For Reel


Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
March 1, 2012, 10:23 pm
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Director: Robert Bresson

Diary of a Country Priest was the third film of Robert Bresson, but it was the first to articulate itself through an intensely first-person perspective, which would be repeated in two of his oft-cited masterpieces, Pickpocket and A Man Escaped. Its star, Claude Laydu, was the pioneering model of Bresson’s cinema – the first nonprofessional whose “acting” is nearly invisible. For these reasons and more, it is not only emblematic of the director’s aesthetic means, elliptical narrative devices, and dealings with crises in faith, but it is among his very best pictures. Laydu plays the priest of the title, who arrives at Ambricourt, a commune in Northern France. From the readings of a diary – which serves as a relentless voice-over – it is revealed that the priest is ailing from a potentially fatal stomach cancer and has been surviving just barely on stale bread soaked in bad wine. Though priests in cinema are often wrought either as repressed perverts or with excruciating sentimentality, Laydu is not depicted with any inherent sense of nobility, but rather as an earnest believer whose physical ailments are perhaps metaphorically birthed from the hostile treatment that he receives from the faithless parishioners (for this reason, he might be the most blatant Christ allegory in all of Bresson, even moreso than Balthazar). As a servant of God attempting to get by in a Godless world, Laydu’s priest is a devastating suggestion of the burden of failure, no matter the circumstances.



Lancelot du Lac (1974)
February 28, 2012, 12:22 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

The most aesthetically radical of Robert Bresson’s pictures, Lancelot du Lac alarmingly begins with a series of preposterously violent slaughterings rid of context and defined character. Adapted from a small piece of the Arthurian legend, the narrative starts just after the fall of the Round Table and the failed quest for the Grail, and it concerns the impassioned Lancelot; his Queen, Guinevere; and the noble Gauvain, among others. In the centerpiece of the narrative – a jousting tournament – a bravura use of editing marks the spectacle as one of Bresson’s finest and most exciting sequences. There is never an establishing shot, nor does Bresson use crowd reactions in order to enhance the suspense. Repetition is employed in order to evoke the procession of matches – the cuts include, for instance, a piper’s midsection and his consistent playing of three notes, as well as the lower half of the horses, as if to focus on the extravagance that is the musculature of the beasts rather than the clashing of knights. This type of shot – in which Bresson deliberately obscures a great part of the figure from the audience – is a staple within his oeuvre, although it is never used quite as extremely as in Lancelot. Quite often, the camera will follow the knights only from their knees down, and even when the iconic Round Table is depicted, it is done so in a fragmented manner, as if revealing pieces of a pie. By fracturing the figures in such a way, it suggests that the men are broken after their failed quest, and that their loyalties are sent into disarray. The titular figure, for instance, struggles between pledging his loyalty to God or to his Queen, and it isn’t until his last breath that his ultimate allegiance is revealed – “Guinevere.”



The Devil, Probably (1977)
February 23, 2012, 2:03 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

The penultimate film of Robert Bresson, The Devil, Probably serves as the antithesis of his most whimsical feature, Four Nights of a Dreamer. An illuminated boat floating down the Seine is the first image to draw this parallel, and later in the picture Bresson returns to a familiar gathering of young folk musicians. Whereas Four Nights of a Dreamer identified the youthful as naive and over-romantic, The Devil, Probably features a protagonist, Charles, whose rigid cynicism sets him in stark contrast with Mouchette, who was resilient for as long as she could bare. Charles’ suicidal desire is not the result of his own victimization, but of his unwillingness to participate in a world in which he finds abhorrent. In the film, Bresson heavily uses stock footage to depict man’s destruction of the natural world. These images do not serve as an environmental sermon, but as a sort of passive judgment – man’s greed permits the potential for change, and so it is the burden of the young to either find a method of coping with the reality, or, as Charles will, removing oneself entirely. The key ideas that Bresson employed in his earlier work – transcendence, grace – are alluded to out of spite. In a sequence within a church, an organ is obnoxiously tuned while characters discuss the nature of religion, and, later, Charles camps in a church as if to become close to God without the contaminate of man. That he is so reasonable and articulate in his bitterness is perhaps what draws some away from the picture, which is certainly one of Bresson’s most uncompromising and upsetting. It is not a glamorization or a justification of suicide, though it certainly doesn’t pass judgment on the doomed Charles for his decision. After all, who are we to judge Charles, when our species as a whole is equally bent on self-destruction?



L’Argent (1983)
February 23, 2012, 2:01 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

Loosely adapted from the first part of the Leo Tolstoy novella The Forged Coupon, L’Argent was the final film of Robert Bresson and clearly his most nihilistic. It is not coincidental that the second part of Tolstoy’s source material had been left out, in which the wrong-doers are redeemed and goodness proves just as infectious as evil. This is Bresson’s most stubborn, inflexible work, angry and possessing implications far more horrifying than the reasoned resistance of The Devil, Probably. In the film, a young gas man acquires forged franc notes and is arrested when, oblivious that they are inauthentic, he attempts to use them at a restaurant. As the picture continues, Yvon works as the get-away driver for a robbery, is sentenced to prison, and goes on a murderous rampage. Author Tony Pipolo argues that, while Yvon might be the closest character that L’Argent has to a protagonist, he is far removed from the typical Bresson character because he, “does not engage in a struggle of conscience.” He is, for this reason, perhaps the most distancing of Bresson’s leads – the picture is not so much a character study as it is a film about transference, as Yvon’s descent to needless, greed-fueled violence would suggest. The world is a harsh, unjust one, and rather than serving as the martyr that Balthazar had, Yvon is ensnared within his own predatory course. As far as it would seem that Bresson had come in his career, it is fascinating to see that his final film ends nearly identical to his first, in which Yvon, as Thérèse had in Les Anges du Péché, surrenders himself to authorities.



Pickpocket (1959)
February 15, 2012, 6:09 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

In the back half of Robert Bresson’s relatively meager yet awe-inspiring career, he would directly adapt Fyodor Dostoyevsky with a pair of great films, Une Femme Douce and Four Nights of a Dreamer. His Pickpocket, the revered 1959 classic, is clear to have been inspired by Crime and Punishment, with an intellectual protagonist who steals because he feels that he has a license to. Martin Lassalle, who, like all save two of Bresson’s protagonists (the women of his earliest two pictures), was a nonprofessional actor, and as Michel, the titular pickpocket, he is a compelling, if intentionally evasive presence. Through his relationship with a policeman, it becomes clear that Michel longs to be caught, as if seeking penance. Like A Man Escaped, the film heavily involves first-person narration, and, if not physically so, it deals with a metaphorical imprisonment. Ironically, only in being locked in a cell at the end of the picture does Michel find grace. The sequences of pickpocketing are the ballets of a virtuoso filmmaker, using succinct editing and close-ups of hands to capture the action. Hands, in Bresson, are fate-makers, as if suggesting free will and impulse. Pickpocket‘s final moments – in which the imprisoned Michel substitutes his passion for thievery for an admission of love – don’t ring completely true, perhaps due to the uncharacteristically invasive score.



Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
February 15, 2012, 12:43 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s masterpiece of the sixties, tracks the life of a donkey who is born, passed from one vile master to the other, and dies. Though it is in many ways a twin of Mouchette, Bresson’s followup film, it eclipses its successor through the specificity with which it deals with violence. Many of those who exploit Balthazar do so for selfish means, or, in the case of the suspected murderer, motivations that are linked to substance abuse more than personal depravity. The young Gerard, who is perhaps the film’s purest form of evil, is the only character whose intentions are somewhat abstract. His is a senseless violence, a suggestion of the masochism of the new generation. Gerard is certainly linked with modernity – riding his motorbike and listening to contemporary rock music – and, perhaps unexpectedly, Bresson equates these new-fashioned trends with an enhanced display of primal brutishness. In creating a conflict between the young and the old (and specifically in contrasting the type of cruelty that is committed by each group), Bresson suggests that the world has been transformed by man’s gradual fall from grace. Balthazar, the Christ-figure, is given all the more significance with the suggestion that he is absolving a world that has become newly corrupt. Furthermore, as bleak of a portrait as the picture provides, it also suggests the inherent goodness that surfaces within man. The love between Marie and Balthazar, for example, is an affection not afforded Mouchette, and it offers moments of compassionate reprieve amongst the onslaught of suffering. The delicate balance that Bresson achieves is perhaps his most complete vision of his preferred type of social realism – it’s a world that is undoubtedly brutal, but one that is still tangibly human. Godard’s famous quote about the picture, that it is, “the world in an hour and a half”, is not mere hyperbole.



A Man Escaped (1956)
February 10, 2012, 12:07 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

Made with utter precision and wasting not a single shot, A Man Escaped is, formally, a perfect movie. Like the protagonist, it is deeply focused on its objective, stripping away every superfluous distraction that has no relevance to the destination. There is never a question about what the next task is – carve through this plank; cover the hole so as not to be discovered; deliver a letter; retrieve a spoon – and each progression is an opera of suspense, with the length of each cut, the inhibited visual perspective from within the cell, and the sounds that ring from outside banding together in cinematic synergy. It is storytelling in its purest form, and as such it may be director Robert Bresson at his most accessible, catering to both those academically curious and those looking for a thrill. Bresson, it is known, spent a year and a half as a prisoner of war in a German prison, and as such it is plausible to suggest that the film is at least loosely autobiographical. The film wastes no time to show the hero with his head in his hands and feeling defeated – wallowing in misery is the last thing on the mind of the prisoner, rather he obsesses diligently about the prospect of escaping, envisioning circumstance after circumstance that could lead to his salvation. To quote Bresson, “When one is in prison, the most important thing is the door.”



Mouchette (1967)
February 9, 2012, 12:38 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

Often spoken of as one of Robert Bresson’s best, Mouchette is among the bleakest and most cynical films that this reviewer has ever seen. Over the course of the picture, the young girl of the title is humiliated, bullied, raped, and, in the end, finally succumbs to suicide. That the film is bleak is not an issue – after all, both Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc and Au Hasard Balthazar present similarly cruel worlds that thoroughly victimize the protagonist – but Mouchette‘s moral failing is that the abuse doesn’t serve any other means, whereas Joan’s faith was the subject of her film, and Balthazar serves as a subject of allegory. Misery is not an invalid curiosity, certainly, but for a narrative to read as identifiably human, one must acknowledge the capacity within man for compassion, for instance. The first third of Mouchtte is so relentless in its torture of the girl that it rings as false – one feels so pummeled by the time that she is beaten after her only moment of happiness that all that is left to do as an audience member is laugh in submission. It is a well-made picture, certainly, however Au Hasard Balthazar is a far superior film about the same subject, one that presents a bleak portrait of humanity whilst allowing its characters their dignity and the courtesy of being loved.



Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
February 8, 2012, 11:29 pm
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Director: Robert Bresson

His second film in color, Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer is an adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella White Nights. The plot is simple: Jacques, a young artist and the titular dreamer, encounters the beautiful Marthe as she readies herself to commit suicide, having been neglected by the man whom she had intended to marry. Both are swept away by romantic delusions – while Marthe is fixated on the lodger that she had lost her virginity to, Jacques attention is erratic, and, as the number of unfinished paintings in his flat suggests, is unlikely to see anything through to the end. The apparent budding romance between them (at least as he visualizes it) is embodied in Paris itself, here an almost utopian setting in which, uncharacteristically, Bresson glamorizes through the hypnotic tonality of North and South American folk music and a dreamlike glimpse of a luxury liner floating down the Seine. In one of the film’s most revealing and sublime images – of which there are many – Jacques and Marthe stand shoulder-to-shoulder, with Jacques’ eyes positioned stubbornly towards the sky and Marthe’s focused street-level at the arrival of her lover, perfectly economizing the nature of both characters within a single frame. The film is tragically unavailable for home viewing in acceptable quality, however it is not to be mistaken as lesser Bresson – it is a masterpiece.



Les Anges du Péché (1943)
January 31, 2012, 3:05 pm
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Director: Robert Bresson

Released under German-occupied France, Les Anges du Péché was Robert Bresson’s first film and, along with Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, an endeavor in which he uncharacteristically uses professional actors and conventional narrative form. Renée Faure is memorable as Anne-Marie, a nun who, for reasons unexplained, joins a convent that rehabilitates women convicts. The much-discussed conclusion of the picture involves an apparent spiritual and psychological transference between the dying Anne-Marie and Thérèse, the woman whom Anne-Marie had fixated her efforts on. Thérèse, who has thanklessly treated her caretaker as if having been harassed, is so touched by Anne-Marie’s profound faith as she nears death that she finally chooses to seek redemption. After the lengthy shot-reverse-shot dialogue sequence that occurs at the deathbed (which is a weak point in the film and, fittingly, the kind of scene that Bresson would learn to avoid all together), the camera pulls back into an overhead perspective that suggests the presence of higher being – alluding to Anne-Marie’s own passing as much as it does Thérèse’s enlightenment. As he would do again in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Bresson here suggests the elasticity of man – that is, one’s ability to transcend their own nihilistic predilections when prompted by both natural and supernatural forces. In his first film, it is evident that Bresson had already established a few of his key thematic concerns, and as his career progressed he only better grasped the means of how to cinematically convey them to an audience.