Bresson, Robert

Bresson, Robert
born Sept. 25, 1901, Bromont-Lamonthe, Puy-de Dôme, France
died Dec. 18, 1999

French film director.

He worked as a painter and photographer before making his first film in 1934. His feature-length Les Anges du péché (1943) established his austere, intellectual style. Noted for intense psychological probing and the subordination of plot to visual imagery, he also directed The Diary of a Country Priest (1950), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), Balthazar (1966), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L'Argent (1983).

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▪ 2000

      French motion picture director (b. Sept. 25, 1901, Bromont-Lamothe, Puy-de-Dôme, France—d. Dec. 18, 1999, Droué-sur-Drouette, France), released only one short film and 13 features in his nearly 50 years as a filmmaker, but many of them were considered artistic masterpieces, and he was credited with having ignited the New Wave movement. He was a perfectionist, and in his view images, not words, were the best means of telling a story. His employment of simple, stark, dramatic images and use of untrained actors who were coached to deliver their lines in flat monotones served to emphasize his films' spiritual and psychological content. Bresson at first planned to be a painter, and he also became a talented photographer and an accomplished pianist, but his interests turned to filmmaking in the 1930s. He made his first film, the short comedy Les Affaires publiques, in 1934. Bresson was imprisoned by the Germans early in World War II, and after his release he established his reputation with his first full-length feature, Les Anges du péché (1943), with dialogue by Jean Giraudoux. His next motion picture, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), had dialogue by Jean Cocteau. Bresson's international reputation was secured with Le Journal d'un curé de campagne (1950; The Diary of a Country Priest), which won the Golden Lion award at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. This film marked his last use of professional actors. Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956; A Man Escaped), about a condemned Resistance fighter's escape from a Nazi prison camp, won Bresson the Cannes International Film Festival's best director award in 1957 and was perhaps his greatest popular success. In one of his most famous and highly regarded films, Pickpocket (1959), which was influenced by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, he imbued his subject with a sense of erotic obsession. Bresson followed that film with the emotionally intense Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1961; The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962); Au hasard, Balthazar (1966; Balthazar), which used a donkey's life to illustrate brutal human behaviour; Mouchette (1966), which showed the final two days of an unhappy young girl's life; and Une Femme douce (1969) and Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (1971; Four Nights of a Dreamer), two more Dostoyevsky-inspired stories. He then was able to make a film he had been planning for a number of years, Lancelot du Lac (1974; Lancelot of the Lake), his nonromantic retelling of the Arthurian legend. Perhaps his most controversial motion picture was Le Diable probablement (1977; The Devil Probably), a brutal study of the despair of a group of alienated intellectual youths. Bresson's final work—and the one he found most satisfying—was L'Argent (1983). Inspired by a story by Leo Tolstoy and illustrating how a small misdeed can lead to a much larger evil, it was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won its Grand Prix du Cinema de Création.

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▪ French director
born September 25, 1901, Bromont-Lamonthe, Puy-de Dôme, France
died December 18, 1999, Droué-sur-Drouette

      French writer-director who, despite his limited output, has been rightly celebrated as one of the cinema's few authentic geniuses.

      Details of Bresson's early years are sketchy, though it is known that he began painting in high school, where he excelled in languages and philosophy; that he attended Paris's Lycée Lakanal à Sceaux; and that he was married in 1926. He pursued a painting career until 1933, when he wrote his first screenplay. The following year he directed Affaires publiques, a satiric short subject. Unable to finance a follow-up film, he wrote scripts for other directors, including René Clair (Clair, René). Enlisting in the army at the outbreak of World War II, he was captured by the Germans in 1940 and held prisoner of war for more than a year. When he returned to Paris, the French film industry was in such disarray that he easily found work. In 1943 he directed his first feature, Les Anges du péché.

      As his career progressed, he developed a spare, minimalist style that was neither traditional nor nouvelle vague. “For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real (realism) things in an order that makes them effective,” he observed. “What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument—the camera—things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real.” Upon gaining full creative control over his work, he filmed entirely on location, using natural sounds rather than postproduction dubbing; his only concession to artifice was the occasional burst of classical music on the sound track. He also refused to work with professional actors, preferring amateurs whose faces or voices made them suitable for the roles they were playing. Though he painstakingly rehearsed his performers, orchestrating even the smallest gesture or speech inflection, what emerged was so fresh and spontaneous that it put many a Neorealist (Neorealism) drama to shame.

      His films were straightforwardly austere, with no fancy camera work, flashy crosscutting, or other attention-getting devices. In Un Condamme à mort s'est échappé (1956; A Man Escaped), based on the director's own wartime experiences, his no-frills approach was articulated by the opening title: “This story actually happened. I have set it down without embellishments.” Emulating his literary idols, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Dostoyevsky, Fyodor) and Georges Bernanos (Bernanos, Georges)—whose works inspired the director's 1950 masterpiece, Le Journal d'un curé de campagne (The Diary of a Country Priest)—Bresson often fashioned his narratives in the form of a diary or case history. The stories were told exclusively from the viewpoint of the protagonist, revealing only what the central character was experiencing at the moment. One of the most successful examples of this first-person technique was Au hasard Balthasar (1968), in which the “person” was a donkey. Bresson's own devout Catholicism was also woven into his works; several films, notably Pickpocket (1959) and Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1962; The Trial of Joan of Arc), abruptly concluded with the leading character quietly and stoically accepting the inevitability of fate.

      Never bothered by the lack of popular appeal in his films nor eager to outproduce his contemporaries, Bresson turned out a mere 13 features during his four-decade career. His films have earned dozens of industry and festival awards, and Bresson himself was a recipient of France's Legion of Honour.

Additional Reading
Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972).

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Universalium. 2010.

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