Robert Bresson 1907–
French director and scriptwriter.
Bresson is best known for austere, stark films which appear to be detached perceptions of humanity. His work has been compared to the flatly expressive style of medieval art. Although his films have little action and often find small audience appeal, they are well received by many critics.
After studying literature and philosophy, Bresson worked as a painter, an experience that greatly influenced his cinematic technique. Rather than allowing the actors to interpret their roles in the film, he prefers to be the creator, or painter, producing a series of related images that cinematically depict his tale. He has written in his Notes sur le Cinématographe: "How to hide from oneself the fact that it all winds up on a rectangle of white fabric hung on a wall? (See your film as a surface to cover.)"
In 1934, Bresson made his first film, Les Affaires publiques, but no copies exist. He also worked on the scripts of several films, and functioned as René Clair's assistant on Air Pur before the outbreak of World War II. During the war, Bresson spent eighteen months as a prisoner of war before returning home in 1941.
Bresson himself marks the beginning of his career with the release of Les Anges du péché in 1943. It was a popular success, enabling Bresson to make Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, based on Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste. This film, however, was not as well received by the public, and Bresson was unable to find financial backing. Consequently, there is a five-year interval between Les Dames and his next film, Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne.
Le Journal marks the advent of Bresson's use of non-professional actors, the first sign of emotional overtones in his work, and his steadfast avoidance of anything studiously "cinematic." Sound effects, as well, proved to be a strong symbolic factor to Bresson. Le Journal, based on a story by Georges Bernanos, received critical as well as popular acclaim, and won the Cannes Grand Prix for 1951.
Once again, five years followed before Bresson made Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé, regarded by many to be his masterpiece. An intensely barren film, its unique construction stems from Bresson's use of gestures and objects, depicting the essence of the French Resistance.
Bresson's first use of color, in Une Femme Douce, allowed him to experiment more with film as an artist's palette. Une Femme Douce is Dostoevsky's story transferred to a modern Parisian setting, and some critics feel it suffers from this transposition of time and place. However, it is generally regarded as one of Bresson's finer works.
Bresson considers it important that he be sole creator of his films, and his attitude towards his actors is indicative of this. They are sometimes kept in ignorance of the plot and seldom, if ever, given the chance to improvise or emote. Bresson's films are stripped of superfluous matter, be it plot, dialogue, or props. He wants nothing to detract from the explicit moral message. Catholic philosophy is intrinsic in his work: every character aspires to a level of grace through suffering. Since Bresson does not cater to a popular market, his output is limited, but he continues to produce highly individualized films and retains a faithful following among those who admire his work.
Bresson has … remarked that he does not believe "technique," in the accepted sense of the word, exists; he prefers "L'écriture." "An author writes on the screen, expresses himself by means of photographed shots of variable length, and from variable angles. On an author worthy of the name, a choice is imposed, dictated by his calculations or his instinct, never by chance. For him, and for him alone, once he has worked out his découpage, each shot he takes can have only one definite angle, one certain length of time." Les Anges du Péché certainly gives this impression, and its mastery is none the less remarkable, especially for a first film…. [Though the story written by Jean Giraudoux] has a few of the kind of conventional elements that Bresson was later to reject entirely, already they cannot be accepted on a conventional dramatic level. This is precisely the level that interests Bresson least, and why, no doubt, the film was not popular. For the not always successful plot contrivances are quite obliterated by the film's main purpose, the delineation of a spiritual conflict, exactly analysed, between two young women, against a richly described background of convent life—its ritual, its dedication, its formidable self-discipline and, at times, ruthlessness. (p. 36)
Les Anges du Péché is … less spare than its successors because of its almost exotic settings. The convent rooms and corridors, all...
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[It] is only in the last century that heroes like Stephen Dedalus, Paul Morel, Yury Zhivago and the priest of Journal d'un Curé de Campagne have regularly emerged. They are from novels in which the hero is an analysable combination of artistic creation, autobiography and public confessional. The task of deciding whether the author is commentating, revealing or committing becomes almost impossible. This is particularly true of Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, written in diary form as a purely first person narrative…. Bernanos has foresaken the advantages of distance for the equally great advantages of intimacy…. The limitations of the structure of the novel reduces its meaning to ambiguities; Bernanos gives us no indication of the way he feels about the priest.
The film provides an ideal solution to this problem. Bresson chose a most unfilmlike form in which the priest reads for long periods out of his diary, whilst on the screen we merely see him writing in the diary or engaged in some task of housework, or sometimes moving towards the next piece of conversation in the film. None of the direct, personal communion between the priest and the audience was lost; yet at the same time we could stand away from the priest observing him in his day-to-day encounters with people…. Bresson has used [the visuals] to reinforce the priest's monologue at all times to provide the atmosphere tone in which the drama is to unfold and...
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Bresson is a master of concentration, psychological as well as physical…. Prison is the perfect setting for such a director: an intense narrow life with its minute everyday happenings magnified into high drama, the appearance of everything charged with meaning, and the soul—as almost nowhere else—a slide on a microscope. But in the outside world, where others live and other happenings impinge on the central one, this narrow preoccupation becomes too trim, cold and tidy. Bresson, at the expense of life and even of accuracy, sticks to the point: the point [of Pickpocket] being pickpocketing, or the mentality of a thief….
[Unfortunately,] life isn't like that: or so it struck me, watching this chill analysis of a corner of human aberration. The thief is a young intellectual with superman notions of morality, the deadpan expression of contemporary French film heroes, and a Dostoievskian relationship with a chief of police who has him firmly hooked and occasionally gives the line a twitch, just (it would appear) for fun…. The dialogue is chill and tidy too: even in moments of the greatest stress (death, decision, the acknowledgement of love) it sounds like words learnt by rote, which goes with the dream-like quality of everyone's movements, the air of compulsion to act as they do…. [Michel is] a literary crook, direct descendant of Raskolnikov, and all he does has the same one-track, joyless and self-conscious...
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For Michel [of Pickpocket] life is like a spy's journey into an alien land. Though every moment is dangerous, the real test of courage is to confront the menace of strangers on the packed trains of the metro. This is the most important part of his day: a weird relationship is set up with the stranger, weird partly because the stranger knows nothing about it and partly because the robbery is not primarily for financial gain (Michel admits his takings aren't often worth the risk) but for erotic satisfaction. Money to Michel is a symbol of sexual rather than economic power; only by rendering the stranger impotent is Michel's anxiety for a moment allayed. The pickpocket can only live as long as he is destroying the anonymous, affluent society about him. (p. 193)
It is in these documentary moments of Pickpocket … that Bresson shows his mastery as a director. A neurotic world is created without trick photography: menace and boredom are developed partly by the use of the same stations, trains, buses, and even the same extras in different crowds, partly by [L.H.] Burel's subtle camera-work, and partly by Bresson's sense of timing. Bresson suggests, he never states: and this he manages mostly by his cutting. His talent for building shots into sequences, and sequences into a whole film is an exceptional one: in its delicacy and elliptical gravity one feels that Bresson, like Eisenstein, has gone back to a study of Japanese poetry...
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Pickpocket took [Bresson] to an ultimate limit of virtuosity. "You see," he seemed to be saying, "I can apply my vision to anything." And after the final fadeout one could only wonder where his cryptic and fastidious extremism would lead him next.
With a master-stroke of self-discipline … The Trial of Joan of Arc … looks for a way back to the essence of that vision. If it didn't sound dangerously like a paradox, one could say that here Bresson discards all the flourishes of his style…. Everything is stripped of decoration: the enigmatic faces, the settings of curtains and brick walls, the hole in the dark wall through which hostile eyes peer into the cell. Everything that is profane is only there to serve the sacred: the inner, spiritual drama. Even the blackness of the fadeouts suggests something solemn. To Bresson cinema means a church. And the scenes of Joan's repeated interrogations, composed with a splendour of mathematical precision, rise like the solid pillars sustaining the whole arch of the work. We move along under them as if in some ascetic medieval cathedral, advancing slowly and with echoing footsteps, hesitant and yet drawn on by the spiritual grandeur—irresistibly moving towards the altar, the culmination, the inevitable burning at the stake. (pp. 37-8)
One interrogation succeeds another; the dialogue derives from the curt, accurate sentences of the trial record. An...
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In the film, the master of the reflective mode is Robert Bresson. (p. 178)
The reason that Bresson is not generally ranked according to his merits is that the tradition to which his art belongs, the reflective or contemplative, is not well understood. Particularly in England and America, Bresson's films are often described as cold, remote, overintellectualized, geometrical. (p. 179)
[Bresson, like Yasujiro Ozu, has created a rigorous narrative form.] And the form of Bresson's films is designed (like Ozu's) to discipline the emotions at the same time that it arouses them: to induce a certain tranquillity in the spectator, a state of spiritual balance that is itself the subject of the film.
Reflective art is art which, in effect, imposes a certain discipline on the audience—postponing easy gratification. Even boredom can be a permissible means of such discipline. Giving prominence to what is artifice in the work of art is another means. One thinks here of Brecht's idea of theater. Brecht advocated strategies of staging—like having a narrator, putting musicians on stage, interposing filmed scenes—and a technique of acting so that the audience could distance itself, and not become uncritically "involved" in the plot and the fate of the characters. Bresson wishes distance, too. But his aim, I would imagine, is not to keep hot emotions cool so that intelligence can prevail. The emotional distance...
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John Russell Taylor
Essentially a quietist in the cinema, Bresson has devoted himself with a quite unworldly dedication to working out and putting on the screen his own vision, entirely without regard for what is going on around him in the cinema and the world at large, and it is this quality of remoteness, the hermetic perfection of the finished films, which many find off-putting. His films are not easy, they do not go out of their way to please or attract; they sometimes seem to be made in complete unconcern over whether anyone will want to see them or not. In this way they achieve a purity which makes even Antonioni seem in comparison rather flashy and vulgar; they may achieve it, however—or so those who do not like them say—only at the risk of deteriorating from the calm detachment of the philosopher to the mere inertia of a dead object. (pp. 115-16)
[Bresson's] most popular films were the middle two [Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne and Un Condamné à Mort s'est Echappé], made when he had just achieved full maturity and before he had refined his style to a point beyond which many of his admirers, even, were unwilling to follow him—there is no doubt about the consistency of his development and about his unique significance as the extreme example of a particular view of the film-maker's art put into practice. That view might be briefly characterized as the autocratic view: the director is paramount in every area of the film, and...
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It is easy to see why Bresson has rejected conventional 'realism' [in Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne]—which, in effect, means that the director has to record many inessential and superficial feelings, whims and fluctuations in his characters' experiences. But a man's soul is more sullen, mysterious, withdrawn. In Bresson the monotone and the 'deadpan' represent, not a 'mask', but a revelation of the essential man. His personages seem aloof because they are naked. There is no question of 'expressionism' rather than 'realism'. The physical is spiritualised; the eternal verities permeate the material world. The location photography—'neo-realism'—expresses not just a particular place, a 'mood' (passing emotions) but a spiritual condition of man without God. (p. 31)
[We] see only the essential moment of each scene, a moment which acquires an eerie concentration from … isolation and emphasis. Often, paradoxically, the essential moment of each scene is omitted. For example, the 'voice of the diary' tells us that the priest 'makes the gesture of total acceptance', which is presumably stretching himself out on the floor of his bedroom in the posture of the cross; but all we see is the priest hauling himself up by the bedrail, afterwards. And this extraordinary omission provides the clue to Bresson's whole method. What matters is not the gesture itself—which might appeal to the spectator for the wrong reasons (its apparent...
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[The] novelty of [Au Hasard, Balthazar] lies less in the wealth of happenings than in the eye, that veiled but disenchanted eye, which Bresson turns on the modern world. The price of progress in this mechanical age is la civilisation du weekend…. Here Bresson clips the wings from critical comments like "irrelevant to the times," "more and more withdrawn from the world." For if the dancers (us?) in the café sequence seem indifferent to the fiendish destruction which rages round them, the teenage thirst for liberty echoes that of the underdeveloped countries, their need to inflict torture proves that the Algerian tragedy still exists, and their fire-crackers soar into the same sky as space rockets. The moon scudding by so close past the clouds is not just a touch of decorative vanity: it is a reminder that although one must take scientific progress into account, human feelings have not changed. Bresson, at the age of fifty-eight, has dropped his mask. No question here that he is against the need to cause suffering, against brute sensuality, against avarice for money, against avarice of the heart, against self-destructive pride, against the increasing stupidity of man.
The world changes, but not Bresson. Au Hasard, Balthazar is his greatest and most Bressonian film…. It is great because in the harmonies and dissonances between the characters (Marie in particular) and the donkey, Balthazar, and between successive...
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[Bresson's avowal of fidelity to the novel, Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, conditioned us to look for just that in analyzing the film.] While the characters in the book are presented to the reader in high relief and while their inevitably brief evocation by the pen of the curé of Ambricourt never gives us a feeling of frustration or of any limits being put both to their existence and to our knowledge of their existence, Bresson, in the process of showing them to us, is forever hurrying them out of sight. In place of the powerfully concrete evocations of the novelist, the film offers us an increasingly impoverished image which escapes us because it is hidden from us and is never really developed.
The novel of Bernanos is rich in picturesque evocations, solid, concrete, strikingly visual. (p. 127)
If he had really been faithful to the book, Bresson would have made quite a different film. Determined though he was to add nothing to the original—already a subtle form of betrayal by omission—he might at least have chosen to sacrifice the more literary parts for the many passages of readymade film material that cried out for visualization. Yet he systematically took the opposite course. When you compare the two, it is the film that is literary while the novel teems with visual material….
Bresson, like Dreyer, is only concerned with the countenance as...
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After the manifold splendours of Balthazar, Mouchette seems an altogether thinner experience, exquisite but frail, as though Bresson this time had chosen to tell only the story of Marie without the counterpoint of Balthazar. Unlike the earlier film, which develops as a series of concentric circles spreading from the tethered souls of Marie and Balthazar, Mouchette … drives straight as an arrow towards its inevitable end in Mouchette's abdication from life….
At the same time, by any other standards than Balthazar, Mouchette is a masterpiece: a Bresson film pure and simple with its extraordinary correspondances between sound and gesture to evoke the unspoken and the unseen. No one but Bresson, for instance, could have conceived that extraordinary dialogue between hands, veiled eyes and inanimate objects which pinpoints the triangle relationship between Arsene, Louisa and the gamekeeper….
The real importance of Mouchette, however, is that it confirms a new departure in Bresson's work which began with Balthazar. Always a solitary, the Bresson hero has hitherto lived apart, in a world almost of his creation, isolated not only by circumstance but by his own nature…. With Marie and Mouchette, Bresson describes a different kind of solitude: one which exists within the world rather than apart from it, and which is resisted rather than courted. (p. 152)
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[In A Gentle Creature] Bresson follows the content, if not the method of [Dostoevsky's story of the same name] closely. It is as though he had listed all its main points, then filmed them with as much clarity as possible so that no one should misunderstand their meaning. A spareness surrounds almost every phrase and gesture, a spareness emphasised by the familiar Bressonian device of using low-tensioned interludes: people walking up and down stairs, opening and closing doors. In the four opening shots he establishes the suicide in an authoritative way: a hand presses down on a door handle; an elderly maid, Anna, watches a table fall on a balcony; a white shawl falls slowly through the air; the girl lies dead on the pavement….
In several ways Bresson's sharpening of Dostoevsky's narrative also deepens it. The ritualised handling of the scenes in the pawnbroker's shop brings out the compulsive element in this work: pawnbroking is like picking pockets. And by a single-minded focus on this act, the monotonous exchange of money for cherished objects becomes momentous. (p. 82)
And yet, as always with this director, clarity of statement does not presume an absence of ambiguity. His plot may have the schematic feel of a French neo-classical tragedy: but what does this schema represent? The authority of his filming, the deliberate progression of each shot, may suggest that he knows where he is taking us to: but where,...
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Bresson has recreated the novel [Journal d'un Curé de Campagne], not simply made an adaptation of it in the conventional manner. He has been concerned to seek out the central core of the book—the spiritual development of the young country priest—and prune all the side issues not directly related to this main theme (but which are nonetheless an essential part of the novel), thereby intensifying the story and giving it the purity of a Racinean tragedy. (p. 128)
The director's personality is to be felt too in the film's tone: all the emotions are muted and there is a lack of violence or passion…. This continual understating of the emotions, together with the hero's essentially passive submission to God's will, gives the film its particular rhythm and makes the death of the Curé a real climax. (pp. 129-30)
[Again, in Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé] Bresson concentrates on his single theme, the prison escape planned and executed by the hero (here known as Lieutenant Fontaine), and all that is irrelevant to this is omitted. For this reason we learn nothing of the prisoner's antecedents or even the reasons why he is in prison; we can see what sort of a man he is from his actions and this suffices. (p. 130)
The whole film has an evenness of tone that marks it as the product of one man's personality. Fontaine has remarkable similarities with the Curé d'Ambricourt: he is...
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Charles Thomas Samuels
[Une Femme Douce] commences with the [heroine's] suicide. What draws us on, like [her] husband, is the desire to know why. But to know why in Bresson (as is not the case in Dostoevski), we have to watch intently everything that happens because nothing is explained and even the explainer is an item to be fathomed. Many viewers find Bresson cold and remote, but this coldness may be only a reflection of their own passivity. If you can be excited by the search for understanding, you can be excited by Bresson.
So Bresson forces total concentration…. Only at the very end of each film does Bresson release us from our hush of contemplation with a shock that sums up what we've seen, as when bubbles emerge from the river in which the heroine of Mouchette has drowned herself and a blast of the Magnificat admits that death alone is victory for such a life. (p. 312)
The wife is not what her husband thinks her to be, yet when she almost embodies his erroneous image, her integrity is shattered and she can only die. The husband is brutal, not so much when he seeks to possess his hard-eyed wife as when he seeks to make amends for having sought possession. Watching their marriage progress, we feel a growing terror, because opposites merge and solutions turn out to be worse than the problems they solve….
The film's clear point is that tragedy can be comprehended as a process, while still...
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Bresson's prison cycle [Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, and The Trial of Joan of Arc] provides an excellent opportunity to study the transcendental style in depth for several reasons: one, because the prison metaphor is endemic to certain theological questions; two, because Bresson's statements clear up much of the ambiguity in which critics are often forced to operate; and three, because there are few cultural elements intermingled with transcendental style in his films. (p. 60)
[In] transcendental style the form must be the operative element, and for a very simple reason: form is the universal element whereas the subject matter is necessarily parochial, having been determined by the particular culture from which it springs. And if a work of art is to be truly transcendent (above any culture), it must rely on its universal elements. (p. 61)
In film, "surface-aesthetics" is the everyday, and is practiced by Bresson…. (p. 62)
Bresson's use of the everyday is not derived from a concern for "real life," but from an opposition to the contrived, dramatic events which pass for real life in movies. These emotional constructs—plot, acting, camerawork, editing, music—are "screens."… Screens prevent the viewer from seeing through the surface reality to the supernatural; they suppose that the external reality is self-sufficient.
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The severity of Bresson's style has earned his films the reputation, depending on whom you read, of being exquisitely or pretentiously boring. In fact, in my sense of it, the opposite is true. There is hardly an uncharged moment in Bresson's meticulous and provocative mise en scène. My sense is that certain audiences experience Bresson as boring because his films, while appearing simple, demand so much of the eye. Boredom serves as a means of deflecting pressure.
In Four Nights of a Dreamer, it is as if Bresson's influence on Godard had filtered back to him in a kind of circular pollination. A comedy … adapted and updated from the Dostoevsky story "White Nights," Four Nights of a Dreamer is Bresson's most contemporary film in style and setting. It is also the austere filmmaker's most ungrudgingly beautiful and accessible work. (p. 450)
Whereas in the tragic films, Bresson's isolated, self-imprisoned figures (the curate, the pickpocket, Fontaine, Marie), seeking freedom, make contact at the last extreme with another, Four Nights of a Dreamer deals with the romantic charge of hopeless pursuit. Jacques loves Marthe—it is the nature of romantic love, of course—because he is doomed not to have her. The dreamer, committed to loss, pursues only illusory hopes. To make real contact, to love, is to lose the fantasy of loving, which is central to the dreamer's life, the romantic, really...
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[Lancelot du Lac stuns and overwhelms one because of the film's] clarity and simplicity, a precise and irreducible arrangement of sounds and images that is so wholly functional that nothing is permitted to detract from the overall narrative complex, and everything present is used. It is a film where the rattle of armour and the neighing of horses are as essential as the faces and bodies of the characters, where indeed each of these elements serves to isolate and define the importance and impact of the others.
The sheer rawness of what is there disconcerts, but it shouldn't lead one to focus unduly on what isn't there, or track down some elusive clue to the Bressonian mystery. To a certain extent, Bresson's films are about mystery, but their manner of arriving there is always quite concrete…. [It] seems useful to speak here of Bresson's art as one of immanence, not one of transcendence, and one where the inside is always revealed by remaining on the outside….
This is a distinctly modern Lancelot, in striking contrast to the relatively 'medieval' atmosphere of Bresson's last two films, both set in contemporary Paris, where the gentle creature often suggested a lonely maiden in a tower waiting to be rescued, and the dreamer resembled a wandering knight in search of a pure love that was equally hopeless. The sense of elongated durations and passing seasons that we associate with the...
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[Bresson, in The Diary of a Country Priest,] is faithful to the central development of the priest's role, at the same time that he diminishes the significance of the four pairs of characters. The priest is granted three moments of insight, during which he understands the depth of pain suffered by Delbende, Chantal, and the Countess. In each case he acts with certainty, with a nearly hypnotic precision. In the case of Delbende, he is unable to offer comfort, in the cases of Chantal and the Countess, he is energized into compassion and action. But many of the incidents which show the priest's relation to these and other characters are either truncated or omitted. This inherently difficult alteration of the fundamental balance between the study of an individual's soul and the spiritual state of the world around him Bresson manages successfully, primarily by using the resources of film to allow the viewer to discover a design, an order hidden in apparent disorder. Where Bernanos studies priest and parish, Bresson studies priest and Providence, using the mise-en-scène as the vehicle of that discovery. (p. 41)
The movement of figures is typical of Bresson's control of the mise-en-scène. As the priest enters the room of the Countess in the central "medallion" scene, she is poking in the fireplace. Near the end of the scene, to complete the circular design, she throws the medallion containing the picture of her dead son into the same...
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Even more than in Mouchette, Bresson is concerned [in Le Diable, probablement] with the system of defences with which modern man shores up the form he has contrived to give to the void: on the one hand, the array of ideologies with which he ensures his spiritual well-being, and on the other, the battery of alarms and devices with which he protects his physical safety….
'What impelled me to make this film is the mess we have made of everything…. This immense demolition job in which we shall kill ourselves by trying to go on living….'
Yet it is evident that for Bresson the ecological message conveyed by [the images in his film], familiar or otherwise, is self-evident. Far from preaching to the converted, he is concerned less with the impact of these images and intimations of disaster than with the implications apparent in the ways people respond to that impact. Time was, in Bresson's world, when the tormented soul of the young curé of Ambricourt, even though assailed on all sides by an irredeemably sinful society, could look out from within himself, see that it was good, and contentedly murmur 'All is Grace'. Is this still possible in this most modern of all possible worlds? (p. 16)
[In] casting a cruel, almost Kafkaesque eye on the hands enthusiastically battering at the corridors of power that wend labyrinthinely to a ubiquitous no exit, he does squarely face the essential...
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