Friday, September 26, 2014

Robert Bresson: History will never pass him by

Today is Robert Bresson's 113th birth anniversary. This is my tribute to a man who, once upon a time, reinvented every notion of cinema I had held to be indisputable truth. There are just some filmmakers history will never pass by. He is, without any doubt, chief among this set. A first among equals.

Robert Bresson was 98 when he died. By that time, within a career spanning 50 years, he had made 13 films. His last, L’argent, was made in 1983; his first, exactly 40 years before. Considered the definitive patron saint of the cinema, Bresson was nearly the most difficult. Within those 50 years, he changed very little. In his almost ascetic style and vision, and his constant spiritual probing, his parallels could only be found in Carl Theodore Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. But while both Dreyer and Bergman, time and time again, betrayed a tendency to “parade” theology and religion onscreen, Bresson used simple, universal themes – the suffering of a much abused donkey, the inward suffering of a village girl – to emphasize the transcendental feeling he so economically evoked in the audience. Very probably, he was the most unique filmmaker in the history of the medium since Griffith.

Bresson hailed from an inconsequential, if not altogether less heard of, childhood. After leaving school and college, he briefly turned to painting. That, coupled with his encounter with Catholicism, would prove to be the most influence on him later on. It was during the Second World War that he made his first film – Les Anges du Péché. Two years later he followed it up with Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne. In both he experimented with the conventional cinema he would, almost to the point of obsession, try to evade for the rest of his career. He began his crusade with Diary of a Country Priest in 1951, and from then on – A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, The Trial of Joan of Arc, Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, A Gentle Woman, Four Nights of a Dreamer, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably, and L’argent – his main preoccupation would remain the divorce of cinema from the theatre.

How did he achieve this? Firstly, in my view, with the narrative structure, and type of stories, that he employed in film after film. With the possible exception of Les Dames, none of his stories was based on a “chain-link” structure that called for intensity of plot and event over character. In Pickpocket, surely his purest masterpiece, the plot, though decidedly like clockwork, is superseded by an acute if not altogether incisive look at its anti-hero. The sequence of events which begins at a horserace and ends at a prison is handled so judiciously, so economically, that it is impossible at times to attribute to it any mark of the conventional dramatic structure. Certainly, the tension derives from the plot, but there are times when we doubt this as well. For Bresson the plot was not expendable, but justifiable only in its relation to his characters. This is why most of his films have such short lengths – Pickpocket runs for around 75 minutes, while The Trial, his shortest, runs for 65.

Second was his attitude to acting. In no other instance in the history of the medium did a director revolutionize the whole approach to acting as did Bresson. Sometimes – as with Pickpocket or L’argent – one is never sure as to whether the person playing a role onscreen is acting. In Pickpocket’s case it may well be because Martin LaSalle, who played the protagonist, was a relative unknown who had never taken part in a film before. Bresson called his actors “models” – a far less derogatory title than “instruments”, which was what Clouzot called his actors – largely owing to the stony, sphinx-like expression he would get them to maintain on their faces for the entire duration of the film.

Notorious for his technique, he would sometimes shoot up-to six or eight takes of a scene before he would be confident that his actors would perform without the least semblance of emotion registered on their faces, the kind of emotionless, un-theatrical acting only to be found in the cinema. It is no small wonder that, in Diary of a Country Priest, he retained, somewhat later to his chagrin, this very theatrical, emotion-ridden type of acting in many of his characters, excepting the chief player: a perfect juxtaposition between the Bresson to come (Claude Leydu, the man playing the priest, was his first “actor-model”) and, in the other characters whose emotions and rage issue in fits of pomposity, the Bresson past.

Third was his dedication and unswerving vision, which never kept him off his target. At one point – during Andre Malraux’s tenure at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in France – he was given free rein by the government, in the form of subsidies, to help experiment again and again. This, I believe, helped him tremendously, perhaps the finest example anywhere of state support aiding a true experimenter in the arts.

No wonder he was able to achieve such finesse of vision, such fidelity to vision, as he did. But this, of course, wasn’t all. Through the years Bresson’s films became rawer, and, with the advent of colour (A Gentle Woman was his first colour feature), he became even more austere. With Pickpocket and Au Hasard Balthazar, he shot original stories – but even as Mouchette, A Gentle Woman and Four Nights showed, he was not hesitant in filming novels. Dostoyevsky and George Bernanos were his two most sought after authors, perhaps the only authors who could provide Bresson with the kind of spiritual asceticism and brooding quality that abounded in his films.

His attitude to acting, and to the cinema, became most evident in The Trial, for the simple reason that it was his only feature whose story had been shot, as a masterpiece in its own right, before – by Dreyer in 1928. Bresson was not mincing of his criticism of Dreyer’s account of Joan’s trial: he even described its acting as “buffooneries”. For him Expressionism was a thing alien to the cinema, which was why, in his last film, his use of colour never, even in one point, becomes something to be admired for its own sake, but superbly highlights the tension pulsating from the protagonist’s search for escape from injustice – lush shades of green, red, and black all purveying his state of mind. All his views on the film medium were captured in one of the most respected film books of all time – Notes on the Cinematographer. The title itself caught the gist of it: films should be “cinematographic”, not theatrical.

The fourth, and perhaps the most important reason, was the wide esteem with which he was held. Like Hitchcock, Lubitsch and Ford, Bresson was widely recognized for his worth by the critical fraternity of his time. Unlike them, his films did not find much favour with the audience. His career coincided with the rise of the second largest film movement in history, after Italian neo-realism – the French New Wave, perhaps the most free-wheeling and lively thing to happen to the cinema since the coming of sound. Understandably enough, the critics on board the Cahiers du Cinéma, which would become the mouthpiece for the movement – Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer – adulators of what was termed “Pure Cinema”, regarded Bresson as their God, a purveyor of the type of cinema they most wanted on the national scene.

And Bresson, unlike some other venerated artists, reciprocated this deification. Like the Cahiers circle, he began voicing his criticism of what Truffaut would call the “Tradition of Quality”. Among this brand of filmmakers was Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose “literary” and slick Hollywood-type products were detested by the upcoming new directors. Gone was any praise for traditional, “scriptwriter’s” filmmakers like Billy Wilder. The new directors to whom prestige was accorded were all, to the Cahiers, more serious, though some of them – Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks – may not have been as consciously serious as were cut out to be.

The exception, of course, was Bresson, who would become, inadvertently, one of the more important theorists of the new cinema they were formulating. It is ironic that, judged against the very standard they were aiming at, the first few films of some of its own critics – Truffaut and Chabrol included – were nothing more than the conventional, “slick” Hollywood narratives they had all attempted to shy away from. The exception was Jean-Luc Godard.

These reasons, combined, gave Bresson the type of fame and renown few experimenters could aspire to. If ever an image of the artist as a solitary iconoclast, flanked by his Muses, alone in the process of creation, could be sustained, two filmmakers could have been used as examples – Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson. But while Resnais’ dazzling iconoclasm came out from an avant-garde approach to editing, Bresson’s status was largely derived from his persistent, almost hermit-like attitude to life. The spirituality so evident in his works is decidedly very Catholic: salvation and redemption are two themes that run constantly through all of them.

But it is not of the sort of chamber music austerity of some of Bergman’s films, or the Expressionistic cries of pain of Dreyer’s. If Through a Glass Darkly or, more pertinently, Winter Light, remains slightly contrived and preconceived in its spiritual aspects, it is because of a naked austerity that leaves little to make up for the thinness of plot that is the hallmark of these films. In Winter Light, surely Bergman’s most austere, the 90-minute, real-time journey of a small-town pastor on a Sunday decidedly sounds too preoccupied with the speech-and-word attitude to its religious undertones – words, however well intended and crafted they may be, cannot replicate the evocative spirituality of silence that can only be manifested cinematically.

Also central to Bresson’s distinction from these two filmmakers was his refusal to dabble in worldly themes. The Trial is probably the closest he ever got to a worldly theme. Even in Bergman’s best, we see an almost constricting use of words or images to highlight mundane subjects – the interplay between art and real life in Through a Glass Darkly, the fear of nuclear war in Winter Light, or the foreshadowing of war and chaos in The Silence. Dreyer too showed this quality from time to time – in Ordet, in Gertrud, and in Day of Wrath. Bresson, as we know, was most distrustful of either speech or action. His refusal to dabble in such themes, except possibly in relation to his characters, seems to me to have given him an endless opportunity to dabble instead in aspects that he considered to be more important in the art of filmmaking – acting included.

His lifelong goal, and the sheer determination that went with it, meant that his entire preoccupation with the mechanics of filmmaking was catered to one, narrow niche: the separation of cinema from the theatre. The only other director who devoted his entire career to the pursuit of a single aim was, I believe, Alfred Hitchcock. Bresson’s pursuit would appear, to discerning film lovers, more noble and artistic than Hitchcock’s at times callous compromises with the box-office. Hitchcock was never afraid of letting technique supersede content at times, while with Bresson the technique, though always present on the surface, never diminishes the scope of the story itself. Both, of course, were adulated by the Cahiers (Godard especially was lavish in his praise of Bresson, while Truffaut’s veneration of Hitchcock became, in the words of Satyajit Ray, one of the more “inscrutable facts of recent film history”).

Because he was more sparing of words than some of the greats of European cinema, and because his mise-en-scène was so composed (though not to the point of stylisation) with utmost austerity, it is difficult to understand the impact of his films without at least three or four viewings. This is not at all the case with, say, a film like Wild Strawberries, which though decidedly has many layers of meaning, is so composed in nearly every frame and shot that interpretation becomes easier to handle.

To understand this, let me give you an example from Diary of a Country Priest. A group of girls, holding hands and evidently up-to some mischief, moves away from the camera as it dollies backwards. The sound of a truck is heard, and the girls look at the passing contraption, and at the smoke emitted. This is not the only instance where vehicles are heard off-screen. Their very absence denotes an idea of a physical world untouched and avoided by the titular priest: yet the conscious viewer would miss this all-important facet to the story if all what he is interested in is what is plain and on-the-surface.

With Robert Bresson we lost cinema’s truest patron saint, a filmmaker who was not afraid of flouting convention if that served the purpose of his art. Few filmmakers ever sought a daring, raw divorce of film from the other art forms, notably the stage. Few filmmakers sought to conjoin spirituality with the cinema with as much success. And few filmmakers ever had their conception of the medium so recognized, and applauded, as did his. Godard once described his contribution to cinema as being akin to Mozart’s in music and Dostoyevsky’s in literature. No filmmaker can equal him. He was, and, even after his death, still remains, the most unique artist in the history of the film medium.