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States of Grace

HOW TO WRITE ABOUT ROBERT BRESSON? HOW TO encourage, insist even, that the reader rush out to experience -- see is 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."

Thereafter, most of the performances in Bresson's films would, to varying degrees, have a tranquilized feel. The director calls his nonprofessional actors "models," disdaining the traditional designation for screen performers because he considers acting to be unreal, and consequently untruthful. (He stopped using professional actors after his second feature. To confuse matters further, he also calls himself a "cinematographer," not a director, and film "cinematography.") Bresson holds very specific, often quixotic ideas on what cinema is, some of which are laid out in his chapbook Notes on the Cinematographer, a compilation of aphorisms that is alternately â fascinating, banal and ridiculous (and an obvious inspiration for Lars von Trier's vaunted "Vow of Chastity"). That might sound heretical to some of the director's admirers, who cultivate a bloodless obeisance toward his work, born out of its intense depth of feeling, its astonishing formal rigor and, forgive the vulgarism, its commercial unpopularity.

But there is something unfortunate, even absurd, in how a director who is so preoccupied with what it means to live in this world is himself presented to the world not as a man, or even an artist, but as a kind of benediction, like a communion wafer. Like so many artists whose work fails to register with large audiences, Bresson has been transformed over the years into something of a marketplace martyr. Yet while his films are decidedly not multiplex fare, neither are they the unapproachable, rarefied abstractions they are routinely presented as, often by critics who seem invested in throwing a shroud of exclusivity around the director, as if his concerns with God, being, what it is to love, to live, to die, are too exalted for the average viewer. Though then again, maybe they are. Deliberately paced, increasingly abstract, unyielding in their world view, these are films that don't offer the sorts of pleasures we are used to receiving (albeit with greater infrequency) from Hollywood, or even much of the rest of cinema. At a moment in which a facile entertainment such as The Matrix is being touted as intellectual filmmaking by no less a towering authority than Time magazine, it's also worth mentioning that these are movies that insist audiences come to them, not vice versa.

Bresson is almost always written of in theological terms, as making films about -- as James Quandt, the coordinator of this wonderful series, neatly put it -- "the spiritual quandary of isolated people in search of grace." But while these films are concerned with the spiritual, it is not just a spirituality decreed from above, but one also experienced from below; these films are as rooted in our sensuous, earthbound reality as they are in the divine. These are films fundamentally about what it is to be alive, with grace or without. Someone once wrote that "Bresson's universe is not of everyday reality." I wonder which Bresson he was talking about -- surely not mine. For it's a statement belied time and again in the films -- from the mud the country priest faints into to the folds of rifled-through clothing in Pickpocket and the roiling flanks of the horses in Lancelot of the Lake. In Bresson's universe, salvation can be found not just in God but in the everyday, and -- despite the odds, the petty cruelties, mistaken cues -- in human relationships. A belief in God isn't a prerequisite to appreciating Bresson's work, because transcendence emanates from the screen.

THE FILMS OF ROBERT BRESSON | 14 features at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. | May 14­June 5 | For further information, call (323) 857-6010