Robert Bresson | Bresson. Actors and Automatism | Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne | Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé / A Man Escaped | Pickpocket | Procès de Jeanne d'Arc / The Trial of Joan of Arc | Lancelot du lac | L'Argent

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Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson directed fourteen films.

Some common subjects in the films of Robert Bresson:

Sexuality: Storytelling: Imagery: Costumes: Robert Bresson is a vigorous storyteller. His films move along with the brisk pace one associates with Warner Brothers films of the 1930's, such as James Cagney vehicles. Each scene is full of significant events that advance the story.

Bresson. Actors and Automatism

Material included on the recent Criterion DVD of Pickpocket sheds new light on Robert Bresson's goals with actors.

In a 1960 interview with Bresson, Bresson states that his goal was to induce a state of "automatism" in his actors. He corrects the TV interviewers who are grilling him about the goals of his methods of actors with this word. Unfortunately, they do not explore this subject further.

Also included on the DVD is Les Modèles de 'Pickpocket' (Babette Mangolte). Mangolte interviews Pierre Leymarie, who played best friend Jacques in Pickpocket, and who has spent the rest of his life as a professional scientist (head of a genetics lab in France). Leymarie talks about repeating the same action or dialogue over and over for Bresson, until the dialogue became meaningless to him. Leymarie describes the experience as more or less entering into what other people (not Leymarie) call an "altered state of consciousness". This seems to be similar to what Bresson is calling "automatism": people performing actions and speaking in an automatic, unconscious fashion.

Automatism has an extensive history in psychology and the arts. Many sports actions are seen as related to automatism. When a professional baseball players hits the ball, they "just do it", without deliberate conscious control. Bresson's films are intensely interested and approving of such physical skills: the heroine's dancing and somersaults in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, the knights' jousting skills in Lancelot du lac, and of course, the pickpockets' astonishing display of dexterity.

The surrealists were deeply interested in automatism. They thought it enabled the release of subconscious and unconscious ideas and creativity that were otherwise repressed. Several surrealist painters experimented with automatic drawing. This is when the artist allows his hand to doodle and draw on the paper, without conscious control or direction of the mind.

This sounds a bit like what Bresson might have thought: that putting his models in automatic mode might reveal inner truth in a way that acting could not. I am still not sure whether this is an accurate interpretation of what Bresson is doing, but it is worth investigating.

I have never seen Robert Bresson's first film, Affaires publiques (1934). I've read that it reflects Bresson's interest in Surrealism.

Before surrealism emerged in the 1920's, there was a huge Spiritualism - Theosophy movement. It looked at mediums who went into trances, and brought back accounts of other worlds, heaven, etc. Psychologists often interpreted such accounts as "automatic" productions of the subconscious mind. They did not believe that such accounts were actual depictions of heaven, etc, but felt the mediums who produced them were sincere, and that their productions were fascinating glimpses of the interior of the human mind. The classic study here is by a Swiss psychologist: Des Indes à la planète Mars / From India to the Planet Mars (1900) by Dr. Théodore Flournoy. This book is still in print, and has recently been turned into an opera. It discusses a Swiss medium who produced a vast account of life on Mars.

Theosophy had a major influence on the rise of abstract art. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian were involved, and believed their abstract paintings were expressions of spiritual states. The exhibition catalogue The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985, put out by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, offers a vast documentation of this, including many abstract filmmakers. This book can be found in many University art libraries.

The interviews with Bresson on the DVD of L'Argent are also revealing. Bresson repeatedly insists he wants to be surprised by what he is creating during the making of his films. He talks about how a writer has no idea what his pen is going to produce while he is writing, and how a painter is surprised by what he is painting. He says poets and painters work without planning, and filmmakers should, too. I'm not sure if this is true of writers and painters at all times - both sometimes plan extensively. However, it is a portrait of the artist as automatist creator that Bresson seems to be creating here. Bresson wants his films to be a spontaneous response or creation of his inner self. This is very much in the tradition of automatic writing, prized by the surrealists.

So it is not just Bresson's models who he wants in a state of automatism. It is also Bresson himself.


Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) perhaps most resembles Au hasard, Balthazar among Robert Bresson's work. Both films take place in a modern milieu, with characters who are not living in the constraints of extreme poverty nor in prison. Both are intricately plotted stories, in which the characters' interactions create an elaborate, well-crafted design. Both deal with a range of human vices, flaws and moral failures among their characters. In both, the characters' flaws interact ever more negatively, sending them all into a collective downward path. The early scene in which the heroine is degraded by one of her customers anticipates the later degrading relationship with the biker in Au hasard, Balthazar.

Later Bresson films such as Lancelot du lac will show the destructive consequences of illicit heterosexuality. Here, the heroine spends the entire film trying to live down her heterosexual past.

Surveillance and Coercion

The heroine is constantly watched, either by her mother or the rich woman. This is liked the monitored characters in later Bresson. The heroine even compares her new home to a prison. There are also scenes of the heroine being interrogated by the rich woman, the way many later Bresson heroes will be interrogated in prison.

She is also coerced into her courtship with the hero, just as Joan of Arc is set relentlessly through her trial and death in The Trial of Joan of Arc.

Costumes

The heroine's athletic skill as a dancer anticipates the pickpockets, and their virtuoso displays during robberies. And the knights and their jousting skills in Lancelot du lac. Also like the knights, the heroine has special costumes in which she works, complete with elaborately shaped headgear. This costume shows up on the heroine's bed later in the film, anticipating the knights' beds shown in Lancelot du lac. The heroine's status as a public performer also anticipates the donkey at the circus in Au hasard, Balthazar.

The hero's clothes are far more business-like than other men in the film. He is dressed in good suits, including a businessman's pinstripe, during most of his encounters with the heroine. He also wears an exceptionally proper looking overcoat. At all times, his business clothes suggest the archetypal "prospective good father and provider" that society says is ideal husband material. This makes him hard for the heroine to resist. Bresson contrasts this with the clothes of the men who hire the heroine's favors during her period as a courtesan. They are dressed in white tie and tails. Later, in the final wedding, they are in formal day wear. These clothes suggest party animals - men who live only for pleasure. Their position as sexual exploiters of the heroine is established in their mode of dress.

The hero also displays himself to the heroine in his snappy tux, at an arranged dinner party he tricks the heroine into attending.

Sexual Persistence

Throughout, the hero behaves more like an oily seducer than the noble hero of traditional film. Yet, this apparently venal persistence is what ultimately brings the hero and heroine together. It turns out to be a good thing. By contrast, the pride-based stand-offishness of the heroine's similarly middle class suitor in Au hasard, Balthazar destroys them both. If he had shown a little of that same sexual pressing of his case, the two would have married, and she would never have been prey to the film's evil biker. Bresson clearly believes that a certain amount of sexual determination is a good thing, and a key to fulfillment. It is oddly similar to the way Bresson admires the hero's determination to escape in A Man Escaped. Such a willingness to take action and show some get-up-and-go is a key virtue in Bresson.

Imagery

The hero often appears against the fireplace, which is filled with a raging fire. The heroine often encounters him in the rain. He is associated with both fire and water. There is a fountain outside her apartment when she sees him in the street during the rain. And their meetings in the park are by the waterfall.

By contrast, the rich woman is often seen within glass booths: the elevator in her apartment, or car windows. Her final appearance shows her being framed again and again through the hero's car window, a startling shot.

She is also typically seen with servants and / or her dog, all of which make her out to be a powerful, rich authority figure. By contrast, the hero's helpfulness with the dog seems to suggest he is good natured, and a potential good father - it is common in advertisements for men with dogs to be coded as father figures.


Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé / A Man Escaped

Robert Bresson's film can be interpreted in several ways. For one thing, one can give it a religious interpretation. The prison can represent sin, and it is divine grace that allows the hero to escape sin, and experience salvation.

Secondly, it can be seen as an allegory of gay life. The prison represents the modern world, and its persecution of homosexuals. First he finds love as part of a partnership, and then the two of them escape the prison, representing society's oppression, entirely. Such an interpretation is certainly suggested by the relationship in the film, especially the way the two hold each other during the escape, and the loving look they exchange when they finally break free. This whole relationship is the most successful couple in all of Bresson. It is not stopped by the priest's vow of celibacy and early death, as in Diary of a Country Priest. The lyrical ride with the young motorcyclist in that film conveys all that the priest is losing out on, in his giving up earthly relationships. At least, this is presented as tragic. In Pickpocket, the hero's descent in the nether world of crime is also filmed to suggest his entry into the gay underworld. It is presented as evil and sin. Salvation comes to the hero at the end of the film, when he is made to accept a relationship with a woman. I hated this. It is a big lie, and Bresson buying into this causes much of the despair found in his later work.

Thinking Heroes

Some of Bresson's characters seemed ferociously focussed on their mental goals (escaping from prison, Joan following her voices, etc). The acting style conveys that the characters are highly oriented towards their mental life. It is a "cognitive existence" or focus, as opposed to an emotional one.

I think the dramatic style in Bresson conveys this powerfully. Whatever Bresson might nave said about this in interviews, it is not "non-acting". Instead, it seems a way to convey that the characters have a fierce mental life.

Many heroes of prose detective fiction have such a "thinking" personality. Was it Andrew Sarris who said that Sherlock Holmes was literature's chief symbol of reason? One also gets it in science fiction heroes - see Adam Strange, who was contemporaneous with much Bresson. He was designed as a "thinking man's hero".


Pickpocket

Pickpocket opens with a repetitive sound, which seems to be some sort of machine. It is at a racetrack, and will return in later racetrack scenes. It is like the ringing bell that opens The Trial of Joan of Arc. Soon we will hear ringing bells as well.

We never see the horse races, just people watching them. We do see results slowly being posted, in a scene towards the film's end. The races anticipate the horse-borne tournament of the knights in Lancelot du lac. The results of the tournaments are also displayed in that film. Both the races and the tournament have a ritualistic quality.

Both the pinball games, and the airplane ride we see reflected in the window behind the hero, anticipate the bumper car sequence in Mouchette. The pinball gets ricocheted off the bumpers, like the much bigger cars in the later film. Their is also the tiny bumper to bumper car connection at the end of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne.

Pickpocket takes place in an intellectuals' Paris. Poor, young members of the intelligentsia, like the hero, live in tiny, dismal rooms, but spend most of their time in cafes or Paris streets with their friends. The subway and free amusements such as racetracks also form a big element in their lives. This is exactly the milieu of many of Godard's 1960's films, as Richard Roud discusses in depth in his book on Godard.

The hero's personal difficulties with accepting the Church or its beliefs recur in The Devil, Probably. They also recall the sinister Church wedding in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne.

Costumes

The hero is the only man in Paris who does not fasten his shirt collar, and properly fix his tie. This strongly conveys a sense of his alienation from conventional society. He spends the entire film in the same suit and tie, even after a jump in the story of two years! This reminds one of the comic book convention, to always have characters in stories wear the same, instantly recognizable clothes. It also anticipates the knights in Lancelot du lac, who each have their unique suit of armor.

The Pickpockets as Gay Men

The world of the pickpockets seems to be an allegory suggesting the world of homosexuality in that era: Pickpocket can be viewed as Bresson's attempt to put the "world of gay men" on film, in an allegorical way that could get by both the censors and anti-gay prejudices of the era.

Rogues

Pickpocket is widely seen as being based on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. This is undoubtedly the case. Yet the hero's crime, picking pockets, is clearly far less serious than the crime in the book, committing ax murders. In fact, the non-violent thefts of the hero link him to a long tradition of Rogue heroes, sympathetically presented men who rob from the rich. These tend to be gentleman jewel thieves or swindlers, who never inflict violence or physical harm. The hero shares the refinement of these Rogues, if not their veneer of wealth. The way that Bresson celebrates the pickpockets' skill comes directly out of the Rogue tradition, not Dostoyevsky's novel (in which the murders are badly botched). Barrington, the con-man whose memoirs are much discussed in the film, is a non-fiction example of this Rogue tradition. He is British: the center of Rogue literature. And the hero eventually moves to Britain, to continue his thievery.

Similarly, for all its seriousness, A Man Escaped occasionally has light-hearted elements showing a clever prisoner outwitting his jailers. This too is part of the same Rogue tradition.

The initial crime at the racetrack shows the hero trying to unfasten a woman's purse, and steal her money. This is similar to the opening episode of Sous les toits de Paris (René Clair, 1930).

Interrogation

The hero's first arrest shows him in a car, surrounded on either side by police officers. This recalls the hero's initial arrest in A Man Escaped.

The film will have many interrogation scenes, where the police question the hero. These are staged in a ritualistic manner that anticipates Joan's accusers questioning her in The Trial of Joan of Arc. But there are big differences: Joan is entirely innocent of the charges against her, while the hero of Pickpocket is indeed a criminal. Oddly, this does not make the police here more sympathetic. They seem like a thoroughly unpleasant bunch. However, they are doing the right thing.

Bresson has cast an actor who is a dead ringer for movie villain Walter Slezak as the chief policeman, which adds a further ominous note to the proceedings.


Procès de Jeanne d'Arc / The Trial of Joan of Arc

Images

The opening shot, a rhythmically repeating flow of black shoes and clothes into a white floor, is astonishing. The film had just opened with the sound of church bells on the sound track, and the shot evokes a ringing bell: the black clothes recall the body of the bell, and the shoe that emerges and is hidden again evokes the clapper of a bell. The start of the heroine's dance in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne also begins with a similar close-up view of her feet.

This is echoed at the end, where a pattern of white robed and black robed monks, the cross and other elements make complex compositions. The white and black robes recall the white and black gowns in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. Just as the heroine's white gown at the end expressed her redemption, so do the young white robed monks here offer Joan her chief help.

A Gay Heroine

The film stresses Joan's virginity - and the horrifying attempts of her prosecutors to destroy it. Robert Bresson's Joan is gay. And the film links her gayness to her religious devotion, and her utter individuality as a person. Much of the film centers on the question: Who was Joan? What was she really like as a person? How did she become one of the most unusual people in human history? Bresson's opening titles announce such themes. She recalls other gay heroes in Bresson, such as the title hero of Diary of a Country Priest, and the prisoner in A Man Escaped. The attack on Joan's virginity is also a depiction of what Adrienne Rich called "compulsory heterosexuality" - the attempt by society to force everyone to be straight. Bresson's film is one of the most powerful and horrifying depictions of this, along with Ozu's Late Spring (1949), in which the heroine is forced into marriage - truly a nightmare from hell.

Prisons and Surveillance

As in A Man Escaped, we have a prison, one in which the hero is under sentence of death. Bresson stresses the totalitarian control of Joan's life - she is always being spied upon, in sinister scenes. This perhaps evokes the constant scrutiny under which gay people lived in traditional society, watched around the clock to make sure they did not form any gay relationships.

The spying shots are also part of the fragmentation of the body in Bresson. We see eyes peering through the hole used to watch Joan, just as we also see close-ups of characters' feet, hands and backs. This fragmentation of the body works very well here, although it can be overdone and less effective in some of Bresson's later works, such as The Devil, Probably.

The difficulty people have in communicating in such a system is also stressed in both films. The prisoners go to great length to exchange information in A Man Escaped. Here, it is very hard for anyone who wants to communicate with Joan to do so, under the watchful eyes of her accusers. The two young monks who give her the most important information, about the Pope's synod, do so under the pretext of seemingly upbraiding her. Even at the end, when they are the people who respond to her plea for a cross, they have a surreptitious air, saying nothing, but quietly performing their action. There are hints that this pair of young men are also gay, and their aid to Joan represents the covert aid that gay people have sometimes been able to offer each other throughout history.

An Evil Society and its Leaders

The men persecuting Joan are depicted as the conventional leaders of society - the Establishment. They are evil, but they are not atypical, and Bresson implies they are the sort of power obsessed men who have run many other societies in human history. One can easily imagine all of them running modern society. They present an image of complete respectability. This depiction of social leadership as being corrupt and murderous is one of the social critiques of the film. Bresson viewed all levels of society as morally depraved, both rich and poor, and this is certainly as negative a view of government, the military and organized religion as one will find anywhere in cinema.

There are also elements of dark satire here. The opening titles state that the clerics who tried and burned Joan were academics from the University of Paris. There have been many satires and critiques of the academic world in every media. But Bresson's in one of the harshest: in addition to all their other flaws, academics also burned Joan of Arc! The whole film can be read as a satire about what happens to a student or young professor being examined by a group of academics, such as an oral exam or a tenure hearing. This lends an air of dark comedy throughout. By contrast, the donkey in Bresson's next film will have his happiest moments being examined as a math genius in the circus.

Innocence

The film stresses the utter importance of the sacraments to Roman Catholics. Joan's first utterance in the film is a plea that she be allowed to receive confession. And the scene where she takes communion is one of the most powerful depictions of what this means for Catholics. It is an astonishingly clear picture of Joan's religious devotion. Even before this, the film starts with three other sacraments. Joan's mother begins her monologue by stating that Joan's parents were joined in true marriage, and that Joan was baptized and confirmed - three other key sacraments of the Church.

There are elements in The Trial of Joan of Arc that anticipate Au hasard, Balthazar (1966) to come, Bresson's next film. The animals that wander through the film are moving reminders of innocence, and serve as Nature's protest against the cruelty of humans. There are other ways, that I do not fully understand, in which the two films are linked, especially in their "feel": a cross between their visual style and themes.


Lancelot du lac / Lancelot of the Lake

Lancelot du lac (1974) is hugely impressive, especially in its complex mise-en-scène. But thinking about What It All Means is full of challenges. Some questions:

1) Why are the knights so murderous to each other? Clearly, they are driven by jealousy, and a struggle for position. They will kill each other at the drop of a hat. This process destroyed the quest for the grail, and takes up the whole rest of the film.

Does Robert Bresson regard this as an anti-war statement? Do the knights represent soldiers, and other people who use violence? Nazis? Or do they represent capitalism? Or men as a group? Or all human beings?

2) The knights are an all-male group, and wear a common "uniform" - highly glamorized armor. Is there a gay sensibility at work here? Both the armor and the camera set-ups frequently call attention to the knights' rear, which is covered with draping chain mail - something rarely seen in film armor. How do the knights compare / contrast to another all-male group in Bresson, the pickpockets? The pickpockets all wear suits, but so do all the other men in 1959 Paris.

The knights' armor are more varied than true uniforms. Each has a different kind of object on top: Lancelot's is a round ball, while others have kinds of metallic plumes. Lancelot's armor is also black, while everyone else wears silver. The horses wear different color saddle blankets, and bridles.

3) Lancelot winds up killing his best friend, Gawain. In A Man Escaped, the hero thinks seriously about killing his new cellmate, but decides against it, building a close relationship, instead. What does this mean? Both best friends are the heroes' junior. Gawain hero-worships Lancelot, just as the younger prisoner learns from and follows the hero in A Man Escaped.

4) Joan of Arc's voices tell her to remain a virgin, and not to have heterosexual sex at all. Lancelot also hears divine voices, telling him not to have heterosexual, adulterous sex with Guinevere. Are these voices related in meaning?

5) Guinevere is seated while talking with men, just like Joan. And like Joan, she deeply resists what the men are saying, insisting on her own vision and version of reality. Does Bresson endorse her actions, or condemn them? The exterior of the hayloft room in which Guinevere sits has a staircase, and we see groups of men leave and go on it - just like the soldiers leaving Joan's prison cell. There are frequent visual echoes between the two films.

6) Guinevere says Lancelot's love of her is just an excuse for the men to commit violence against each other, not its true cause. Does Bresson agree? (I think yes, but cannot prove it.)

7) Guinevere and Lancelot are under constant, evil surveillance by the knights, like Joan was in prison. Here, the goal of the surveillance is explicitly to prevent Guinevere and Lancelot from have sex. Is this sinister surveillance anti-sexual throughout Bresson? Does it stand for the constant attempt by society to monitor and prevent homosexual relationships? If it stands for something else, what is it? As far as I can tell, homosexuality was the only proscribed, constantly monitored action in France in 1950-1980, an otherwise free and open society. Or is this a reference to the Nazi occupation? Why is Bresson so deeply concerned with observation and monitoring in his films? What is its real world correlative?

8) The knights' battles at the beginning are full of horrific imagery. One knight literally castrates another with his sword. Another cuts off another's head: also a castration image. Bresson can see nothing of value in the traditional phallic sword. Such phallic-looking weapons only serve to destroy the men's real sexuality. This is in opposition to a hundred years of movies glorifying phallic-looking weapons such as guns and swords.

Similarly, the lances used in the tournament are also deconstructed. Tournaments are usually presented in stories and films as exciting athletic contests. Bresson shows this one as being motivated by personal rivalries, the same rivalries that are destroying the knights. The tournament leads to real injuries, nearly killing Lancelot. And at the film's end, the knights saddle up to destroy each other, using the same lances, and the exact same imagery and camera set-ups, as were used in the tournament shots.

9) The film's pressbook, available at the Masters of Cinema web site, tells a somewhat different version of the story than appears in the film. Here we learn that Perceval found the grail, and took it to Jerusalem, something never explained in the film, where he has simply disappeared. The pressbook blames Lancelot's affair with Guinevere for the failure of his grail quest. It furthermore asserts that every time Lancelot yields to Guinevere, or vice versa, the knights start quarreling at Camelot, but when they renounce each other, the tension magically lifts there. This essentially implies a story of an ideal homosexual brotherhood, the Knights of the Round Table, done in by the sin of heterosexuality.

Was Bresson responsible for the pressbook? Is it an official version of the film? Or was the pressbook merely the view of some anonymous publicity man? One notes that it actually attempts to interpret the story, something most critics have been unwilling to do.


L'Argent

Links to Bresson Traditions

L'Argent (1983) is full of echoes of earlier Robert Bresson films. Like Au hasard, Balthazar: The echoes of Pickpocket are close, too: The prison scenes recall earlier Bresson prison films, such as The Trial of Joan of Arc:

The Job

The hero wears colors during his employment with the oil company: red and green. These echo the colors on the oil truck. This is like the way the knights in Lancelot du lac each had their own distinctive designs. The colors are also present on the equipment the hero uses: the bucket is the same color red as his work gloves. Just as the costumes in Lancelot du lac often focused on the men's behinds, so does Bresson focus on the elastic waistband of the hero's uniform coveralls, and the rear end beneath. At the film's end, we see a pair of handsome young men who are part of the crowd in the cafe. They stand up to look at the hero being led out. One of the young men is wearing shiny leather pants, and Bresson turns him so we can see his rear. These men might be friends. But they also suggest a gay couple out on a date.

The oil pipe the hero holds is a strong phallic symbol, like all the lances in Lancelot du lac. However, it is not a weapon and not destructive, unlike the swords and lances in Lancelot du lac. At the film's end, the hero's ax with be a far more evil phallic symbol, murderous as the swords in Lancelot du lac.

The oil company job is one of the most positive social institutions in the film, which mainly looks at the bad aspects of society. It has a utopian feel. The hero gets to wear a fancy uniform, with brilliant color - something that Bresson also idealized with his knights in Lancelot du lac. Later uniforms in the picture will be far more sinister. The young, upper crust counterfeiter wears a jacket that recalls uniforms. It is clearly part of his corruption: a fantasy that being a crook gives him some sort of romantic status in society. Later, this jacket will be echoed by the prison uniform the men have to wear. This is actually the most dignified and glamorous prison gear I've ever seen in a film. Usually, prison uniforms look horrendous. However, it is still a badge of social and moral failure. The guard uniforms also seem like stigmatized outfits.

The hero drives a large truck while with the company, something that was much idolized in films and TV shows of the day - see Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, or Citizen's Band. When he turns to a life of crime, he becomes a getaway driver - an example of how his instincts immediately lead him into corruption. The bank robbery stakeout also reflects popular TV shows, such as S.W.A.T. (1975). One suspects that Bresson had some exposure to all of this.