When asked why he had made so few films—thirteen features over a period of forty years—Robert Bresson invariably answered that it was hard to get funding for the sort of work he wanted to do. “Money,” he memorably said, “likes to know everything in advance.” Bresson, by contrast, wanted to know almost nothing in advance. He was drawn to the idea of “wonderful chances, those that act with precision.” “The things we bring off by chance—what power they have!” He wanted to surprise reality in its lair, and was willing to wait until reality wasn’t posing too carefully. We can see why the sources of money might be worried; and we may enjoy the wry joke lurking in the title of Bresson’s last film, released in 1983: L’Argent.
Bresson was born in 1901 and died in 1999. He made two early films with actors—Les Anges du Péché (1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)—and after that renounced the use of professionals altogether—although some of his nonactors did go on to have acting careers. Pauline Kael was not alone in thinking that Bresson’s next film, Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951), was “masterly,” and his reputation as the hero of a new French cinema was secured with Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956) and Pickpocket (1959). These last two are among Bresson’s most accomplished works by any standards, and although amazing films were still to come, there are question marks hanging over all of them. They include Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962), Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), and Lancelot du Lac (1974).
Bresson himself was the first to raise questions about what sort of films he made. Of Au hasard Balthazar, currently ranked sixteenth in Sight and Sound’s list of greatest films of all time, he said it “had some happy moments along with some imperfections.” He meant moments that worked well for him as pieces of film; we wouldn’t look to him for any happiness in his characters, and least of all in the central figure of this film, an unfortunate donkey whose life we follow from burden to burden and from beating to beating. A happy moment would occur for Bresson when a fragment of disregarded life was perfectly caught by the camera, when he succeeded in following his own instruction: “Make the objects look as if they want to be there.”
“Images and sounds like people who make acquaintance on a journey,” he wrote in Notes on the Cinematograph, “and afterwards cannot separate.” In an early interview, from 1943, he spoke of the advantages of “une maladresse supérieure” in making films, an awkwardness that is better than skill. For him a film “must be raw,” and no sooner has he described his Joan…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.