Robert Bresson in five steps

Don't be afraid of France's imposing film giant---TONY's here to help.

  • Anne Wiazemsky and Balthazar the donkey in Au Hasard, Balthazar


  • Florence Carrez in Robert Bresson's THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (1962). Courtesy...


  • Nadine Nortier in Robert Bresson's MOUCHETTE (1967). Courtesy of Film...

  • Martin Lasalle in Robert Bresson's PICKPOCKET (1959). Courtesy Film Forum/Janus...

  • Nicole Ladmiral andClaude Laydu in Robert Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST...

Anne Wiazemsky and Balthazar the donkey in Au Hasard, Balthazar


We film nerds speak of the work of Robert Bresson (1901--1999) as our greatest nourishment: a pure distillation of social estrangement, spiritual yearning and knockout craft. Actually, that sounds more like alcohol than bread—it's easy to get drunk on this stuff. But where to begin if you've never sipped? In unison with Film Forum's three-week celebration of Bresson's filmography, we offer this handy guide for the uninitiated—whom we envy, because they get to be awestruck for the first time.

Alone again
No other director devoted himself as rigorously, over an entire career, to the loneliness of the individual. Note: This isn't the mopey solipsism of today's rom-coms, but rather an often self-imposed isolation, bordering on the monastic. Michel, the antihero of Pickpocket (Jan 13, 14), attracts curious friends but abandons them at a fair to pursue criminal acts. And cinema's most heartbreaking portrait of reclusion comes with Bresson's towering Mouchette (Wed 11, Jan 12), about a rural adolescent girl's misfortunes.

Role models
How, then, to illuminate a character's interiority without resorting to a bunch of sad-sack speechifying? Famously, Bresson innovated a brilliant method of direction that stripped performances down to a minimum. His actors wouldn't be actors—they were models (his term), and a frequent on-set note he'd give to them was: "All face." Out of the quiet came some staggering work, much of it from nonprofessionals like the exquisite Florence Delay in The Trial of Joan of Arc (Tue 10). Even a donkey can be turned into a De Niro, given Bresson's patience and the aching material of Au Hasard Balthazar (Fri 6, Sat 7).

Sound and vision

To best showcase his loners and the models that embodied them, Bresson insisted on a strict separation of the aural from the visual, a uniquely subtractive kind of filmmaking. Why shoot action when a simple offscreen noise would do? Or why have words at all, if the euphoric music of Mozart could carry the scene? None of his movies better demonstrates this technique than the masterful prison drama A Man Escaped (beginning Jan 20 for a one-week run). In the darkness of our hero's cell, we become accustomed to the sounds of the guards' footfalls, to the scraping of tools against metal and, frustratingly, the engines of cars in the free world just outside.

Higher ground
All of Bresson's formidable craft was put to matters of the spiritual; a Catholic upbringing informed his nuanced, often dark perspective on redemption, ethics and soulful responsibility in the material world. Either literally, as with Angels of the Streets (Tue 10), his debut about a naive nun-in-training, or figuratively, in the economic moral free fall of cynical L'Argent (Jan 17--19), a god is always watching.

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The filmmaker's influence is huge, as seen in the formal simplicity of Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law or in Paul Schrader's seething screenplay for Taxi Driver, indebted, he's said, to Diary of a Country Priest (Jan 15, 16). The doorway is right before your eyes.

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf

"Bresson" runs at Film Forum from Fri 6 through Jan 26.

Click here for Film Forum's official schedule, showtimes and tickets