Although Robert Bresson (1901–1999) made only 13 features over 40 years, there is perhaps no other body of work in cinema history more marked by a director’s personality, sensibility or style. Bresson started as a painter and photographer and began making feature films in the early 1940s. Sometimes drawing on his own experiences, his work is also deeply informed by art, religious belief and literature. Although he has adapted the works of such monumental literary figures as Georges Bernanos, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, what is most notable about Bresson is his cinematic style. His unadorned and always-beautiful images interplay with a very singular working method: he would require his actors (he preferred the term “models”) to repeat a scene again and again until all semblance of a performance was stripped away. Bresson was resolute in his cinematic aesthetic, refusing sentimentality, employing precise editing and rigorous framing. This yielded a powerfully pure filmic experience and has often (most famously by Paul Schrader) been labelled a “transcendental style”. One of the most significant filmmakers of the 20th century, Bresson’s influence can still be felt today in the work of filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont and the Dardenne brothers. This season includes many of Bresson’s key works, from his first, formative feature, Les anges du péché (1943), to a number of the films on which his lasting reputation stands: Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Pickpocket (1959) and Au hasard Balthazar (1966).
7:00pm UNE FEMME DOUCE
Robert Bresson (1969) 88 mins – Unclassified 15+
A husband sits forlornly at the side of his wife’s (fashion model Dominique Sanda in her first film) corpse, looking back over the events leading to her suicide. This rarely screened but typically austere Bresson tragedy updates and augments Dostoevsky’s dark original short story (“A Gentle Creature”) through its graceful and precise modernist style and coldly affective use of colour. Through an almost seamless alternation of past and present, Bresson creates a remote, starkly existential and coolly sensual portrait of the vagaries of contemporary existence.
Robert Bresson (1967) 82 mins – M
Bresson’s achingly moving and extensively detailed account of the last day in the life of a loveless, abused and humiliated 14-year old peasant girl (the extraordinary Nadine Nortier, in her only screen appearance). A malaise of distilled passion and wasted youth, this rigorous and often ruthless dissection of social mores has been a massive influence on the work of the Dardenne brothers, Maurice Pialat and many others. Adapted from the novel by Georges Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest) and starkly shot by the great Ghislain Cloquet.
7:00pm LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ
Robert Bresson (1943) 89 mins – Unclassified 15+
In Bresson’s first feature, co-written by celebrated dramatist Jean Giraudoux and French Resistance fighter and Dominican priest Raymond Léopold Bruckberger, a rich young woman, convinced of her religious vocation, finds her faith tested and her theology bewildered by a wild child of the streets. In this complex Vichy-era feature, Bresson pursues a characteristically paradoxical movement between liberation and imprisonment. Shot unofficially, and out-of-hours on Paris’ night-time streets, it can now be seen as an early statement of the themes distilled in Diary of a Country Priest.
8:45pm AU HASARD BALTHAZAR
Robert Bresson (1966) 95 mins – PG
Bresson’s blunt and compassionate chronicle of the birth, life and death of a donkey is a Christian parable that never flinches in its gaze on an apparently godless world that is hard on little things. In the final beautiful but deathly moments, this beast of burden achieves transcendence. Recently reworked by Jerzy Skolimowski as EO, this is one of Bresson’s greatest and most austerely moving works. Centring on a fine performance by Anne Wiazemsky, it features wonderfully precise and haunting cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival.
Robert Bresson (1959) 75 mins – M
Bresson’s massively influential tale (inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) of a pickpocket (the intense Martin LaSalle) who finds hard-won redemption through love is a startlingly pure and austere religious allegory. Léonce-Henri Burel’s precise cinematography focuses with mesmeric intensity on the ballet-like play of nimble hands and stoic faces, building towards a work of overwhelming emotional and cinematic impact: “with theft I entered by the back door into the kingdom of morality” (Bresson). With Pierre Étaix.
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)
by Emma Fajgenbaum
8:30pm DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST
Robert Bresson (1951) 116 mins – PG
This starkly beautiful tale of a young dying priest achieves a sense of cinematic spirituality on a par with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The first fully Bressonian film is an adaptation of the celebrated novel by Georges Bernanos (Mouchette and Under the Sun of Satan) in which some non-actors (models), natural sound, pared-down images and real locations are used to externalise the solitude and inner anguish of the characters. Bresson’s exquisitely stylised direction marks one of the finest literary adaptations ever made. A core influence on the writing and direction of Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver).