Model Director

Left: Robert Bresson, Mouchette, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 78 minutes. Right: Robert Bresson, Au hazard Balthazar, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.

FOR MANY FILM CRITICS, film historians, and filmmakers, Robert Bresson is the alpha and the omega of cinema. Marguerite Duras said that watching one of his movies was like seeing film for the first time. Such claims continue to resonate with each generation that discovers Bresson. While his narratives and themes are powerful, the real thrust of the Bresson experience has to do with each film’s primordial engagement with images, sounds, and the rhythms that pulsate between them, as if one’s eyes and ears were being summoned to a singular feast arranged for no other guests. As this suggests, Bresson sought, increasingly, to purge the medium of its dependence on what he believed were the excesses of narrative cinema—professional actors, dramatically constructed scenes, and redundant dialogue. His aim was to shed everything that obstructed the essence of the work in order to make revelatory action the heart of every shot and the motive for every cut.

For some, this stripping down to essentials led to an ascetic and pure cinema; for others, it seemed punishing and withholding. Paradoxically, all four terms fit that aspect of Bresson’s style identified as “spiritual” by the critic Susan Sontag (in 1969), in that it required comparable mental rigor and emotional discipline on the part of the viewer. While this quality was initially linked to overtly religious subjects in Les Anges du péché (his first film, 1943), Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), something akin to it is equally discernible in A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), and the late films Lancelot of the Lake (1974), The Devil Probably (1977), and L’Argent (1983).

Notwithstanding their alleged austerity, Bresson’s films are among the most seductive in the history of cinema. From Diary of a Country Priest to L’Argent, no image is inconsequential, no sound incidental, no cut invisible. He made the film experience as critical as the subjects that absorbed him. His aim was to make every viewer an ideal viewer, as attuned to every nuance of what is on the screen as to the significance and palpability of what is not. No better example exists of the evocative power of offscreen space and the sound that emanates from it than A Man Escaped.

As for his preference for untrained actors, virginal in appearance as well as experience before the camera, by now the faces of these “models,” as he called them, are so etched in the annals of film iconography that it is impossible to gaze at them unmoved. Nowhere is an innocence compromised by knowledge so indelibly limned than on the countenances of the country priest, the prisoner Fontaine, the pickpocket Michel, Joan of Arc, Marie in Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, the gentle woman, Sir Gawain, Charles (in The Devil Probably), Yvon (in L’Argent). Perhaps the most heartbreaking quality of Bresson’s films is the awareness of worldly corruption that we glimpse just beyond the glow that radiates from these young and beautiful creatures.

Left: Robert Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest, 1951, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Right: Robert Bresson, The Devil Probably, 1977, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.

As with all works of art, descriptive terms are relative to a context. The spare quality associated with Bresson is really a product of his clarity and his focus on the necessary. Far from minimalist, the formal invention of each film resonates with a thematic richness, often derived from the texts of such literary mentors as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Georges Bernanos. Like them, Bresson was preoccupied with big questions—the existence of God, the nature of evil, the ethics of the individual’s actions.

His narratives and themes negotiate the tension between existential doubt and belief in a divine being; at least four characters resort to suicide. The country priest stares into a void that only his faith can fill; the prisoner Fontaine’s determination to escape sustains hope in those around him; the pickpocket believed in God for only five minutes; Joan of Arc’s insistence that she is God’s emissary confounds the political and religious forces bent on her destruction; the donkey Balthazar, modeled after Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, is the most original and most affecting Christ figure in any work of fiction I know.

In 1957, when Bresson had completed only four of his thirteen features, the French filmmaker Jacques Rivette announced that he was “the only [French] filmmaker left who has not sold out.” The claim proved prophetic of the small oeuvre Bresson produced in forty-five years. Once thought alienating and esoteric, his aesthetics of economy, ellipses, and deadpan acting went on to influence just about every serious European filmmaker of the past four decades.

Orson Welles once said that, to be remembered, all any serious artist needed was one masterpiece. Bresson aficionados would dispute which of at least six candidates warrant that title. All of those will be screened in the near complete retrospective at Film Forum, in addition to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) and the very rarely shown Les Anges du péché and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), his rapturously photographed lyric on the fickleness of love—the last two being shown in new 35-mm prints. It’s hard to think of a better way to start out the new year.

A retrospective of films by Robert Bresson runs January 6–26 at Film Forum in New York.