It’s hard to write about him because everybody already has, and because words seem so inert and abject when up against his moving pictures and sounds. How’s this? If you can only see one Robert Bresson film, see all of them. And you can: As part of TIFF Cinematheque’s touring Bresson retrospective, the full baker’s dozen of his features will be available on big screens throughout North America for the next few months.
“Understated” is the most frequent of the grasping Netflix tags — also “cerebral” and “dark.” That gets close, in a manner apropos of a rental. But you don’t want to rent these. You need a safe space for clarity and urgent quietude (set against, say, church bells in the distance, or a train whistle, or a firing squad), which is what Bresson’s films provide and what they deserve. There are reasons people can be brought to tearful, quasi-religious fits just through whispers of scene-summarizing phrases, like, “Mouchette rolls down the grassy slope,” or, “The donkey rests in the field of sheep.” Watch the movies in a dark room full of strangers and you’ll see.
A few necessary biographical details: French, Catholic, originally a painter, briefly a prisoner of war, eventually a titan of the artform, permanently an enigma. How to parse the “transcendental style” ascribed to him by the guy who went on to write “Taxi Driver”? Filmmakers use Bresson to wake themselves up. Any auteur you admire likely has had to reckon with him, or is “still coming to terms,” as Scorsese put it. “Lapidary” was Tarkovsky’s word, and indeed Bresson seemed to go beyond directing into engraving. In Godard’s estimation, “Bresson is to French cinema what Mozart is to German music and Dostoyevsky is to Russian literature.” That probably would seem true even if Mozart and Dostoyevsky didn’t figure so indelibly into the master’s films.
Visit or revisit them if only to tap into that that burning purity of creative purpose. Discover how “A Man Escaped” obviates all your movie Stalags and Shawshanks and Alcatrazes. Recall how well “Au Hasard Balthazar,” the one with the donkey, works as a modern update of Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass,” or a pet-sitter selection test, or an antidote to our new on-screen saturation of animals digitally manipulated into grotesquely adorable monsters.
The care Bresson took not to anthropomorphize could be said to have carried over to people. It became his custom to have no use for actors, only “models.” His notes to self are forthright: “Radically suppress intentions in your models” just about sums it up. Yet also this: “Between them and me: telepathic exchanges, divination.” He certainly knew how to look at, and into, human faces. Teenagers, especially. And if the enclosures he built for them seem governed by a forcible placidity, with people periodically trampled by aesthetics, that must be par for the rigorous course of his pretense aversion — not to mention the correlation between suffering and saintliness. The ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, the pickpocket at the racetrack, the country priest at his diary, Joan of Arc at the stake — they all just seem so definitively in their elements.
Now, if “Four Nights of a Dreamer” seems at first like an ill-advised detour into the diaphanous moods and clothes of the early 1970s, bear in mind that it begins with a suicidal impulse and ends with inevitable romantic disappointment. If that whole Peugeot-and-Jordache thing going on in “L’Argent” feels a little weird, just remember it was the commercially corrupted early ’80s; soon enough a spiral of half-accidental criminality leads back into the familiar territory, culminating in a confession that’s all the more striking for its Bressonian blankness: “I just killed an entire family.”
“It is with something clean and precise,” Bresson wrote to himself, “that you will force the attention of inattentive eyes and ears.” He had that right, and hence his enduring gallery of stoic self-sacrificers — repeatedly degraded by their experiences yet forever exalted by his attention, and ours.