The Soul of Cinema: Robert Bresson

Northwest Film Forum is screening six Robert Bresson films, Tuesdays through Thursdays over the next two weeks (May 1-May 10), so we’re reprinting this essay written for the 1999 Bresson retrospective.

[Originally published in slightly different form in The Seattle Weekly, March 24, 1999]

It’s a cliché, but it bears repeating: Robert Bresson is an original. Over fifty years since his first feature, Les Anges du Peche (1943) made during the German occupation of France, Bresson recreated the very nature of cinema for himself in his own small way. In a mere thirteen features in his forty year career he carved out one of the most unique bodies of work in world cinema, a set of films both somber and celebratory in their search for grace. He had long retired from directing when he died in 1999 at 98 years of age, having spent the previous fifteen years attending concerts and perhaps still painting. He refused to speak about his work and had stopped granting interviews for some time, but his legacy of cinema speaks volumes.

To the uninitiated Bresson can seem maddeningly indifferent—his films eschew the kind of dramatic spikes and psychological grounding of his contemporaries (the psychological intensity of Bergman seems downright flamboyant next to Bresson’s minimalist approach)—and even many cineastes are left cold by Bresson’s remove. Insisting that cinema is properly not the marriage of photography and theater, but of music and painting, Bresson dismisses the tradition of film acting as “filmed theater.” He systematically strips affectation and method from his performers by relentlessly drilling them in rehearsals until they master the mechanical, uninflected motions and line deliveries. They aren’t actors but “models,” taking a term from painting to describe their function in his filmmaking practice.

Track Bresson’s films over time and watch his apparent disengagement develop from the cool but watchful distance of Les Anges de Peche to the near abstraction of character and action within a fated universe (or near enough) of cause and effect in L’Argent (1982), his final film. Between these poles you can feel the different directions his search for “pure cinema” takes him. In the documentary-like scrutiny and detail in 1950s trilogy Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959) he masters his narrative control and ascetic approach with an increasing tendency toward fragmentation. His insistent close-ups isolate details not simply for clarity but to simultaneously foreground and distance action, and to break the kind of engagement audiences fall into with characters and stories.

After pushing these ideas to the extreme in the simultaneously stifling and sedate The Trial of Joan Arc (1961), Bresson turned around and invited the natural world into his films. The tightly orchestrated dramas of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967) play out in fields, forests, countrysides, and seemingly unrehearsed crowds of the world as we know it. As his calculated reserve clashes against the impressionist idyll, resulting in even a greater aesthetic dissonance, his style becomes an expression of the alienation of his characters. With the 1970s the aging Bresson turned his attentions to the youth of France in a series of films that are perhaps his least seen: the rare Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), the Arthurian drama Lancelot du Lac (1974), and the alienated teen rebel drama The Devil Probably (1977).

If it all sounds dry and alienating, it is… and it isn’t at all. Bresson seeks to reach the humanity of his characters, the soul if you will, by removing all barriers between the audience and performer. (Ironically, but not incompatibly, the vast majority of his films end with death, often suicide.) What we ultimately see on the screen aren’t drones or robots or flat, uninflected amateurs, but characters under the thumb of life who show so little emotion that the slightest tick becomes an enormous, exultant explosion. Throughout their benumbed cinematic existence they express themselves through their haunted eyes and their mechanically precise yet organically natural motions. Slowly, over the course of his films, these rote, flat performances come alive with a kind of truth very different from the psychologically motivated performances of even the greatest actors – not better or worse, but most assuredly different. Bresson ultimately takes us to a place only his films can, finding amidst the pain of life and the acceptance of death a state of grace.

Copyright © 1999 Sean Axmaker