Michel with coin in Pickpocket: "My fingers needed exercise to become supple."
Sometimes the things you feel closest to are the hardest to write about. Robert Bresson is my single favorite filmmaker but I’ve never been able to bring myself to write about his films. They produce such strong overpowering emotions in me that I’m afraid of being reduced to blubbering "ain’t-it-cool?-ishness," unable to do the films any justice.
I first discovered Bresson on videotape about ten years ago, and started out admiring his films from a distance. The turning point came in 1999, when I caught most of his thirteen films at a retrospective put together by James Quandt at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. Seeing them on the big screen in pristine prints blew my mind, and recalibrated my eyes and ears. It wasn’t a passing fancy either; if anything, the power and personal meaning of these movies has grown stronger with time. I watched Pickpocket again recently, and figured it was time to make a tentative attempt to put some words down about what (I think) attracts me to his films. Bresson-philes will likely find much of the following quite familiar.
Let’s lead with the big one. What I probably love best about Bresson is that for me, his films are projective surfaces. We don’t want a film to give us, all tied up with ribbons and bows, pre-digested and completely determined, an experience that does not include us or ask anything of us. An artwork should provide a place for the viewer to project herself into it, constructing meaning in a process of collaboration with the artist. (E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion calls this the “beholder’s share” of the aesthetic experience.) Bresson creates this projective surface, for one, by means of an aesthetic of withholding. He creates absences which draw us into the work; we find ourselves filling these absences for ourselves by projection.
The most overt strategy to accomplish this is his use of emotionally "inexpressive" acting. When actors don’t “emote,” the viewer steps in and projects emotions onto their "tabula rasa" faces and bodies. Bresson called his actors “models;” they were often nonprofessionals who had never been seen on screen before (“virginal models”), and he never used them again. When asked if he’d cast Claude Laydu of Diary Of A Country Priest again, he said: “No….how can I?....I robbed him of what I needed to make the film. How could I rob him twice?” His ultimate casting coup of the neutrally expressionless model was undoubtedly (and perversely!) the donkey which is the title character in Au Hasard Balthazar.
The absences and overall minimalism in Bresson are accentuated by repetitions. (In Pickpocket: repeated scenes in Michel’s room, the Metro, the racetrack, of staircases, writing in his journal etc. ) Paradoxically, this combination creates a sort of hollowed-out, emptied-out vessel into which we pour….our own projections, ideas, feelings, and (very important) spiritual yearnings. But we don’t see the spiritual in his films; we see the material. Concrete surfaces are paramount here; and yet they are the portal to the spiritual. We intuit an inner life, a metaphysical life, via our immersion in the material. Quandt has called Bresson’s cinema both minimalist and maximalist for this reason.
But co-existent—again, paradoxically—with this spiritual aspect is the less-noted sensuality in Bresson. The Gare De Lyon scene of three pickpockets working the passengers in symphonic concert is nothing less than an orgy, with its erotically charged close-ups of hands caressing purses and wallets, “penetrating” them and “violating” their owners without their knowledge. When Michel returns home from the racetrack after having filched money from a woman's handbag, he lies down and sleeps till dawn (post-coitum....).
A similarity that Bresson shares with Hitchcock: neither of them particularly liked to keep the audience suspensefully in the dark for long (ironic given that Hitch was the “master of suspense”). Both revealed significant plot points well in advance so that the audience could immerse itself in the “how?” rather than the “who?” or “what?”. Bresson took this to an almost hilarious extreme: the original untranslated French title of A Man Escaped is A Man, Condemned to Death, Escapes, which gives away the ending in the film’s title itself. Before we see a single image in Pickpocket, we see Bresson’s written text: “The style of this film is not that of a thriller,” which proceeds to then blithely disclose the movie’s ending.
Bresson’s sound design is legendary: he used sound not to exaggerate or amplify images but to replace them. The world offscreen—or more precisely, certain selected aspects of it—is evoked lucidly by means of sound. For example, in the racetrack sequences of Pickpocket, we never see horses, though you’d almost swear you did; such is the ringing force and limpidity of their sound. Bresson’s use of sound is not naturalistic—he does not include, Altman-like, a dense spectrum of ambient sound and chatter. Instead, he chooses certain sounds and pinpoints them with clarity and volume in the mix. The sound mix of a Bresson film, though rich, never sounds muddy.
Another manifestation of Bresson’s aesthetic of withholding: his thrilling use of ellipses, abrupt reversals, fast elisions. Balthazar’s happy moments last no more than a few seconds, and are elided quickly, just as we spend long periods of time watching Michel picking pockets in the Metro or in his room, but two years go by in a flash (seconds, literally) when he goes away to Milan and London. Naturally, we discover little of what occurred to him during that time.
As time passed, Bresson's films began to change: they became harsher, more pessimistic; the use of music decreased or was eliminated entirely; he stopped using (lyrical) dissolves and opted for (blunt) straight cuts starting with his first color film, Une Femme Douce, in 1970; and the amount of text (spoken dialogue, etc) dropped drastically. “As I grow older,” Renoir once said, “I listen to Mozart.” But there was no mellowing for Bresson: his last two films, The Devil Probably and L’Argent, are among his blackest works, the former probably the most borderline-nihilistic teen film ever made.
As I close, I realize that there’s more I love about Bresson than I’ve had time to touch on. Quickly: his rejection of psychological realism; his abjuring of overt and gratuitous pictorial beauty (“No beautiful images,” he once wrote, “only necessary images.”); the lack of both establishing shots and facial close-ups; his way of “dismembering” the human body with careful and plentiful shots of hands and feet. He was also, along with Lubitsch, the filmmaker most in love with….doors!