This weekend, the National Gallery of Art kicks off what just might be one of the most exciting repertory film events to hit D.C. this year: a month-long, 13-film retrospective honoring the career of renowned French auteur Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Known for his resolutely minimalist aesthetic, his preference for casting non-actors, and his bleak spiritual inquiries, Bresson has been revered for decades by iconic filmmakers and pretty much every brooding young person who has averaged a B- or better in Introduction to Film Studies. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Robert Bresson is French cinema as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” Or, as my college roommate once said during my requisite freshman year Bresson phase, “Are you seriously staying in on a Friday night to watch this weird movie about people beating a donkey? And are you…crying? Oh, God.”
A handy fact about Bresson’s work: the more depressing the film, the more likely it is to be a masterpiece. But when deciding which screenings to attend, you may want to consider just how much existential despair you’re in for. Below, our handy guide:
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Shows March 11 at 4:30 p.m.
The plot: In this underrated early film, a young, idealistic priest sporting a proto-Eraserhead head of Jack Nance hair arrives at a new parish and confronts not just village drama, but also own his doubts about God.
Bummer factors: Mean parishioners, spiritual disillusionment, vague, old-timey illness that involves obligatory scenes of a character coughing blood into a handkerchief
Despair-o-meter rating: The ending is the kind of transcendent bummer that few other filmmakers can pull off quite like Bresson. 8/10 dead donkeys.
Shows March 3 at 4:15 p.m.
The plot: A slight reworking of Crime and Punishment, Bresson’s philosophical examination of petty larceny showcases the deft choreography of wallet-swiping and contains one of the happiest endings in his oeuvre; this is basically Bresson’s take on the rom-com.
Bummer factors: Theft, imprisonment, a dying mother
Despair-o-meter rating: Don’t let the Dostoyevsky connection throw you, this is as light-hearted a romp you’re going to get from Old Man B. 2/10 dead donkeys.
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)
Shows March 31 at 2:30 p.m.
The plot: Bresson cast as Joan the unknown Florence Delay, who falls here on the “great performance” spectrum somewhere between Maria Falconetti and Milla Jovovich.
Bummer factors: Oh, you know
Despair-o-meter rating: As Bresson learned from Carl Dreyer, an ascetic filmmaker can do no wrong with this classic tale of heresy and imminent execution. 7/10 dead donkeys.
Shows March 18 at 4:30 p.m.
The plots: Widely considered to be his masterpiece (J. Hoberman called it “one of the greatest movies ever made”), Balthazar is an allegory about suffering, corruption, and the inherent wickedness of the human spirit viewed through the eyes of an innocent donkey. Also, sort of like Welcome to the Dollhouse reimagined in a world cruelly devoid of laughter or Heather Matarazzo’s high-waisted satin pants, Mouchette is—-well, what do you know—-also an allegory about suffering and the wickedness of the human spirit. Better get the big box of Skittles.
Bummer factors: Rape, alcoholism, suicide, an animal lit on fire, prolonged illness followed by death, another rape, a gang of leather-jacket wearing bicycle dudes who you can tell are just real bad news
Despair-o-meter rating: Either one of these films on their own would be enough to put you in an existential funk for days. But for such a gloriously and profoundly depressing double feature, this thing goes up to 11/10 dead donkeys.