Robert Bresson

A consumptive priest drags himself down a country road and the autumn-stripped trees seem to murmur their kinship with the dying man. A bride joyfully jumps up and down on her bridal bed but soon her husband impassively remarks on the soundtrack that he threw cold water on her exhilaration. A sad-faced murderer taking refuge with a saintly woman spends a silent moment of communion with her by helping to hang her laundry; in the next scene, without explanation, he kills her and her entire family for a paltry sum of money, then, also without explanation, turns himself in to the police. No heartwarming music underscores the priest’s self-sacrifice. No heart-to-heart dialogue explains the marital problem. There is no gore in the massacre; a lamp knocked over does synecdochical duty for ax-shattered skulls.

These are scenes from films written and directed by the late Robert Bresson. Was there ever a body of cinematic work that needed helpful commentary more than the elliptical, lugubrious, humorless, yet-finally-deeply moving films by this French moviemaker?

Turn to the bibliography of Joseph Cunneen’s Robert Bresson and you see right away the gap this book fills. Though ninety-seven items are listed, at least forty-five remain untranslated from the French, and almost all the English-language writings are out of print. The latest full-length study, Keith Reader’s Robert Bresson (2000), is British and has no American publisher.

Cunneen meets this lack soberly, in the manner of an efficient tour guide who knows his route inch by inch but has never pretended to be a raconteur. Unlike, say, Donald Richie’s classic studies of Kurosawa and Ozu-big, sidewinding volumes that caress felicities, worry away at flaws, and fling biographic, technical, and cultural grace notes at the reader-Cunneen’s work marches through his subject’s career in an orderly fashion. Bracketed between an interesting introduction and an even better summation are thirteen chapters dealing with the filmmaker’s thirteen movies. Each begins by setting forth the theme, pertinent facts of production, and critical reception. Then Cunneen recounts the plot so that the reader can note odd narrative twists and elliptical hops. Each chapter is capped by cinematic analysis in which the author alternates his own lucid comments with the often gassier lucubrations of French critics (or perhaps French critics always sound gassy in translation). In short, this is an excellent primer for those who have seen enough Bresson to have their appetites whetted, but also may have been put off by his strangeness.

For Bresson is strange-immediately and enduringly and irreducibly strange. Repeated viewings enrich one’s understanding but don’t resolve all doubts and discomforts. Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Orson Welles, and Yasujiro Ozu are all strange, too, but if you stick with them, each eventually becomes your friend. Perhaps only Michelangelo Antonioni, among great filmmakers, repels coziness as ruthlessly as Bresson.

He repels coziness but doesn’t necessarily repel the viewer who is prepared to dispense with coziness. Cunneen is helpful about the strangeness and the integrity behind it. Bresson, he writes, “may well have been an intellectual but his movies are concerned with feelings, not ideas...he went to great extremes to avoid the easy exploitation of superficial, readily available emotions...in The Trial of Joan of Arc...he does not try to coerce tears from a sympathetic audience; he even minimizes images of the physical brutality practiced against her. Instead he concentrates on the intelligence and audacity of the testimony Joan actually gave during her trial.”

If that approach strikes you as testingly ascetic, you don’t know the half of it. Bresson wrote screenplays focused on very few characters and never permitted those casual, semi-improvisatory moments that are often the most freely breathing things in a movie (Brando trying on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront, Jeanne Moreau breaking into song in Jules and Jim). He pared down his dialogue with proper ruthlessness but sometimes used offscreen narration to contradict what is happening before the viewer’s eyes. From the very beginning he used music sparingly, finally eliminating it altogether.

Most daringly and, for some, most irritatingly, he stopped using professional actors after his third movie. Yet unlike Vittorio De Sica, who poured his own theatricality into his amateur vessels, Bresson forbade his cast members, whom he termed “models” rather than actors, to do anything more than say their lines in a nearly inflectionless manner. Ruthlessly, he ordered multiple takes to so exhaust the “models” that all attempts to “act” would be undermined and something spontaneous would appear. In an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels (in Encountering Directors), Bresson explained: “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 is what I wish to capture.”

Perhaps not only the unknown but the unseen. For when this method, a kind of artificially induced documentary, works-in The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, L’Argent-it is as if you were reading the human face as a map of the soul. When it doesn’t, as in Lancelot du Lac, you may feel you are watching the worst zombie movie ever made.

My only complaint about Cunneen’s book is that it never complains. Reading it, you’d think that Bresson was a masterpiece-producing machine rather than a fallible artist. In truth, Bresson, like all great creators, perfected a style which empowered him to assemble his own imaginative world, a world that had room for faithful priests, unbreakable Resistance workers, obsessed criminals, and even abused donkeys, but had absolutely no place for a Lancelot or a Guinevere, whose essence has to be enacted in graceful pavannes of courtly love. Bresson’s camerawork and editing evince grace, but his real heroes, whom he brought to mopey life, are all trudgers, moving to their fates with mulish undeflectability. The painter and film critic Manny Farber captured this quality well: “[Bresson] likes a face to be as free from reflection as an animal’s: his sensitive-faced outsiders do what they do without the face making any comment on the action. Before speaking, eyes methodically drop in nervous, helpless abjectness. People turn away from the camera, assume prayerful or meditative poses, pass one another as though on a private procession.”

Yes, they look down at their feet as they walk but they keep moving. In Bresson, physical process doesn’t really symbolize spiritual process; it becomes spiritual progress. To succeed at a task is the means of saving one’s soul. Fontaine, the French Underground agent soon to be the “man escaped,” knows that to give up and passively await his execution would be to consign himself to despair. Though he believes in God, we never see him pray with the clergymen who befriend him. His escape plan is his prayer. We can assume that the country priest prays, but perhaps the most memorable images from Diary are those pain-laden walks in which every ache in his joints and every gasp of air into his consumptive lungs is a prayer. Conversely, when the hero of Pickpocket practices his illicit art in the amazing Gare de Lyon sequence (as riveting as the duel of the pool players in The Hustler), we feel the delirium of his soul’s damnation. His thievery is negative prayer-spiritual concentration brought to bear on crime-and his self-willed arrest is an escape from damnation.

Bresson’s identification of physical motion with spiritual motion led him to try to perfect himself as a metteur en ordreùwho achieves the nearest thing to inevitability that a succession of shots can attain. No waste. No pedestrian alternation of long shots (to take in lovely scenery) with glamorous closeups of the star. Even if his characters aren’t predestined, Bresson wanted his editing to seem so. What he actually achieved were a swift, cool, tense, often elliptical style and characters whose massive sullenness can be pierced by joy. Bresson keeps reminding us that the universe is an unreadable tome; then he grudgingly lets us glimpse half a sentence in the middle of the book. We leap at the opportunity as if it were salvation.

We are benighted not to know his work better. Joseph Cunneen’s gratifyingly plain book may make you want to rent every available Bresson video or DVD: The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, A Gentle Woman, Mouchette, The Devil Probably, Lancelot du Lac, and-last and, I think, greatest of them all-L’Argent (Money), the most amazing artistic product of old age since Verdi composed Falstaff. end

Published in the 2003-09-26 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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