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

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test