Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Aside from Ozu, Robert Bresson has become the most redeemed director in my heart during my first year in Film Club. A filmmaker whose greatness previously alluded me, Bresson now resides at the summit of my estimation. I couldn’t possibly praise him highly enough, as his films are not only brilliant but absolutely miraculous. There is something veritably mind-boggling about his ability to achieve such profound interest and emotive response using so seemingly minimal techniques. How does he do it? Every time I watch one his films, I have to ask myself this question because I’m always so immersed in the simplicity of his aesthetic. You’d almost think I were constantly watching the finale to a thriller the way I can’t turn away from his films. They are thoroughly fascinating, yet they couldn’t be more simple on the surface. Seriously, how does he do it? I almost want to sit down and study each of his films frame by frame to find out how he is able to make me care so much about what I’m seeing. Perhaps someday if I have the time or desire I will. For now, I’ll try to explain why I think he is great and why he appeals to me so much (though truthfully my enjoyment of his films is as ineffable as that of Ozu’s–I almost don’t know why I am so enraptured, I just am). This probably won’t be insightful at all, and you are better off reading the many writings that already exist about the man if you are really curious to read something about him. But, personally, I gotta celebrate him in any way I can.
In all honesty, I didn’t understand Bresson’s films when I was younger. I had only seen PICKPOCKET and AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, but they were, perhaps, too elemental, too sparse to really catch my eye or pique my interest. I was watching them right around the time that I was discovering Kurosawa, Bunuel, Fellini, etc. I was being floored by the vibrancy and vitality of those directors, but almost dulled by Bresson. Perhaps it was just a lack of consideration or patience on my part, or perhaps it was merely the fault of being 17 and a film novice, but I completely overlooked the genius of Bresson in my younger days (granted I had only seen two of his movies).
I can see his genius now; it’s glaringly obvious in every single meticulously shot and edited frame of one of his films. Bresson is a visual master. He edits and strings shots together perfectly to create a lucid narrative that is easy to follow but elliptical enough that we can still use our imagination. The clarity of the narrative wraps us up completely in what we are seeing. We always know which person we are following, what environment they are in, and what details about the scene are important to us. It’s almost as if someone is very carefully giving you the clearest directions you’ve ever received and you are following along with keen interest because you are absolutely able to follow along. Some might find Bresson’s clarity to be dull (as I originally did), but it’s actually remarkably fascinating. Bresson achieves narrative simplicity with a sculptor’s precision. It’s fucking beautiful.
The clarity of his narratives essentially creates the thematic and intellectual richness that pervades his films. Everything is shown to us, very little is ever told, even with the heavy use of narration in some of his work. The openness of showing instead of telling is always going to be conducive to interpretation, which makes his films highly analytical, and I think Bresson gives us so much without making any judgments, so we are always left to wonder what kind of world his characters inhabit: do they live in a cruel, godless world? Is there a god? If there is, does he offer eventual grace or is he merely a passive observer to misery? Perhaps it’s truly a testament to Bresson’s agnosticism that one could come away from one of his films feeling either way or torn between both. We follow Bresson's films effortlessly, but we are never told what to ultimately come away with.
The films that really changed my mind about Bresson are THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and A MAN ESCAPED. Two completely essential masterpieces of cinema, in my opinion. I saw them and I was floored. More recently, I have watched MOUCHETTE and L’ARGENT. I, of course, adored them both. MOUCHETTE deals with the suffering of one improverished country girl as she tries to work her way through daily existence. There is nothing grand, highfalutin, or necessarily dramatic about her life. Like a rabbit caught in a trap, she is merely the object of suffering and misfortune and the agent of her own flailing. Like with the Priest in THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, Mouchette doesn’t necessarily do anything to evoke our empathy nor does Bresson give obvious cues as to how we should feel about her. Yet we do feel intense empathy for her (perhaps because she is only a young girl) just like with the Priest.
This brings me to another key aspect of Bresson’s genius (perhaps the most important): his ability to strip humanity down to its most elemental form (an animal capable of feeling pain). Bresson is notorious for using non-professional actors and grinding the slightest hint of “acting” off of them. They are almost robotic in the way that they emote or express nothing. Yet we feel something strong for them! It may be that I am oversensitive, and if my vegetarianism is any indication, that I am always looking to empathize with any living creature that can feel pain, but I watch Bresson’s robotic characters (he referred to them as “models”) and am full of pity and empathy for them. But honestly, I don’t just think it is me. I think Bresson deliberately strips down his characters to their most basic essence (almost infantile simplicity but without any shred of emotional response) to make us feel for other human beings (and creatures) on a sort of primitive level. It’s a natural reaction to feel for something that is suffering. Bresson gets this and he seeks this at its most elemental level possible. He’s not trying to manipulate us; he’s trying to engage us. He achieves this flawlessly.
I just finished L’ARGENT this morning, a film that reminds me most of PICKPOCKET within his oeuvre. It was Bresson’s last film, and it has all of his trademarks: simple, efficient narrative; immaculate editing; no traces of “acting”; ambiguous moral themes; characters who suffer and are caught by the whims of chance or predestination. L’ARGENT is completely absorbing, and it’s brutal. I won’t give anything away, but I’ll just say that it’s one of Bresson’s most scathing looks at hierarchy, injustice, and misfortune. It’s a challenging film and one I will have to think more about carefully, but also one that I would re-watch, like all the Bresson films I’ve seen, in a heart beat.
All hail, Bresson! It’s the day after Valentine’s day and I’m in love.