Saints and Sinners


The name Robert Bresson strikes fear into some hearts and inspires awe in others—such is the uncompromising purity, gravity, and rigor of this magisterial French filmmaker, the current subject of a full retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Bresson distills motion picture narrative down to a particular essence of looks and gestures. Each of his films is a bid for redemption—a drama of faith so uncompromising as to border on the absurd. The epitome of Bressonian spectacle is his notorious Lancelot du Lac (1974), an Arthurian romance almost entirely composed of knights jousting in medium shot or close-up, the characters distinguished from each other largely by the details of their armor.

Were there a Nobel Prize for filmmaking, Bresson (now almost 90) would have won it long ago. Having made but 13 features over the course of a 40-year career, he has—as programmer James Quandt puts it in his introduction to the retrospective’s suitably austere accompanying publication—created a “corpus of unparalleled stylistic consistency and influence.” Starting with Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni, there is scarcely a major European director to emerge since 1960 who does not in some way show his influence: Jacques Rivette, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Marie Straub, Andrei Tarkovsky. R.W. Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman, Andrei Sokurov, Bela Tarr, and Aki Kaurismaki are all in some way Bressonian. So are ambitious Americans like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. And Bresson’s precedent creates a context within which to appreciate the genius of a Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Although his most obvious historical precursor is Carl Theodor Dreyer, the vigor of Bresson’s editing strategies, the elegance of his framing, the musical precision of his structures, and the natural grace of his deadpan performers also remind me of Buster Keaton. Perhaps it should not be so surprising that Bresson’s recently rediscovered first feature, Affaires publiques (1934), is a slapstick comedy. Cerebral as Bresson’s movies are, their effect is far more emotional than intellectual. Manny Farber once described the ineffable Mouchette (1967)—an evocation of rural idiocy—as a movie about “the surpassing beauty of a girl who is in a state of excruciating physical discomfort.”

Bresson’s nonactors (“models” is his term) appear both transfigured and inexpressive. The donkey who is the eponymous protagonist of the heartbreakingly sublime and ridiculous Au hasard, Balthazar (1966)—the director’s supreme masterpiece and one of the greatest movies ever made—is the ultimate example of a Bressonian subject. “You really feel he is trying to empty your mind,” Dominique Sanda tells an interviewer in The Way to Bresson, a 1983 Dutch documentary that screens Saturday. Sanda, who had the title role in Une Femme douce and who is, I believe, the only Bresson model to have a subsequent film career, recalls that he directed her to never look into a fellow model’s eyes but always a bit off—”look at the ear.”

Eliminating transitional shots and eliding dramatic climaxes, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944), which opens the retrospective on Friday, suggests Bresson’s later editing strategies. Using very few establishing shots and little camera movement (and, indeed, very little movement within the frame), the filmmaker restricts the number of camera angles and setups. His favorite “effect” is the close-up—employed to isolate glances, as well as objects and empty spaces. He is a master of aggressive montage—using sound and reaction shots to signify events that happen offscreen.

More concentrated and elliptical than Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or A Condemned Man Escapes (1956), Pickpocket (1959) perfected Bressonian narrative—Bresson for beginners. Inspired by Crime and Punishment, this story of a thief in which all extraneous anecdote has been stripped away inaugurated the Bressonification of Dostoyevsky—the adaptations A Simple Creature (1969) and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) and his fiercely irascible gloss on Notes From Underground, The Devil, Probably (1977).

Bresson distinguished between his own methodology (what he refers to as le cinématographe or cinematic writing) and the bogus theatrical naturalism and fake psychology of popular cinema. His uncommercial approach is accentuated by certain material concerns. Money in Bresson’s cinema is typically visualized as a greasy wad of bills, and his final testament, the bluntly titled L’Argent (1983), is a left-wing splatter film of alpine bleakness and elliptically lurid melodrama. In this near self-parody and formalist triumph, Bresson further pares down his minimalist style to accommodate bank heists, a prison riot, and multiple ax murders. “You are confusing pessimism with lucidity,” he explains in The Way to Bresson when a Dutch interviewer asks him about L’Argent‘s decidedly downbeat quality.

Bresson has been described as a “Christian atheist”; his protagonists have been called “saints without theology”; his movies might be described as cinema icons. I recently read a review that hailed Prince of Egypt as the most “religious” Hollywood movie since Schindler’s List. Content is easier to get than form and G-d knows that Steven Spielberg has his devotees. But if Prince of Egypt and Schindler’s List are religious experiences, what in the world do we call Diary of a Country Priest, Au hasard, Balthazar, or Mouchette?

Love it or hate it, Larry Clark’s Kids was some sort of movie. Part exploitation flick, part cautionary shocker, the cult photographer’s overhyped but skillfully made and undeniably disturbing debut feature gave definitive cinematic expression to the condition of being young, dumb, and horny. The use of nonactors and nonjudgmental—if voyeuristic—camera placement might even suggest a debased species of Bressonian cinema.

Kids was a world of sexual nihilism in the skateboard Sodom of a Christian Coalition nightmare, the Los Olvidados of the libido, as well as a visceral AIDS allegory. Clark’s follow-up, Another Day in Paradise, is a lot more conventional and a lot less shocking—even if its particular milieu is closer to Clark’s own notoriously drug-dependent past. A pair of veteran thieves, Mel (James Woods) and Sid (Melanie Griffith), team up with a couple of delinquent kids, Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rose (Natasha Gregson Wagner), for a giddy ride toward oblivion.

Another Day in Paradise presents itself as a corrective of sorts to Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, a movie Clark feels—with good reason—to have been inspired by, if not ripped off from, his photographs. Clark may know this world better than Van Sant but he lacks the filmmaking chops to reclaim it. Another Day is slackly directed and badly acted. Nor does Clark show any particular flair for mayhem. Despite a well-orchestrated deal gone wrong, the ensuing carnage is too clumsily staged and awkwardly contrived to carry any emotional weight. Barely enlivened by the presence of bluesman Clarence Carter or Lou Diamond Phillips’s cameo as the meanest queen in East L.A., Another Day lurches in and out of credibility, slouching from contrived situations of horror to fake revelations of synthetic soul.

Four actors, four movies. The typically wired Woods is acting solo. Kartheiser manages to survive a lot of punishment and still look minty fresh. The only thing more embarrassing than Melanie Griffith’s blowzy mother-hen is stoned kewpie doll Wagner’s valley-girl whine of junkie need. Kids asked to be read as a cautionary movie about AIDS. Another Day in Paradise illustrates a lesser social problem—the danger that, for a photographer, everything is a pose.