Our second day of “100 Essential Directors” could loosely be described as one that defines “influential.” Each of the auteurs sandwiched in between Robert Bresson and David Cronenberg has left a lasting mark on cinema, each employing a signature style that is unmistakable.
(1901? - 1999)
Three Key Films: The Diary of a Country Priest (1950), A Man Escaped (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Underrated: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) It would be hard to find a Bresson film that has not been the subject of superlative praise at one point or another, but Bresson’s elegant adaptation of the Diderot novel Jacques le fataliste was certainly underrated upon its release; despite, and perhaps because of, its premature date in Bresson’s oeuvre, it’s a charming mixture of pathos, subtlety and melodrama rarely found in the purism of his later films. With a script by Jean Cocteau, the movie follows the jilted lover Helene (Maria Casarés) as she exacts revenge from her coy betrayer Jean (Paul Bernard) in an intricate manipulative plot worthy of the darkest film noir.
Unforgettable: The young priest’s confrontation with the local countess in The Diary of a Country Priest. The countess (Marie-Monique Arkell) has hardened her heart against resignation to the will of God, but in this scene, the priest (Claude Laylu) carries out his own prediction that “God will break you”, instilling in her a profound spiritual peace. Bresson orchestrates her transformation with his most reliable and well-loved techniques—an advancing camera, musical crescendos and closeups of the hands—and Laylu’s performance is as powerful as it is vulnerable.
A Man Escaped (1956)
The Legend: In an industry haunted by the individualistic expectations of auteur theory and often hobbled by the overbearing ministrations of government intervention, Robert Bresson stands out as an unmistakable independent with a formidable personal vision. Justified by the principles and philosophy outlined in his personal notes, Notes on the Cinematographer, written from 1950 to 1974 and published in English in 1997, Bresson set about fashioning a new kind of cinematic language. He rejected traditional film elements such as professional actors and commissioned scores, which he described as filmed theater, and limited himself to the essentials, striving to create in his films an organic synthesis of music and painting.
Bresson put his beliefs to work most effectively in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when he established himself as a master director with such astonishingly stark and original works as Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket (1959) and Au Hasard Balthazar, but he continued to have international success until his retirement with 1983’s L’Argent, itself widely praised as a masterwork. Bresson’s almost fanatical essentialism served him well, for his films stood aloof from the dominant trends of his long career. From the “tradition of quality” of the post-war period to the rebelliousness of the Cahiers du cinéma circle to the professional realism of the early ‘70s, Bresson’s style maintained its uncompromising rigor. His movies remain testaments to his genius, full of poetry, drama and mystery.
In his most celebrated and accomplished works, Bresson applies his radical minimalism to questions of sin, crime and redemption, drawing on literary and personal sources: the stories of Dostoyevsky and the trial of Joan of Arc; his experiences as a POW in a German camp in 1939 and his intense, probing engagement with the Catholic faith. His vision of the world is violent and bleak, to the point that many find his later, more pessimistic movies unpalatable. For Bresson, however, there is always the possibility of redemption, though sometimes it remains unrealized. Even in such a bloody work as L’Argent, the story of a mass murderer’s slow descent into amorality, the sensitive viewer may find hope that, as the young priest declares at the end of The Diary of a Country Priest, “All is grace.” Dylan Nelson