It’s startling to realize how many of the world’s major filmmakers over the years have remained virtually unknown in North America. A prime example is French director Robert Bresson (1901-1999). For decades, Bresson has been internationally acclaimed as one of the towering artists of the 20th century, yet his work has been achingly difficult to see in the U.S.
Thankfully, James Quandt’s North American retrospective of Bresson’s 13-film oeuvre in 1998 jumpstarted a Bresson revival. Last year, Rialto Pictures released the U.S. theatrical debut of Au Hasard Balthazar (1965), and since then, several Bresson films have appeared on DVD; in May, New Yorker Video will unveil L’Argent (1983) and in June, the Criterion Collection will offer Balthazar for the first time on U.S. video.
The reasons for Bresson’s marginalization are numerous, and include his challenging style. While other European filmmakers of the ’50s and ’60s used international stars like Max von Sydow, Marcello Mastroianni or Jean-Pierre Léaud, Bresson insisted on casting nonprofessional “models”—students, writers, random people he met in Paris—in order to reveal their hidden souls. Actors, he maintained, were too demonstrative and effusive; their craft served the theater, not the cinema.
Bresson devised an entire “cinematographic” system of ideals he rigorously maintained. He avoided sensationalism and emphasized consistent editing rhythms and vocal tones in order to touch the viewer. He staged key moments offscreen, often utilizing their sound to tease the viewer’s imagination. Thus, he’s been called a minimalist or essentialist, and his films require active viewing—but they can also provide deeper, more enduring meanings than a barrage of Hollywood escapism.
L’Argent (Money) was Bresson’s final film and it was based on the first half of a Tolstoy story about a counterfeit bill that initiates a chain of tragic events culminating in murder. The destructive lure of money and its central position in a wide array of human relationships has rarely been more devastatingly critiqued. But Bresson’s approach is far from didactic—his sober observation of his characters, their matter-of-fact response to life decisions, and his appreciation for the unpredictability of human behavior frees his film from any sense of dramatic rigidity.
The film is beautifully elegant; Bresson progressively purified his aesthetic over the years, eliminating everything that wasn’t essential for communication. (“One doesn’t create by adding, but by taking away,” he wrote.) Action is conveyed through a series of close-ups (hands, movement, objects), brief snippets of dialogue and ambiguous character interactions. L’Argent resembles the work of no other director, and yet it’s amazingly coherent. At the age of 82, Bresson’s evisceration of materialism stands as a triumphant swan song.
Au Hasard Balthazar is a landmark of another kind. The penultimate film of his black-and-white period, in many ways it summarizes the themes of suffering and redemption that infused those films. It was recently voted as one of the Top 20 films of all time by an international poll in British film magazine, Sight & Sound.
The film exhibits unique story structure, juxtaposing the life of a donkey named Balthazar with the life of a teenaged girl named Marie, both of them forging their way through the difficulties of modernity. But Bresson’s use of the donkey is far from sentimental or symbolic—Balthazar remains simply a donkey, mysterious and inscrutable, shouldering his heavy burdens while silently regarding the human injustice around him. That the creature gradually becomes a deep source of emotion and significance, never clearly defined, is a testament to the filmmaker’s art.
Bresson was an artist who touched universal depths of spirituality through highly physical stories of prisoners, victims and survivors. He was open about his religious faith as well as his doubts and has been cited by theists and agnostics in defense of both perspectives. But his films are, astonishingly, true to the human experience and avail themselves to all who would look and listen.