I’ve been teaching a summer film class in world cinema, concentrating for the most part on recent films, such as Battle Royale, Let The Right One In, Essential Killing, Animal Kingdom, The Aura, Croupier, The Gleaners and I and other key works of modern filmmaking. But on the final day of the class, today, searching for a film that somehow summed up the concerns of all these widely disparate filmmakers, I decided to screen Robert Bresson’s first film, Les Anges du péché, which he made in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. I’ve always loved the film, and back in the 1980s, I actually made a pilgrimage to the British Film Institute simply to see a 35mm print of Les Anges du péché, which moved me deeply then, and still resonates as one of Bresson’s finest works. Of course, it’s different in style and in its use of traditional actors from his later films. Yes, Jean-Jacques Grünenwald’s sublimely romantic music is much more of a part of the film than the music scores of his later, more ascetic films.
And yet, the same themes and preoccupations persist, and one of my students surprised me by comparing it to Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made in 1983, in which a young man becomes enmeshed in a counterfeit money scheme, and winds up murdering an elderly woman who tries to be his benefactor at the end of the film. Similarly, in Les Anges du péché, a young novice in a convent, Anne-Marie (Renée Faure) takes it upon herself to reclaim the ex-convict Thérèse (Jany Holt), who unbeknownst to Anne-Marie and the rest of the Sisters of Bethany, has murdered her ex-lover.
In a curious way, as the film progresses, Thérèse is instrumental in bringing about the death of Anne-Marie, whose only crime is that she too zealously tried to aid another human being, albeit one whose reclamation is doubtful from the outset. Yet, unlike L’Argent, in the end of Les Anges du péché, Thérèse transcends her destructive hatred of the world and becomes Anne-Marie, accepting her punishment for murder as just, as if a transference of souls has taken place — which is exactly what Bresson, an ardent Catholic, intended.
The film stunned my students with its rigorous, austere beauty and it’s sumptuous black and white cinematography, and after the screening, one of my students commented that paradoxically, despite its age, Les Anges du péché was in many ways one of the most modern films shown during the class, one which dealt with how one copes with evil, with destruction, with the possibility of redemption, with the very fact of one’s existence in a landscape of continual struggle.
It goes without saying, of course, that Paul Schrader long ago had it absolutely right when he linked Bresson with Ozu and Dreyer as perhaps the three most spiritual filmmakers in the history of the cinema, and that Bresson’s dislike of personal publicity was a part of his devotion to his work — let the film speak, and let me speak through it, not apart from it. Les Anges du péché is nothing less than a completely assured masterpiece from first frame to last, as are nearly all of Bresson’s films, but it seems to me that his early work has been somewhat undervalued. Whenever I come back to it, Les Anges du péché seems an inexhaustible source of renewal and inspiration; fresh, invigorating, and instructive.