“My task is not to make beautiful images, but necessary ones.” — Robert Bresson
Jean Cocteau once said of Robert Bresson, “He expresses himself cinematographically as a poet would with his pen.” Francois Truffaut observed that Bresson’s films are “closer to painting than to photography.” Painting, with its direct connection between artist and brush and canvas, was a profound influence on Bresson, especially since he studied the art after high school. What appealed to him most was painting’s solitary nature, and I suspect that if he had the means, Bresson would have preferred to make his movies entirely by himself.
Throughout the course of his career, Bresson relentlessly rid his movies of all distractions and diversions. He believed that the techniques of professional actors got in the way of the truth, so he stopped using them, just as he abandoned studios for practical locations. One doesn’t watch Bresson to see great acting or admire the lush scenic design: the non-professionals he cast were mere instruments, devoid of independent ego, and the settings they moved through were purely functional. Bresson broke down performances into a carefully choreographed series of movements, gestures, and glances. Characters were not supposed to think or move spontaneously, but as precisely animated figures in the landscape of Bresson’s obsessive “dialogue with the divine.” (Bresson’s Catholicism was another major influence on his work.)
Watching Bresson is to be held in the grip of a singular, rigorous vision, a stripped-down world where nothing is superfluous or left to chance. Because of the unorthodoxy of his aesthetic, Bresson’s movies are tough sledding for modern audiences conditioned to non-stop “incidents,” rapid-fire editing, Oscar-trolling performances, special effects and crass sentimentality. His films can wear you down. When I first encountered Bresson’s work as a young film student, I was not yet conversant with what Paul Schrader dubbed the “transcendental style” in cinema. Initially I was puzzled by Bresson’s canvas of blank faces, repetitive movements, seemingly insignificant plot details, and unadorned cinematography. I simply had no frame of reference for his brand of austerity. But his characters and images stuck with me, especially Pickpocket with its precise montages and confessional narration, and A Man Escaped with its prison break set to Mozart. Eventually I became an enthusiastic convert, and Bresson sparked a lifelong interest in the works of other transcendentalists in the arts.
Sadly, the intellectual and financial environment which allowed films like Bresson’s to be made – in fact, the very idea that cinema can be more than faddish entertainment – has all but vanished (and never really had a firm foothold in American film). By the time of his death at age 92 in 1999, Bresson was despairing for the future of his chosen art form. Fortunately, his work survives to remind us of the possibilities that lie beyond the multiplex.
Tune in July 17 for the films of Robert Bresson on UCSD-TV’s World Cinema Saturdays.