Thursday, June 2, 2011

What Do I Do With Robert Bresson?

One of the most divisive filmmakers I've ever come across is French director Robert Bresson. Cineastes either seem to think he's brilliant or hate his guts. After watching six of his films, I have to admire his skill, but I don't like him very much. Never have I seen a director who seems so utterly disenchanted with humanity, who loves to accentuate the negative. His style is stark and bleak, perfect for capturing endless human misery and spiritual angst. Many of his films left me utterly frustrated and dismayed due to their subject matter and relentless pessimism. Heavy religious themes recur, as well as examinations of social injustice, questions of morality, and constant existential struggle.

Bresson's most straightforward and accessible films are those about crime and punishment. Perhaps his most cheerful work is "A Man Escaped," which follows the escape attempts of a French soldier from a notorious Nazi prison. Though the majority of the film sees the protagonist suffering under oppressive, powerful forces, at least he manages to prevail in the end. Few of Bresson's other outsider heroes are so lucky. The general arc of his films sees an innocent endure increasingly difficult hardships, thrust upon them by a cruel, corrupt universe. Sometimes the protagonist becomes corrupted, usually turning to crime as in "Pickpocket" and "L'Argent." Sometimes, innocence is preserved, but usually only through death and transcendence, as in "Au Hasard Balthazar," "Mouchette," and "A Diary of a Country Priest." The trouble is that the transcendence is usually brief, lasting in some cases for only a few frames, and feels more like a relief from all the misery that has come before, rather than a revelation.

While Bresson's films are engrossing, they can be difficult to watch. By the time he moved into his more spiritual films like "Balthazar" and "Mouchette," Bresson's signature style had emerged. He was a minimalist, preferring simple camera work and compositions. He used music sparingly, but was highly innovative in the way he employed heightened natural sounds. He strove for purity and naturalism in his images, famous for using non-actors and running through scenes multiple times until he believed all semblance of "performance" was removed. On the other hand, this also had the effect of making his characters rather dead-eyed and overly somber. Anne Wiazemsky in "Balthazar" is a good example, often appearing so listless and drained that she barely seems to have any more humanity in her than the inanimate objects in the film. Nadine Nortier, who playes the sullen title heroine of "Mouchette," seems to engage our sympathies entirely by accident.

The messages that audiences are meant to take from Bresson's films are clear - that the world is a mean and disappointing place, humanity is inherently wretched, and that we shouldn't expect any help from religion or logic or any sort of moral order that we might like to pretend exists. In many of his films, there seems to be no point in his protagonists struggling against the oppressive forces that they cannot control. This goes so totally contrary to any sort of philosophy that I hold dear, that I find his conclusions unacceptable. I can admire Robert Bresson as an artist for his technical craft, and appreciate the way he tells his stories and delivers his messages, but some of his most beloved films simply do not resonate for me because I find them to be absurd. Mouchette is spiritually elevated by escaping her troubles through suicide? The horrific life of Balthazar the donkey is supposed to be rendered noble and inspiring through a little Christian allegory? This is far too blunt and simplistic for me. I found the films moving at times, but in the end they left me cold.

I did enjoy "A Man Escaped," an intense, bare-bones prison thriller. "Pickpocket" and "L'Argent" were also more appealing in the way that they unfolded, with their more structured stories and more pointed social critiques. The more conventional Bresson films suit me fine. It's when he gets loftier and more didactic with his personal passion plays that I start to find him insufferable. Make no mistake, this isn't because of the religious and spiritual themes. I adore the similar work of Carl Dreyer and Andrei Tarkovsky, who has cited Bresson as an influence. But there's a meanness and a smallness to Bresson's approach to this material that leaves me with no catharsis, unable to take away any meaning.

I don't know what to do with Robert Bresson. But I think I'm done with him.

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