January 6-26 at Film Forum
There are Bresson Women as surely as there are Hitchcock Women, and one of the pleasures of viewing Robert Bresson’s highly unified (though not homogenous) filmography is seeing some of the same or similar types returning in only slightly altered forms. Excepting the necessarily crude Mouchette, Bresson’s women are softly pretty, exiting girlhood or in it with wisdom, and frequently naked, whether with self-enjoying pleasure (Four Nights of a Dreamer‘s Marthe), or shame (stripped and degraded Marie in 1966’s Au hazard Balthazar). Florence Delay’s martyr in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) suffers more sadomasochistic humiliations (sordidly “examined” for virginity and peeped at through keyholes by rubbernecking Anglos) but her stoic blankness turns to triumphal superiority during her immolation.
Based, like two other Bresson films, on a Dostoyevsky story, 1969’s A Gentle Woman also features martyrdom, though instead of climaxing with it, the suicide of Dominique Sanda’s Elle occurs at the front. Her scrimping, priggish husband (Guy Frangin) is left to figure out her motivations in hindsight, an impossible task considering that his unforgiving vanity was the partial cause. His character is summed up neatly in an early scene at his pawnshop, when he plucks the Christ from Elle’s crucifix because he only wants the gold cross. Like the other suicides in Bresson’s films, Elle’s is an act of revolt, a bleak, pessimistic protest far from the grace and redemption at least partially glimpsed in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and A Man Escaped (1956), though presented with an equal dry passion that is its own source of inspiration.
Sanda is one of the only of Bresson’s amateur “models” who would continue acting and find fame, but A Gentle Woman captures her with some remaining baby fat, and a docility that gives way to brain fever and killer behavior as her rushed marriage grows less bearable. It is among many remarkable if-you-can-call-them performances in Film Forum’s complete Bresson retrospective, which doesn’t seem obvious as an acting showcase but offers a window on the actor’s craft because of the absence of theatrically trained professionals—the lack of craft. I would think any actor who prides himself on subtlety, seeing Martin LaSalle in Pickpocket (1959), would be jealous and a little ashamed at how ridiculously masterful he is as the thief Michel, conveying volumes in his soulful stares, rare cop-directed outburst, and devastating final psychic release.
Bresson’s films make a convincing case for the use of amateur, so-called non-actors, and indeed for all of the guidelines and edicts the director laid out himself in his Notes on Cinematography book. Because applying them all would be impossible and constricting, directors as different as RW Fassbinder, Paul Schrader, Chantal Akerman and Louis Malle (to name a fraction) have picked and chosen. Of course, such an uncommercial style is largely unthinkable inside any star-driven studio system, and Bresson often struggled to find financing. He is called “ascetic” because he’s sparing with music and superfluities of all kinds (establishing shots, close-up overkill), but his films are far from pleasure-denying. They are minimalist, but they rivet and entertain in a way that minimalist art in other media usually does not, and the emotional impact of their accumulation of simplicities can be overwhelming. Despite their near-perfection and the director’s famously high ratio of takes per shot, they have a looseness (that is part of the perfection), the result of the intuitive casting, the lack of storyboarding, and the catholic embrace of happy accidents and collaboration on set.
Though it ends with its protagonist’s romantic dreams dashed, Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) is the closest the director, who died in 1999, came to making a comedy. As in Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket, the main male is an introverted diarist. Instead of writing, the dreamer Jacques (Guillaume des Forêts) makes paintings and emo tape recordings of his longings and frustrations, as he plays the undesired role of understanding friend to the girl (Isabelle Weingarten) waiting for her man. Like source Dostoyevsky story “White Nights,” there’s a first-love lightness, and like A Gentle Woman and The Devil, Probably (1977), it opens with twinkling city lights and features musical appearances by a wandering hippie troupe.
There is no such lightness in 1983’s career-capping L’Argent, but nor is there any wallowing—the cruelness of its money-corrupted world is presented with elegant precision through Bresson’s honed-to-the-end use of untraditional edits and instinctive eye for close-ups of disembodied hands, franc notes, and one crucial axe. There’s even an “austerity”-be-damned car chase and bank heist. A jailbreak, prison visiting room meeting, and a matriarch with the mortal saintliness of the donkey Balthazar echo past Bresson films, but L’Argent is not nostalgic. In the words of Olivier Assayas, it is “the work of a radical young man, which dares everything, without compromising with the taste of the time, its eyes wide open to reality.”