the average viewer. Doesn’t your extremely elliptical manner baffle even the educated viewer? Can anyone get all the things you merely sketch in?
B: Many do.
S: Aren’t you worried about being too rarefied?
B: No. Here is the problem: The public is educated to a certain kind of film. Therefore, when they see what you call my elliptical films, they are disturbed. Bad critics say I am inhuman and cold. Why? Because they are used to acting; since they find none in my films, they say I am empty.
S: Let me ask you about your actors now. Jules Roy wrote an article about A Man Escaped in which he said that you never paid attention to your associates, that you were always locked into yourself, and that whenever you faced simple and difficult means toward a given end, you always chose the difficult.
B: Things are always difficult. And I lock myself into myself because often it seems that some of the others are against me. I find that when I don’t concentrate, I make mistakes.
S: I noticed when I saw you shooting Four Nights of a Dreamer on the Pont Neuf that you were walking around, ignoring everyone, and continuously peering at the shooting area between two fingers. I also noticed that you make use of accidents. For example, a passerby walked behind your actors while they were performing, yet you did not instruct the cameraman to stop shooting.
B: It’s possible.
S: You would use such an accident, wouldn’t you?
B: Yes. In Pickpocket I deliberately shot the long sequence at the railroad station during rush hour so as to be able to capture all the accidental occurrences. I courted the reality of the crowd through the impediments they placed before my camera.
S: It is said that you shoot every scene many times. How do the actors respond?
B: Sometimes they react badly, so I stop; sometimes the third shot is the best, sometimes the first. Sometimes the shot I think the best is the worst; sometimes the shot that seems worst when I film I later learn is exactly what I wanted. I require from a shot something I am not fully conscious of when photographing. When we are editing, I tell my editor to search for what I remember as having been the most successful take, and as he is running the film through the machine, I discover that what I had not sought is in fact what I had always wanted. I must add that lately I don’t shoot so many takes.
S: According to one of your interviews, in A Man Escaped you helped Leterrier to give a good performance through mechanical means. What were they?
B: By “mechanical” I mean, as I said before, words and gestures. Because I tell my actors to speak and move mechanically. For I am using these gestures and words – which they do not interpret – to draw out of them what I want to appear on screen.
S: For you, the nonactor is raw material – like paint.
B: But precious raw material.
S: You’ve said you don’t even let him see the rushes.
B: That is true, and for the same reason I never use the same person twice, because the second time he would try deliberately to give me what he thought I wanted. I don’t even permit the husband of a nonactress to see rushes because he would evaluate her performance and then she would try to improve it. Anyway, mechanics are essential. Our gestures, nine times out of ten, are automatic. The ways you are crossing your legs and holding your head are not voluntary gestures. Montaigne has a marvelous chapter on hands in which he says that hands go where their owner does not send them. I don’t want my nonactors to think of what they do. Years ago, without realizing any program, I told my nonactors, “Don’t think of what you are saying or doing,” and that moment was the beginning of my style.
S: You are a person with no preconceptions.
B: None at all.
S: Whereas psychology is a closed system, whose premises dictate its method. Therefore, it discovers evidence in support of a preexisting theory of human behavior.
B: If I succeed at all, I suppose some of what I show on the screen will be psychologically valid, even though I am not quite aware of it. But of course, I don’t always succeed. In any case, I never want to explain anything. The trouble with most films is that they explain everything.
S: That’s why one can go back to your films.
B: If there is something good in a film, one must see it at least twice. A film doesn’t give its best the first time.
S: I think that many of your ideas are a consequence of your Christianity. Am I right in saying that you pursue mystery without worrying that the audience will be baffled because you believe that we all partake of one essential soul?
B: Of course. Of course.
S: So that every viewer is fundamentally the same viewer.
B: Of course. What I am very pretentiously trying to capture is this essential soul, as you call it.
S: Isn’t it ironic that you are known as an intellectual director? I have always thought you profoundly emotional.
B: Most of what is said about me is wrong and is repeated eternally. Once somebody said that I worked as an assistant director to Rene Clair, which is not true, and that I studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – also not true – but this kind of error appears in nearly every account of my career. Of course, the worst mistakes concern my ideas and my way of working.
S: You’ve said that your films are sometimes solutions to technical problems. For example, you made The Trial of Joan of Arc to see if one could make a film that was only questions and answers.
B: I like exercise for its own sake. That is why I regard my films as attempts rather than accomplishments. People always ask me about the motivation of my characters, never about the arrangement of shots.
S: You seem more interested in putting shots together than in moving the camera.
B: No. My camera is never stationary; it simply doesn’t move around in a blatant manner. It is too easy, when you want, for instance, to describe a room, to pan across it – or to show you are in church by tilting upward in a spiraling fashion. All that is artificial; our eye doesn’t proceed like that.
S: You told Godard that you prefer as often as possible to replace image by sound. Why?
B: Because the ear is profound, whereas the eye is frivolous, too easily satisfied. The ear is active, imaginative, whereas the eye is passive. When you hear a noise at night, instantly you imagine its cause. The sound of a train whistle conjures up the whole station. The eye can perceive only what is presented to it.
S: Would you prefer working in a medium where you could eliminate images?
B: No, I want both image and sound.
S: You just want to give the latter predominance?
S: How do you prepare your sound tracks?
B: There are two kinds of sound in my films: sounds which occur during shooting and those I add later. What I add is more important, because I treat these sounds as if they were actors. For example, when you go into the street and hear a hundred cars passing, what you think you hear is not what you hear, because if you recorded it by means of a magnetophone, you would find that the sound was a mere jumble. So when I have to record the sound of cars, I go to the country and record every single car in pure silence. Then I mix all these sounds in a way that creates not what I hear in the street, but what I think I hear.
S: In this way you can reflect the mind of the character. For example, in A Man Escaped the amplified sounds of keys and trams etc. reflect the supersensitive hearing of a man in prison.
B: Yes. In that film freedom is represented by the sounds of life outside.
S: In view of your emphasis on sound, why do you avoid music?
B: Because music takes you into another realm. I am always astonished when I see a film in which after the characters are finished speaking the music begins. You know, this sort of music saves many films, but if you want your film to be true, you must avoid it. I confess that I too made mistakes with music in my early films. But now I use music, as in Mouchette, only at the end, because I want to take the audience out of the film into another realm; that is the reason for Monteverdi’s Magnificat.
S: Why did you suddenly move to color in Une Femme douce?
B: Because suddenly I had money for it.
S: Did the new technique produce any special problems?
B: Yes. Since the first rule of art is unity, color threatens you because its effects are too various. However, if you can control and unify the color, you produce more powerful shots in it than are possible in black and white. In Une Femme douce I started with the color of Dominique Sanda’s skin and harmonized everything to it.
S: The sight of her nude flesh is one of the most important in the film.
B: I am also using nudity in Four Nights of a Dreamer. I am not at all against nudity so long as the body is beautiful; only when the body is ugly is its nudity obscene. It is like kissing. I can’t bear to see people kissing on the screen. Can you?
S: That’s why you sometimes have your characters kiss each other’s hands?
B: Yes. Perhaps.
Robert Bresson’s 14 films
‘A director with as supple a foundation of cinephilic adoration as Robert Bresson is bound to inspire a lot of Olympian proselytizing, among auteurist converts and heretics alike, about the galactic elemental clarity of his filmmaking, spiked with as many buzzwords as possible such as “unforced,” “simple,” “open-ended,” “spiritual,” “philosophical,” “earthy,” “humane.” It’s almost to the point that reading about Bresson you’d imagine that his films are composed of shots of nothing but koi ponds, cala lilies, creamy, hemp-textured canvases, loaves of bread, or whatever else has become shorthand for cinematic transubstantiation. Which is why a film like L’Argent, which is admittedly unforced, open-ended, and humane (and, to throw in one further Bresson cliché to boot, excises any trace of narrative fat and works it to the bone), hits with the effect not so much reflecting a cleansing of the soul, but rather a ransacking.’ — Eric Henderson, Slant
Bresson interviewed about ‘L’argent’
The Devil, Probably (1977)
‘Of all the Bresson films that deal with suicide, The Devil, Probably most resembles a death march. Its impassive young protagonist, Charles (Antoine Monnier, great-grandson of Henri Matisse), single-mindedly rejects the solutions and opiates of a corrupt, toxic, late-capitalist world and succumbs to the tug of oblivion—although, lacking the will to do the deed himself, he has to buy his own death, hiring a junkie friend to kill him. In France the film was banned to under-eighteens, lest it give alienated kids any ideas. In the US it went unreleased until the mid-’90s. One of only two original screenplays that Bresson wrote (the other, Au Hasard Balthazar, has strong intimations of Dostoevsky), Devil may be his least typical film. The didacticism (newsreel footage of environmental disasters), blunt satire (especially in a scene with a Jacques Lacan–like shrink), and pronounced nihilist-atheist streak all made the film hard to square with received readings of Bresson—and, much like Antonioni’s post-’68 portrait Zabriskie Point, easy to dismiss as an out-of-touch geezer’s strained bid at topicality. (Bresson was seventy-six at the time.) Bresson influenced almost every major French filmmaker who came after him (beginning with Louis Malle, his onetime assistant, and Jean-Luc Godard, one of his most perceptive critics), but The Devil, Probably seems to have special significance for those who encountered it at a formative age. Claire Denis, an extra on 1971’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, has said that The Devil, Probably was the first film in which she saw her generation onscreen. It’s a clear touchstone for the cinema of Leos Carax, who absorbed its anguish and infused it with a mad romanticism. Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval’s recent Low Life, a haunting meditation on the possibility of youthful resistance, is essentially an elaborate riff on—or an urgent sequel to—The Devil, Probably. Olivier Assayas has written eloquently of his complicated relationship with the film, first rejecting it and then over time coming to regard the troubled Charles as “the truest portrait” of his younger self; Assayas’s most autobiographical film, Cold Water, owes a debt to The Devil, Probably, as will, perhaps, his upcoming Something in the Air, a coming-of-age story in the context of ’70s youth culture.’ — Dennis Lim, Artforum
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
‘One suspects that Bresson wanted to interpret Arthurian legend in a way that would emphasize its petty emotions and physicalities. Why else should he stage Guinevere and Lancelot’s solitary moments in a hay-strewn loft? Why else should he let the camera linger a moment on Guinevere’s sensuous backside? Why else should he shoot a jousting match from the knights’ knees down? However, because Bresson’s cinematic personality is as deliberate and clean as it is, the viewer is tempted to chalk up the bizarre and moving experience of watching Lancelot du Lac to some latent spirituality or grace. Those of us with dissenting opinions can stretch out inside of Bresson’s films a little more, though—because the director is so fascinated with the visual, aural, and tactile worlds he films, it’s very easy to respond with equal fascination. One could say that Lancelot du Lac is about nothing more than the clanging of armor or the movements of legs, but the fact that he cares about the way situations look and feel, its textures and emotional tones (even as filtered through the singular Bressonian personality) is exceedingly important—and exceedingly cool. The chances that Bresson will impress those entirely and happily bred on contemporary Hollywood cinema are, sadly, not very good. His thin plots often elide psychology and conventional pacing, his actors’ distinctive line readings don’t initially appear very interesting, and some are bound to be puzzled by his fascination with unusual shots (such as extended close-ups of single body parts). But it’s not Bresson’s fault for being an uncompromising and distinctive artist—it’s to his credit.’ — Zach Campbell, Slant
Conférence de presse Robert Bresson ‘Lancelot du Lac’ au Festival de Cannes
Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
‘If one wants to be schematic about it, there are three levels of parody in Four Nights: 1) an obvious layer (the ridiculous gangster film) masking, as by ‘excessive light’, 2) a more subtle one extended over the time it takes to know the narrative figures, and concerning solely them; and lastly, 3) a more ambiguous level, poised on the uncomfortable threshold between two different feelings, held right on the verge of crossing into open risibility — the point at which one is not quite sure if one should titter, snicker, chuckle, cackle, guffaw, howl, etc. Jacques exclaiming “What have you done to me!”; the Brazilian singer on the tour-boat; Jacques’ stares at women totally unknown to him, at the start; his sad auditing of his own voice speaking the absurd ‘dreams’ on the cassette-player (one level of parody listening to another) — are among the examples. What all three levels have in common is romanticism as their reference, and some of its attendant manifestations. But this is not to be understood as a straightforward mockery of it — not entirely, at least. Bresson fixes sharply on the shallowness and naivety of its symptoms; but never without reminding us of the holes, and the lives, they are trying to fill. There is a clinging coefficient of sadness attached.’ — M. C. Zenner, Senses of Cinema
Une femme douce (1969)
‘Une femme douce (a.k.a. A Gentle Woman) was the first colour film that Robert Bresson made and immediately we see a break from the director’s previous eight films, with a dramatic intensification of the austerity and pessimism that most characterise his work. Stylistically, the film is noticeably different from Bresson’s black and white films and already there is in evidence the rigorous paring back, the striving to show only what is essential, that would obsess the director in his later years. The transition from Mouchette (1967) to Une femme douce, made just two years later, is as stark as it is brutal, and yet the two films are linked by a common Bressonian theme – that of escape from the penury of mortal existence through death. In the case of Mouchette, it is physical suffering that drives a girl to kill herself. In the subsequent film, a woman’s suicide is prompted by a malaise of the soul, a revulsion for all fleshly things that incarcerate and repress one’s spiritual being. Une femme douce is a film that is permeated with a sense of loss and separation. Frequently, the camera lingers on places where we expect someone to be, but all we see is a person-shaped void. Even when the two protagonists appear in the same shot, the disconnection between them is striking. Both have a profound need for love, and yet neither is capable of satisfying the other’s needs – he is a cold materialist who, vampire-like, thrives on the misfortune of others; she a dreamer, an ethereal being that can barely support the notion she is composed of the same stuff as the rest of the animal kingdom. And when these two ill-matched souls do finally make contact, all too briefly in a sublime moment of tenderness, it is the spark that ignites the touch paper to their shared annihilation. This is Bresson at his cruellest and most pessimistic – not even love can bridge the gulf between flesh and spirit.’ — James Travers
‘“Between thought and expression”—as Lou Reed wrote in the Velvet Underground song “Some Kinda Love”—“lies a lifetime.” Mouchette, and maybe all Robert Bresson’s inexhaustible, majestic films, transpire in that puzzling space “between,” that incalculable “lifetime.” How, for instance, does a director as visually acute as Bresson and so insistent on “the resources of cinematography and the use of the camera to create” also imply the urgency of the unseen, the ineffable, the otherworldly? How does a filmmaker so attentive to metaphysical demands honor the press of our physical existence, whether everyday or tragic? The marvel of Mouchette inheres in the elegance, obstinacy, and capaciousness of Bresson’s double-mindedness. A rape edges into tenderness, suicide emerges as at once holy and appalling, and scene upon scene invokes, simultaneously, spiritual despair and an afterlife. Mouchette (1967) was Bresson’s final black-and-white film before he switched over to color for Une femme douce, in 1969. And there are vestiges throughout of the mournful, formally exacting work he created during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as intuitions of the tonal complexity and even fiercer pessimism that infused his late style. Mouchette herself is at least as solitary as Michel in Pickpocket (1959), and her village proves as claustrophobic as Fontaine’s prison cell in A Man Escaped (1956). Like Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Mouchette tracks hereditary alcoholism in the “malicious” French countryside, and Bresson adapted both movies from novels by Georges Bernanos, a gifted exponent of what he designated “Catholic realism” and also the author of the libretto for the Francis Poulenc opera Dialogues des Carmelites. Shooting on Mouchette started soon after Bresson finished Au hasard Balthazar (1966), and Mouchette seems a combination of the suffering Marie and the donkey, Balthazar, much as the hunting (rabbits) and poaching (partridges) episodes once again analogue human and animal misfortunes.’ — Robert Polito
Robert Bresson on the set of Mouchette
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
‘Godard’s famous claim that Au hasard Balthazar is “the world in an hour and a half” suggests how dense, how immense Bresson’s brief, elliptical tale about the life and death of a donkey is. The film’s steady accumulation of incident, characters, mystery, and social detail, its implicative use of sound, offscreen space, and editing, have the miraculous effect of turning the director’s vaunted austerity into endless plenitude, which is perhaps the central paradox of Bresson’s cinema. So concentrated and oblique is Balthazar, it achieves the density, to extend Godard’s metaphor just a little, of an imploded nova. Bresson’s twin masterpieces of the mid-sixties, Au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette—his last films in black and white—are rural dramas in which the eponymous innocents, a donkey and a girl, suffer a series of assaults and mortifications and then die. With their exquisite renderings of pain and abasement, the films are compendiums of cruelty, whose endings have commonly been interpreted as moments of transfiguration, indicating absolution for a humanity that has been emphatically shown to be not merely fallen but vile. Both “protagonists” expire in nature, one on a hillside, the other in a pond, their deaths accompanied by music of great sublimity: a fragment of Schubert’s Piano Sonata no. 20 and a passage from Monteverdi’s Vespers, respectively. (That these contravene Bresson’s own edict against the use of music as “accompaniment, support, or reinforcement” is significant; he later regretted the rather sentimental employment of the Schubert in Balthazar, and the film without it would be significantly bleaker in effect.) The representation of both deaths is ambiguous. The sacred music in Mouchette (Monteverdi’s “Magnificat,” with its intimations of the Annunciation), Mouchette’s three attempts to “fall” before succeeding, and the held image of the bubbles on the water that has received her body imply to many a divine, even ecstatic deliverance (and a perhaps heretical consecration of suicide). Similarly, Balthazar’s death, accompanied by the secular, albeit exalted, Schubert, as he is surrounded by sheep, suggests to several critics a glorious return to the eternal, a revelation of the divine.’ — James Quandt
Robert Bresson interview: Au Hasard Balthazar
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)
‘Released in 1962, and receiving mild-hearted reviews from the press, Bresson’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962) remained for a long time one of the French filmmaker’s most overlooked films. 40 years later, and in light of other adaptations of the trial that preceded and succeeded it – notably Carl T. Dreyer and Jacques Rivette’s masterpieces La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and Jeanne la Pucelle II – Les prisons (Joan the Maid: The Prisons, 1994) – Bresson’s film, featuring low-key mise en scène detailing the precise period in which the Maid of Orleans lived, stands up as one of the most particular and transcendent works of his oeuvre. Whether or not we agree with Bresson’s statement that Dreyer’s mise en scène and notions of expressionist acting were “grotesque buffooneries”, we can consider this controversial statement as a starting point for examining his own construction of the film. This relentlessly edited, minimalist, sparse film, almost shot in automatic mode, is a direct affront to what he considered the “terrible habit of theater”, the “over expressive” (as he would say) method that he successfully avoided throughout his career.’ — José Sarmiento
‘Pickpocket, like all of Bresson’s films, records the expiration of humane feeling in the modern world, the impossibility of decency in a universe of greed. This is amply illustrated in Au hasard Balthazar (1966), a film about the sufferings of a donkey so painful to watch that if you can see it through without weeping, you deserve to be hit by a Mack truck when you leave the theater. For Bresson, the casual destruction of life, any life, is the damning imperative of the human species. As William Burroughs put it, “Man is a bad animal.” This message is spelled out in boldface in The Devil, Probably, with its copious footage of man-made ecological disaster. Critics frequently link Bresson with Carl Dreyer, which is a bit like pairing August Strindberg with Henrik Ibsen. Like Ibsen, Dreyer has a seamless lack of humor and a solemnity that gives his films the gravity of a cancer operation In Bresson, however, the absurdity that delicately fringes Strindberg’s dark dramas echoes in whole passages of deliberately idiotic dialogue, in actions that speak volumes about nothing but feel uncomfortably textured like real life. Dreyer boils life down to its pivotal moments; Bresson shows that most of our lives are consumed by meaningless routines. This can be startlingly funny, just when you thought a Bresson movie couldn’t become more grim.’ — Gary Indiana
A Man Escaped (1956)
‘Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) is generally considered one of the greatest prison-break movies ever made. It was inspired by the story of André Devigny, a decorated French lieutenant in World War II who escaped from Fort Montluc prison in German-occupied Lyon in 1943 and was awarded the Cross of the Liberation by Charles de Gaulle after the war. Except for the opening scene and the final shots, the entire film is set in the interiors and exteriors of a prison, modeled on the original, and follows the detailed activities of Fontaine (François Leterrier), the protagonist, as he prepares for what everyone tells him is an impossible feat. Bresson, having himself suffered cruelty and internment at the hands of the Germans during the war, wrote the screenplay and dialogue, based on a journalistic account Devigny had published in 1954 as “The Lessons of Strength: A Man Condemned to Death Has Escaped” (his memoir A Condemned Prisoner Has Escaped was published in 1956). Although the film’s preface assures us that it does not embellish that account, and Devigny himself acted as Bresson’s factual adviser, there are critical differences between his work and Bresson’s film. In fact, the first title Bresson considered, Aide-toi . . .—part of a phrase meaning “Heaven helps those who help themselves”—suggests that he was as attracted to the spiritual significance of the story as he was to Devigny’s scrupulous description of his experience. The film’s brilliant exposition of Fontaine’s daily efforts to convert the objects in his cell into the instruments of escape indeed became for Bresson the expressive means for the man’s pragmatic form of faith.’ — Tony Pipolo
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
‘In the “portrait of the artist as disturber of the peace” that is Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson was still shedding the contingencies of contemporary cinema. But the film left enough of a mark on its viewers to become a milestone in the slow process of the liberation of postwar French cinema. Long after Cahiers du cinéma published his famous article “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema” (No. 31, January 1954), which devotes a lot of attention to screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost’s unproduced adaptation of Bernanos’ novel, only to denounce their alleged inanity and hail Bresson’s genius, François Truffaut would remember Diary of a Country Priest and the words of the priest of Ambricourt to Dufréty when he concluded the angry letter in which he severed all personal ties with Jean-Luc Godard: “If I was in your place and I’d broken the oaths of my ordination, I would prefer that it had been for the love of a woman rather than what you call your intellectual evolution.” Diary of a Country Priest is truly a rupture in the history of cinema.’ — Frédéric Bonnaud
Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
‘Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is fixed in history as not just the second feature film by Robert Bresson, but as one of those movies that heralded an austere, modernistic way of seeing and feeling. But not even Bresson, in 1944, knew that he was bound to become the author of Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Au hazard Balthazar, Mouchette, and so on. No one knew which way the wind would blow. And close attention to Les Dames reveals much that is unexpected or uncharacteristic—at the 1977 Bresson tribute at London’s National Film Theatre, it was seen as “an un-Bressonian film.” So it’s worth concentrating on the reality of 1944 if one wants to get the most out of this extraordinary film—and to see where Bresson was going. Robert Bresson then was in the prime of life. Putting it that way is not just to get past the image of the ancient, white-haired ascetic (the dead master even); it’s a way of noting that the women in Les Dames are photographed with something like the affection, or the sensuality even, that one knows from Max Ophuls, from Renoir or Howard Hawks. There is even a shot of Agnès (Élina Labourdette) trying on earrings, looking at herself in the mirror, watched by her mother (Lucienne Bogaert), that has a heady, casual eroticism in the faces, the jewels, the bits of décor, the glamour of reflection, and the soft focus of the burnished glass. It could be a moment from Max Ophuls—or Jacques Demy (Labourdette, ravishing as the mothered Agnès in Les Dames, would be just as glorious and insecure as the mother in Lola, and surely Demy felt that in his casting.)’ — David Thomson
Les anges du péché (1943)
‘One of the most astonishing film debuts ever, made while France was still under Nazi occupation. Bresson chose an apparently timeless subject: the way that people affect each other’s destinies. Based on the real convent of the Sisters of Béthany, a secluded order of nuns are minutely observed in their rehabilitation of women from prison. If the salvation is tangibly close to a Resistance adventure, it is the simple human confrontations that fascinate Bresson – the consuming desire of secure, bourgeois-born Anne-Marie to save the unrepentant Thérèse, wrongly imprisoned for the sake of her criminal lover. Concentrated dialogue (with a little help from Jean Giraudoux) and moulded monochrome photography by Philippe Agostini contribute to an outstanding film. Rarely have the seemingly opposite worlds of the spiritual and the erotic received such sublime, ennobling treatment.’ — Time Out (London)
the entire film (compressed into 4 minutes)
p.s. Hey. ** H, Hi, h. Oh, I see you answered your ‘Nude Restaurant’ question. Will you go see what state it’s in now? Winter’s good. It’s in full swing over here, albeit sans snow, grr, but I miss it already. Gosh, I definitely would go see Ashbery’s collages if I were there. They do seem, from what I’ve seen, like visual sideline souvenirs of his linguistic genius, but anything that originated in his head is super interesting just by virtue of the birthplace, I think. ** Hyperbolic_plain, Hey! Oh, yay, and such a scarily good one, on my birthday to boot. Thank you very kindly, sir! Everyone, hyperbolic_plain made (me) a gif. Want to see it? Yep? ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Me too, and I certainly will. I’ll give you the DC grand tour of only the best (in my opinion) Paris patisseries, bakeries, and chocolatiers. Oh, Bernard corrected the Twin Peaks date. May 21st! Which is good for me because I hopefully won’t be in the middle of shooting our film and dead-brained by then. I’m really wary of ‘Trainspotting #2’. I think I’m going to have to hear a lot of positive things about it from people I trust before I take a chance on that. Yeah, that little amusement park will work, if it still looks right in person, and if they okay us shooting there. In our film, a character just has to run through and out of the park crying, and then most of the scene takes on the immediate outskirts with the park visible in the background, so hopefully that’s not asking a park for too much. No, I haven’t read that James Frey book. I only remember the massive controversy in the US about it being a fabrication rather than the true life story that it presents itself as or something? My yesterday was another pretty lowkey, work-y one. I honestly can’t remember a single interesting moment, ha ha. Winter seems to have tuned me into a reclusive workaholic. But it’s my birthday today so hopefully friends will offer to rescue me from my cave and offer something fun to do. We’ll see. Have a nice my birthday over there, and tell me what happened? ** Montse, Hi, Montse! Me too. That tumblr looks really cool. Nice name too. I’ll scour its archive, thank you! Oh, I don’t think France does the Three Kings Day thing. It’s historically a pretty secular country, although in recent years the Catholics have hooked up with the Far Right and are getting noisier and noisier about ‘blasphemous’ art and movies and theater and so on, ugh. I really like the children writing letters and candy-expelling parade part of that holiday. That’s really nice. My bad family situation is going to be eternal, I’m pretty sure. Hopefully most of the time it’ll happen quietly with certain siblings just hating each other in their private fantasies and stuff. Your dentist visit made your yesterday more exciting than mine, which goes to show how nothing it was. Enjoy Tuesday? Anything noteworthy cross your path? Love, me. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi, D. In my LA neighborhood too. Here in Paris, that never really happens, I guess because space is so limited. Usually there’ll suddenly be new restaurant before you even realize that one that used to have that spot closed. Yes, I did of course read your Meryl4Potus post. Great job, as always. ** Steevee, Hi. I’m going to have to find/see Viceland on my computer because it isn’t on cable over here. Wait, surely you can see your doctor while the insurance mess is being sorted out? Jesus. Ha ha, it has often been in the 20s and sometimes lower here for about a month straight. I hadn’t heard of ‘Starless Dreams’. I’ll definitely see if I can seek it out. How is ‘I Am Not Your Negro’? ** Bill, Hi, Bill! I wondered what Rasputin’s cuisine was too. I even investigated and couldn’t find a thing. Which I guess means the food was either really evil or really not evil. Oh, yes, ‘Made in Britain’ is quite good, no? And Tim Roth was quite the exciting actor back then. I’d forgotten that he was. ** Nick Toti, Hi, Nick! Thank you a lot for being here. Yes, I’ve read your pieces on Michael’s ‘Kiddiepunk Cartoons’, and they’re fantastic! Michael and I were talking about how great they were just the other day. He’s totally thrilled and honored by them, as I hope you know. Anyway, let me share them. And thank you again for coming in here and for your excellent work, in this case and in every case I’ve ever come across. Everyone, The superb writer Nick Toti has written some extremely smart and fascinating pieces on Michael Salerno’s wonderful video/film series ‘Kiddiepunk Cartoons’. I very highly recommend you spend quality time with them today and/or asap. First here is Nick’s brilliant overview of the series. Then here and subsequently here is his interview with Michael. Very enlightening and enjoyable stuff. Hit them up! ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Thanks. I think so too. I think I’m going to do a sequel concentrating on dead UK restaurants. I came across a lot of haunting ones but decided to stick to America for the post because the Americanness of those eateries’ corpses had a particular quality. I don’t think I knew about the Dundee V&A Museum of Design before. That’s very interesting. Do you have high hopes for it itself? ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. Thanks, bud. I certainly don’t envy your viruses but I do envy your ice and even your embinding by it. I’ve read Eliot Weinberger here and there in bits and pieces, but never with concentration on him as a writer. Hm. I’ll look into that book. The Xiu Xiu video is an unhappy story. The record company rejected it after we made it with assurances from Jamie that we had total creative freedom and with his full support before and during the shooting. The record company’s rejection was totally unexpected since we made it with the understanding that he had control over the video, which apparently he did not. When the rejection happened, it felt like he just kind of hung us out to dry. And since we’re very happy with the video and basically made it on our own dime including flying all the way to LA and staying for ten days because the rule was that Jamie had to appear in the video, the whole thing feels pretty ugly. After a bit of a battle, the record company said we can release the video as ‘unofficial’ after the Xiu Xiu comes out in late February. I’d like to, but there’s also some lingering sting from what happened and, at least for now, I’m not sure if it’ll see the light of day or not. I hope so. Bon day! ** Bernard, May 21st! Much better. For me. I don’t … think you can post a photo in the comments. Hm. If so, I will have to add some kind of widget, I think. I’ll see if it’s possible. I think you haven’t cooked for me, no. I think there’ve been ideas that that could happen, but I dare say my mouth has not yet wrapped itself around a you-generated food stuff yet. There’s always Paris 2017. That food you made that I could eat made me hungry and lit the fuse leading to my aesthetic resources. I like good food. I’m just lazy, mostly. It’s my birthday so maybe I’ll eat something better than good tonight, although I have a stinking suspicion I’ll wind up downing nachos at Hard Rock Cafe, which is actually pretty good food, which I guess kind of neutralizes my claim like I like good food. Oh, I don’t know. ** Kyler, Hi. I don’t think I ever ate at Howard Johnson’s. They didn’t have them out west. Yeah, ugh, birthday. No, the birthday part itself is okay, but I’m not into the numbers. This year’s number just feels like the opening credits of a horror movie. But yes! Thank you for wishing me a happy birthday. I think it probably will be. ** Right. Since it’s my birthday, and since Robert Bresson is my all-time favorite artist, I chose to restore my Robert Bresson Day to make myself happy, and, I hope, some of you happy too, even the vast majority of you? In any case, see you tomorrow.