Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Robert Bresson Film I Dislike the Least

I don't like the French director Robert Bresson much.  I don't like the way he views the world, his filmmaking methods, his aesthetics, or his depressive misanthropy.  I don't deny that he was a vital and important voice in cinema whose influence was far-reaching and impactful.  Some of my favorite films probably wouldn't exist without him, and he's clearly overdue for a "Great Directors" post.  I certainly respect his work and the opinions of the many critics  and filmmakers who admire him.  However, after working my way though the majority of his filmography, I have to conclude that I have no particular fondness for any of his films.  I outright despise some of his most famous ones, like "Au Hasard Balthazar," where he harps on how miserable the world is for 95 painful minutes.

I find that the most tolerable of Bresson's films are those dealing with crime and punishment, where his nihilistic opinions on spiritual matters are the least apparent.  I suspect his views grew more pronounced with age, since his earlier films tend to be less confrontational and offer a more palatable view of humanity.  In 1959's "Pickpocket," the thief Michel (Martin LaSalle) is an amoral ne'er-do-well who lives a troubled, unhappy life. but at least there's some hope to be found through his relationship with the lovely neighbor girl Jeanne (Marika Green).  Also, the scenes of criminal activity in "Pickpocket" are tense, dramatic, and quite enjoyable to watch.  This makes Michel's constant ruminating on their moral significance much easier to take.

Style is always important in Bresson's films, and he was notoriously particular about it.  His images are spare and efficient.  All traces of artifice are minimized or removed, particularly in the acting.  LaSalle, like many of Bresson's leads, was a non-professional actor at the time, who would have been told to avoid giving a performance.  Natural action is often highlighted, and plot is always subordinate to mood and tone.  "Pickpocket" follows Michel as he steals from various victims, each theft presented with a terrific amount of suspense to mirror Michel's state of mind.  He knows he needs to quit before his luck runs out, but finds himself taking greater and greater risks instead.  It is suggested that Michel steals not only for the money, but because it is a growing compulsion for him, fulfilling some psychological need.  In his regular interactions with other people, he's cold and unfeeling.  His narration of the story reveals feelings of alienation and apathy.  Stark, simple black and white close ups of hands and pockets are used to convey the strongest emotion in the film: anticipation.

The pickpocketing itself is well researched and executed, and the sequence of multiple thieves working in concert to rob a group of train passengers is beautifully choreographed.  We've seen countless imitators over the years in other films, but the thefts here are still impressive in their simplicity and daring.  Bresson reportedly got the idea for "Pickpocket" from observing Henri Kassagi, a thief and magician who served as a technical advisor on the film, and played Michel's primary accomplice. While Bresson doesn't make pickpocketing look like a particularly attractive option to the audience, we can understand why Michel is so fascinated by the act, and can sympathize with is struggle to resist temptation.  His subsequent abandonment of his moral and intellectual reservations in favor of a criminal career also feels very true to life.

"Pickpocket" has been cited as an influence by many filmmakers, notably Paul Schrader in the writing of "Taxi Driver."  It helped to kick off a new breed of more psychological crime films about social outcasts and outsiders.  Bresson, however, left the genre entirely after "Pickpocket," quickly moving on to more spiritual films about martyrs and saints, none of them ultimately happier than poor Michel.   Along with the prison escape drama "A Man Escaped," "Pickpocket" is probably the most accessible of Robert Bresson's films, because it tells the most conventional story.  Michel, for all his philosophical ramblings, is a Raskolnikov figure, and the plot heavily resembles "Crime and Punishment," including a mildly uplifting conclusion.  Past this point, Bresson's films became too obsessed with unrelenting misery for me to take.

What I've seen - Robert Bresson

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
Pickpocket (1959)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Mouchette (1967)
Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
The Devil Probably (1977)
L'Argent (1983)

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