Robert Bresson | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
| Bresson. Actors and Automatism
Films: 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
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Robert Bresson directed fourteen films.
Bresson is the subject of critical books:
- Robert Bresson, an huge anthology edited by James Quandt. First version (1998), Revised Edition (2011).
- Neither God Nor Master: Robert Bresson & Radical Politics (2011) by Brian Price.
Robert Bresson: Subjects
- Prisons (A Man Escaped, Pickpocket,
The Trial of Joan of Arc, L'Argent)
- Surveillance (mother and rich woman monitor heroine: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
prison: A Man Escaped,
prison: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
husband tracks down and spies on wife: Une Femme douce,
knights watch Lancelot and Guinevere to prevent sex: Lancelot du lac,
(comic bit where visiting art student makes uninvited peek at hero's paintings turned to the wall: Four Nights of a Dreamer)
- Arrests, in cars surrounded by officers (hero arrested at start: A Man Escaped,
hero's first arrest: Pickpocket)
- Men falsely accused, with bad consequences (hero's backstory in bank: Une Femme douce,
hero innocently given counterfeit money: L'Argent)
- Evil weapons (gun: Une Femme douce, swords, lances: Lancelot du lac, ax: L'Argent)
related (swordsman holds sword erect at movie premiere: Four Nights of a Dreamer)
- Moral failings lead to social disaster (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
Au hasard, Balthazar,
hero's pride makes him refuse to beg to keep job: L'Argent)
- Men who kill their friends (hero considers killing cellmate: A Man Escaped,
Lancelot and Gawain: Lancelot du lac)
- Deadly battles with casualties (finale of Hamlet: Une Femme douce,
gunfight in film-within-film: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
knights battle: Lancelot du lac)
- Blood (heroine at start: Une Femme douce,
killed knight: Lancelot du lac)
- Physical skills, seen as remarkable
(heroine's dancing and somersaults: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
hero remaking objects with hands: A Man Escaped,
hero somersaults in field: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
knights' jousting skills: Lancelot du lac)
- Decent young men who try to help people on trial
(monks: The Trial of Joan of Arc, lawyer: L'Argent)
- Animals (dog: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
dog crosses street at start: A Man Escaped,
horse races: Pickpocket,
birds, dog: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
donkey hero, sheep, dog: Au hasard, Balthazar,
primates at zoo, swan, science book and paleontology museum stressing similar body structures in all animals: Une Femme douce,
tournament with horses: Lancelot du lac,
seals attacked by hunters: The Devil, Probably,
dog in murder house: L'Argent)
- Contests involving horses (racetrack: Pickpocket,
horse race on television: Une Femme douce,
jousts by knights: Lancelot du lac)
related (donkey hero performs in circus: Au hasard, Balthazar)
Sexuality, linked to Machinery and Objects:
- Sexual persistence (hero's persistence brings couple together: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
good guy's pride-caused failure to woo causes disaster: Au hasard, Balthazar)
- Divine voices forbidding heterosexual sex (The Trial of Joan of Arc,
Lancelot du lac)
- Gay heroes (priest: Diary of a Country Priest,
prisoner and cellmate: A Man Escaped,
hero and pickpockets: Pickpocket,
Joan, helpful pair of monks: The Trial of Joan of Arc)
- Compulsory heterosexuality (bishop's plan to force Joan to have sex: The Trial of Joan of Arc)
- Children abandoned by fathers (Pickpocket, L'Argent)
Science and Technology:
- Motorcyclists (good guy who offers priest ride: Diary of a Country Priest,
villain: Au hasard, Balthazar, corrupt young men: L'Argent)
- Bumper machinery (bumper to bumper car connection at end: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
pinball ricocheted off bumpers: Pickpocket,
bumper cars: Mouchette)
- Handbags (looted by pickpockets: Pickpocket,
mother who bribes photo shop woman, housekeeper's: L'Argent)
- Phallic symbols, non-violent (toothbrushes: photograph Lunar Landscape,
chisel, hooks made by hero: A Man Escaped,
symbols on helmets: Lancelot du lac,
oil pipe: L'Argent)
- Science books (natural history of animal structure: Une Femme douce,
environmental books: The Devil, Probably)
- Sound technology, often used by everyday people (portable radio: Au hasard, Balthazar,
portable phonograph: Une Femme douce,
recording device: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
microphones in court: L'Argent)
- Film technology used to convey factual information (television: Une Femme douce,
environmental film: The Devil, Probably)
Robert Bresson: Structure and Story Telling
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. (Richard Linklater, 2015: "Bresson's films really move along.")
- Mosaic of interlocking characters, whose stories keep crossing throughout the film
(Au hasard, Balthazar, L'Argent)
- Documentary elements within fiction (introduction: A Man Escaped,
trial record: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
TV documentary about WWII air battle: Une Femme douce,
film about environmental destruction: The Devil, Probably)
- Sounds which open films (machine at racetrack: Pickpocket,
ringing bell: The Trial of Joan of Arc)
Influences on Bresson:
- Westerns, possible influence on Bresson (jailbreak: A Man Escaped,
pickpocket gang is like Western gang of crooks, hero in single unchanging costume like many TV cowboys: Pickpocket,
hero's office with scale for gold recalls assayers' offices in Westerns: Une Femme douce,
river excursion boat is like Western riverboat with entertainers: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
men on horses, haylofts for romance, tents, leather belts, jousts recall gun shootouts: Lancelot du lac,
police waiting with guns recalls ambushes in Westerns: L'Argent) General influence of Westerns on Bresson
(white and black clothes, jail cells)
- Georges Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette)
- Dostoevsky (Pickpocket, Une Femme douce, Four Nights of a Dreamer)
Robert Bresson: Visual Style
Parts of bodies shown on screen:
- Close-ups of body parts, instead of whole figure (feet: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
donkey, hero's feet: Au hasard, Balthazar,
people walking to body at start: Une Femme douce,
tournament: Lancelot du lac)
- Single file processions of body parts of people walking (entering movie premiere: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
bus passengers: The Devil, Probably)
- Camera lingers on door, after characters leave
- Boxes with people inside, often glass-walled
(rich woman and phone booth, car windows: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
hero tries to escape from car at start: A Man Escaped,
subway cars, train cars, bar: Pickpocket,
car: Au hasard, Balthazar,
pawn shop, car with wife and boyfriend: Une Femme douce,
glass-walled boat on Seine: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
bus: The Devil, Probably,
glass-walled office at prison in letter-surveillance scene: L'Argent)
- Looking through bars (prisoners: A Man Escaped,
gates: Au hasard, Balthazar,
cage at zoo: Une Femme douce,
- A woman seated talking to men (Joan and accusers at trial: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
Guinevere and knights: Lancelot du lac)
- Beds, often with personal objects on them (bed with heroine's costume: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
couple's bed, buying bed in store: Une Femme douce,
roomer's bed with books, shirts and suitcase, hero talks into recorder while seated on bed: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
knights: Lancelot du lac,
various characters, young man reading on bed with books: The Devil, Probably,
- Paper objects on floor (tossed checkbook: The Devil, Probably,
letters in prison cell: L'Argent)
related (painting lying on floor in artist' hero's studio: Four Nights of a Dreamer)
- Lights on entertainment attractions (airplane ride: Pickpocket,
movie theater marquee, theater entrance way: Une Femme douce,
excursion boat, shop windows: Four Nights of a Dreamer)
- Visual puns (mother walking looks like ringing bell: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
sword hilts look like crosses: Lancelot du lac)
Geometry, Straight Lines:
- Window reflections (airplane ride reflected in window behind hero: Pickpocket,
traffic reflected in glass doors of pawn shop: Une Femme douce,
first shot of bus: The Devil, Probably,
shop windows: L'Argent)
- Complex mirror shots (drawing room mirror: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
couple in rear-view car mirror: Une Femme douce,
heroine in small circular mirror: Lancelot du lac,
overhead view of bus exit, side-mirror of bus with moving cars: The Devil, Probably,
first motorcyclist then cop car seen in hero's car mirror during bank robbery, cops seen in restaurant mirror at end: L'Argent)
- Reflection in water (boat lights in river: Four Nights of a Dreamer)
- Diamond lozenge patterns (wire bed-frame: A Man Escaped,
cage at zoo: Une Femme douce,
flags: Lancelot du lac,
low cyclone fence near kissing lovers: The Devil, Probably,
diamond-shaped shelves in store, balcony rail behind father's desk at start, prison mail baskets: L'Argent)
- Checkerboard pattern (bathroom floor: Une Femme douce)
- Grids (jail bars at finale: Pickpocket,
- Complex polyhedra (glass walls of boat: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
glass windows of curving bank facade: L'Argent)
- Three-dimensional trapezoid shapes (flashing lights on top of police cars, mail baskets in prison: L'Argent)
- Curving rails (staircase at hero's building: Une Femme douce,
staircase at heroine's building: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
bus door: The Devil, Probably)
- Circles of rippling water (Lancelot du lac, The Devil, Probably)
- Circular windows (door view: A Man Escaped)
- People moving through round arches (people walk into race track through arches: Pickpocket,
boat moves through arched tunnel under bridge: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
mail van enters prison through arched passage: L'Argent)
- Circles (tables in outdoor cafe near airplane ride, bumpers in pinball machine: Pickpocket,
circles on crucifix ends: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
portable radio, pail of water: Au hasard, Balthazar,
coffee cup-bowl: Mouchette,
records, pawned plates, pawned watch, soup bowls, poisoned cup in Hamlet, kinetic art at museum,
spiral on rocking chair at start, table with gun and books: Une Femme douce,
breakfast dishes on crate, paint cans on floor, Moon, drum on boat: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
circle on cross, Round Table, circles on knight's shield, heroine's small mirror: Lancelot du lac,
oil pipe, silver circular tray with mail, pot on prison lunch cart, lantern: L'Argent)
- Spheres, often on top of objects (sphere on top of car's stick-shift: Au hasard, Balthazar,
weight with sphere on top placed on crate: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
Lancelot's armor with round ball on helmet top: Lancelot du lac)
- Succession of round metal plates (shoulders of armor: Lancelot du lac,
oil pipe: L'Argent)
- Whistles (young people signalling to friends while hero and heroine watch river: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
police whistles during bank robbery: L'Argent)
Color and Costumes:
- Machinery, often with brightly colored controls (elevator buttons: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
bus door controls and ticket puncher: The Devil, Probably,
ATM machines: L'Argent)
- Gold environments (pawnbroker's office with gold objects and scale, theater entrance,
staircase rail in building, stack of plates in pawnshop, picture frames, door handles, discs in kinetic art at museum,
lamps near bed, screen near bed, bed with body: Une Femme douce,
door handles in wealthy home, lantern: L'Argent)
- White flowers (daisies, roses: Une Femme douce)
- Red-green color scheme (hero's work uniform matches oil truck and bucket: L'Argent)
- Red-yellow color scheme (musicians in boat in red shirt and yellow shirt matched by red candles and yellow candles: Four Nights of a Dreamer)
- Blue (police uniforms and lights on police cars during bank robbery, prison guard uniforms and mail baskets: L'Argent)
- Gold metal clothes (helmet of swordsman at movie premiere: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
gold armor at start: Lancelot du lac)
- Gray suits for businessman types (hero, pick-up artist in movie theater: Une Femme douce,
man reading newspaper who innocently wanders into bank robbery area: L'Argent)
- White clothes contrasted with black clothes (heroine's dresses: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
monks' robes: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
one motorcyclist in white, others in darker clothes: Au hasard, Balthazar,
Lancelot's armor is black, everyone else's silver: Lancelot du lac,
man in white lab coat and white shirt at oil company and man in dark suit,
finale with hero in dark jacket served by waiter in white coat: L'Argent)
- White clothes (man and woman in historical film "Benjamin" seen in theater: Une Femme douce)
- Black leather jackets (plainclothes cops in stakeout before bank robbery: L'Argent)
- Characters uniquely associated with a costume (hero's suit: Pickpocket,
hero's gray business suit: Une Femme douce,
knights' helmets with individual geometric designs: Lancelot du lac)
- Work costumes (dancer, hero's business-like suits: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
monks robes: The Trial of Joan of Arc,
nurse: Une Femme douce,
knights armor, horse blankets and bridles: Lancelot du lac,
oil company uniform: L'Argent)
- Helmets, ornate (swordsman at movie premiere: Four Nights of a Dreamer,
knights: Lancelot du lac)
- Good looking men in tuxedos (hero: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,
young man at film premiere: Four Nights of a Dreamer)
- White tie and tails (man: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne)
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 have 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
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
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.
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 gays 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.
- Gay life in the 1950's
was a forbidden underworld, one in which men gradually entered
in secret, and which was hidden from organized society - just like
the pickpockets in the film.
- Gay men lived in fear of the police
catching them - just like the pickpockets in the movie.
- The hero first learns about picking pockets from a book, and
only gradually attempts to take part in picking pockets in real life -
a common way many men learned about gay sexuality.
- The hero is a refined, apparently educated man, who is
entering into an underground life - just like many gay men,
(but probably unlike most real world street criminals).
- The hero's involvement is due to an emotional
obsession with the thrill of picking pockets - a metaphor for
the irresistible pull of forbidden sexual acts.
- The pickpockets are an all-male world - just like gay men.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
The opening and closing of the knights' helmets has a rhythmic effect,
like the opening and closing of doors in other Bresson films.
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
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
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.
Lancelot du lac has circles:
The circles are linked to big topics: Religion (the cross), Government (the Round Table).
- The hero prays in front of a cross, with a circle on it.
- The Round Table.
- The hero's armor has a round ball on top.
Does Lancelot's spherical ball represent the Globe of Earth?
Does it link the hero to Mathematics?
In 1974 the cinema had produced countless Western film and TV shows, for decades.
Lancelot du lac has some similarities with Westerns:
- It is full of armed men riding on horses.
- The knights' contests recalle the "fastest draw" shootouts of Westerns: also often critiqued in Western films.
- The men wear leather belts, like the gunbelts of Westerns.
- A big romantic scene is in a hayloft: a cliche setting for smooching in Westerns.
- Tents appear in both Lancelot du lac and many Westerns.
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:
- It deals with corruption in the modern world.
- A wide range of character flaws doom its heroes,
just as in the earlier film. Here Yvon's pride, making him refuse
to beg to keep his job with the oil company, causes him to take
up a life of crime, and lose his family. This is like the way
the rich suitor's pride keeps him from the girl, in Au hasard,
- Both films deal with a whole mosaic of interlocking
characters, whose stories keep crossing throughout the film.
- Some young corrupt men ride motorcycles in both films.
The prison scenes recall earlier Bresson prison films, such as
The Trial of Joan of Arc:
- The scams with passing counterfeit money, and jamming ATM machines,
recall the pickpocketing in the earlier film. Once again, crime is an
all-male activity, done by men in groups.
- The abandonment of the wife
and little girl to take up a life of crime, recalls the heroine's
baby at the end of Pickpocket.
- The fascination with women's handbags, first of the mother who
bribes the photo shop woman, and the housekeeper's handbag at the end,
reflects the robbery of women's handbags in the earlier movie.
- The ax murders
at the end echo Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, the
original source of Pickpocket.
- There is a church service, as in the earlier film.
But it is horribly profaned, by the prisoners
using it as a cover for commercial transactions. Once again, the
appearance of money is linked to pure evil.
- Surveillance in prison is
worse than being locked up, echoing Joan's surveillance in The
Trial of Joan of Arc. Both films show people peeing through
small peepholes into prisoners' cells.
- If Joan's captors tried
to destroy her virginity, and force her to have heterosexual sex,
here the prison authorities and fellow inmates try to destroy
the hero's heterosexual relationship with his wife. They succeed,
while Joan's captors failed.
- A nice young lawyer tries to help Yvon during his first trial,
just like the monks try to help Joan.
Both are examples of human kindness. Neither are enough to overcome
a monstrous system.
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 tight 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
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.