French filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999) was, as fellow director Jean-Luc Godard phrased it in an estimation quoted by the New York Times, "to French cinema what Mozart is to German music and Dostoyevsky is to Russian literature." Bresson was a classic figure of French film and of filmmaking in general, one who boiled the art down to its essentials and favored stark, serious films on basic spiritual themes. He worked mostly with nonprofessional actors, avoided the use of background music, and never toyed with the emotions of an audience. The generation of French directors that followed Bresson differed sharply from him in terms of style and mood, but the integrity of Bresson's vision and his insistence on creative control over his work provided powerful examples for younger filmmakers.
Bresson was notorious for refusing to discuss his personal life, or even to talk much about his own work. As one New York Times contributor related, the filmmaker once asked an interviewer whether the man had seen his latest film, and when the interviewer answered that he had, Bresson responded, "Then you know as much as I do. What do we have to talk about?" Even Bresson's date of birth is in dispute, but most sources agree that he was born September 25, 1901, in the small town Bromont-Lamothe, in the Auvergne region of central France. Many of his films display a sensitive appreciation for landscape imagery, a quality that can be attributed to this childhood home. Bresson grew up in a military family, however, and he lived in both city and country when he was young.
As a teenager, Bresson studied classics and philosophy at the Lakanal School in Sceaux, France. Later in life, he would tell younger filmmakers that they should focus on music, painting, and poetry rather than studying film. For much of his life, Bresson was a classical pianist of well-above-average ability, and he also took photographs that were later exhibited in an English museum. His greatest dream as a young man was to become a painter. That ambition brought Bresson to Paris, where he married his first wife, Leidia Van der Zee, in 1926.
Switched to Film from Painting
As Bresson wrote in an article quoted by author Jane Sloan, he soon discovered that painting made him "too nervous." He became interested in film around 1930 and immersed himself in the art, becoming a special admirer of American comedian Charlie Chaplin. In the 1930s Bresson worked as a screenwriter for other directors and filmed a short comedy of his own called Affaires publiques (Public Affairs) in 1934. His budding career was cut short, however, by the outbreak of World War II, and in1939 Bresson joined the French army. He was captured by German forces in June of 1940 and spent ten months as a prisoner of war. He was sent to a labor camp, where he worked in a forest. Finally, when a group of Bresson's fellow prisoners became ill, he faked an illness of his own and was released by the Germans, who by this time were in full control in France.
After his return to Paris, Bresson's film career began in earnest. His 1943 film Les anges du péché (The Angels of the Streets) was set among a group of Dominican nuns, one of whom goes to extreme lengths to try to save the soul of a hardened female criminal. Les anges du péché featured a screenplay by French playwright Jean Giraudoux. Although the film did not quite have the pure simplicity of Bresson's later masterpieces—it used trained actors, for example, rather than the nonprofessionals Bresson, in the manner of a painter, liked to call models—it became a commercial success and established Bresson as a major talent.
Bresson's second film, a 1945 melodrama titled Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois du Boulogne), showed more evidence of Bresson's originality. Audiences were put off by the way the director's camera focused on everyday, seemingly insignificant details, but filmmaker Jacques Becker, as quoted in World Film Directors, hailed Bresson's style, noting that the film's focus on characters "who come and go, look, sit, rise, go up and down stairs, take the elevator, and exchange laconic words in a strange language" served as a new and original breakthrough.
The dimensions of that breakthrough became clear with Bresson's third postwar film, 1951's Le journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest). Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos, this stark tale of a self-sacrificing young priest who ministers to his flock even as he himself is dying concludes with an image of a gray cross on the screen. The film set the tone of quiet seriousness that would recur in most of Bresson's mature works. It was also defined by the director's fervent Catholicism. While not all of Bresson's works have religious themes, they often dealt with questions of faith or morality. The contrast between timeless themes and modern, stripped-down cinematic language accounts for some of the power of Bresson's work.
Filmed POW Story
Rather than rush to follow up on Le journal d'un curé de campagne, which was quickly acclaimed as a masterpiece, Bresson worked slowly. He insisted on complete creative control over his films, which in the hard financial times of post-World War II Europe were difficult to finance, and his careful, painterly approach to filmmaking did not lend itself to rush jobs. Consequently, in a career that lasted over 40 years, he made only 13 feature films. His next film, Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (A Man Escaped), did not appear until 1956. This true account of the inner life of a World War II prisoner of war as he plots his escape from the Germans likely had roots in Bresson's own World War II experiences, although the filmmaker never revealed such insights into his own creative processes. The film was Bresson's first to dispense with the use of a conventional musical score; instead the director used small snatches of a solemn classical work, Mozart's Mass in C Minor.
For his next film, Pickpocket, which reportedly inspired parts of the Hollywood film American Gigolo, Bresson turned to a writer whose spiritual and existential concerns matched his own: Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Pickpocket, loosely based on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, again touches on a theme of redemption in its story of a criminal tracked down and finally imprisoned. Once again, Bresson turned to classical music, this time that of Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, for his score. His next film would contain no music at all except for a drum roll at its climactic moment.
Even when he was not working in a religious setting, Bresson was noted for his strengths in depicting the rituals of everyday life. Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, for example, focused at length on the rhythms of prison life. When he did return to religious themes in his 1962 film Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc), Bresson succeeded in putting a wholly new face on a story that French viewers and many other audiences knew well. The torture and burning at the stake of the fifteenth-century heretic and military leader Joan of Arc were shown mostly through indirect details, such as a dog agitated by the smell of burning human flesh. Much of the film is based on the actual transcripts of Joan's trial. Whereas other directors treated Joan's story in epic terms, Bresson's film lasted only a little over an hour and dwelt on the feelings of the saint herself. Intimate and poignant, Procès de Jeanne d'Arc is considered one of Bresson's very greatest films.
By the mid-1960s, Bresson was no longer at the cutting edge of cinematic art; he had been overtaken by the young directors of the so-called French New Wave, such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Directors of the New Wave cultivated a breezy, unconventional style, marked by experimental influences, that was diametrically opposed to Bresson's severe classicism. Yet despite this shift, and despite the fact that the filmmaker's overt religiosity was becoming rarer in a rapidly secularizing France, Bresson served as an inspiration to the New Wave generation. In part, this was a result of his uncompromising artistic integrity, and partly it was due to the purely cinematic quality of his work: although Bresson often based his films on literary works, the films that resulted would be difficult to translate into any other medium.
Planned Biblical Epic
In any event, during the 1960s and 1970s Bresson was generally heralded as one of France's greatest filmmakers, a fact that made financing for his new projects somewhat easier to come by. With backing from Italian film mogul Dino de Laurentiis he began work on a giant film based on the biblical Book of Genesis, but abandoned the project. Although he would return to it later, it remained unfinished at his death in 1999. His next two completed films, Au hasard, Balthazar and Mouchette, followed one another in 1966 with unusual rapidity for Bresson. Mouchette tells a grim story of a troubled girl's suicide after she is sexually abused. The film was banned in France for a time and drew criticism from Catholics upset by its frank depiction of an act they considered sinful.
In 1969, the aging Bresson made his first color film. Une femme douce (A Gentle Creature) was based on a story by Dostoyevsky and featured future French star Dominique Sanda—then a 17-year-old unknown—in its lead role of a struggling young woman who marries a pawnbroker but finds herself bitterly unhappy. Bresson did not back down in the face of criticism, for this film, like Mouchette, ends with a suicide. Bresson followed that film up with another Dostoyevsky adaptation, Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer) in 1971, one of the director's rare love stories.
Although his biblical epic had fallen through, in 1974 Bresson succeeded in realizing another massive project he had contemplated. Lancelot du lac (Lancelot) is a medieval epic based on the legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Characteristically for Bresson, subject matter that would have been treated as swashbuckling adventure by another director instead served as a vehicle for the study of self-sacrifice in the face of imminent death. Reluctant though he generally was to discuss his work and methods, Bresson revealed some of his behind-the-camera techniques involving this and other films in the book Notes sur la cinématographie (Notes on Cinematography), published in 1975.
Old age did not dull Bresson's talents in the least. His last two films, 1977's Le diable, probablement (The Devil, Probably) and 1981's L'argent (Money) serve as dark, moralistic indictments of modern life. The former, set in modern-day Paris, surveys the rampant waste and materialism of modern society, while L'argent, based on a Leo Tolstoy short story titled "The False Note," depicts a chain of linked crimes that lead inevitably, because of the power money holds over the characters' lives, from a counterfeit bill to multiple murder. Although the downbeat subject matter disturbed audiences, Bresson said, as quoted in the London Guardian, that of all his films, L'argent was the one that had given him the "most pleasure."
Bresson contemplated resuming his Genesis project and also sketched out plans for several other films, but eventually ill health overtook him. His first marriage had ended in divorce, but his second wife, Marie-Madeleine van der Mersch, whom he married in the early 1990s, cared for him and tended his legacy. For much of the later part of his life, Bresson lived in an apartment on the top floor of a historic 17th-century building in Paris—a fitting roost, perhaps, for a man who had towered over the world of French cinema and seemed to touch the country's most profound artistic traditions in his work. He died in Droue-sur-Drouette, near Paris, on December 18, 1999, after a lingering illness.
Cunneen, Joseph, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film, Continuum, 2003.
Reader, Keith, Robert Bresson, Manchester University Press, 2000.
Sloan, Jane, Robert Bresson: A Guide to References and Resources, G. K. Hall, 1983.
Cahiers du Cinema, February 1967.
Film Quarterly, Spring 1960; Fall 1977.
Guardian (London, England), December 22, 1999.
New York Times, December 22, 1999.
Times (London, England), December 22, 1999.
Yale French Studies, Volume 60, 1980.
Nationality: French. Born: Bromont-Lamothe (Puy-de-Dome), France, 25 September 1907. Education: Lycée Lakanal à Sceaux, Paris. Family: Married 1) Leidia van der Zee, 1926 (deceased); 2) Myline van der Mersch. Career: Attempted career as painter, to 1933; directed first film, Affaires publiques, 1934; German prisoner of war, 1940–41; directed first major film, Les Anges du péché, 1943; elected President d'honneur de la Societé des realisateurs de films, 1968. Awards: International Prize, Venice Film Festival, for Journal d'un curé campagne, 1951; Best Director Award, Cannes Festival, for Un Condamné a mort s'est échappé, 1957; Special Jury Prize, Cannes Festival, for Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, 1962; Ours d'Argent, Berlin, for Le Diable probablement, 1977; Grand Prix national des Arts et des Lettres (Cinéma), France, 1978; Grand Prize, Cannes Festival, for L'Argent, 1984; National Order of Merit, Commandeur of Arts and Letters of the Légion d'honneur; Lion d'Or, Venice, 1989; Felix Européen, Berlin, 1993. Died: 18 December 1999, in Paris, France, of natural causes.
Films as Director:
Affaires publiques (+ sc)
Les Anges du péché (Angels of the Streets) (+ sc)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne) (+ sc)
Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) (+ sc)
Un Condamné a mort s'est échappé (Le Vent souffle où il veut; A Condemned Man Escapes) (+ sc)
Pickpocket (+ sc)
Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc) (+ sc)
Au hasard Balthazar (Balthazar) (+ sc)
Mouchette (+ sc)
Une Femme douce (+ sc)
Quatre Nuits d'un rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer) (+ sc)
Lancelot du Luc (Le Graal; Lancelot of the Lake) (+ sc)
Le Diable probablement (+ sc)
L'Argent (+ sc)
C'était un musicien (Zelnick and Gleize) (dialogue)
Les Jumeaux de Brighton (Heymann) (co-sc); Courrier Sud (Billon) (co-adaptation)
By BRESSON: book—
Notes sur le cinématographe, Paris, 1975; as Notes on theCinematography, New York, 1977, and London, 1978.
By BRESSON: articles—
"Bresson on Location: Interview," with Jean Douchet, in Sequence (London), no. 13, 1951.
Interview with Ian Cameron, in Movie (London), February 1963.
"Four Nights of a Dreamer," interview with Carlos Clarens, in Sightand Sound (London), Winter 1971/72.
"Quatre Nuits d'un rêveur," interview with Claude Beylie, in Ecran (Paris), April 1972.
"Lancelot du Lac," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), February 1975.
Interview, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1976/77.
Interview with J. Fieschi, in Cinématographe (Paris), July/August 1977.
"Robert Bresson, Possibly," interview with Paul Schrader, in FilmComment (New York), September/October 1977.
"The Poetry of Precision," interview with Michel Ciment, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1983.
"Bresson et lumiere," interview with David Thompson, in Time Out (London), 2 September 1987.
Ciment, M., "Je ne cherche pas une description mais une vision des choses," an interview with M. Ciment, in Positif (Paris), December 1996.
On BRESSON: books—
Sarris, Andrew, editor, The Film, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1968.
The Films of Robert Bresson, by five reviewers, New York, 1969.
Armes, Roy, French Cinema since 1946, Vol. 1, New York, 1970.
Cameron, Ian, The Films of Robert Bresson, London, 1970.
Bazin, André, and others, La Politique des auteurs: Entretiens avecJean Renoir etc, Paris, 1972; revised edition, 1989.
Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Style on Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Los Angeles, 1972.
Sloan, Jane, Robert Bresson: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1983.
Esteve, Michel, La Passion du cinématographe, Paris, 1985.
Hanlon, Lindley, Fragments: Bresson's Film Style, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1986.
Semolve Robert Bresson, Flemmarion, 1993.
Quandt, James, Robert Bresson, Indiana University Press, 1999.
On BRESSON: articles—
Lambert, Gavin, "Notes on Robert Bresson," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1953.
Monod, Roland, "Working with Bresson," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1957.
Gow, Gordon, "The Quest for Realism," in Films and Filming (London), December 1957.
Baxter, Brian, "Robert Bresson," in Film (London), September/October 1958.
Roud, Richard, "The Early Work of Robert Bresson," in FilmCulture (New York), no. 20, 1959.
Ford, Charles, "Robert Bresson," in Films in Review (New York), February 1959.
Green, Marjorie, "Robert Bresson," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1960.
Roud, Richard, "French Outsider with the Inside Look," in Filmsand Filming (London), April 1960.
Sontag, Susan, "Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson," in Seventh Art (New York), Summer 1964.
Sarris, Andrew, "Robert Bresson," in Interviews with Film Directors, New York, 1967.
Skoller, S. Donald, "Praxis as a Cinematic Principle in the Films of Robert Bresson," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1969.
Rhode, Eric, "Dostoevsky and Bresson," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1970.
Zeman, Marvin, "The Suicide of Robert Bresson," in Cinema (Los Angeles), Spring 1971.
Prokosch, M., "Bresson's Stylistics Revisited," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 15, no. 1, 1972.
Samuels, Charles, "Robert Bresson," in Encountering Directors, New York, 1972.
Polhemus, H.M., "Matter and Spirit in the Films of Robert Bresson," in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Spring 1974.
Westerbeck, Jr., Colin, "Robert Bresson's Austere Vision," in Artforum (New York), November 1976.
Nogueira, R., "Burel and Bresson," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1976/77.
Dempsey, M., "Despair Abounding: The Recent Films of Robert Bresson," in Film Quarterly (Los Angeles), Fall 1980.
Hourigan, J., "On Two Deaths and Three Births: The Cinematography of Robert Bresson," in Stills (London), Autumn 1981.
Latille Dactec, M., "Bresson, Dostoievski," in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1981.
Dossier on Robert Bresson, in Cinéma (Paris), June 1983.
Bergala, Alain, and others, "L'Argent de Robert Bresson," in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), June-July 1983.
"Bresson Issue," of Camera/Stylo (Paris), January 1985.
Affron, Mirella Jona, "Bresson and Pascal: Rhetorical Affinities," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (New York), Spring 1985.
Milne, Tom, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1987.
Adair, "Lost and Found: Beby Re-inaugurates," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1987.
Baxter, Brian, "Robert Bresson," in Films and Filming (London), September 1987.
Loiselle, Marie-Claude, "Poétique du montage," in 24 Images (Montreal), Summer 1995.
Holland, Agnieszka, "The Escape of Bresson," in DGA (Los Angeles), May-June 1997.
Nagel, Josef, "Der selige Hauch der Unendlichkeit," in Film-dienst (Cologne), 24 November 1992.
Douin, Jean-Luc, "Le cinématographiste," in Télérama (Paris), 9 February 1994.
Bleeckere, Sylvain De, "Bressons beelden," in Film en Televisie (Brussels), October 1996.
Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 7, 1997.
On BRESSON: films—
Weyergans, Francois, Robert Bresson, 1965.
Kotulla, Theodor, Zum Beispiel Bresson, 1967.
* * *
Robert Bresson began and quickly gave up a career as a painter, turning to cinema in 1934. The short film he made that year, Affaires publiques, has not yet been shown. His next work, Les Anges du péché, was his first feature film, followed by Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne and Journal d'un curé de campagne, which firmly established his reputation as one of the world's most rigorous and demanding filmmakers. In the next fifteen years he made only four films: Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé, Pickpocket, Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, and Au hasard Balthazar, each a work of masterful originality and unlike the others. From then until his death in 1999, he made films with more frequency and somewhat less intensity. In 1975 Gallimard published his gnomic Notes sur le cinématographe. As a whole Bresson's oeuvre constitutes a crucial investigation of the nature of cinematic narration. All three films of the 1950s are variations on the notion of a written diary transposed to a voice-over commentary on the visualized action. More indirectly, Procès de Jeanne d'Arc proposes yet another variant through the medium of the written transcript of the trial; Une Femme douce is told through the voice of the husband as he keeps a vigil for his suicidal wife; and in Quatre nuits d'un rêveur both of the principal characters narrate their previous histories to each other. In all of these instances Bresson allows the tension between the continuity of written and spoken language and the fragmentation of shots in a film to become an important thematic concern. His narrators tell themselves (and us) stories in order to find meaning in what has happened to them. The elusiveness of that meaning is reflected in the elliptical style of Bresson's editing.
For the most part, Bresson employed only amateur actors. He avoided histrionics and seldom permitted his "models" (as he called them, drawing a metaphor from painting) to give a traditional performance. The emotional tensions of the films derive from the elaborate interchange of glances, subtle camera movements, offscreen sounds, carefully placed bits of baroque and classical music, and rhythmical editing.
The Bressonian hero is often defined by what he or she sees. We come to understand the sexual tensions of Ambricourt from a few shots seen from the country priest's perspective; the fierce desire to escape helps the condemned man to see the most ordinary objects as tools for his purpose; the risk the pickpocket initially takes to prove his moral superiority to himself leads him to see thefts where we might only notice people jostling one another: the film initiates its viewers into his privileged perspective. Only at the end does he realize that this obsessive mode of seeing has blinded him to a love which he ecstatically embraces.
Conversely, Mouchette kills herself suddenly when she sees the death of a hare (with which she identified herself); the heroine of Une Femme douce kills herself because she can see no value in things, while her pawnbroker husband sees nothing but the monetary worth of everything he handles. The most elaborate form this concentration on seeing takes in Bresson's cinema is the structure of Au hasard Balthazar, where the range of human vices is seen through the eyes of a donkey as he passes through a series of owners.
The intricate shot-countershot of Bresson's films reinforces his emphasis on seeing, as does his careful use of camera movement. Often he reframes within a shot to bring together two different objects of attention. The cumulative effect of this meticulous and often obsessive concentration on details is the sense of a transcendent and fateful presence guiding the actions of characters who come to see only at the end, if at all, the pattern and goal of their lives.
Only in Un Condamné, Pickpocket, and Quatre Nuits does the protagonist survive the end of the film. A dominant theme of his cinema is dying with grace. In Mouchette, Une Femme douce, and Le Diable probablement the protagonists commit suicide. In Les Anges and L'Argent they give themselves up as murderers. Clearly Bresson, who was the most prominent of Catholic filmmakers, does not reflect the Church's condemnation of suicide. Death, as he represented it, comes as the acceptance of one's fate. The three suicides emphasize the enigma of human will; they seem insufficiently motivated, but are pure acts of accepting death.
—P. Adams Sitney