Austere Perfectionism: The Films of Robert Bresson

January 19, 2012 – February 25, 2012
Pacific Film Archive

“It is with something clean and precise that you will force the attention of inattentive eyes and ears.”—Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography

With his first feature—made after he had been a prisoner of war—Robert Bresson (1901–99) was recognized as an original and authentic voice in cinema. Over the years, this authenticity would rework itself in film after rigorous film, gaining him awe and more than a few imitators, but never a true heir. Even now, the power of Bresson’s style—austere, yet deeply affecting; controlled, yet replete with compassion, almost unbearably so—remains one of cinema’s pure mysteries.
As far as I could,” Bresson commented, “I have eliminated anything which might distract from the interior drama. For me, the cinema is an exploration within. Within the mind, the camera can grasp anything.” Preferring to use untrained actors whose natural impassivity he harnesses to his own ends, the epiphany of Bresson’s improvised technique is Pickpocket, which, in a watershed year in French cinema, 1959, was merely the most contemporary film ever made. Similarly, while Bresson frequently bases his films on literature—on Dostoyevsky, on Bernanos—he distills the original, paradoxically remaining true to both écriture and image. “The images must exclude the idea of image,” he wrote. The part speaks for the whole, and absence often signifies a larger presence.

The Catholic Bresson evinces an unsparing eye toward French society—in the countryside, in the city, in convent or prison—and unsparing compassion for its victims. But while other directors are concerned with sentiment, Bresson’s concern is at once more real and more otherworldly: his subject is suffering and redemption. For his many admirers, his films attain the grace his characters seek.

The Full Program

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