The Ascetic Aesthetics of Robert Bresson

The complete works of French cineaste Robert Bresson win an airing in a series commencing this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. A stubborn stylist of minimalist cinema, Bresson built his 13 features on the famous principle that less is more, forcing audiences to in-fer bodies from limbs, emotions from gazes, the whole from parts. But his work is also intensely physical: The late critic Richard Roud said of Bresson's Joan of Arc, "For the first time in film history, one feels that Joan was really burnt."

In the 1956 World War II-era film A Man Escaped, screening this Saturday and again on Dec. 11, François Leterrier plays a captured French officer named Fontaine who methodically plans his prison break with tools fashioned from spoons, a pencil, rope made out of torn blankets, and various other simple props. From the tiniest cracks in his door, Fontaine sees his way to a freedom both physical and spiritual.

Religious concerns loom large for Bresson, both here and in his other films, including the martyr-themed The Diary of a Country Priest (1950, also screening Saturday), and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, screening Sunday). Simple actions take on great significance: Beaten in an early scene in A Man Escaped, Fontaine obdurately wears the same bloody shirt for the remainder of the movie. And he must resist the dual temptations of despair and foolhardiness, as personified respectively by two other prisoners. Though we usually see only the arms, guns, or backs of the Nazi officers, Fontaine observes his captors with a watchful, sidewise stare that recalls Buster Keaton (who Leterrier rather resembles) or a mistrustful child.

Bresson's first two features (1943's Les Anges du Peche and 1945's Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne), screening Friday, are comparatively lusher, encompassing as they do the pleasures of sin as well as virtue's thinner rewards. Bresson's later films abandon the spiritual transcendence of the earlier works in favor of the bleak landscapes of Mouchette (1966) and Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), screening next weekend, in which his martyrs are a child and a donkey, respectively. His last films, which will play in December along with repeats of earlier programs, trace a spiral into the angry nihilism of The Devil Probably (1977) and L'Argent (1982) -- although in a filmed interview Bresson tells his interlocutors that they're "confusing pessimism with lucidity."

This interview is part of an interesting Dutch documentary, The Way to Bresson (1983, screening Dec. 5), which examines how Bresson's ascetic aesthetic transformed itself into movies that combine (to quote Bresson himself) "beauty and lucidity." Amusingly, a good deal of the documentary is spent watching filmmakers Jurrien Rood and Leo de Boer trying to reach their hero on the phone, or observing Bresson's almost open pride at the boos he receives onstage at the Cannes Film Festival. Bresson was not only an elegant filmaker, he wore his tailored hair shirts with truly soulful elan.

-- Gregg Rickman

Robert Bresson's films begin screening Friday, Nov. 27, at the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College), Berkeley. Admission is $6, $1.50; call (510) 642-1124. See Reps Etc., Page 78, for a complete schedule.

 
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