TIFF Cinematheque curates the first full retrospective in fourteen years of the films of the most revered postwar French director, whose rigorously beautiful tales of spiritual struggle and transcendence have exerted a tremendous influence on the last half-century of world cinema.
"Robert Bresson is French cinema as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music." — Jean-Luc Godard
"Bluntly put, to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures." — J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
"It is with something clean and precise that you will force the attention of inattentive eyes and ears." — Robert Bresson
"God doesn't reveal himself through mediocrity," someone comments in Robert Bresson's late film Le Diable probablement, an avowal that could stand as the French master's artistic credo. Bresson's sparse and daunting canon — "so concentrated and so unified," as he described his aesthetic ideal — includes not one work of inconsequence, compromise, or banality. Aside from a short musical comedy, Affaires publiques, a fragment of which was discovered in 1987, the French master made only thirteen films over half a century. One of film history's most legendary and influential bodies of work, Bresson's rigorous oeuvre must be experienced and understood, as Jim Hoberman's polemical statement attests, by anyone who wishes to grasp the full potential of cinema. Disorienting in their strange, singular beauty, Bresson's films have exerted an unequalled authority over contemporary cinema despite the unavailability of many of them; though he is first and foremost a "filmmaker's filmmaker," his films have also inspired poets, musicians, choreographers and painters. Encountering Bresson on the big screen for the first time — and no director's work more demands it because of the physiological effects of his sound and image editing, the sheer physical authority of his meticulously constructed worlds — can induce a kind of vertigo, as eyes and ears dulled to inattention by conventional cinema are suddenly forced to a new or heightened awareness, an effect that registers somewhere between bracing and life-changing.
Influenced by Jansenism, the ascetic school of Catholicism concerned with free will and predestination, Bresson's early studies were in philosophy and painting, the residue of which is readily apparent in his films. Though Bresson declared, in his famous little book of Pascalian aphorisms Notes sur le cinématographe, "Not beautiful photography, not beautiful images, but necessary images and photography," his films from first to last are in fact filled with the "beautiful images" he supposedly abjured. His determination to inscribe in the profane imagery of the cinema the spiritual quandary of isolated people in search of grace led him to remove from his films everything he considered extraneous and false. "One does not create by adding, but by taking away," Bresson claimed, and one need only compare his The Trial of Joan of Arc with Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc to perceive the rigour of Bresson's stripped-down approach. "For want of truth," Bresson notes dryly, "the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti's way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer's film, used to make people weep." (Bresson's Joan keeps her eyes down, not just to signify her modesty before God, but to signal that she is not Falconetti.)
Though studio-bound, stylized, and literary compared to his later work, Bresson's first two features, Les Anges du péché and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, can now be seen as part of the "unified field" of Bresson's work in their relentless precision and themes of sacrifice and redemption. But it was with Diary of a Country Priest that Bresson first developed the minimalist style with which he became identified and which altered little over the years, despite his wide range of subjects and sources — Dostoevsky mostly, but also Arthurian tales, Bernanos, Diderot, Tolstoy — and shift from black and white to colour (though long after most other directors). The style Bresson evolved to express his vision of the quest for redemption in a barbaric world — what Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio called the director's "new language" — can be defined in terms of denial, renunciation, and avoidance. (Bresson wrote admiringly of Debussy's playing the piano with the lid down, an apt metaphor for his own approach.) His images are often starkly composed, flattened, and stress frontality in a manner that has been compared to Byzantine iconography and the paintings of Piero della Francesca and Giotto. (In his Notes, Bresson writes: "Flatten my images (as if ironing them), without attenuating them.") Paradoxically, the interstice becomes the essential in a visual style that often elides the obvious and concentrates on the moments and spaces before, between, or after; charged images of gestures and glances, of isolated objects and vacated places, of parts of the body (hands and feet especially) and the oft-remarked doors he frequently fixes on — never merely doors in Bresson's cinema, but portals for the soul.
Bresson's unique use of sound is one of the most admired and analyzed in all cinema, and his statements on it have become a kind of theology for some filmmakers. "When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it," Bresson instructs. "The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer." (The spiritual injunction voir avec les oreilles — "see with the ears" — appears to pertain.) He told Michel Ciment: "In a film, sound and picture progress jointly, overtake each other, slip back, come together again, move forward jointly again. What interests me, on a screen, is counterpoint." (Not for nothing was Bach his favourite composer.) From Diary of a Country Priest onwards — most markedly in the employment of natural sounds in A Man Escaped and the celebrated jousting tournament in Lancelot du Lac — Bresson increasingly uses sound as a replacement for, rather than an adjunct to or reinforcement of, his images; his aesthetic emphasizes the process of divination, here sensory intuition. Just as he often focuses on "vacant" spaces, his camera habitually lingering after a character has departed, Bresson stresses silence: "Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence." ("Is [Diary] just a silent film with spoken titles?" asked André Bazin.)
Perhaps the most noted, and controversial, element of Bresson's system is his use of what he called "models": non-professional actors trained in neutral line readings ("talk as if you're talking to yourself," he instructed them), automatic gestures, and emotional inexpressiveness. (The "Bresson face" — hieratic, impassive, androgynous if not sexless — has often been copied by other filmmakers.) As with Mizoguchi, Bresson is a cardinal case of great art being born of cruel perfectionism: he put his models through dozens of takes to get just the right lack of inflection in a line, the precise downcast look, the correct automatic (therefore "natural") movement. "The director tortures his players — not to force from them all that they are capable of, but so as to leave nothing to their initiative," wrote Jean Douchet in his 1951 account of the making of Diary, reporting on the exhaustion of Bresson's endlessly drilled actors and a "violent altercation" between Bresson and his lead actor, the gentle Claude Laydu. (It's little wonder that Maria Casarès sipped a little cognac before going before the cameras in Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne; Bresson convinced her to take a sedative instead.) Though Laydu, indelible as the curé whose attempts to assuage the suffering of others are met with malice and indifference, and François Leterrier, his visage as blank as the prison walls that enclose him in A Man Escaped, are the initial instances of Bresson's use of "virginal" models, it is in Pickpocket that the practice reached an apogee. And in an essay on Au hasard Balthazar, Michael Haneke claims the film, in its use of a donkey as protagonist, is "the clearest and most coherent expression" of Bresson's much-criticized "model theory," the blankness of Balthazar transforming him into a tabula rasa "for the viewers' thoughts and feelings."
Bresson's obdurate vision and style produced a cinema of paradox, in which the denial of emotion creates emotionally overwhelming works, minimalism becomes plenitude, the withholding of information makes for narrative density, fragmentation evokes a sense of the world's wholeness, and attention to "the surface of the work," as Bresson called it, produces inexhaustible depth. Physical imprisonment becomes a metaphor or vehicle for spiritual release, and a chaste aesthetic generates potent sensuality; interiority is manifested in a "language of things," an intense materialism transforms objects and gestures into signifiers of the transcendent, and documentary naturalism becomes abstract formalism. "All is Grace," as the ending of Diary of a Country Priest states, yet suicide is heretically posited as a way out of a cruel, barren existence. And yet it is that same barbaric world that, through the sublimity of Bresson's art, can become suffused with spiritual mystery and the possibility of redemption. — James Quandt
The Bresson retrospective and tour were organized by TIFF Cinematheque to celebrate the Cinematheque's twentieth anniversary. The distributors Janus Films (Sarah Finklea), The Film Desk (Jacob Perlin), and Rialto Pictures (Bruce Goldstein) made the event possible by supplying prints and in several cases making new ones especially for this retrospective. We also wish to thank the following organizations and individuals for their assistance with this series: the Institut Français; Mylène Bresson, Paris; Delphine Selles Alvarez, French Cultural Services, New York; La Cinémathèque française, Paris; Pierre Lhomme, Paris; Andrea Kalas, Larry McCallister and Daniel O'Rourke, Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles.