Fragments of Reality: The Cinema of Robert Bresson
The world will miss pure auteur style of enigmatic
by Rustin Thompson
Robert Bresson on the set of Lancelot
My first thought upon hearing Robert
Bresson died was that it should have happened long ago. He was a
director whose work existed in its own exalted universe, created
and cultivated in a time when filmmaking as art was a serious undertaking.
The fecund intellectual environment which allowed films like Bressons
to be made; indeed the very idea that cinema can be a medium for
work so pure has been ground to dust. By the time he passed away
at the age of 92 last December just outside of Paris, it seemed
unmercifully cruel that his longevity had enabled him to witness
some of the atrocities weve committed with cameras and celluloid.
Thank God Bresson died so we wont have to humiliate ourselves
any longer in his presence.
In an article in The New Yorker,
Anthony Lane wrote that when he shuffles into a Bresson picture
he feels "like a pupil approaching the principals door,
wondering what crimes I may have committed and how I must answer
for them." Jean Cocteau once said of Bresson, "He expresses
himself cinematographically as a poet would with his pen."
Truffaut said Bressons "cinema is closer to painting
than to photography." Painting, with its direct contact between
brush and canvas, its flatness, its compositional fragments, was
an undeniable influence on Bresson, especially since he studied
the art after high school. But what appealed to him most was paintings
utter community of one. Watching Bresson is to be in the thrall
of a singular, austere vision, a stripped-down world, where nothing
is superfluous. You have to pinch yourself to remember there are
others involved in the makingcameraman, script girl, key gripstanding
just outside the frame. If Bresson could have made his movies all
by himself, he would have.
"Painting," he once said, "taught
me to make not beautiful images but necessary ones." Within
the frames of his films, Bresson searched for a truth even greater
than that to be found in painting. "Film can be a true art
because in it the author takes fragments of reality and arranges
them in such a way that their juxtaposition transforms them ...
each shot is like a word, meaning nothing by itself ... (it) is
given its meaning by its context." This explains the strange
quotidian shots of feet, legs, stairs, banisters, doorknobs and
handles to be found in his films, fragments of a world connected
to the movement of his characters from room to street to room. The
truth Bresson illustratedand one always got the sense that
he already knew the truth, he was only explaining it for our sakewas
to be found in this movement, because his characters were always
on an inexorable path to one thing: falling helplessly at the feet
of Gods grace.
Bressons religious views, termed
Jansenism, followed the teachings of a 17th century bishop condemned
as a heretic by the Pope. Jansenists, like Calvinists, believe that
human beings are basically screwed-up from the get-go, and that
the only hope of salvation lies in a strict, rigorous practice of
faith, asceticism in living, hard work, and an unwavering belief
that Gods power to grant redemption is not guaranteed. In
order to facilitate this communication with God, Bresson cleared
his movies of all distractions. Actors, he believed, were one of
these "screens" that got in the way of the truth. So he
stopped using them. One doesnt watch Bresson to see great
acting. The non-professionals he used were wooden, robotic instruments.
Bresson would break down their movements to half-steps and glances.
Look down, look right, turn left, walk three spaces, wait two beats,
look right again ... and so on. They were not supposed to think
or move spontaneously. Bresson sought a direct dialogue with the
divine. Thought, action, love, release ... all interfered with the
process. "I want to pray, but I can only think," says
a character in A Gentle Woman.
Watching Bresson can be tough sledding.
Even at 80 minutes, his films can wear you down. Bressons
universe is composed of blank faces and laconic gestures, repetitive
movements and incremental advancement of plot, direct commentary
and unadorned conversation. There is little joy, even less laughter.
If characters giggle in a Bresson film, they are hidden by bedsheets
or doors. But if you stick with his movies, youre likely to
become entranced. Lancelot du Lac has this effect, with its
soundtrack of clanking armor, and Pickpocket, with its deft
montage of pilfering, and A Man Escaped, with its prison
break set to Mozart. But even something like The Devil, Probably
has a mesmerizing power. The flat line readings work like a
hypnotists watch, lulling us into an agreement with the young
man at the center of the film that, yes, perhaps suicide is the
In a world where "God doesnt
reveal himself through mediocrity," the camera rarely ever
looks up, as if we are unworthy of Gods gaze. In one of the
few instances where Bresson points his lens to the heavens, the
opening and closing scenes from A Gentle Woman, it is to
glimpse a white scarf floating downward from a balcony where a woman
has, moments before, leaped to her death. In the Bressonian view,
our spirit can perhaps animate the inanimate for a few fleeting
moments, but then it, too, plummets to the cold stone. The genius
of Bresson, and his immortality, will always rest in his stark appraisal
of lifes severity, of the mockery the devil makes of humanity.
While we mortals clutter up the obvious with masquerade, he dared
to pull off the mask. MM