By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
HOW TO WRITE ABOUT ROBERT BRESSON? HOW TO encourage, insist even, that the reader rush out to experience -- seeis somehow too puny a word -- his brilliant, rigorous, emotionally shattering films? Born in 1901, the French director (who turns 98 in September) began making films in 1934, after studying and apparently failing to become a painter. His first directing venture was a short musical comedy, a featurette called Affaires Publiques, which until the '80s was thought to have been lost (its three songs, in fact, remain missing). Five years after the film's well-received release, Bresson was incarcerated in a German prisoner-of-war camp, an experience that would directly inspire A Man Escaped, one of his early masterpieces -- for once, the hyperbole is justified -- as well as influence much of the rest of his work. After a year to 18 months in prison (accounts vary as to the length of his term), Bresson was returned to Vichy France, whereupon he directed his first full-length feature, the ludicrously titled Les Anges du Péché, or Angels of Sin.
"Strangely enough," the late, influential critic Richard Roud once wrote, "the Occupation was one of the great periods of French cinema." Nearly 300 movies were produced under Vichy control, including Bresson's first two features, yet perhaps because it's a disquieting topic, there's little sense in the critical writing on the director of what effect the Occupation had on his work. Neither Les Anges du Péché, released in 1943, nor his breathtaking second drama, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, begun in 1944 and released after the war, readily offer themselves up as texts of "resistance." The film that comes closest is Les Anges du Péché, a drama set in a nunnery composed, bizarrely, almost entirely of former convicts, and involving the struggle between a selfless believer named Anne-Marie and the unrepentant Thérèse, a sullen creature more committed to vengeance than grace. The devastating Les Dames, in turn, concerns a woman of society who takes revenge on her former lover by setting him up to fall in love with a whore.
Both Thérèse and the society woman, Hélène (the unforgettable Maria Casarès, the actress Jean Cocteau later cast as Death in Orphée), are victims of their baser instincts, and it's in this sense that each is a prisoner. But only Thérèse achieves redemption, a liberation of the soul if not of the flesh. The themes of salvation and redemption run throughout Bresson's films, from another masterpiece, Diary of a Country Priest (1951), through Pickpocket (1959), the brutally unforgiving Mouchette (1967) and even his last feature, L'Argent (1983). Although Bresson's visual style would grow more austere, even as it remained harrowingly beautiful, his immersion in spiritual questions is a constant through all 14 features. That constancy hasn't prevented some critics from dividing his work into periods, drawing divisions, for instance, between the black-and-white films and those shot in color. In an essay written in 1980, Roud separated Bresson's output between his first five features, which he considered superior, and the next five. Roud's main objection to the later films, a reproach echoed by other of the director's admirers, is what he described as "Bresson's tendency to greyness."
Not gray, black. Mouchette, a harsh story about an impoverished child, which Bresson directed in 1967, is an extraordinary work, but it is a hard film to love because it is so pitiless -- toward the child, toward her world, toward us. It's been suggested that as he grew older, Bresson's faith waned, so much so that he could no longer summon up the nominal moment of transcendence, the spiritual deus ex machina, that characterizes his earlier work, from the final cry in Diary of a Country Priest ("Everything is grace!") to the close of Pickpocket ("Then a sweet light came up"). But to suggest a divide only along questions of faith is to misrepresent the work in its entirety. Mouchette's fate seems no crueler than that of the cleric in Diary of a Country Priest or the whore in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. The difference between the earlier films and Mouchette, or Une Femme Douce, made two years later, seems less a reflection of spiritual despair than evidence of a more insistent vision of the material world. It is too simplistic to think of this shift in Bresson's work only in terms of melancholy, or spiritual fatigue; quite possibly it is the awakening of a political righteousness -- a righteousness not necessarily devoid of the holy, but no longer so securely in its grasp.
IN LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE, THE WEALTHY society woman who casually buffs her nails as she plots to destroy lives remains both tragic and venal until the end, and you get the sense that Bresson had done his best to wring the character of any possible sympathy, perhaps because of her privilege. Although all of his main characters are in some sense set apart from the world, nearly all of his heroes and heroines are set apart from the bourgeois world. Then there is the more ordinary fact that Bresson had to struggle to get the performance he wanted from Casarès (he remained notoriously finicky, demanding dozens of takes). "To get courage," Bresson once said of his star, "she used to drink a little glass of cognac before acting. When I chanced to discover this, I asked her to take a sedative instead, which she willingly did. Then things started to go better."
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