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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