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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Bresson’

New Frame by Frame Video: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the 1945 films Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson.

I have blogged about this film before; as I wrote then, “one of Robert Bresson’s most incandescent works, this early film also marks the teaming of two of France’s most personal and idiosyncratic artists: Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau (whose 1949 film Orpheus [Orphée] mesmerized post-World War II audiences), in addition to his numerous other accomplishments, wrote the dialogue for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, loosely based on Denis Diderot’s short story Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître. Elina Labourdette plays Agnès, a young woman who has been forced into a life of prostitution in wartime Vichy, France, in order to support herself and her ailing mother (Lucienne Bogaert).

At the same time, Hélène (the serpentine Maria Casarés) is breaking up with her longtime lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), and, feeling jilted by him, concocts an elaborate plot for revenge. Contacting Agnès and her mother, Hélène offers to take over their debts, move them out of the brothel they call home, and set them up in a sleek, modern apartment, with no strings attached. We discover too late Hélène’s true motives; she is doing all of this so that Jean will ‘accidentally’ meet Agnès, fall in love with her, marry her, and then become the subject of public ridicule because of Agnès’s past. All of this goes off with clockwork precision, but Jean, when confronted with the monstrousness of Hélène’s treachery, shakes off his bourgeois prudishness, embraces Agnès despite her fall from grace, and the film ends on a note of hope and Bressonian redemption. This film never fails to stun me with its sheer, vibrant beauty and psychological insight; I return to it again and again, and it never disappoints.”

I wrote an essay on the film in Senses of Cinema 46; you can read it here.

Les Anges du péché

Friday, June 1st, 2012

You can see some scenes from Les Anges du péché by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

Here’s a brilliant essay from the web journal Senses of Cinema by Erik Ulman on the film; you can read it by clicking on this link.

Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d’un rêveur)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a clip from Four Nights of A Dreamer.

Robert Bresson spent his life making gorgeous, transcendent films, but Four Nights of A Dreamer (1971) may be his single most stunningly beautiful work.

As M.C. Zenner notes in Senses of Cinema, “To look at, Quatre Nuits might have been released yesterday. Little in its matter and nothing in its manner has dated: so authentic is the reek of its present and so close to us does its ambience still seem, as a testament to the fidelity with which Bresson pointed, rolled, and selected. ‘Retouch some real with some real,’ commands the only repeated note in his Notes on the Cinematographer.

So true is this, that it’s quite hard to believe, as we view, in the antiquity of the generation to which Jacques and Marthe belong. The children of the ‘children of Marx and Coca Cola,’ raised on the video-games that continue its myths, may find it just as hard. They are well within living memory, the last two summers of that affluent, easy time on whose dusky embankments conspiracy-theories enjoyed such efflorescence, and to which the subsequent oil-crisis, inflation, mass -unemployment, the terrorist explosion, all form such an impassable barrier.

The landscaped garden of gestarbeiten, growth, Coca-Cola label designs, the ongoing circus of Viet-Nam, top-forty charts, and low Italian sports-car curves, has dried and died and sunk under new layers — of discarded key-cards, condoms, needles, or lives. It’s as dead as some of its exemplars and premature victims. And if its ghosts can still walk, they can’t bite.”

Sadly, this gorgeous film isn’t available on DVD legally, and circulates only in a terrible bootleg; it’s a shame, because nearly all of Bresson’s work, from his earliest films to his last, has now had a DVD release, but somehow, Four Nights has slipped through the cracks. Let’s hope this remarkable, ineffably romantic film soon gets a legitimate release.

Robert Bresson on Pickpocket (1959)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This 1959 French television interview with Robert Bresson on his then-just-released masterpiece  Pickpocket is interesting for a number of reasons.

Compare this to his interview on L’Argent, made in 1983, roughly a quarter of a century later. Here, Bresson is relaxed, basking in the glow of admiration his film has justifiably received, but also in the fact that the new critics of the period at the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma have singled out Bresson as one of the few “old school” directors worthy of continued critical attention, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville and a few others.

Bresson here is at the top of his game, and he knows it; the questions are cold, hard, almost prosecutorial, but Bresson is more than up to the task of responding. He is beyond attacks now, consecrated by the New Wave as one of the few filmmakers that matter. The interviewers take his work seriously, and their roles as critics seriously, in sharp contrast to the “happy talk” interviews that predominate today, when someone comes on television to “plug” their latest film.

Bresson here has nothing to prove, and he knows that no one will contradict him; his reputation and his work speak for themselves, but more — the surrounding culture also respects his work, and he is entirely in tune with the cinema of his era. By 1983, cinema has changed so much that it’s mostly escapist genre fare, something that Bresson deplores; in 1984, François Truffaut, the leader of the Cahiers critics, and later a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, will die, and the world of cinema he championed will begin to expire with him.

But for now, all is in order, and the right priorities are being addressed; listen to what Bresson has to say about film, his work, and his guiding precepts.

Robert Bresson: “Art Cannot Exist Without Surprise”

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Here’s a rare interview with director Robert Bresson for French television on the making of his last film, L’Argent (Money, 1983).

Bresson discusses his unique manner of working — no sets, all real locations, no professional actors, making up a deatiled storyboard and then essentially throwing it away, having no idea from one to day to the next where he’ll be shooting, or even why, and embracing the element of chance and spontaneity in all his films — with candor and a certain brusqueness that is probably a result of age, his general contempt for the publicity process, and a sense that time is running out.

As the interviewer notes in his opening comments, even when the film was screened at Cannes, Bresson consented to a press conference that lasted only a few minutes, before walking out; earlier in his career, in an interview on his masterful film Pickpocket, Bresson seems much more relaxed and less combative. But now, in the early 1980s, he sees the values of cinema rapidly shifting towards cookie cutter entertainment of an utterly predictacle nature, and he isn’t pleased by the prospect, as he makes perfectly clear.

This is fascinating viewing, and a rare look at someone who is a genuine artist of the cinema, who made his films entirely according to his own idiosyncratic rules, which is what makes them so timeless, and also, as Bresson points out, so perishable.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on “A Man Escaped”

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

In issue 62 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a compelling essay on Robert Bresson’s brilliant drama of survival in prison, A Man Escaped, noting that; “For Bresson, the images are everything, along with the unerring precision with which they are edited together to create a world that is hermetically sealed, and unsparingly distanced from the viewer. As always, Bresson’s camera movement is a model of economy and precision; in many instances, the camera lingers on an image for what seems an eternity, to accentuate the tedium and endless waiting of prison life. But what is perhaps most striking about A Man Escaped is that it manages to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable suspense despite the fact that the title gives the basic narrative arc of the film away; the title character of the film does indeed escape his imprisonment, but the means by which he accomplishes this are tortuous indeed.

Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who escaped from Fort Montlucin Lyonin 1943, during World War II, A Man Escaped tells the story of Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance who is imprisoned by the Nazis in Montluc prison after an unsuccessful escape attempt. The prison is a forbidding, inhuman structure; indeed, the opening shot of the film shows us a plaque memorialising the 7000 men who died within the prison’s walls during the war. Thus, the basic situation of the film is set up from the outset; for the next 99 minutes, we will be witnesses – in every sense of the word – to one man’s fight for survival against almost insurmountable odds. Fontaine is thrown into a prison cell, and almost immediately begins to strategise an escape plan, despite the enormous risks involved.  His plans are deliberate and methodical, but the risks are enormous.

Another prisoner, Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) tries his own escape attempt but fails, and the consequences are severe; a brutal beating and a death sentence. Despite the tedium and monotony of prison life, Fontaine continues in his methodical preparations for escape, only to be told at the last minute that he has been sentenced to death for his Resistance activities. Returned to his cell, Fontaine discovers he has a new companion, François Jost (Charles Le Clainche) a 16-year-old soldier who is supposedly sympathetic to the Nazis. Now Fontaine has a new problem; his escape is nearly imminent, and he has to decide whether to take Jost with him, or to kill him. At length, and after much deliberation, Fontaine decides to trust Jost with the details of his plan. The film ends with their successful escape over the rooftop of the prison, and the two men slip away silently into the night, as A Man Escaped comes to its predestined conclusion.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or at the image at the top of this page.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from Pickpocket.

“From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas, we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all: for, be it understood:
We left our country for our country’s good.”

—George Barrington, A History of New South Wales

This perfect film from Robert Bresson, one of the cinema’s greatest directors, is only 76 minutes long, and seems almost devoid of action, and yet it’s one of the most thrilling, and cerebral, of all “crime” films. Michel (non – professional Martin LaSalle) is a young man who lives in a garret, and supports himself through a life of petty crime on the smallest possible scale. At the same time, he feels himself to be a “superior” being, smarter and more valuable to society than any average person.

Michel idolizes the pickpocket George Barrington, a real life criminal who was known as “the prince of thieves,” and despite the efforts of his friends Jeanne (Marika Green) and Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), Michel persists in his marginal, self-destructive lifestyle, even going so far as to match wits with the Parisian police (in the person of an unnamed Chief Inspector, portrayed by Jean Pélégri).

But things really get serious when Michel falls in with a professional thief (brilliantly portrayed by stage magician and illusionist Kassagi, who also served as a technical consultant on the film), and embarks upon a life of crime in earnest. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before he gets caught – - -

To say anymore about this superb film would be to deprive the reader of the pleasure of experiencing it for her/himself; Bresson was one of the cinema’s foremost and most individual artists, who made only a few films. Each one is a deeply personal statement, designed both as philosophical inquiries into the human condition, and as absolutely unique examples of pure, sculptural, pared-down cinema.

Despite the rigorous visual style Bresson employs throughout all of his work, Pickpocket is still — somewhat paradoxically — deeply accessible to contemporary audiences — my students, for example, regularly single it out as one of their favorite films in my Introduction to Film History course.

It’s available on Criterion DVD in an immaculate transfer, and at 76 minutes, there’s really no reason why you can’t buy or rent a copy, pop it into the DVD player right now, and experience it for yourself. I’m sure there are streaming copies as well.

Here’s an excellent essay on the film by critic Gary Indiana.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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