Robert Bresson Triple Bill

“I think in the whole world things are going very badly. People are becoming more materialist and cruel ... cruel by laziness, by indifference, egotism, because they only think about themselves and not at all about what is happening around them, so they let everything grow ugly and stupid. They are all interested in money only. Money is becoming their God. God doesn't exist for many. Money is becoming something you must live for." - ROBERT BRESSON

Prophetic words indeed from a director considered to be the patron saint of film and also regarded as one of the great movie directors. A devout Catholic, he endeavoured to use film as a deeply serious art-form through which people who viewed his films could feel "the presence of God in ordinary life". Before he became a director, he trained as a painter and was a POW during WWII, two experiences which also heavily influenced his body of work. In general, his films depict naturalistic characters (often played by non-professional actors) struggling with emotional crises with heavy spiritual themes. So, probably not suitable for date nights and children's parties, then. Bresson is revered for his style, his bravery in tackling such themes and the intensely personal nature he brings to his films. Naturally, all this makes him a critic's darling, but for the ordinary punter, all this suggests his films aren't exactly a barrel of laughs and probably a bit dull, so is there any value in catching up with them? Here's three to help you decide.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is like the anti-Black Beauty, telling the life-story of Balthazar the donkey as he moves between several owners. Non-hilarious events ensue. Not only do the various characters treat each other with disrespect and cruelty, they inflict suffering upon poor, innocent Balthazar as well. Notably, Balthazar is never anthropomorphised ; he is simply a donkey enduring a life he has no control over (the title means 'By Chance, Balthazar') and no attempt is made by Bresson to artificially manipulate us into realising its emotions. He is just a donkey. Obviously, though, there is much religious allegory and symbolism in Balthazar's Christ-like suffering and the film is often regarded as a highly spiritual film. However, another equally valid conclusion from the film would be that prayer and religion are utterly useless and ineffective in a cruel, material world, so you may not find it as spiritually uplifting as its reputation may suggest. Either way, it's beautifully photographed, cleverly framed and edited, and offers thought-provoking and challenging viewing. Naturally, the ending is, shall we say, a bit of a downer.

Presumably living under a perpetual cloud at this stage, Bresson returned a year later with Mouchette (1967), an even bleaker and more pessimistic study of loneliness and alienation. Instead of an animal, here we follow the miserable life of 14-year old Mouchette as she is abused and mistreated by family and neighbours in a rural French village. Again, it's cleverly photographed and framed, but largely free from sentiment or emotion. Like Balthazar, Mouchette has no real power over her circumstances and must simply endure them, meaning the film is really a rather distressing viewing experience. Unlike the thematically similar Au Hasard Bathazar, it is debatable whether this offers anything other than a bitter commentary on the cruel nature of humanity. Why would you watch it, then? Well, the achingly sad performance of Nadine Nortier as the tragic Mouchette is one of the great child performances in cinema and deserves to be seen. And for all its unhappy content, it's still less depressing than, say, Eastenders.

Fed up yet? Okay, let's lighten the load with A Man Escaped (1956), a gripping account of a daring true-life prison escape, which avoids many of the sensationalised clichés associated with such films. Instead we get a minimalist approach, with events depicted through a series of short, snappy scenes featuring little dialogue, which demonstrate that escaping from prison, far from being thrilling, actually involves a lot of monotonous, disciplined rituals. That doesn't make it any less suspenseful, though, as the realism means we become thoroughly invested in the escape attempt, with something as simple as the unscrewing of hinges becoming highly dramatic. Along with Francois Leterrier’s dignified central performance and eloquent narration, it's a composed, fascinating film and a great prison break movie. And, in contrast to the other films above, it won't leave you down in the dumps. If you see only one Bresson film, make it this.

So, there's a brief flavour of Bresson for you. I'm guessing he's mostly a glass-half-empty kinda guy. There's more where these came from, but putting them all in one post might just be too much doom and gloom for one day. Anyhow, his status in film history means you probably should catch up with him if you have any serious interest in movies. If you want more in-depth (and rather dry) analysis, you can find articles here and here. The three films above aren't exactly ones you'd sit down to on a Friday night with a six-pack (although it's possible they may drive you to the bottle in despair) and you might find them rather cold and flat. But, if you look around the world today and tend to agree deeply with Bresson's quote at the top of the page, then they might be just what you need for a bit of soul-searching perspective. At the very least, they'll make you thankful you're not an alienated 14 year-old girl or a put-upon donkey. Unless you are, in which case, best avoid Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar - they won't make you any happier. If you're in prison, on the other hand, A Man Escaped could prove very useful viewing indeed.

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