Film Studies: Time will be kind to Bresson and to all his works

`Time always works for Bresson," wrote Francois Truffaut in 1956, as he tried to come to terms with A Man Escaped. He meant that if you look at the work again, or later, so its packed simplicity relaxes - like a bud opening, or a face smiling. He was making the sort of claim, that if not everyone gets it, or understands it - the great secret - yet, surely, a time will come. It's like saying that Robert Bresson was ahead of his time. It was also an admission that things said on his behalf were not sufficient. Truffaut regretted that, only a few months before, he had written: "Bresson's theories are always fascinating but they are so personal that they fit only him. The future existence of a `Bresson school' would shake even his most optimistic observers. A conception of cinema that is so theoretical, mathematical, musical, and above all ascetic could not give rise to a general insight."

Well, from 21 December, 1999, owing to the rearrangement of death, time will work a little differently for Bresson. In America, at five minutes' notice, I was asked to go on National Public Radio's All Things Considered to say why Bresson's death was noteworthy. I said he had been probably the greatest living film director until a few hours ago. Because if you're going on such a programme, you have to be strong - otherwise why mention Bresson's death on All Things Considered, when day after day his life and work went unnoticed? Why not rename the programme Some Things Mentioned?

But if you say he was the best, then the interviewer marvels, and says, "Well, that's high praise indeed," and maybe someone driving home in San Jose, CA or Duluth, MINN, hears it, and is troubled, and gets home, and asks the empty house, "Honey, have we ever heard of Robert Bresson?"

More or less, "we" haven't. Even if the name and the possibility linger for a few days, that "we" in us has got Christmas and the millennium to get through, and in California and Minnesota, the couple are going to be wondering about seeing American Beauty or The Talented Mr Ripley. After all, there's more designated entertainment in those movies - and they are good, both of them - more "general insight" if you're going to measure that in terms of a widespread, rueful understanding of where we are now and of how we have unspoken longings to be someone else. Anyone else even. Whereas, Robert Bresson was ... well, let me fill in a few of the old words: intense, spare, distilled, austere, musical, ascetic, spiritual, analytic.

And yet, I insist on recalling the first time I saw A Man Escaped, the first Bresson film I'd ever seen, after I'd been warned how difficult, how Bressonian it was. I saw the face of this man in the Nazi prison, as he listened to the clanging sounds of the jail and the whispers of other fearful inmates in their cells. I saw the gathering of the man's purpose, his soul, and the steady spooning efforts to dig away at incarceration. I saw the putting together of escape. I saw, within 102 minutes, the ordeal of torture, solitude and fear rendered null, with the man winging away, like an angel bound for heaven's reunion, on the flight of Mozart's music. And I realised that the austerity had been radiant, physical, exact, explanatory, like secret hands and a spoon picking away at dry mortar - so that the exultation was both spiritual, and a respect for the particularity of shots and cuts. But I noticed that A Man Escaped did not really translate the ritual in the French title - Un Condamne a Mort s'est Eschappe: A Man Condemned to Death is Escaped - and it was only then that I felt how far his liberty transcended the plight of the French Resistance in the early 1940s.

The news programmes, not even the ones that begin to entertain the significance of the death of Bresson, cannot convey that process of immersion. The producer of All Things Considered told me they'd probably go to a soundbite - the music from one of the films. And I said the music in Bresson only really worked if you had been waiting for it. But she said it worked on radio.

Bresson was 98. He did not give self-revealing interviews. He did not like actors who conveyed tidy meanings. He made only 13 films in his life, and you may be lucky enough to know a video store that has some of them. But the prints may have faded, and the subtitles will not be easy to read. In the end, or as a beginning, I can do no more than try to suggest that a great man died - a man about whom there is very little charm or charisma. So I recite the names - Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Les Anges du Peche, Le Journal d'un Cure de Campagne, Un Condamne ..., Pickpocket, Le Proces de Jeanne d'Arc, Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, Une Femme Douce, Quatre Nuits d'un Reveur, Lancelot du Lac, Le Diable Probablement, L'Argent.

He died so close to the end of all this stupid numbered fuss, it has to remind us that the power and lucidity of his work could promise a new century. Or does he now begin to recede, like Chardin, like Hopkins, like history, considered but not retained?

Answers to last week's Film Studies Quiz are published below

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing