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Overview for Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson


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Also Known As: Died: December 18, 1999
Born: September 25, 1901 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: France Profession: Writer ... director screenwriter pianist painter


Bresson originally pursued a career as a painter but turned to film in the early 1930s, gaining his first experience as a script consultant on "C'etait un musicien" (1933), directed by Frederic Zelnick and Maurice Gleize. In between other, unexceptional assignments as a screenwriter, he made a medium-length film, the long-lost "Les Affaires publiques," in 1934. During WWII, Bresson was a prisoner of war from June 1940 to April 1941--an experience which profoundly marked his subsequent work in the cinema.

Bresson made a stunning feature debut with "Les Anges du peche" (1943), scripted by him and with dialogue by Jean Giraudoux. A melodramatic tale of a convent novice who sacrifices her life to save the soul of a murderer, it nevertheless defined the thematic territory of grace and redemption which Bresson would continue to explore. Like "Les Anges," "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" (1945) featured dramatic cinematography, atmospheric music and professional actors--all elements which Bresson would later shun in his quest to forge a purer cinematic art.

Bresson's next three films marked the development of his own personal, mature style. "Diary of a Country Priest" (1950) is an account, adapted from the 1936 novel by Georges Bernanos, of an awkward young priest who saves the souls of others while he himself is dying of stomach cancer. "A Man Escaped" (1956) is based on the real-life experiences of Andre Devigny, a French resistance fighter imprisoned by the Nazis. "Pickpocket" (1959) tells of a lonely young thief who finds redemption in love.

All three films are narrated in the first person and bear what are now known as the hallmarks of Bresson's work: a spare, abstract visual style which concentrates on objective details to create a sense of timelessness; natural sounds in place of mood-creating music; elliptical narrative structures which preclude suspense and invoke spiritual isolation; an absence of character psychology; and nonprofessional actors giving flat, expressionless "performances." ("What I am seeking is not so much expression by means of gesture, speech, mimicry, but expression by means of the rhythm and combination of images, by position, relation and number," Bresson explained.)

Perhaps the ultimate expression of Bresson's unique cinematic voice is "The Trial of Joan of Arc" (1962) which, with his films of the late 1950s, was much admired by the filmmakers of the New Wave. In the austere documenting of Joan's imprisonment and trial, physical objects--chains, stones, walls, windows--become metaphors for her spiritual isolation and sounds--the scratching of a pen during her hearing--contribute to the minimalist musicality of the experience.

In "Balthazar" and "Mouchette" (both 1966), a mule and a young girl, respectively, endure the indignities, cruelty and callousness of existence. Balthazar is exploited and mistreated by a series of owners before finding peace in a memorable death sequence, on a hillside surrounded by sheep. Mouchette drowns herself to escape the abuse and humiliation she suffers at the hands of her parents. (The film was Bresson's second to be adapted from the work of Bernanos.)

"Une Femme douce" (1969) tracks the failure of a marriage between an inquisitive, self-educated wife interested in the arts and archeology and a husband who values money and security. The wife takes her own life, marking the director's increasing concern with suicide; he went on to articulate the theme in such color films as "Four Nights of a Dreamer" (1971).

In "Lancelot du Lac" (1974), Bresson found his most fitting subject matter since "Joan of Arc." Lancelot and the Knights of King Arthur undertake a fruitless search for the Holy Grail in an age of chivalry defined by clumsy, episodic bloodshed, cumbersome armor and jealous in-fighting. At the film's conclusion Lancelot's horse, an arrow impaled in its neck, surveys the human carnage, as if recognizing a futility and horror to which the humans are blind.

Bresson's last masterpiece was "L'Argent" (1983). Chance events lead to the arrest of Yvon, an oil delivery man, for using counterfeit bills palmed off on him by a store clerk (perjury and a bribe protect the guilty). Now unemployable, Yvon commits a crime. While in jail his daughter dies, his wife abandons him and he unsuccessfuly attempts suicide. Upon release Yvon kills the family of an old lady who shelters him in a horrific ax-murder, for which Bresson refuses to provide a motivation.

No filmmaker has had a darker vision of man's inhumanity to man, nor has portrayed it with such consistent and remarkable style. In 1975, Bresson published "Notes on Cinematography," an apologia for his singular cinematic vision which argues that film is a blend of music and painting rather than--as traditionally understood--theater and photography.

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