Robert Bresson Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.