John Mitchell rediscovers old movie classics of French film director Robert Bresson WHEN the French film director Robert Bresson went up to collect his prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his last film, Money (1983), an extraordinary thing happened he was jeered off stage.
This was all the more extraordinary as Bresson is an acknowledged master of sound cinema and the maker of 13 acclaimed feature films which have undoubtedly had a profound influence on the world of artistic film-making. Now Bresson is in his eighties and cannot raise the money needed to make another film. Looking back over his life's work it is possible to see why this unlikely situation has emerged.
Bresson's career began many years before that night in Cannes. Right from his first silent films, Les Anges des Peches and Les Dames des Bois de Boulogne, the Catholic themes of unselfish love as a means of redemption and salvation are very much in evidence.
Bresson had become a Catholic after the First World War many of his friends were killed in action, and a religious belief helped impart a spiritual meaning to his sense of loss. Also evident in the early work is Bresson's unique minimalist style that characterises his work.
His style had one main aim to express the spiritual on celluloid. to film the soul. He tried to do this by paring each frame down to the bare essentials. The focus was on small details, especially gestures of the hands. For Bresson, these signs helped express various inner states of being or feelings. Every gesture and every movement was carefully worked out. so that some sequences in his films come close to a kind of mime.
He was searching for a sort of innocence, a kind of purity in all his work. After his middle period, the Catholic themes gradually begin to fade and a deep pessimism emerges.
So much so, in fact, that after The Devil Probably (1979) the French authorities insisted that it was given an adults-only rating, as it was thought that the film would incite young people to commit suicide.
It is difficult to imagine a more pessimistic film. The hero is a young man who, in his disillusionment with the emptiness of modern life, attempts to find God. At one stage he spends a night in a cathedral listening to some classical music that he has brought with him.
His efforts to create a conducive atmosphere in which to feel the presence of God are in vain. Finally, after a kind of "last supper" in a cafe he bribes a friend to shoot him. As a single gunshot rings out the screen goes black. The film is finished.
The dark screen seems to be an apt metaphor for Bresson's belief. After the film he told Paul Schrader, a critic and director, that he had lost touch with his Catholic faith. However. as illustrated in his last two films, his feeling for evil and the devil is still there. His last film Money is based on a short story by Tolstoy and is deeply pessimistic both about human nature and about the presence of an underlying evil force at work in
the world and in human beings.
Money is not a particularly good film when one compares it with his masterpieces, such as Au Hazard Balthazar and Four Nights of a Dreamer (the latter based on a short story by Dostoevsky). All the same, the industry reluctantly acknowledged the debt they all owed to Bresson.
In spite of his earlier pessimism there is no doubt that in his earlier films Bresson helped many find courage and hope. A Man Escaped is about the fortitude and courage of a man escaping from a concentration camp. Joan of Arc and the country priest are also inspiring figures.
Bresson became a master of the style he developed but whether he really captured the spirituality that he wanted is an open question film is a very ambiguous medium when it comes to expressing what lies beyond the material world.
As Bresson's personal vision of goodness and salvation waned, so did any hint of them in his last films. I for one hope the vision returns.