There is a moment at the end of Robert Bresson’s penultimate film, The Devil, Probably (1977), when Charles (Antoine Monnier), a young man who has decided on suicide as an abstaining vote against the options offered by society, pauses in his death march to listen to a snatch of a Mozart piano concerto coming through the window of a street-level apartment. He slows his step as though hesitating—for will one experience Mozart after death?
For those of us who love Bresson, his career output of 13 feature films made between 1943 and 1983—each one a radically uncommercial narrative work achieved through a battle for financing, and all playing at Film Forum’s Bresson retro—occupy something of the same position as that drifting piece of music. They are an argument not just for the cinema, but also for life itself.
Bresson’s films, however, are not in any recognizable sense “life-affirming,” to use a phrase that invariably denotes emotional coercion of the viewer. Steadily paring away cinema’s usual enticements, Bresson’s style was conceived in opposition to the obvious forms of beauty and drama. Fifteen-year-old Monnier, the grandson of Henri Matisse, was, like all of Bresson’s performers after Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a nonprofessional, cast once and then never again (by Bresson, at least). Calling his performers “models,” Bresson drilled them until all emotional display was stripped from their actions and readings, and then further abstracted their automatic, affectless performances with framing that dissects them into feet, hands, and broken gestures. Music is limited to cathartic concluding blasts; later, non-diegetic music disappears completely. Bresson’s images are flat, generally shot with the 50mm lens that most nearly approximates the human eye; in his 1975 Notes on Cinematography, a catechism discussing his style, he warns against picturesque frippery called “postcardism.” Although only The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Lancelot du Lac (1974) are set in the Middle Ages, Bresson’s films often seem to take place in vaulted medieval keeps—the banks of the Seine appear like a moat, while dungeon-like prisons abound, a recurring image being a door closing followed by the final turn of a key.
The facts about Bresson’s life are scant, but they amount to this: He died in 1999, but his given birth date varies; by one account he lived through all but a few months of the 20th century. He was born near the geographical center of France, Puy-de-Dôme. He retained the stamp of his Catholicism through his life, as he did his training as a painter. Beginning in 1940, he spent nine months in a German P.O.W camp before breaking out, and he drew from this experience filming A Man Escaped (1956), the work that solidified his style.
Early in Man Escaped, shooting François Leterrier’s prisoner attempting to flee a moving car, Bresson holds the shot to the seat that Leterrier has fled, not his flight. Having once declared that “cinema is the art of showing nothing,” Bresson shows not impact but the ripples in the wake of impact. Cutaways in his films come either “too quickly” or not at all, while his shot progressions illustrate the logical steps of causation like a flow chart. In Une Femme Douce (1969), there is a moment after an unseen suicide jump when the jumper’s white scarf—a flown soul?—floats to the ground. In Lancelot, dealing with last days of Camelot after the failed search for the Grail, the final tour of destruction is led by riderless steeds, the battle already fought and lost. In L’Argent (1983), Bresson introduces a wife’s tragic letter to her incarcerated husband through the prison’s mail-sorting room before leaping to the aftermath of the receipt.
Bresson’s paradoxes preclude simple summary but make him an artist to live with and sort through. A rigorous theoretician, he’s also the most emotional of filmmakers, a fact noted by Monnier in a 1978 interview: “He’s working totally on feeling, so he is very fragile.” Although the adjective most usually associated with Bresson is “asceticism,” his treatment of the world is tactile and lucidly sensual, his models are arrestingly beauteous, and I can think of few moments in cinema more erotic than the private reverie of Isabelle Weingarten in Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) as she strips to admire her body in a full-length mirror. 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. (This includes an increasing preoccupation with and sympathy for suicides, which, in an avowed Christian like Bresson, is highly unorthodox.) 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.