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Issue #38

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Fragments of Reality: The Cinema of Robert Bresson (1907-1999) 

The world will miss pure auteur style of enigmatic French genius

by Rustin Thompson

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Robert Bresson on the set of Lancelot du Lac.

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 Bresson’s 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 we’ve committed with cameras and celluloid. Thank God Bresson died so we won’t 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 principal’s 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 Bresson’s "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 painting’s 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 making—cameraman, script girl, key grip—standing 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 illustrated—and one always got the sense that he already knew the truth, he was only explaining it for our sake—was to be found in this movement, because his characters were always on an inexorable path to one thing: falling helplessly at the feet of God’s grace.

Bresson’s 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 God’s 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 doesn’t 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. Bresson’s 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, you’re 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 hypnotist’s watch, lulling us into an agreement with the young man at the center of the film that, yes, perhaps suicide is the best solution.

In a world where "God doesn’t reveal himself through mediocrity," the camera rarely ever looks up, as if we are unworthy of God’s 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 life’s 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

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