Robert Bresson Essay - Critical Essays

Bresson, Robert


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.

Gavin Lambert

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 white-walled, the black and white habits of the sisters luminously patterned against them, inspire a series of exquisite formal groupings…. Although the background gives it a pictorial richness that can be admired for itself … the emotional force lies completely within the images of faces. (p. 37)

With the movement and the rhythm of the film dictated by its inner development, many of the cinema's devices—above all, editing as a dynamic property—are jettisoned. On the surface the pace of Bresson's films looks inflexible, and yet any external variations would distract from the rigours of the "exploration within." Every film, he has remarked, requires its "uniform"—and, above all, no fancy dress. This uniform becomes, as it were, a garment for the soul….

In the construction of a sound-track, the same classicism: the dialogue in each of these films has a lucid, precise, condensed quality, and in each case is created by a writer of high and meticulous literary skill, Giraudoux, Cocteau, Bernanos. There are no concessions to naturalism, which again would distract…. [Natural] sound is used in an arbitrary, succinct manner: usually as a reminder of a world outside the world of the film, momentarily impinging upon it….

The character of Anne-Marie [in Les Anges du Péché] expounds Bresson's favourite protagonist, the dedicated, haunted, isolated self-questioning hero or heroine, to whom all human communication seems to become increasingly painful, and whose eye is fixed on a horizon that others cannot see. In his next film, Les...

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Brian Davies

[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 to modulate that tone. The relationship between the visuals and the sound track is symptomatic of Bresson's whole approach to the priest's tale. It is the approach of complete simplicity as compared to the relative complexity of Bernanos' priest….

Bresson has used these visual techniques to create the atmosphere of the isolation and disturbance through which his priest is to tell his story. Just as important to note, however, is the way that these visual techniques become part and parcel of the whole change in the nature of the priest's story as it appears in the film. The extreme economy of the visual content with its sparse use of object serves to constantly centre our attention on the drama within the priest. The subjective is made more intense by removing all but the sketched outline of the objective world. Not only are irrelevant objects and lighting removed but the recurrent images of the gate, the cart, and even that of the diary help to create an almost classical unity of place.

As with the visuals, the characters of Bresson's Journal d'un Curé de Campagne become subservient to the central and dominating figure of the priest. In the Bernanos novel the characters, although existing for us only through the eyes of the priest, have an existence of their own. The priest's...

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Isabel Quigly

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,...

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Eric Rhode

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...

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Robert Vas

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...

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Susan Sontag

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...

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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...

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Raymond Durgnat

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...

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Gilles Jacob

[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...

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André Bazin


[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...

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Tom Milne

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...

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Eric Rhode

[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...

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Roy Armes

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...

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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...

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Paul Schrader

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,...

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Jonathan Baumbach

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...

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Jonathan Rosenbaum

[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...

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John Gerlach

[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...

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Tom Milne

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...

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