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Robert Bresson (1907-1999)


French director, sometimes called "a philosopher with a camera." Bresson's central themes were religious. He produced thirteen features and one short film. Most of his films were adaptations of literary works from such writers as Diderot, Dostoevsky, Bernanos, and Tolstoy. The American director Paul Schrader has described Bresson as "the most important spiritual artist" and Jean Cocteau said, "Bresson is 'apart' in this terrible trade."

"My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water." (in Notes on Cinematography, 1975)

Robert Bresson was born at Bromont-Lamothe. Little is known of his early life and the year of his birth, 1901 or 1907 varies depending on the source. Following his death in 1999, obituaries in the press reported that he was born in 1901. His filmmaking career spanned forty years, from 1943 to 1983.

Bresson was educated at Lycée Lakanal à Sceaux, Paris, and turned to painting after graduating. In 1926 he married Leidia van der Zee. Bresson studied philosophy at university and was a photographer and painter before entering the film world. In the mid-1930s, he worked as a scriptwriter on comedies. Bresson's writer credits include C'Était un Musicien (1933), Les Jumeaux de Brighton (1936), and Courier Sud (1937), which was based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novel. He was also René Clair's assistant on the uncompleted Air Pur. Bresson's first film, Les Affaires publiques (1934), was made to serve as a "filter" to precede the main feature. The film was funded by Roland Penrose, a British patron and a member of the Surrealists. The casting included the "girls" of the Folies Bergères, circus clowns, and comedians. Long thought to be lost, the burlesque was found again in 1988.

During the early part of World War II, Bresson was in a German prison camp. This experience later gave material to his commercially most successful film, Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956, A Man Escaped). Bresson's first feature,  Les Anges du Pêche (1943), was made possible by the support of the former  Surrealists Roland Tual, who produced it and Denise Tual, who signed on to star in it. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945, The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne), written by Cocteau and Bresson, was based on Diderot's Jacques Le Fataliste. The story also had inspired D.W. Griffith's Lady of the Pavements (1928), one of the director's least successful films. In 1947, Bresson went to Rome to work on a screenplay of the life of St Ignatius Loyola, but the film was never realized.

Bresson's works in the 1950s, Diary of a Country Priest, (1950), adapted from Georges Bernanos's novel, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket (1959), formed a trilogy, which dealt with the themes of transgression, redemption and grace. In Diary of a Country Priest the last words of the protagonist, a dying priest, are "Tout est grâce" (everything is grace). The film was shown at the twelfth annual Venice International Film Festival in 1951, but Kurosawa's Rashmon won the Grand Prize, Bresson's work was awarded the Golden Lion. The role of the priest was played by a young Swiss actor, Claude Laydy. Before the shooting started, Laydy lived for the a time in a monastery. Generally Bresson avoided professional actors, and preferred the silence and inaccessibility of his characters. "Find a kinship between image, sound and silence," Bresson summed his dictum. In Diary of a Country Priest Bresson used an introspective off-camera voice, taken verbatim from the priest's diary. The narrator, the famous Bressonian voice in his films, was "as extra element which acts upon the other elements of the film, modifying them," as he later explained.

When the New Wave directors and theoreticians attacked the studio look of French films and stodgy adaptations of literary works, they also noted Bresson's opposition to mainstream cinema. In the spring of 1955, François Truffaut published an article, in which he denounced nearly the entire old guard of French film-makers, except nine real "auteurs": Alexandre Astruc, Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, Roger Leenhardt, Max Ophüls, Jean Renoir, and Jacques Tati.

For A Man Escaped Bresson received the Best Director Award at Cannes Festival. Its story was based on an autobiographical account by André Devigny, a Frech Resistance member, who was arrested by the Gestapo but who managed to escape from the Montluc prison in Lyon. Devigny also served as a technical adviser. Bresson focused on the meticulous planning of the escape, which becomes a metaphor for the struggle of salvation. Mozart's Mass in C minor is played cathartically at the end of the film. Pickpocked continued Bresson's examinations of the power of faith. The protagonist is a young criminal, played by Martin Lassalle, whose transgression becomes inseparable from a religious ceremony. Bresson has often been called a Jansenist - a sectarian form of Catholicism that believes in predestination - but in an interview by Paul Schrader he firmly denied it. And in 1962 Bresson said that he believed "in a spiritual domain" only through the concrete. "If that means being materialist, I think that's what I am more and more."

Le Procés de Jeanne d'Arc, based on the minutes of Joan's last trial, received in 1962 the Special Jury Prize at Cannes Festival. Florence Carrez, a non-professional actor, played Joan. In the 1960s Bresson was involved in Dino de Laurentiis' project The Bible (1966) – his section would have been 'The Creation'. The popular epic was was eventually directed by John Huston. Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966) can be called a Gnostic work. Gnostics believe that the material world was created by an inferior, malign God, and is thus full of ignorance and cruelty. The central character of Balthazar is a donkey, whose suffering in a world of his masters, human beings, ends in death amid a flock of sheep. Pessimism marked also Bresson's second Bernanos adaptation, Mouchette (1967), about a young girl who is raped. Eventually she decides to kill herself. Marvin Zeman has claimed in his essay from 1971, that during this period Bresson was heading towards suicide.

Although Bresson had planned the career of a painter, he started to film in colour relatively late, from Une femme douce (1969) onward. It was adapted from Dostoevsky's story 'A Gentle Creature'. The subject of death continued to haunt Bresson. In the story a husband tries to understand the suicide of his wife – she has thrown herself off a balcony. Bresson's sympathies are on the woman's side. Again in Le Diable probablement (1977, The Devil Probably) the main character, a young nihilist, commits suicide, although his friend has to pull the trigger of the revolver. Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (1971, Four Nights of a Dreamer) was based on Dostoevsky's White Nights, filmed earlier by Luchino Visconti in 1957.

Lancelot du lac (1974, Lancelot of the Lake) had been Bresson's pet project for decades. At one point, Jacques Tati toyed with the idea of financing the film, which reputedly cost $1 million. Bresson's Camelot consisted of amateur actors, some tents and an old castle wall. The knights were surrounded by metal from top to toe, which restricted their gestures. As a result, the rattle of armour become a kind of language on a primitive level. The painter Luc Simon (Lancelot) and Laure Condominas (Queen Guinevere), the daughter of the American poet, played the leading roles. Bresson, being offered the International Critics' Prize at Cannes in 1974, refused the prestige, but added: "I want money and only the Palme d'Or attracts money."

In 1975, Gallimard published Bresson's aphoristic Notes sur le Cinématographie (Notes on the Cinematographer), a collection of his ideas on film-making. "My film is born for the first time in my head and dies on paper," Bresson wrote. "It is resurrected by the living persons and the real objects I use, killed on film but coming alive again like flowers in water once they are placed in a certain order and projected on a screen."

Bresson had a town house in Paris on the Ile Saint-Louis, but he spent also much time in his country home near Chartres. In 1968 Bresson was elected President d'honneur de la Societé des realisateurs de films. At the 1983 Cannes Festival, he shared with Tarkovsky's Nostalgia the Grand Prix de Création for L'Argent, loosely based Leo Tolstoy's novella 'The False Note'. It was the director's final film, and as with his other projects, Bresson had had financial difficulties. With the help of the Minister of Culture Jack Lang the film was saved. However, gossips surrounded the production because Lang's daughter Caroline Lang acted in the principal female role. "L'Argent poses, as very few films do," wrote Keith Reader (Robert Bresson, 2000), "questions of good, evil and justice – and the greater and still more troubling question whether such questions have anything that might be called a sense." At Cannes the work divided the public – "It's unbearably boring," said the British director Alan Parker. Bresson died on December 18, 1999. He was married twice. In the early 1990s, he married Marie-Madeleine van der Mersch, who had been his assistant director from Quatre nuits d'un rêveur.

Bresson has deeply influenced among others the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, who shares Bresson's austere style and his principle of essentialism or minimalism – basically a reaction against theatricality and "dramatical" acting. The dialogue is subdued, reflecting the calculated purity of written texts. Kaurismäki, however, has much humor in his films. Bresson made a distinction between the concepts of cinema, which employs methods of theatre (actors, directors, etc.), and for him the artistically more important cinematography, in which the camera is used to create. "Cinematography: a new way of writing, therefore feeling," Bresson summarized.

From Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson started to rely on unknown or non-professional actors and natural locations. His actors he called "models" and like dummies in a shop window, he wanted them to express as little as possible. However, he did not go as far as Alfred Hitchcock, who said, that "all actors should be treated like cattle." Dominique Sanda, a former Vogue model, become a real star after her appearance in Bresson's Une femme douce. "It is the interior which commands," Bresson said. "I know this may seem paradoxical in an art which is all exterior."

For further reading: Robert Bresson (Revised) by James Quandt (2012); Neither God nor Master: Robert Bresson and Radical Politics by Brian Price (2011); Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film by Tony Pipolo (2010); Bresson and Others: Spiritual Style in the Cinema, ed. by Bert Cardullo (2009); Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film by Joseph E. Cunneen (2003); Robert Bresson by Keith Reader (2000); Robert Bresson, ed. by James Quandt (1998); Fragments: Bresson's Film Style by Lindley Hanlon (1986); Robert Bresson by Philippe Arnaud (1986); Robert Bresson: la passion de cinématographe by Michel Estève (1983); Robert Bresson: A Guide to References and Resources by Jane Sloan (1983); 'Desperation and Meditation' by Dudley Andrew, in Modern European Fimmmakers and the Art of Adaptation, ed. by Andrew S. Horton and Joan Magretta (1981); Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader (1972); 'The Suicide of Robert Bresson' by Marvin Zeman, in Cinema, Vol. 6/3 (1971); The Films of Robert Bresson, ed. by Ian Cameron (1969); 'Interview with Jean-Luc Godard and M. Delahaye,' in Cahiers du Cinema in English, February (1967); 'Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson' by Susan Sontag, in Seventh Art, Summer (1964)

Films and non-fiction:

  • C'était un musicien, 1933 (dialogue; dir. Maurice Gleize, Frederic Zelnik)
  • Les Affaires publiques, 1934 (short film; starring Beby, Andrée Servilanges and Marcel Dalio)
  • Les jumeaux de Brighton, 1936 (screenplay, with Georges Friedlad; dir. Claude Heyman, starring Raimu, Suzy Prim and Michel Simon)
  • Les Anges du péché / The Angels of Sin / Synnin enkelit , 1943 (starring Renée Faure, Jany Holt and Sylvie)
  • Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne / The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne / Naisen kosto, 1945 (based on Diderot's Jacques Le Fataliste; starring Paul Bernard, María Casares and Elina Labourdette)
  • Journal d'un curé de campagne / Diary of a Country Priest / Papin päiväkirja, 1950 (from the novel by Georges Bernanos; starring Claude Laydu, Nicole Ladmiral and Jean Riveyre)
  • Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé / A Man Escaped / Kuolemaantuomittu on karannut , 1956 (starring François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche and Maurice Beerblock)
  • Pickpocket / Pickpocket / Liikkuvat kädet, 1959 (inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; starring Martin LaSalle, Marika Green and Jean Pélégri)
  • Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc / The Trial of Joan of Arc / Jeanne d'Arc , 1962 (starring Florence Delay, Jean-Claude Fourneau and Roger Honorat)
  • Procès de Jeanne d’Arc; film, 1962 (screenplay)
  • Au Hasard, Balthazar / Balthazar / Balthazar , 1966 (starring Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green and François Lafarge)
  • Mouchette / Mouchette / Mouchette - raiskattu, 1967 (from the novel by Georges Bernanos; starring Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert and Marie Cardinal)
  • Une Femme douce / A Gentle Creature / Suloinen nainen, 1969  (based on Dostoevsky's story A Gentle Creature; starring Dominique Sanda, Guy Frangin and Jeanne Lobre)
  • Quatre nuits d'un rêveur / Four Nights of a Dreamer / Neljä yötä Pariisissa, 1971  (based on Dostoevsky's White Nights; starring Isabelle Weingarten, Guillaume des Forêts and Maurice Monnoyer)
  • Lancelot du lac / Lancelot of the Lake / Pyöreän pöydän ritarit, 1974  (based on Arthurian legends; starring Luc Simon, Laura Duke Condominas and Humbert Balsan)
  • Notes sur le Cinématographie, 1975 (non-fiction) - Notes on Cinematography (translated by Jonathan Griffin, 1977) / Notes on the Cinematographer (translated by Jonathan Griffin, with an introduction by J. M. G. Le Clezio, 1986)
  • Le Diable probablement / The Devil Probably / Paholainen luultavasti, 1977 (starring Antoine Monnier, Tina Irissari and Henri de Maublanc)
  • L'Argent / Money / L'argent - raha, 1983 (loosely based on Leo Tolstoy's story The False Note / The Forged Coupon; starring Christian Patey, Sylvie Van den Elsen and Michel Briguet)
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