The violence that opens the film will, of course, be mirrored in the end. It is portrayed in graphic detail, with the distance one might expect from Robert Bresson. It is austere, yes, and almost hilariously so: can a beheading, complete with a great spurt of too-red blood, be shown more matter-of-factly? The sequence is mechanical in its depiction: armored knights in a forest slay each other, and ride their steeds through the same forest. Corpses are strung up on trees, or burned, and churches ransacked. Bresson’s camera drives these faceless warriors again and again through the backdrop of their carnage. The repetitions seem to set up the inevitability dogging the film’s primary characters, who should be familiar to anyone acquainted with Arthurian lore. And the trees, which vertically stake the frame together—their tightness creating a cloistering effect for the figures within—will echo throughout the film in the reappearance of other lines, among which those aforementioned figures continually stare, as if entranced by the narrative they cannot help but dutifully enact. […]
Robert Bresson is a director who does not veer from the suffering a character must undertake at the cruelty of others. This is most prominent in The Trial of Joan of Arc, Mouchette, and Au Hasard Balthazar where we witness some being—be it person or animal—that is beaten under the brunt of some hostile society. Within all three films, each ends in dying or death. No one seems to have any empathy for the one suffering. Yet within Diary of a Country Priest, the ‘little priest’ as he is condescendingly referred to, undergoes very much the same. Unlike the pastor in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, the priest’s faith remains unwavering, as he desperately claims to need prayer like ‘oxygen in his blood.’
The priest, played by Claude Laydu, is somber, morose, and moves about quietly and helplessly. His illness leaves him physically weak. He only smiles once in the film, and that is when he is on a motorcycle. Roger Ebert notes that this is the moment that perhaps rekindles his childhood. Memories of his youth, when there must have been an earlier joy. He has chosen this vocation on purpose, but for what purpose is this? Has Christ abandoned him just as well, as he remains in this otherwise small, petty, country town? Meanwhile, the locals leave threatening notes ordering him to leave. […]
Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) is a study of human intricacy. With compulsive desperation, Michel (Martin LaSalle) is a Parisian loner who, living separately in a run-down flat, has developed a fixation on perfection. The stressful tricks he must perform to gain that wallet or purse seem not worth it, but for him they’ve become a substitute for intimacy. In fact, what he lacks in human intimacy he makes up for in manual dexterity. Unable to get close, even his ill mother he keeps at a distance. Is it humiliation? Shame? The only time we witness him approach anyone is when he employs a sleight of hand near a pocket or purse. On the metro, Michel nervously reads a newspaper in his attempt to pull a man’s wallet out from his jacket pocket. Bump ever so slightly and now the wallet is swallowed by the grey newspaper folds—gone forever. But Michel hesitates. Not because he lacks the addiction or is succumbing to second thoughts, but often his nerves overtake him. […]
There is an understated quality to Robert Bresson’s filmic technique that it is almost easy to miss. For one, he regularly refused to hire actors and rather preferred ‘everyday’ folks to play his roles. His intention was that after so many takes, the process would become so natural to the non-actor that rendering the role would be akin to breathing. I have watched Mouchette probably close to 10 times, and each time I notice subtleties that I did not before. His form is so natural that you almost can’t see it—it is that good. As compared to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, which is high artifice, with Bergman you know you are watching a film. Tarkovsky often makes you feel like you’re in a dream. But Robert Bresson makes you believe that you are a witness, and that life really does unfold this naturally and poetically.
Mouchette tells the tale of a poverty-stricken girl (played by Nadine Nortier) living in rural France. Her mother is dying. Her father is an alcoholic. She walks to school looking slovenly in her mismatched clogs. Her hair is greasy and unkempt—forced into loose pigtails. Her classmates are indifferent towards her and her teacher is cruel, as she shames the poor girl in front of the class for not singing. Mouchette begins crying. Her teacher doesn’t think to ask how she is doing. […]
Few films contain the technique employed by Robert Bresson within his film A Man Escaped. In fact, Roger Ebert called it ‘a lesson in the cinema’, noting much what Bresson chooses not to do. Here, we are immersed within a prison cell and inundated with detail. Time and shadow are immanent. How one looks at you when your meal arrives could mean dire consequences. As a prisoner, one is forced beneath the brunt of whatever guard. As the days pass into weeks, moments carry a cautionary silence. Any sudden cough feels like an explosion.
François Leterrier plays Fontaine, a French resistance fighter who has been jailed within a Nazi prison camp. His expressions carry minimal emotion but his hands remain busy. In the opening scene, we see him attempt to escape from a car, but not before feeling the right push and press of the door handle. His motion is meticulous, deliberate and subtle and there is no music to accompany it. Events play out as they might in real life, where after enough tragedy, one will begin to suffer more from apathy than fear. […]
Few historical figures have occupied as many works as that of Jeanne d’Arc. For someone having only lived 19 years, her death in 1431 is considered both iconic and cruel—that this young, illiterate peasant girl from a small French town could somehow be summoned by angelic voices to lead the French Army in the One Hundred Years War. Even as I write this, the events within such a deeply misogynistic society seem implausible—the story of legends.
And yet, there really was a Jeanne d’Arc and the events as we’ve been told really did happen. Perhaps this is why so many have attempted to relay her tale—each imbuing themselves into whatever image one imagines. Just as there are no known images of her—no paintings, no pictures—we are faced with the dilemma of constructing our own idea of Jeanne. Just who was she?
Robert Bresson admitted in a 1962 interview with Page Cinema that he’d always been drawn to do a film about her. “An attempt to make her present,” he said. “We are kidding ourselves if we see Jeanne as the little peasant girl of the legends. I think she was very elegant. Witnesses, people around at that time said this. I see her as a modern young girl,” he added. […]