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Robert Bresson

On the Absence of the Grail

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The interest of the reader (and one reads the Grail stories with a real interest) does not come, one can see, from the question which normally provokes such interest: WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS? One knows very well, from the beginning, what will happen, who will obtain the Grail, who will be punished, and why. Interest is caused by a totally different question, which is: WHAT IS THE GRAIL?

-Todorov, Poetique de la Prose

Obviously Bresson is not aiming at absolute realism. The rain, the murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones … are there deliberately as neutral agents, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery. They are like lines drawn across an image to affirm its transparency, as does dust on a diamond—it is impurity at its purest.

-Bazin; on Diary of a Country Priest

It seems inevitable that Bresson would have eventually filmed the Arthurian legends; in a real way the director’s entire work points in this direction. An important thing to keep in mind is that in France the Arthurian legends are known by heart to virtually everyone schooled beyond the tenth grade. In adapting Lancelot, Bresson is not indulging in a sort of culture-for-the-masses approach or more-intellectual-than-thou snobbery. He is telling a story which has the value of a totally familiar myth or folk tale for francophone audiences, a fact that grants the director extraordinary liberty in his manner of telling his tale (and allows, as we will see, some important contradictions to arise and shape the work).

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Videodrone: ‘A Man Escaped’ and the films of Robert Bresson on disc and streaming

“This story is true. I give it as it is, without embellishment.”

That’s an understatement of an opening remark. A Man Escaped (Criterion) is a mesmerizing meeting of opposites: a prison escape thriller directed by the austere, introspective Robert Bresson. Based on the memoir by Andre Devigny, a member of the French Resistance imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Gestapo during the German occupation, Bresson (who was himself a German POW) transforms Devigny’s daring escape into an ascetic film of documentary detail. Kept in a tiny stone cell with a high window and a thick wooden door, the prisoner (renamed Fontaine in the film) makes himself intimate with his world–every surface of his room, every sound reverberating through the hall, and every detail of the prison’s layout that he can absorb in brief sojourns from his cell.

Bresson defies expectations of action cinema by focusing on the patience and perseverance of the planning and every minute detail of the preparation. He magnifies every detail with insistent close-ups and detailed examinations of every step, from constructing and hiding ropes and hooks to painstakingly carving out an exit in the heavy cell door, and he a pair of fellow prisoners become a sort of Greek chorus discussing his chances and progress. Shot on location at the actual prison in Lyon, Bresson painstakingly recreates every detail of his ordeal while denying us all outside of his perspective and elements extraneous to his purpose. It’s beautiful, almost meditative, and strangely rousing, a drama where the slightest gesture carries the weight of a confession. In such austerity the tiniest of details take on a monumental significance.

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The Trial of Joan of Arc

[Originally published in The Seattle Weekly, 1998]

You leave behind a lot of the world outside when you step into a Robert Bresson film. One of the most ascetic, uncompromising filmmakers of any age, Bresson strips his films bare. Fastidiously faithful to detail, he shuts out all distractions (and that includes what we might consider acting) to create films that more resemble ritual than real life.

Florence Delay in 'The Trial of Joan of Arc'

In The Trial Of Joan Of Arc, Bresson so strictly adheres to the Spartan medium shots that everything that breaks this formal plan becomes all the more arresting: the quill scratching notes into the trial ledger, the peering eyes of the British staring at Joan (Florence Delay) through a crack in her cell wall, and the lonely shot as she sits framed in complete isolation, still, reserved. Based on contemporary accounts of Joan’s trial for heresy, Bresson compresses the months-long ordeal into a series of interrogations interspersed with a few brief comments by her judges and onlookers. Fastidiously locked into a few unvarying angles, Joan’s world is limited to the court, her cell, and finally the courtyard where her execution are executed – even the onlookers, heard on the soundtrack, are pointedly omitted from the visual world.

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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.

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Seattle Screens: Six Nights of Robert Bresson

Northwest Film Forum presents Notes on the Cinematographer: The Films of Robert Bresson, a series of six Bresson films (four of them never on DVD in the U.S.) screening on 35mm over the next two weeks. It’s a revisit, in a way, of a similar 1998 touring series organized (as was this one) by James Quandt in Toronto.

Four Nights of a Dreamer

Les Anges du Peche (1943), his debut feature, opens the series on Tuesday, May 1, with Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne on Wednesday and The Trial of Joan of Arc on Thursday. Next week is Lancelot du Lac (1974), Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), and Une Femme Douce (1969). (The complete schedule is here.)

So no, it’s not in chronological order and it is certainly not a complete retrospective. NWFF notes that “Several of his other films have recently screened at Northwest Film Forum, and two more will screen in coming months for longer engagements in new 35mm prints.” What we have are some of his rarest films, those most difficult to see under any circumstances.

“Difficult” is a word that comes up all the time discussing Bresson – 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.

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