Obituary: Robert Bresson

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BEFORE BECOMING a film-maker - or cinematographer, as he preferred to describe himself - Robert Bresson had been a painter. "Painting taught me to make not beautiful images," he once remarked, "but necessary ones." What is implied by that statement is, of course, that any consciously assumed endeavour on the artist's part to apprehend "beauty" as an entity in itself, beauty disconnected not only from meaning but from the numerous other narrative, stylistic and formal parameters by which a work of art is articulated, cannot result in anything but empty, non-functional prettification.

For a motivated spectator Bresson's films are actually among the most beautiful in the history of the cinema, but it would be difficult to extract from any of them what is conventionally regarded as "a beautiful shot", with the slight hint of postcard pictorialism that the phrase conveys. The individual shot, for Bresson, represented not a cynosure but a decoy, not a spectacle but a unit. "Film can be a true art," he declared, "because in it the author takes fragments of reality and arranges them in such a way that their juxtaposition transforms them . . . Each shot is like a word, meaning nothing by itself . . . it is lent meaning by its context."

As was the case with certain great 20th-century artists, but with a mere handful of film directors, creation was for Bresson primarily a process of excision, of cutting away, of ellipsis and synecdoche. What is the point of complacently showing the whole of an image, he would argue, when the part could invest the same image with a far more intense mystery and rigour? Hence the extraordinary number of shots in his films of parts of things - a hand suggesting a character, a doorknob suggesting an apartment - and the importance of what is termed off-screen space, with many of their most significant events unfolding just beyond the frame of the screen. In Bresson's conception of cinema the act of editing meant not merely a traditional cutting between shots but cutting within them: he also "edited", or dissected, bodies, objects, buildings, and so on.

But if "minimalism" is a handy critical commonplace for defining so radical an attitude to filmic representation, it scarcely does justice to the unflagging invention with which, from film to film, the director would communicate the meaning of a scene through a brief flurry of guillotine-sharp images so incisively edited together that they seemed to vibrate like sounds. In Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974), the dissolution of the Arthurian idyll is condensed into a single shot of rusty breastplates heaped up together like a pile of old iron. In his last film, L'Argent (1984), the violence of a prison riot is encapsulated in the mysteriously charged image of a spoon rebounding on a flagstone floor. And much of Pickpocket (1959) is filmed at what might be considered hand-level, so that the legerdemain of casual theft is transformed into an intimate, obscurely erotic contact between thief and victim.

Yet, notwithstanding his reputation as a severe Jansenist ascetic, many of Bresson's films are notable for their set pieces, their morceaux de bravoure. One recalls the heartstopping exaltation of the moment in Un Condamne a mort s'est echappe (A Man Escaped, 1956) when the condemned prisoner at last breaks through to freedom and light; the immolation of Joan in Le Proces de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962), her charred remains just visible through the billowing smoke like a fizzled- out firework; and the death of the donkey Balthazar, the protagonist of Au hasard, Balthazar (1966), as it placidly expires amid a flock of grazing sheep to the not at all incongruous accompaniment of Monteverdi on the soundtrack.

Bresson's own life, kept a strictly guarded secret from journalists by the aloof, patrician and occasionally cantankerous film-maker, is for the student little more than an adjunct to his work. Born in the small town of Bromont-Lamothe in 1901, he first involved himself with the cinema by accepting a screenwriting assignment on a now forgotten film entitled C'etait un musicien. He subsequently collaborated on Rene Clair's Air pur (Fresh Air), but its shoot was interrupted by the Second World War and the project left uncompleted: intriguingly, its cast of characters consisted entirely of children.

Of his own first film - a comedy, Les Affaires publiques (Public Affairs), which he made in 1934 - it was long believed that no copy had survived. In 1987, however, the Cinematheque Francaise discovered in its archives the sole extant print. Though, for a director so little inclined to humour, its burlesque whimsy proved surprisingly effective, it bore scant relation to his mature work.

His first two features, masterpieces both, also belong to the prehistory, rather than the history, of his career. Les Anges du peche (Angels of the Streets, 1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Ladies of the Park, 1945) differed from the films which followed them by the fact that Bresson employed scripts commissioned from prestigious writers, respectively the Jeans Giraudoux and Cocteau, as well as professional actors. In his later films he used only non-professionals. "Acting," he said, "is for the theatre, which is a bastard art." And, imperiously, "Films can be made only by bypassing the will of those who appear in them, using not what they do but what they are."

It is, in effect, the performances in Bresson's films which most frequently tend to alienate spectators: "abstract", non-representative characterisations depending for their internal tension on the director's sometimes rather sadistic exploitation of le trac (or stage fright). Yet, expressionless and zombie-like as his performers may strike the casual eye, it is a curious fact that there exist, as with more traditionalist film-makers, great Bresson performances and a handful of relatively poor ones.

The first of his genuinely personal, "Bressonian" works was Le Journal d'un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), an acutely moving adaptation of the novel by Georges Bernanos filmed in 1951, when Bresson was already in his mid-forties. Thereafter, discounting those titles already cited, his filmography comprised Mouchette (1967), from another Bernanos novel about the irreversible course taken by an illiterate young peasant girl towards her self-destruction; Une femme douce (A Gentle Creature, 1969) and Quatre Nuits d'un reveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971), two wistful, relatively minor-key adaptations of novellas by Dostoevsky; and his penultimate film, Le Diable, probablement (The Devil, Probably, 1977), a stark, even brutal study of youthful alienation.

In a 40-year career Bresson made only 13 films. As there was no development in the conventional sense (L'Argent cannot really be considered an "advance" on Le Journal d'un cure de campagne), so there was absolutely no decline. His oeuvre, indeed, constitutes a uniquely seamless achievement without which the contemporary cinema would have been immeasurably diminished.

Gilbert Adair

Robert Bresson, film director: born Bromont-Lamothe, France 25 September 1901; married 1926 Leidia van der Zee (deceased), second Mylene van der Mersch; died Epernon, France 18 December 1999.