- Robert Bresson
"Bresson is to French cinema what Mozart is to German music and Dostoyevsky is to Russian literature."—Jean-Luc Godard
From January 21 through February 29, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents Robert Bresson, a series of thirteen feature films and one short representing the total oeuvre of one of the cinema's most distinctive and uncompromising artists. All films are being shown in 35mm prints, many of them recently struck and/or imported from Europe.
Born in the Auvergne region of central France, Robert Bresson (1901-1999) began as a painter before switching to the cinema, and he always believed that cinema was closer to painting than to theater or photography. During World War II, Bresson was a prisoner of war for nearly a year--an experience that strongly influenced the themes of freedom and imprisonment that would be so central to his films. His first feature films, LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ (1943) and LES DAMES DU BOIS DU BOULOGNE (1945), demonstrated a remarkable command of the film medium, although Bresson later considered them to be severely compromised by their use of professional actors, hired screenwriters, and conventional music scores.
Bresson progressively eliminated those impurities in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951), A MAN ESCAPED (1956), PICKPOCKET (1959), and THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (1962)--films which distilled his unique style and solidified his reputation as a major director. Bresson's uncompromising approach had limited his output to six films in 22 years. Beginning in the mid-1960s, he entered into a relatively prolific period with AU HASARD BALTHASAR (1966), MOUCHETTE (1967), UNE FEMME DOUCE (1969), FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER (1971), and LANCELOT DU LAC (1974).
These films represent the full flowering of Bresson's mature style, marked by the casting of non-actors rigorously directed to suppress superfluous emotion; the sparse use of "found" scores of classical music; a masterful command of ellipsis to suggest rather than show; the elevation of the soundtrack to equal importance with the imagetrack; themes of spiritual exaltation and despair; and a formal refinement often characterized as austere although precise might be a better term.
Bresson's final two films, THE DEVIL PROBABLY (1977) and L'ARGENT (1983), are bracing works whose withering vision of the modern world verges on the nihilistic. His plans to follow this apocalyptic diptych with a filming of the Book of Genesis never came to pass.
Although his final film was made almost 30 years ago, and his style is famously idiosyncratic, Bresson's reputation and influence have continued to grow. As Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has written, "There is scarcely a major European director to emerge since 1960 who does not in some way show the influence of Robert Bresson." Michael Haneke, Jia Zhangke, the Dardenne Brothers, Olivier Assayas, and Lynne Ramsay are just a few of the important contemporary directors who cite Bresson as a formative influence on their own work.
The "Robert Bresson" tour has been organized by the TIFF Cinematheque. Special thanks to James Quandt.
Additional thanks to: Institut Français; Mylène Bresson, Paris; Delphine Selles Alvarez, French Cultural Services, New York; Laurence Geannopulos, Jean-François Rochard, Cultural Services at the Consulate General of France in Chicago; Bruce Goldstein and Eric Di Bernardo, Rialto Pictures; Jacob Perlin, The Film Desk; Brian Belovarac and Sarah Finklea, Janus Films; La Cinémathèque Française, Paris; Pierre Lhomme, Paris.
- UNE FEMME DOUCE
- 1969, Robert Bresson, France, 87 min.
- With Dominique Sanda, Guy Frangin
Based on Dostoyevsky's short story "A Gentle Creature," UNE FEMME DOUCE begins with a young wife taking flight; the story proceeds in flashback as her husband, an introspective pawnbroker, struggles to understand how their marriage came to such a desperate conclusion. Bresson's first color film is one of his most secular, grounded fully in an everyday world that is at times remarkably sensual. Much of that sensuality stems from the extraordinary debut performance of Dominique Sanda, the only one of Bresson's nonprofessionals to become an international star. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC
- (PROCÈS DE JEANNE D'ARC)
- 1962, Robert Bresson, France, 65 min.
- With Florence Delay, Jean-Claude Fourneau
Often overlooked in light of Dreyer's awesome 1928 version and the Bresson pinnacles (PICKPOCKET and AU HASARD BALTHASAR) that bookend it, THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC has been called "the most underrated of the director's 13 features" (Melissa Anderson, Village Voice). As Bresson scholar Tony Pipolo has pointed out, JOAN marks the director's crucial mid-career shift from male to female protagonists. Based entirely on trial transcripts and eyewitness accounts, Bresson's JOAN is one of his most concentrated films, a resolutely eye-level view of spirituality, rooted in the solidity of chains and doors, without a trace of sentimentality or sanctimoniousness. In French with English subtitles. 35mm.
Due to availability issues, the short film PUBLIC AFFAIRS, scheduled to accompany THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC on January 21 and 23, has been canceled. If the film becomes available, we will try to reschedule it later in the Bresson series. We apologize for any inconvenience.
- LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ
- (aka ANGELS OF SIN)
- 1943, Robert Bresson, France, 96 min.
- With Renée Faure, Jany Holt
David Thomson (Time Out Film Guide) called LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ "one of the most astonishing film debuts ever," and François Truffaut deemed it the best French film of the Occupation period. The film is set in a convent that specializes in rehabilitating female convicts; the story centers on the relationship between an idealistic novice (Faure) and an opportunistic murderess (Holt). Bresson's style, though remarkably assured, is not quite yet "Bressonian," but his thematic concerns are already present in force, as he explores the paradoxical relations between sin and salvation, the secular and the religious, faith and imprisonment. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE
- 1945, Robert Bresson, France, 90 min.
- With Maria Casarès, Paul Bernard
“Ravishing...unforgettable for its fire-and-ice evocations of tragedy in an unlikely setting.”
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Bresson’s second feature film and his last to use professional actors, LES DAMES DU BOIS DU BOULOGNE is a true collaboration, with screenwriter Jean Cocteau’s brittle dialogue played off the director’s elegant, distilled, but not yet “transcendental” style. Adapted from an episode in Diderot’s 18th-century novel "Jacques le fataliste" and updated to present-day Paris, this compelling drama of love and hate centers on a jilted woman (a memorably venomous Casarès) who plots revenge by maneuvering her ex (Bernard) to marry a prostitute (Elina Labourdette). In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER
- (QUATRE NUITS D'UN RÊVEUR)
- 1971, Robert Bresson, France, 87 min.
- With Guillaume des Forêts, Isabel Weingarten
"Shockingly beautiful...I can think of nothing in recent films so ravishing as Bresson's strange romantic vision of Paris. It may well be his loveliest film."
—Roger Greenspun, The New York Times
FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER is perhaps Bresson's most surprising film--a lyrical, anti-tragic, at times even funny tale of attenuated romance, with an exhilarating affirmation of the self-sufficiency of love and art. The film updates Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights" to contemporary Paris, where a painter befriends a young woman bereft of her lover and secretly falls in love with her. Bresson's camera creates a haunting fairyworld around the Pont Neuf bridge; one scene in particular--the night-time apparition of a pleasure boat gliding down the Seine--ranks as one of the most enchanting visions in French cinema. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- A MAN ESCAPED
- (UN CONDAMNÉ A MORT S’EST ÉCHAPPÉ)
- 1956, Robert Bresson, France, 100 min.
- With François Leterrier, Charles le Clainche
"Essential viewing...the best of all prison-escape movies...the greatest achievement of Robert Bresson."
—Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
"Few films have seemed more absorbing to me...Watching a film like A MAN ESCAPED is like a lesson in the cinema."
—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Often cited as Bresson’s most accessible film, A MAN ESCAPED combines elements of the prison genre with Bresson’s personal vision of earthly spirituality. Incarcerated and condemned to death by the Gestapo, a French Resistance fighter concentrates with single-minded intensity on a daring escape plan. Bresson creates a modern parable of the attainment of grace, as the hero’s quest leads him to a perilous “leap of faith.” In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (Phil M. Zender)
- 1967, Robert Bresson, France, 78 min.
- With Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert
Based on a novel by George Bernanos ("Diary of a Country Priest"), this central work in the Bresson canon is often described as a companion-piece to AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. The life of an outcast 14-year-old girl in rural France is etched with a harsh beauty epitomized by the tour-de-force bumper-car scene. MOUCHETTE was picked as one of the ten greatest films by Jim Jarmusch, and as one of the 100 best by Time critic Richard Corliss, who called it “brutally radiant.” In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- AU HASARD BALTHAZAR
- 1966, Robert Bresson, France, 95 min.
- With Anne Wiazemsky, Francois Lefarge
"Heart-breaking and magnificent...the supreme masterpiece by one of the greatest filmmakers."
—J. Hoberman, Village Voice
"The finest, most deeply personal work of a filmmaker who has been compared, justifiably, to both Dostoyevsky and Bach."
—Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
Widely considered one of Bresson's greatest masterpieces, this sublime film uses a donkey's life to frame the inhabitants of a rural French village and their struggles with sin and chance (hasard), as Balthazar is used and abused by a schoolteacher, a tramp, a motorcycle punk, a circus, a miser, a smuggler, and a girl (Wiazemsky) whose misfortunes mirror his own. Godard called it "the world in an hour and a half." In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- 1959, Robert Bresson, France, 75 min.
- With Martin LaSalle, Marika Green
"PICKPOCKET represents one of he four or five great dates in the history of cinema."
“Bresson’s parable of crime and redemption is timeless, achieving a state of spiritual grace rarely seen, or even contemplated, in the secular medium of cinema.”
—A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Considered by many critics to be the first full-fledged realization of Bresson's uniquely rigorous style, PICKPOCKET bears some resemblance to "Crime and Punishment," but its protagionist, Michel, is like a small-scale Raskolnikov--a petty Parisian thief whose crimes seem motivated more by eroticism and ennui than any philosophical agenda. With singular intensity, Bresson focuses on Michel's unacknowledged motives, secret existence, and wizardly techniques--the famous scene of the pickpockets' magical raid on a train station ranks as one of the great tours de force in cinema. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- 1983, Robert Bresson, France, 85 min.
- With Christian Patey, Caroline Lang
"Mind-blowing...L'ARGENT is like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER recited in iambic pentameter."
—Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
Bresson's final film is one of his most powerful, a hair-raising sermon preached in detail shots, elliptical edits, and offscreen sounds. Based on a short story by Tolstoy, it detail the consequences of the passing of a counterfeit 500-franc note, which sets in motion a chain reaction that destroys the life of an innocent truck-driver and leads to a mysterious and terrifying climax. The precision of Bresson's style has never been more beautiful or functional, and the film's double drive toward damnation and purification is overwhelming. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- THE DEVIL PROBABLY
- (LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT)
- 1977, Robert Bresson, France, 95 min.
- With Antoine Mossier, Tina Irissari
Musician and died-in-the-wool Bresson fan Richard Hell ("Blank Generation") called the director's penultimate film "by far the most punk movie ever made." Don't expect to see any Mohawks or decorative safety pins among the film's disaffected young Parisians (one of whom pressures a drug addict to help him commit suicide), but Hell was probably responding to their thoroughgoing disgust with a corrupt and materialistic modern world, illustrated with startlingly explicit newsreel footage of pollution and nuclear explosions. Who has brought mankind to such a sorry pass? The devil probably. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- LANCELOT DU LAC
- (aka LANCELOT OF THE LAKE)
- 1974, Robert Bresson, France, 85 min.
- With Luc Simon, Laura Duke Condominas
A dream project that Bresson waited 20 years to make, LANCELOT DU LAC depicts the end of the age of chivalry, the death of a dream. It is set the last days of the quest for the Holy Grail, as King Arthur's knights are overcome by the failure of their mission, and Lancelot, the greatest of them, struggles to break off his affair with Guinevere in order to heal the ailing kingdom. The film's masterly cinematography depicts the bright surfaces of pageantry surrounded by dark, treacherous forests and the twilight tones of a dying age. The jousting tournament, stripped to its essentials by selective framing and editing, has been called "one of the most exciting action sequences in the history of cinema" (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film Comment). In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST
- (JOURNAL D'UN CURÉ DE CAMPAGNE)
- 1951, Robert Bresson, France,
- With Claude Laydu, Rachel Bérendt
DIARY was Bresson's breakthrough film, the first to combine his central themes of spiritual struggle and isolation with his signature stylizations of voiceover narration, visual concentration, anti-melodramatic acting, and carefully orchestrated sound. Based on the novel by Georges Bernanos, it details the calvary of an awkward young priest struggling against poor health, doubt, and the hostility of his village parish. A precursor to AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, DIARY paints a rich, unsparing canvas of the petty spites and secret sins of country life, through which its humble and tenacious protagonist pursues his tortuous path toward grace. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)