Bresson, Robert

(1901-1999)
   Director and screenwriter. Robert Bresson was born in Bromont-Lamothe in central France. His original interest was painting, and it was this path that he had intended to pursue until he wandered into cinema in 1934. His first film was a short-to-medium-length film (once believed lost, but since rediscovered) called Affaires publiques, a satire starring Marcel Dalio and that recounted, in Bresson's words, "three days in the life of an imaginary dictator." The shift from painting to cinema was made. Painting, however, would influence Bresson's filmmaking to the end, in the visual composition and in the legendary minimalism of his work.
   Bresson did not make another film of his own until 1943. However, in the interim, he is known to have worked on the screenplay for Pierre Billon's Courrier Sud (1936) and on Claude Heymann's Jumeaux de Brighton (1936). He was the assistant director on Henri Diamant-Berger's production of La Vièrge folle (1938) and he also worked with René Clair in 1939 on his film Air pur. Bresson may have collaborated, uncredited, on other films as well, as he was apparently gaining more experience in filmmaking before again venturing out on his own.
   Then World War II intervened. Bresson, who was called up for service, was taken prisoner, and spent time as a German prisoner of war, an experience that had a profound effect on his life and his filmmaking. Upon his release, Bresson returned to France, definitively abandoned painting, and resumed filmmaking. His second film was Les Anges du péché (1943), the story of an order of nuns, and was based on a play by Jean Giradoux. This film was reportedly made at the request of a Catholic priest. The film is the first that shows evident signs of what would become the hallmarks of Bresson's style, the very restrained, almost emotionless surface that masks the turmoil of human existence, the minimalism of presentation, the nonpsychological or antipsychological presentation of characters, and most of all the very stark and stoic worldview that many have read as the fusion of Bresson's Jansenist religious upbringing and the existential atheism brought on by his experiences during the war. The convent is perhaps a natural setting in which to bring these aspects to the fore, and the Occupation, with its own very limiting constraints on film production, perhaps a natural context.
   Les Anges du péché (1943) marked the beginning of a unique, creative filmmaking style that would evolve over several films. This film, although marked by the beginnings of what was to come, is still fairly traditional in its conception and orientation. It is a straightforward literary adaptation that, in spite of the Bressonian elements, adheres fairly closely to the filmic conventions of the day. As time went on, Bresson would move further and further away from these conventions and into the aesthetic universe that was uniquely his own.
   Bresson's next feature film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), was also a literary adaptation (from a Diderot story, with dialogue written by Jean Cocteau), and was the story of a love triangle characterized by manipulation and distortion. Bresson's third film, Journal d'un curé de campagne (1951), is the story of a young, idealistic, religious priest, whose faith is challenged and ultimately denounced by the inhabitants of a small French village. This film marks an important turning point in Bresson's filmmaking and differs from the first two films in significant ways. First of all, although the film is adapted from Georges Bernanos's novel of the same name, Bresson clearly took the liberty of creating a film inspired by the novel and not simply filming the novel. Secondly, it was in this film that Bresson moved away from the use of professional actors and began using only nonprofessionals, a practice he would continue throughout his career. Finally, a significant move toward the silent opacity that would characterize the later films is evident between the first two feature films and the third. The film was critically acclaimed from the time of its release and won the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc.
   The other films of the 1950s, Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956) and Pickpocket (1959), are both considered excellent examples of Bresson's work. The first is the story of French prisoners in a German prison camp during World War II, who retain religious faith even when faced with abuse and cruelty. The film focuses on acts of resistance and attempts at escape. Unlike Bresson's earlier films, the source was not literary. Rather, the film was inspired by true events. It was and remains Bresson's most commercially successful film.
   The second film is the story of an intelligent, quiet, polite man, who is driven by a compulsion to steal, despite his efforts to resist. Although it is not certain, many have seen similarities between this story and Fyodor Dostoyovsky's Crime and Punishment. It is possible that Bresson had the novel in mind, particularly given the literary connections in so many of his films. Both films mark the peak of the development of Bresson's spare, bleak filmmaking style, and of the Christian existentialist worldview that dominates in his films. Both are also considered classics of French cinema.
   Bresson would make only eight more films during the course of his life: Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1962), believed to have been inspired by Theodore Dreyer's classic silent film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), which was also noted for its stark cinematography; Au hazard Balthazar (1966), the story of the parallel lives of Balthazar the donkey and the young woman Marie, both of whom are often harshly treated and unloved; Mouchette (1967), the story of a troubled and abused young girl, also based on a novel by Bernanos; Une Femme douce (1969), the story of young husband's reaction to his wife's suicide; Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (1971), the story of an aborted suicide attempt and an encounter that results from it; Lancelot du lac (1976), a very mythlike, Bressonian retelling of classic Arthurian legend; Le Diable probablement (1977), the story of the mysterious death of young, depressed, suicidal man; and L'Argent (1983), the story of a young man whose life is ruined for unwittingly passing a counterfeit five hundred franc bill.
   Like his films, Bresson's canon is relatively minimal given the fifty-year span of his career. Moreover, of the thirteen films he did make, very few were commercially successful. Audiences tended not to like Bresson's films for precisely the reasons that make them so clearly his own—they make the viewer work rather hard to gain an understanding of life and of humankind that is often not reassuring. Limited audience appeal notwithstanding, Bresson is regarded by scholars and filmmakers alike as one of the master auteurs of French cinema. His films cannot really be tied to any movement or wave in French cinema during any period during which he was making films. He embodies, in many ways, a train of existentialist thought that is uniquely French as well as a Jansenist tradition that is also uniquely French, but his view of humankind has an element of the universal about it. His filmmaking style, muted, yet bold, spare, yet emphatic has inspired filmmakers from France to Hollywood to Japan.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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  • Bresson, Robert — (1901 1999)    Director and screenwriter. Robert Bresson was born in Bromont Lamothe in central France. His original interest was painting, and it was this path that he had intended to pursue until he wandered into cinema in 1934. His first film… …   Guide to cinema

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  • Bresson, Robert — born Sept. 25, 1901, Bromont Lamonthe, Puy de Dôme, France died Dec. 18, 1999 French film director. He worked as a painter and photographer before making his first film in 1934. His feature length Les Anges du péché (1943) established his austere …   Universalium

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