Robert Bresson (1901-1999)


A magisterial figure in world cinema, having made but 13 features over the course of four decades and influenced virtually every major European director to emerge since 1960, Robert Bresson, who died December 18, distilled the motion picture narrative down to a particular essence. Bresson’s movies are looks and gestures and precisely arranged sounds. He eschewed theater. He did not use actors. His favorite effect was the close-up and his only peer as an editor was Alfred Hitchcock. Bresson, however, was not a director of audiences. Each of his films was a drama of faith so uncompromising as to border on the absurd and, as cerebral as these movies are, their effect is far more emotional than intellectual. Everyone has their favorite. Mine is the heartbreakingly ridiculous Au Hasard Balthazar—a movie that transforms the death of a donkey into the most tragic and sublime cinematic passage I know. —J. HOBERMAN

In 1972 Robert Bresson, responding to my recently published book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, wrote me, “I have always been surprised not to recognize myself in the image formed by those who are really interested in me.”

Looking back at Bresson’s films and my fascination with them, I am no longer sure if I ever saw Bresson in the glass of his films; I only saw my own reflection.

This is the extraordinary spell of his films: Pretending to depict the physical world with neither emotion nor estimate, he reveals not the outer world, but the inner one. The point he strives for, the end of his task, is not a depiction of the physical world, not an emotional identification with the actor or story, not an exploration of the artist, but the exquisite quiet of oneself, the viewer.

For the last 15 years Robert Bresson has seemed like God himself, distant, beyond communication. Now, like God, Bresson is dead. —PAUL SCHRADER

“I would like to announce that my husband Robert Bresson, author of films, died on the 18th of December, and will be buried in private.” With this simple statement, as direct and shorn of wasteful embellishments as a moment from one of her husband’s films, Mylène Bresson publicly announced a piece of news that we all knew would come sooner rather than later. Bresson was, after all, 98 years old, and his mind had reportedly started to lose its extraordinary lucidity some time ago.

But now we have a world without Bresson in it. There was little if any chance he would ever get another film off the ground after the 1983 L’Argent—for my money one of the great works of art of the second half of the 20th century—although he did come close in the mid ’80s, with La Belle Vie and his long-cherished version of Genesis. But the mere fact that he was still in our midst felt comforting, almost like a shield against venality and indifference. In Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Godard offers the dubious proposition that Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Bressons scaldingly romantic drama and his first great work, was the one true film of the resistance. From a purely factual point of view, its a stretch—the movie was made under studio conditions during the German occupation. But as often happens with Godard, the poetic logic is right. Because throughout his career, more than any other filmmaker, Bresson resisted.

He resisted stars, spectacle, theatrically inflected acting, standardized syntax, anything that stood in the way of his efforts to achieve a completely personal narrative cinema. There is nothing even remotely ordinary about Bresson’s films: Every choice, from the sound effects to the transitions between scenes, feels like a brush stroke. Bresson began as a painter, and much to the consternation of his exasperated crews and producers, he carried that private mode of creation into the most industrially tainted of all art forms.

There’s a mythical image of Bresson as an austere, transcendental creator of austere, transcendental films (it’s based on a misunderstanding of Schrader’s pioneering book on “transcendental style”). The adjectives are misleading, because they speak more to what his films aren’t than to what they are. And they don’t do justice to this fan of Goldfinger and Brief Encounter, who once considered casting Burt Lancaster and Natalie Wood in Lancelot du Lac. Nor do they describe the hair-raising eroticism of Au Hasard Balthazar, Une Femme Douce or Four Nights of a Dreamer. Or the profoundly empathic communion with the young and the disenfranchised in The Devil Probably and L’Argent. Bresson was certainly the only filmmaker who could have made sense of Littleton. Now he’s gone. Will there be anyone brave enough to follow his example? —KENT JONES

Given that Robert Bresson could not live forever, there’s something satisfying in the fact that his 98 years were almost the measure of the century of cinema, that the century enfolded, with a slight modernist asymmetry, his beginning and his end. You can see the form in this, although Bresson, whose films are, above all, investigations into the mystery of form, might have found the relationships and metaphors a bit crude.

“Robert Bresson is French Cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music,” wrote Godard, the polemicist. The quotation is on the back cover of Robert Bresson, edited by James Quandt, an excellent collection of interviews with Bresson plus essays and tributes by filmmakers and critics testifying to the revelatory impact of his films. “Pickpocket is the film of my life” (Chantal Akerman). “The experience was an awakening for me—the film expressed such essential truths” (Agnieszka Holland on A Man Escaped). I would never have survived in this God-forgotten world without the realistic lies of Mr. Bresson, for which I will always be thankful until I die and thereafter (Aki Kaurismaki). What publicist could dream of better blurbs?

Au Hasard Balthazar is the film of my life, and not simply because I weep from beginning to end every time I see it. I also weep, though not as convulsively, at Bambi, which like Balthazar is about the cruelty of humans to animals. The comparison, however, stops there. Balthazar is a donkey who lives for the first year of his life in a kind of paradise. Marie, the daughter of the family that owns him, lavishes him with affection. He is her familiar, her alter ego, the love of her life. But their happiness is short-lived. Marie’s father loses his livelihood and his pride will not allow him to accept help. Balthazar is sold to one cruel master after another. Marie not only watches as he’s beaten and tormented, she fucks his abusers. Marie has inherited her father’s masochism. She cannot reconcile sex and love. Her perverse confusion of pleasure and pain, which is shared by every person in the film, is what defines the difference between humans and beasts like Balthazar. It all ends badly. Marie is raped by her lover and his motorcycle gang, and Balthazar is killed when the same boys use him to carry smuggled goods over the border.

Unsparing in its depiction of sadomasochistic relations and the shame that accompanies them, Balthazar also offers, in its opening moments, a glimpse of paradise, the loss of which conditions everything that follows. Bresson’s films are composed around this sense of loss. The fragmentation of sound, image, and movement testifies simultaneously to what is present and what is absent, to the world as it is and as it could be. Gravity and grace.–AMY TAUBIN