The Saturday Auteur

Robert Bresson: the minimalist filmmaker who despised the art of acting
Film+TV | 16 July 2022

Still, ‘Pickpocket’, 1959 by Robert Bresson

This article is part of The Saturday Auteur

Born into an upper-middle-class family in Bromont-Lamothe in 1901, Robert Bresson began his career as a painter before turning to cinema. Yet the artist’s brush would remain a guiding force and visual leitmotif, defining his cinematic style. He wanted to create something progressive and enduring, just like a painting, his work is uniquely static, creating moving still lifes. His passion for art, his Catholicism and personal experience as a war prisoner would become his main sources of inspiration that resulted in the nail-biting A Man Escapes (1956) and faith-led Diary of a Country Priest (1951).

Famous for his minimalistic austere aesthetic, Bresson evoked religious themes such as salvation and redemption amidst a sense of deep spirituality. One of Bresson’s greatest admirers Jean-Luc Godard once stated: “He is the French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”

The Trial of Joan of Arc by Robert Bresson, 1962

A milestone in french cinema, Bresson’s acclaimed 1962 film The Trial of Joan of Arc is an archetype of his work: bare, subtle and raw. Shot combining the style of romanticism and German expressionist paintings, angles capture the accused and accusers from below in a dramatic angle. Focussing on their faces, every flinch and eye movement matters – every tear, every nervous swallow is noticed. The Trial of Joan of Arc is a study in stripped back austere filmmaking akin to a documentary visualising history as plainly as possible in order not to bastardise the subject matter through excessive narrative.

Bresson never differed from this style, only employing unprofessional actors, believing that professionals would render a film absurd. To him, the narrative goals would be destroyed by the artificiality of acting, believing overstudied emotions are not the ones he wants to show. The results are compelling, ridding any kind of individuality to capture the style he desires.

Still, ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’ by Robert Bresson, 1962

A Gentle Woman by Robert Bresson, 1969

Based on Dostoyevsky’s A Gentle Creature, Bresson’s first film in colour is an enigma. Similar to François Ozon’s 5×2, the film begins with its tragic climax – Elle’s suicide. The plot then unfolds in a series of flashbacks told via her husband’s memories as he tries to make sense of what happened. A Gentle Woman is the personification of internalised emotions, guided by a man who incessantly courts her until they finally marry in spite of their differences. Elle’s reasons for her unhappiness seem obscure, drifting between resignation and bursts of anger while her husband is equally opaque in his actions. Although he does not mean any harm, his uncompromising and oppressive nature leaves him unable to notice her suffering.

The woman is painted as a timeless creature, she is a universal being removed from any possible restrictions of her time. The struggle between a dominant man and woman mirror that of a wounded animal, neglected and left to die. A Gentle Woman doesn’t explain or explore but it reveals a neglected personality like a festering wound ready to explode. 

Still, ‘A Gentle Woman’ by Robert Bresson, 1969

Pickpocket by Robert Bresson, 1959

Pickpocket tells the story of a young man who resolves to petty theft, betrays his friends and lives in a small shack without a proper lock. While financial gain isn’t his main aim, he has no other source of income. What slowly emerges is that theft is more than just a way to survive. Something else drives him, a desire for the thrill, a replacement for love or sex. Eventually, his two friends who are taking care of his dying mother instil a sense of decency and morality, leading him to abandon his callous ways and forcing him to open up to the people around him. The continual question is: could it be too late? 

Through a sequence soundtracked by classical music reminiscent of [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s work, in grand detail we witness the choreographed beauty of his tricks as hands unassumingly glide in and out of jackets, sleeves, pockets and handbags. By using classical music, Bresson heightens the crime to a holy ground, glorifying its achievement. Influencing Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Pickpocket can easily be mistaken for a gangster film but really, it’s a love story.

Still, ‘Pickpocket’ by Robert Bresson, 1959


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