The Harvard Film Archive is proud to present a complete retrospective of the feature films of Robert Bresson (1901 - 1999). Bresson is widely recognized and celebrated as the auteur who, more than any other single artist, has exerted a gravitational pull shaping the stylistic course of contemporary world cinema. Diverse filmmakers from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Tsai Ming-liang have echoed Bresson’s elliptical narratives of sin and redemption, grace and transcendence. Equally influential is the unique ascetic minimalism that imparts music and sound in Bresson's films with an ontological force and spiritual presence. In fact, Bresson is one of those rare filmmakers whose influence extends beyond cinema to art, literature and music, with Dennis Cooper, Stephen Prina and Patti Smith, among many other luminaries, testifying to his shaping influence upon their work.
Biographical information about Bresson, particularly his early life, remains scant. We know that he harbored youthful ambitions to become a painter, although his completed canvases remain shrouded in secrecy, long hidden from sight and jealousy guarded by the Bresson estate. Other abandoned paths and life courses are suggested by a comedy short Bresson directed in the late 1930s, his 18 months as a German prisoner of war in the early part of World War II and his time working under the Occupation, a dark period in which Bresson directed his first feature. Bresson’s directorial career progressed slowly and resulted in "only" thirteen feature films in nearly half a century. In the mid-to-late 1960s while many of his contemporaries were fading due to age or retreating in the face of the radically changing cinema, Bresson enjoyed his most productive period and great admiration from the New Wave.
After his earliest films, he worked only with inexperienced performers or non-actors, whom he referred to as “models,” who were expected not to act but rather to reveal themselves to the camera. For Bresson did not believe in cinema that relied on psychologically motivated and complex characters; his cinema is concerned with the spiritual lives of his protagonists and the only partially legible, metaphysical paths towards either redemption or ruin. These journeys are guided by Bresson’s sober and unerring eye for the transcendental and opaque theater that unfolds both between individuals and between the shadowy world around them, a world in which roles are defined less through language than through gestures and presence. Bresson’s subtle and signature use of ellipsis and subtraction to define place and character creates not ambiguity but profound, at times deeply unsettling, mystery.
The unfailing elegance – one might even call it grace – of Bresson’s work has often been noted, but its beauty is less often remarked on, perhaps because it derives not from spectacular imagery but from the films’ rough surfaces. Bresson refused the charges of pessimism frequently hurled at his films, claiming his ultimate goal to be not pessimism but "lucidity." Irrefutable, however, is the films' unfailing power to generate a remarkably affective charge out of the haunting world of immutable surfaces and stoic characters conveyed across his oeuvre. In Bresson's own words: “Painting taught me to make not beautiful images but necessary ones.” Decades later, these images remain necessary indeed.
This Robert Bresson retrospective has been organized by the TIFF Cinematheque. Special thanks: Agnès Nordmann, the Institut Français; James Quandt, TIFF Cinematheque; Mylène Bresson, Paris; Delphine Selles Alvarez, French Cultural Services, New York; Anne Miller, Eric Jausseran, Consulate General of France, Boston; Bruce Goldstein, Rialto Pictures; Jake Perlin, The Film Desk; Pierre Lhomme, Paris; Judy Nicaud, Paramount Pictures; Florence Dauman, Argos Films.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Martin LaSalle, Marika Green,
France 1959, 35mm, b/w, 75 min. French with English subtitles
One of Bresson’s most admired works, Pickpocket is a perfect distillation of his mature style. The film straightforwardly chronicles the life of a petty thief, without any attempt to explain why Michel feels compelled to steal. Bresson’s ability to fracture space and time and focus attention on the apt fragments in order to delineate a process gets its most explicit demonstration in the montages wherein Michel hones and practices his skill. Perhaps most surprising is the diffuse eroticism – at times reminiscent of Genet – that permeates the film, pointing towards the more overt sensuality of the later Bresson. With its mixture of the criminal and the ineffable, Pickpocket is one of the director’s most influential works; its traces can be seen in films ranging from Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo to Jia Zhangke’s debut, Xiao Wu. Print courtesy of Janus Films.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Renée Faure, Jany Holt, Sylvie
France 1942, 35mm, b/w, 84 min. French with English subtitles
Shortly after serving an 18-month sentence as a German prisoner of war, Bresson directed his first feature film in Occupied France. The film itself is about prisoners—in this case, female criminals who are taken into the care of a convent upon their release from jail. Although there is remarkable and even noirish use of chiaroscuro in those rare scenes when the camera and the characters leave the convent, these serve primarily as contrast to the gentle and elegant austerity of the convent itself. Bresson uses a thoroughly classical style with an emphasis on storytelling and with a surprising amount of wit and warmth, yet the unadorned precision so characteristic of the filmmaker’s work as a whole is already evident. Likewise, the emphasis on the possibility of redemption – particularly within the milieu of the convent and the prison – foreshadows the Bresson to come. New print courtesy of Institut Français.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre,
France 1951, 35mm, b/w, 115 min. French with English subtitles
In this adaptation of the novel by the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, Bresson made his first film without professional actors and moved a step further toward his mature style with the concern for the life of the soul in a fallen world. The title figure lives a rather squalid existence in his isolated parish. When not subject to scorn and humiliation, he is simply ignored by those to whom he wishes to minister. Bresson makes of his lead actor, Claude Laydu – an incandescent presence – the first example of the successful use of a non-actor as a “model” (to use the Bressonian term). The film’s unsparing use of realism and telling detail renders palpable both the priest’s suffering and his grace. Print courtesy of Rialto Pictures.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Maria Casarès, Paul Bernard,
France 1945, 35mm, b/w, 84 min. French with English subtitles
The success of Les anges du péché enabled Bresson to work with an impressive array of talent for his second film. He collaborated on the screenplay with Jean Cocteau and cast the great Maria Casarès as the lead. The film derives its story from an episode in Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste (but moved to the present day) in which a spurned woman revenges herself on her former lover by manipulating him into falling in love with a woman who, unbeknownst to him, is a prostitute. Made during the war but released afterward, the film was no great success although it was championed by the great critic André Bazin, who recognized in Bresson a fusion of realism and a spiritual style. Later, Godard would claim that Les dames was “the only film of the French Resistance,” due to its exploration of the problem of evil and the struggle against it. Print courtesy of Institut Français.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Luc Simon, Laura Duke Condominas, Humbert Balsan
France 1974, 35mm, color, 85 min. French with English subtitles
In Lancelot du lac, Bresson turns from the historical chronicle of Joan of Arc to Arthurian legend. The film bears comparing with Perceval (1978) by Eric Rohmer, a filmmaker who shares Bresson’s interest in the antinomies of free will and predetermination. Whereas Rohmer presents chivalry as the flowering of courtly ethics, Bresson deflates any notions of heroism, seeming to regard the combat of the knights as mindless slaughter. The adulterous love between Guinevere and Lancelot, far from being either a cause or a symptom of the decline of Arthur’s reign, becomes here its most human feature. The extremely elliptical narrative is matched by an arresting use of framing and montage to break the Arthurian mythology into sharply delineated shards of armor, bloodshed and rigorously understated pageantry. The film is notoriously dark (visually speaking), as if the celluloid itself were manifesting the kingdom’s nefarious decay. Print courtesy of Institut Français.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Antoine Monnier, Tina Irissari,
Henri de Maublanc
France 1977, 35mm, color, 95 min. French with English subtitles
Once banned in France as an incitement to teenage suicide, Le diable probablement offers a haunting portrait of a truly lost generation. Within a group of young environmentalists looking to address the crisis of world hunger, one strangely charismatic member leaves, rejecting political activism as insufficient to cope with the sickness of contemporary society and resolving to kill himself as the ultimate gesture of refusal. Describing the film as “voluptuous,” Truffaut explains: “Two beautiful girls and two handsome boys animate the film…and I am insisting on their beauty because it is in part the subject of the film: wasted beauty, wasted youth. Bresson plays with these four faces, deals them out like face cards in a card game." Print courtesy of the Film Desk/Olive Films.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Marie Cardinal
France 1967, 35mm, b/w, 78 min. French with English subtitles
Mouchette is Bresson’s second adaptation from Bernanos and another tale of the trials of life in a small French town. The young Mouchette must face at an early age her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s invalidism. The film lays out, succinctly and crisply, the cruelty and barrenness of her life in Bresson’s rigorously objective style. While he had used voice-over narration to provide access to the thoughts of Bernanos’ country priest, here the spectator can only infer Mouchette’s thoughts through her physical reactions to her trials. This approach risks heartlessness, but in fact, few films capture so movingly the sheer fragility of being. In one justly famous sequence, Mouchette finds a few moments of happiness at a bumper-car ride. She is simultaneously beset and in control; the shocks are salutary. Print courtesy of Rialto Pictures.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Christian Patey, Vincent Risterucci, Caroline Lang
France 1983, 35mm, color, 83 min. French with English subtitles
Bresson was in his 80s when he completed his last film, L’Argent, which has been compared to Salo, another brutal and despairing final work. Adapting a Tolstoy novella, Bresson depicts the descent into crime and brutishness of a young man, from a seemingly ordinary bourgeois family, when he tries to pass a counterfeit note. Concerned with the corrosive effects of an all-pervasive materialism (as in Une femme douce), Bresson returns to the prison as the primary setting, making clear that it is not just the location of the mortification of the body but is also a ruling metaphor for the modern world, which has itself become a prison for the soul, leading to the cruelest and basest human behavior. New Print courtesy of Janus Films.
Sunday January 29 at 4:30pm
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Florence Delay,
Jean-Claude Fourneau, Roger Honorat
France 1962, 35mm, b/w, 65 min. French with English subtitles
Bresson’s shortest feature film is exactly what its title says: it presents the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. The settings here are as limited as in A Man Escaped, confined as they are to the barn in which Joan is held and tried and the stake outside where she is executed. This is the first of Bresson’s two period pieces, and it exhibits his anti-spectacular approach to the past. The focus on the end of Joan’s life echoes that of Dreyer, but Bresson eschews the baroque camera angles and décor of that film, as well as the virtuosic acting on display in the silent film. If his career is seen as a process of winnowing to the essential, perhaps The Trial of Joan of Arc goes the furthest: no narration, no music, only one set, and a brief running time. While Falconetti suffers exquisitely for Dreyer’s camera, Bresson’s Joan remains resolutely stoic, neither heroic nor tragic. Print courtesy of Institut Français.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Isabelle Weingarten,
Guillaume des Forêts, Maurice Monnoyer
France 1971, 35mm, color, 87 min. French with English subtitles
It is sometimes said that Bresson shifted emphasis from the metaphysical toward the sensual and even erotic over the course of his career. Of no film is that more true than in Four Nights of a Dreamer, another of Bresson’s Dostoevsky adaptations, after Une femme douce and the very Dostoevskian Pickpocket. The film takes place in a dreamy, beatnik Paris where a bohemian young man and a lonely young woman strike up a friendship. Bresson's quasi-Romantic side emerges through languid nighttime sequences and long takes as the young lovers stroll the streets and bridges of Paris. The four nights of the film’s title represent an interlude of tender happiness, a break from the darkening mood of Bresson’s previous work, before the last three films’ respective descents into Hell. New print courtesy of TIFF Cinematheque.
Look for Claire Denis who appears as an extra walking along the Seine; at the time, she was a student of the film’s extraordinary cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Philippe Asselin
France 1966, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. French with English subtitles
The title character of Au hasard Balthazar is perhaps the most perfect example of the Bressonian “model”: a donkey. Although clearly not acting, Balthazar becomes a compelling and profoundly moving protagonist. The film opens with a young Balthazar being acquired by a man with a young son and daughter. Over the course of the film, the lives of the donkey and the girl are shown in parallel as each approaches maturity. As the film follows Balthazar from owner to owner, these figures present a panorama of human vices and virtues, and the narrative proceeds with the simplicity of a parable: the virtuous owners treat Balthazar well, and the vicious ones make him suffer. Print courtesy of Rialto Pictures.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With Dominique Sanda, Guy Frangin,
France 1969, 35mm, color, 88 min. French with English subtitles
With figures who struggle blindly toward or away from salvation, often without knowing in which direction they are headed, Dostoevsky was a constant inspiration for Bresson. Une femme douce is an adaptation of “The Gentle Maiden,” a Dostoevsky story from 1876. The astonishing opening sequence depicts the title character’s suicide through quick, shocking fragments. The rest of the story unfolds through the self-serving reminiscences of the young woman’s husband as he paces back and forth in front of the bed that bears her dead body. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the film is the fact that her suicide has done nothing to redeem or reform her husband, a pawnbroker she meets while trying to sell a crucifix. In his first color film, Bresson crafts a sublime, mysterious meditation on the struggle of the spirit in a world that values only what can be bought and sold. Print courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Robert Bresson. With François Leterrier,
Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock
France 1956, 35mm, b/w, 99 min. French with English subtitles
A Man Escaped tells the true story of a Frenchman’s escape from a German prison camp during World War II. Although the title reveals the film’s denouement, the taut filmmaking keeps viewers on the edge of their seats throughout, suspense deriving from process and ritual rather than narrative surprise. Bresson restricts himself to the point of view of the imprisoned Fontaine whose limited visual environment and precise focus on minute details introduces the subtractive practice that Bresson will bring to all his subsequent work, wherein any character, incident, location or object not considered essential is banished from the film. As such, the film serves as a brilliant introduction to Bresson’s style and central themes. The film’s subtitle, Le vent souffle où il veut, could be translated as “Whatever Will Be, Will Be;” taken together, the two parts of the title sum up a central tension in Bresson’s work: that between free will and predetermination.