Hell Goes to Bresson: A New Devotee’s Cinema Conversion


One of the happier features of my life is my membership in a small film discussion group we call the Sons of Hugo Haas, but from its inception I’ve found myself feeling humiliated at our meetings too: It shames me to find out how judgmental about movies I am compared to the others. They love movies the way Dante loved Beatrice, or at least the way Casanova loved women. I’m in love with movies too but I’m always finding a given one less than ideal. It’s not just that the glass is half-empty, but that it’s dirty, and the water in it should have been something else. This tendency to judge and compare makes me feel spiritually embarrassed. So this is another reason I’m grateful to Robert Bresson. His work makes it possible for there to be movies about which I have no reservations. He is incomparable. (Well, there’s Godard, but that’s another story.)

I came to Bresson late; I’m his new most devoted convert. I only found him when his retrospective traveled the country in 1999. That experience was humbling too! I’d thought I was pretty knowledgeable about and appreciative of movies, but somehow I’d missed Bresson even though Godard was my hero and I knew Godard admired Bresson above all directors. I’d seen the stray film of his over the years, but they didn’t play often, and I was inattentive enough to find the movies unaccountable: dull, plodding, and seemingly pointless. I’d even been led his way by the public admiration of two other people I normally might have listened to, Dennis Cooper and Patti Smith, but still I didn’t get it. Part of the reason for this is that Bresson, far more than even Godard, who makes Steven Spielberg the running sick joke of his In Praise of Love (2001), abjures the tricks of success that define Hollywood.

Bresson forgoes all audience manipulation, which of course is Hollywood’s raison d’être, and he also eschews drama, the province of the theater. There are no special effects in his movies, and in fact he uses only one lens, a 50mm (the lens that presents the view most similar to what the eye sees); he’s very sparing with music (in fact, by the last few films he doesn’t use any that doesn’t originate in the action); and, most purely and subversively of all, he doesn’t use actors, but rather non-actors whom he refers to as “models,” none of whom he ever used more than once, and whom he rehearsed relentlessly to get all taint of expression out of their speech and faces. He wanted to present the real that’s possible via moving pictures—shot followed by shot—and accompanying sound, not drug his audiences with the stimulation of their biochemical systems and the triggering of their conditioned responses.

Bresson was originally a painter, and as is clear from his movies, a man of great erudition. He was also one to whom questions of how one should behave were of extreme importance, while also, in a mystery like those spiritual ones his films evoke, believing, as a Jansenist Catholic, that life is comprised exclusively of predestination and chance. His unique approach to filmmaking developed as a combination of his sophisticated understanding of aesthetics and his preoccupation with the way things are on the deepest level. He dispensed with all techniques that weren’t faithful to film exclusively; and as a worshiper of God he showed again and again how we are all helpless in the mesh and meshings of a reality that made us and how, as painful or mundane as it can be, the beauty of this, or at least the beauty of acknowledging it, is continuous and eternal.

Richard Hell will be introducing Bresson’s The Devil Probably—his choice for “the most punk film ever made”—at his “Scowl” film series at the Pioneer on August 22.