Robert Bresson’s Films

I’ve just got back from two weeks in Cuba, where I was running my regular Creativity Workshop at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television. During the evenings of my second week, I was fortunate enough to attend a series of wonderful evening classes run by Dr Ruth Goldberg from the State University of New York. She was doing a series of screenings and discussions on the work of Robert Bresson. I couldn’t have been more fortunate, because Bresson is probably the filmmaker who, alongside Dreyer and Ozu, has most influenced my work and thoughts on film.

Portrait of Robert Bresson

And I’m not alone. Filmmakers such as Scorsese, Schrader, Ceylan, Kiarostami, Ackerman, Kaurismaki, Godard, Truffaut and many many others cite him as one of their greatest influences. Not many people know his films. He made 13 in 40 years, not a particularly prolific output, partly because he found it so difficult to get financing for his films. He was uncompromising in his approach, minimalist and beautifully simple. He had a unique approach to acting, which saw his actors – who were always amateurs – perform as what he called ‘models’. In other words, they didn’t perform, but, like the rest of the elements of his films, they were like blank canvases through which we transcended into the real substance of their souls. His visual approach was extremely minimalist and he would often focus on hands, feet and torso of a person rather than the traditional gaze on the face. However, this does not mean that he was disinterested in the face; quite the contrary. He created some of the most iconic images of the face in cinema and his imagery strikes me as very iconic, almost like the icon paintings of the middle ages: the gesture of the hands, the movement of the face and eyes, the framing of posture, all point to his background as a painter. His use of the interaction of sound and image was revolutionary at the time and remains inspiring now. He had an interesting approach to making sure sound and image complimented each other in evocative ways and never used sound purely to help legitimise the image. Even in his editing style, he broke all the rules. He would often cut scenes short, almost as if once he had met the iconic moment it was time to move on, irrespective of our traditional sense of time and space in films.

A still from Mouchette

Image from Joan of Arc

Image from Diary of a Country Priest

In these films, there are no back stories, characterisations and psychological motivations. This is pure Transcendental Realism at its finest told by a filmmaker who had little regard for fashions and what others thought of him. Here was a filmmaker concerned, above all, about the spiritual poverty of modernity, who cared passionately about his themes and the form of cinema and risked everything to make films exactly how he wanted to make them. When he won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in, I think 1983, for his last film, L’Argent, he was booed off the stage by hypocrite film critics and ignorant so called film lovers. He was 83 years old. First of all, how can one boo an 83 year old man off the stage for making a film. Second, how could one boo an old man with over 40 years of filmmaking behind him. Third, how could one boo an old man who, more than any other filmmaker, has influenced many of the contemporary filmmakers we so love. L’Argent is uncompromising and is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Image from Au Hasard Balthazar

I had been struggling to figure out my next film, but watching these Bresson films again reminded me of the beauty of cinema, the importance of the themes he was dealing with and the importance of having the courage to do what one thinks is right. I was inspired and I now know what I am going to do next. Thanks Ruth. Thanks Robert.