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 directed fourteen films.
Some common subjects in the films of Robert Bresson:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Secondly, it can be seen as an allegory of gay life. The prison represents the modern world, and its persecution of gays. 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.
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".
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 gay relationships? If it stands for something else, what is it? As far as I can tell, gay sexuality 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 gay 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.
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.