Bresson. Supplementary Roundup

The complete retrospective will carry on touring North America through May.
David Hudson

Robert Bresson: The Over-Plenty of Life is a series we've been running in conjunction with the complete retrospective of Bresson's work that'll be touring North America through May. I thought I'd supplement Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's essays, Daniel Kasman's observations and Adrian Curry's collection of posters with a roundup of pointers to pieces on Bresson that have appeared over the past month or two. One of the occasions of the series, as I mentioned in the entry on the initial announcement (with its basic schedule of cities and dates) is the publication of an expanded and illustrated edition of series curator James Quandt's collection, Robert Bresson (Revised), so let's open this go round with notes on another book, Tony Pipolo's Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film. Jonathan Rosenbaum's posted his review for the Summer 2010 issue of Cineaste, in which he calls it…

one of the most careful and thoroughgoing studies of Bresson that we have, adding appreciably to both scholarship about his work and our critical understanding of it. Focusing on a highly selective and speculative biography, spiritual as well as psychoanalytical — the latter drawing on his own professional experience as a psychoanalyst — he usefully summarizes his conclusions in his final paragraph, calling Bresson's work "a mysterious and evasive cinema that courts faith and doubt in equal measure; a primal cinema in which mother and father figures do more maneuvering backstage than anyone might have suspected; a cruel cinema that celebrates but also frustrates the aspirations of the young and the beautiful; a mad cinema that refuses to normalize the explosive nature of psychic disturbance through naturalistic containment." If I find Pipolo's examinations of Bresson's eight black and white features more rewarding than his chapters on the five in color, this is mainly, I suspect, because I tend to find these earlier films more rewarding as well, but the patience and rigor of his scrutiny persist throughout his study.
Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film

Pipolo himself, for Artforum at the end of last December: "Bresson sought, increasingly, to purge the medium of its dependence on what he believed were the excesses of narrative cinema — professional actors, dramatically constructed scenes, and redundant dialogue. His aim was to shed everything that obstructed the essence of the work in order to make revelatory action the heart of every shot and the motive for every cut. For some, this stripping down to essentials led to an ascetic and pure cinema; for others, it seemed punishing and withholding…. Notwithstanding their alleged austerity, Bresson's films are among the most seductive in the history of cinema. From Diary of a Country Priest to L'Argent, no image is inconsequential, no sound incidental, no cut invisible. He made the film experience as critical as the subjects that absorbed him. His aim was to make every viewer an ideal viewer, as attuned to every nuance of what is on the screen as to the significance and palpability of what is not."

The next must-read in this batch would be Jonathan Rosenbaum and Kent Jones's discussion of Bresson and Godard, moderated by indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. Kent Jones: "It's important to remember that on the level of narrative incident, Bresson's films are straight out of 19th-century fiction. On a more local, moment-by-moment level, they're obviously something else again. One becomes attuned to the auras of people, stripped of any possibility of defense or subterfuge…. There is an idea of Bresson as somehow immaculate and ineffable, and I think this is unfortunate simply because it's a lot to pin on any artist. The melodramatic plot twists in certain of the films can be a little awkward, the representation of certain actions can at times be broken up in a manner that runs counter to the film itself (one winds up putting the pieces of the spatial puzzle together and temporarily abandoning the flow of action). But to say that Bresson's films aren't perfect is to humanize him and relieve him of the burden of an impossible fantasy."

At this point, let's note that both Tony Pipolo and Kent Jones will be speaking about Bresson at Bard College on February 15 and March 8, respectively.

Random notes on the films:

  • To follow up on Ignatiy's piece on Bresson's 1934 short Public Affairs, Jonathan Rosenbaum's posted his 1999 review for Film Comment and points us to "a detailed account by the late Gilbert Adair that was originally published in 1987, not long after Affaires Publiques was rediscovered in Paris."

  • "Bresson's debut feature Les Anges du péché [Angels of the Streets, 1943] introduces many of the major themes (suffering, redemption, death) and characters (persecutors, martyrs) that will preoccupy his films," writes Charles H Meyer in Cinespect.
Robert Bresson: Notes on Cinematography
  • Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945). "[T]his unique collaboration between Cocteau and Bresson would be a one-off in every sense of the term," wrote Wheeler Winston Dixon in Senses of Cinema in 2008. "Bresson's later 'stripped down' style… was directly at odds with the studied artificiality of Cocteau's brittle yet transcendent vision…. And yet, as Richard Roud commented in a 1959 essay in Film Culture, it is precisely this clash of methodologies that gives Les Dames much of its richness as a text."

  • Diary of a Country Priest, 1951. See the February 2011 roundup.

  • Alt Screen's posted a handful of excellent roundups on Bresson's films over the past several weeks, the first one, chronologically, being on A Man Escaped (1956). More from Miriam Bale (L).

  • "Pickpocket [1959], like all of Bresson's films, records the expiration of humane feeling in the modern world, the impossibility of decency in a universe of greed," wrote Gary Indiana for Criterion in 2005. "Critics frequently link Bresson with Carl Dreyer, which is a bit like pairing August Strindberg with Henrik Ibsen. Like Ibsen, Dreyer has a seamless lack of humor and a solemnity that gives his films the gravity of a cancer operation. In Bresson, however, the absurdity that delicately fringes Strindberg's dark dramas echoes in whole passages of deliberately idiotic dialogue, in actions that speak volumes about nothing but feel uncomfortably textured like real life. Dreyer boils life down to its pivotal moments; Bresson shows that most of our lives are consumed by meaningless routines. This can be startlingly funny, just when you thought a Bresson movie couldn't become more grim."

  • "Though often overlooked, The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) might be my favorite Robert Bresson film, and Florence Delay, who plays Joan and who went on to become a respected novelist in France, my favorite Bresson lead." Dan Callahan for Alt Screen, where you'll also find another robust roundup.

  • Au hasard Balthazar (1966). "Probably the film best loved by Bresson adherents, and almost certainly his most heartbreaking," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "Teenage Anne Wiazemsky (Jean-Luc Godard's future wife) plays the rural teenage girl who is betrayed and abused, partly or arguably due to choices she herself has made. But it's her fuzzy-nosed co-star, the long-suffering eponymous donkey, who steals the show, bearing his burdens and accepting an animal version of martyrdom without complaint. Beneath the deceptively simple story lies a complex and tangled portrait of rural life defined by pride, greed, cruelty and human sin of all varieties."

  • "The filmmaker professed to hate theater, and yet in Mouchette [1967], the world itself is a mystical stage," wrote J Hoberman in the Voice in 2005. "Like any genius, Bresson made rules in order to break them."

  • "A young woman steps off a bedroom balcony and falls to her death, her white shawl hovering above, deflected by the breeze." Acquarello in 1999 on Bresson's first film in color: "Her pawnbroker husband (Guy Frangin), speaking with methodical detachment, recounts their relationship in a series of flashbacks. But inevitably, the answers remain as elusive as his lost, despondent (and appropriately nameless) wife (Dominique Sanda). Robert Bresson's A Gentle Woman is a spare, elegant and poignant story of isolation, miscommunication, and emotional cruelty."
  • For new filmkritik, Dagmar Kamlah has short but lovely notes on Claire Denis's recollections of her experiences as an extra in Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) — and a T-shirt.

  • "By the point of 1974's Lancelot du Lac Bresson's style has reached full flower," writes Jesse Cataldo in Slant. "The film takes a romantic saga and bleeds it of any trace of romance, a process that leaves it in an amazingly fractured state of blankness. Opening with an entire military campaign compressed into a grisly death-blow montage, the film might be seen as a postmodern commentary on blustery period epics, were it not so rigorous and unique. The result is an epic of a different kind, a masterpiece of minimalist aggression, which finds its mostly male characters fumbling to connect with one another, in a world where a botched order or a rejected handshake can have deadly implications. Bresson's characters are never empty vessels, but their surfaces are more vacuous here than ever, a consequence of all the inexpressible emotions that remain clogged inside them. This is a film where men do everything wearing armor, striding about swaddled in their own pride and hurt feelings, a treacherous world that acts as a subtle exaggeration of our own."

  • Richard Brody in the New Yorker on The Devil Probably: "Constructed as a flashback from news reports of a young man's suspicious suicide, Robert Bresson's splenetic 1977 drama puts the post-1968 world on trial and judges it unlivable."

  • L'argent (1983). Alt Screen's roundup and an observation from Glenn Kenny.

"For its stylistic unity, Bresson's work is usually thought of as entirely of a piece, concerned generally with redemption, but his output from the mid 60s onward showed a deepening despair, roughly corresponding to his switch to color filmmaking," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "These last films belong among his greatest: From the horrified pacifism of Lancelot to the ecohysteria of Devil, Probably to the complete abnegation of modern society in L'Argent, they constitute a protest singularly deafening and urgent for its calm, quiet, firm delivery."

More on the retrospective: Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Ben Sachs (Chicago Reader) and Justin Stewart (L). And in 2004, Not Coming to a Theater Near You ran a series of reviews. James Quandt, by the way, just to bring this full circle, was interviewed the other day by Liam Lacey in the Globe and Mail.

Update, 2/13: "Bresson's fidelity to verisimilitude is such that he even shot A Man Escaped in the prison the actual escape took place from," notes the Boston Globe's Mark Feeney. "Not that a viewer needs to know this, or that Bresson himself spent a year in a German prison camp, to feel the movie's overwhelming weight of existential authority. It's simply there, in every shot. That's owing to Bresson's artistry, of course, but that artistry rests on a scaffolding of historical veracity."

Update, 3/8: "What was the driving force behind Bresson's aesthetic?" asks Michael Sicinski in the Nashville Scene. "In a nutshell, he believed that by zeroing in on certain aspects of existence, and subjecting them to rigorous examination, his films could achieve almost mystical levels of truth. It is indeed common to overstate the influence of Bresson's Catholicism on his films, but one should not underestimate it either."

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