Poet of Precision: Robert Bresson

At the National Gallery of Art March 7 through April 3

Like the God whose existence they implicitly affirm, Robert Bresson’s films work in mysterious ways.

Knowing little about the director apart from the fact that he was highly regarded in Europe, two newly married college friends and I attended the American premiere of Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar at the 1966 New York Film Festival. This spare, episodic chronicle of the birth, life, and death of a donkey held our interest, but afterward none of us thought we understood it. Several months later, while flipping through a French film magazine, I came upon some stills from the movie and was surprised to feel my eyes well up with tears. I phoned my friends to tell them of my experience, only to hear a stranger story: It seemed that the wife had seen an expensive bronze sculpture of a donkey in an art gallery window and impulsively bought it, a purchase well beyond their means. In the midst of berating her for such extravagance, her husband had a sudden illumination: “You’ve bought Balthazar.”

Thanks to the efforts of Peggy Parsons, the National Gallery of Art’s head of film programming, area audiences now have a rare opportunity to experience Bresson’s work. Starting this Sunday and continuing on weekends through April 3, the gallery will present newly struck prints of the 13 features the director made between 1943 and 1983—his entire oeuvre except for Affaires Publiques, a 1934 short comedy, fragments of which survive but could not be obtained for this retrospective.

Like Kelly Gordon, who runs the Hirshhorn’s independent cinema series, Parsons showcases films that are not otherwise available in the Washington area and, in many cases, may never be shown again. “Even if someone comes to one of my screenings and walks out before the end, I feel I’ve done my job,” she says. An unsung hero of the local cultural scene, Parsons initiated the gallery’s invaluable film programs in 1981. The Bresson retrospective is the only series she’s ever repeated. “In the ’80s,” she reflects, “we concentrated on major international filmmakers—Renoir, Cocteau, Rossellini, and Dryer. Aware of Bresson’s importance, especially his profound influence on other directors, I contacted American, Canadian, and European distributors in 1988 to find the best possible prints. Unfortunately, some of them were in abominable condition. Several were only available in 16 mm, and only two or three of the 35 mm prints were in good shape.” Because of a dispute over the distribution rights of The Devil Probably, Parsons was unable to include it. “We did the best we could,” she says, “but I didn’t feel we had really done Bresson justice.”

The current retrospective, which is touring cultural centers in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and other cities, is the result of Cinematheque Ontario film curator James Quandt’s passion for Bresson’s work. His quest to assemble a complete collection of new 35 mm prints, a project endorsed by the 97-year-old filmmaker himself and supported by the cultural ministries of France and Canada, turned out to be more difficult than he had anticipated. Quandt had initially expected to complete the job in three years, but it ended up taking twice as long before all the rights were cleared and English-subtitled prints were struck. The traveling show is accompanied by a handsomely produced, 612-page anthology of essays about Bresson that Quandt edited (including three interviews with the reticent filmmaker), available at the gallery’s bookshop, along with a new edition of Notes on Cinematography, the filmmaker’s long-out-of-print collection of maxims and musings about his art.

One of these, “Empty the pond to get the fish,” provides a key to Bresson’s rigorous formalism. Following his second feature, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), a richly mounted, intensely acted tale of romantic revenge, the filmmaker set about refining his style. He articulated his agenda precisely: “I want to express things with a minimum of means, showing nothing that is not absolutely essential.” For those of us nurtured on Hollywood movies, which are largely constructed of inessential images, such austerity takes some getting used to.

Bresson’s cinema is not constructed of individual compositions or camera movements, but of the relationships between images. His patterns and meanings are not fully comprehensible until the final shot locks into place. For this reason, Parsons believes that “everyone should have the opportunity to see Bresson’s films more than once. They are so concentrated that a single viewing isn’t sufficient.” Whenever possible, he replaces images with sounds, “[b]ecause the ear,” he observes, “is profound whereas the eye is frivolous, too easily satisfied. The ear is active, imaginative, whereas the eye is passive. When you hear a noise at night, instantly you imagine its cause. The eye can conceive only what is presented to it.” He devotes as much time to preparing his soundtracks as he does to filming. Over the years, background music has nearly disappeared from his work, replaced by carefully orchestrated natural sounds.

Following Les Dames, he abandoned using professional actors, casting instead people with no acting experience, sometimes interviewing them by telephone before meeting them. (Reflecting his background in painting, he refers to them as “models” rather than actors.) During shooting, he instructs them to recite their lines as unemphatically as possible, hoping to capture on film what neither he nor they can willfully produce: guarded, enigmatic gestures and expressions. He always shoots in natural locations, never mixing studio sets with real settings. But he arranges images of everyday life and its objects in a manner that transcends realism, suggesting mysteries behind and beyond the physical world. And he steadfastly refuses to offer psychological explanations of his characters’ behavior because “[t]he psychiatrist discovers only what he can explain, whereas I explain nothing.” Consequently, his characters are as complex and, finally, as unknowable as the people who surround us, even those we love.

Bresson evolved his style as a vehicle to express his dour view of existence, strongly influenced by the writings of Cornelis Jansen, a 17th-century Dutch theologian whose teachings were condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Jansen’s determinist doctrine, similar to Calvinism, views man’s nature as mutilated by original sin, all matter as corrupt, and the workings of divine grace as irresistible but offered only to a predestined few. Most moviegoers will surely share my feelings that this worldview is alienating, if not outright intolerable. But Bresson’s Jansenism is never explicitly stated in his work. “Hide the ideas,” he advises in a note to himself, “but so that people can find them. The most important will be the most hidden.”

Bresson’s belief in a world corrupted beyond redemption imbues his depiction of that world with a physicality that is emotionally devastating. You have never truly felt the heaviness of footfalls, the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces, or the cruelty of uncomprehending glances until you have experienced a Bresson film.

Clearly, Bresson’s cinema defies conventional notions of entertainment and can be bewildering to those approaching it for the first time. Parsons recommends A Man Escaped (1956) as an accessible introduction to his work. Based in part on his own internment in a German prison camp, this account of a condemned French Resistance lieutenant’s escape from a Nazi fortress can be experienced as a gripping thriller, even by those who do not recognize that it is also an allegory about the workings of Divine Will. I’d suggest Mouchette (1967), an adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novella about the final days in the life of a hapless but defiant 14-year-old village schoolgirl, whose drowning is presented less as a suicide than as liberation of her soul. The retrospective’s Washington premiere screening of The Way to Bresson (1983), Jurrien Rood’s video documentary featuring conversations with Bresson and other filmmakers he has influenced (Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, Paul Schrader), should also provide helpful insights into his methods and themes.

Beyond that, you’ll have to make some tough choices. The gallery has scheduled screenings of two features most afternoons. Frankly, I would find sitting through a Bresson double bill too taxing. If you don’t have the time or stamina to take in the entire retrospective, I urge you to see, in addition to Au Hasard, Balthazar, Diary of a Country Priest (1950), a heart-rending account of the spiritual struggles of a young country cleric; Pickpocket (1959), the Dostoevskian portrait of a thief who compulsively transgresses moral laws; and Lancelot of the Lake (1974), an austere chronicle of the end of the Arthurian saga, climaxing in the extraordinary image of dead armor-clad knights piled up like abandoned cars in a junkyard. But you can’t go wrong with either of the retrospective’s opening-day films—The Devil Probably (1977), about a disillusioned college student seeking a reason to live, and L’Argent (1983), the director’s most recent—and likely valedictory—work, about a young deliveryman driven to madness and murder by the callous materialism of contemporary society.

Bresson presents earthly existence as we imagine it in our darkest moments—as a prison from which the only true liberation is death. Yet he implies that there is a guiding presence we cannot perceive or comprehend. He has stated that his mission is “to translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing.” The magnificence of his art ironically repudiates the severity of his vision. Surely, a world capable of producing an artist of such seriousness and purity cannot be beyond redemption.CP