Robert Bresson
The Complete Works

March 8 to April 4, 2013


Peter Buchka wrote that "Bresson's films strengthen one's courage to bet on the actualization of man." This bet can now be placed again: From Les Anges du péché (1943) to L'Argent (1983), the Film Museum will screen all thirteen of the director's features, as well as eight documentaries about Bresson and his work. Several conversations with prominent guests such as Florence Delay, Michael Haneke, Isabelle Weingarten, and Dominique Sanda will further illuminate the filmmaker’s legacy from different perspectives.
Today, Robert Bresson (1901-1999) is widely acknowledged as one of the great masters of film history; his works belong to the cultural heritage of the 20th century. Does anyone still recall the radical rejection he so often received from the French cinema industry? Or the utopian glow surrounding every film he managed to wrest from the system? Resistance, commitment, palpability are some of the qualities which must always be newly emphasized within his work, as they tend to get buried under his general reputation as a spiritual and ascetic artist. In a certain sense, Bresson has the same "problem" as Hitchcock, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Straub-Huillet and Cassavetes: their names alone evoke an entire world of ideas and aesthetics; even people who have never seen one of his films generally know what "Bresson" is supposed to mean.
"Bresson": a cinema of narrative condensation, of highly reduced filmic means, and of non-professional actors which he called "models", culminating in the performance of a patient donkey named Balthazar (the unattainable ideal of perfect acting for many practitioners of this craft). Bresson’s films are often based on religious themes and motifs, thereby strengthening his “image” almost to the point of petrifaction. Which makes it even more important to read Bresson against the grain, just as he made his films: he was one of the most intellectually agile, inventive and sensual filmmakers of all time. Let’s keep in mind the image of a vigilant lounge lizard who discovered some of his stars in the nightclubs frequented by the Parisian intelligentsia; or the highly accomplished craftsman who counted John Glen, director of several Bond movies, among his most esteemed colleagues.
All this is not to say that the religious dimension in Bresson's work is an exaggerated figment of some esoteric imagination. Bresson fits quite well within a tradition of French Catholic Modernism, alongside such figures as Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos, or Olivier Messiaen. The latter, in particular, often seems like a soul mate of Bresson's – one only needs to listen to Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps after watching A Man Escapedto recognize the rebellious harmonies of both works...
Rebellion is a concept central to Bresson's cinema. Born in Bromont-Lomothe, he began working in film during one of the most politically charged and hardest fought moments of French history. Even his short film, Affaires publiques (1934), a bizarrely surreal farce, suggests a raging spirit unwilling to make peace with the popular machinations of organized politics. Les Anges du péché, produced during the German occupation of France, proves to be a perfectly calibrated and subversive parable about freedom and power, a theme that Bresson would soon shift into an entirely different and coolly melodramatic tone (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 1945 – one of Dominik Graf's favorite films of all time).
Bresson was a skeptic above all, and his films often held up a (distorted) mirror to their times. Thus, A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth (1956) is a slap in the face of the De Gaulle era and its representatives. The then-prevailing zeitgeist – of France as a land of resistance – is bitingly disavowed, while at the same time modesty is urged where there was only hubris. Two decades later, Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) and The Devil, Probably (1977) provide doubtful, even despairing commentary on the climate of (post-)1968, while Lancelot du Lac (1974), with its clanking armor and cripplingly slow yet bloody scenes of battle, still represents one of the most pointed allegories of the Vietnam War. Bresson was always “inconvenient”, and a naysayer before the Lord. His final masterpiece, L'Argent, dissected the violent structure of society, capitalist society in this case. At this point, Bresson had said everything he needed to say. He withdrew from the world, rarely received visitors, and died in Paris on December 18, 1999. And still the wind continues to blow.
The retrospective is presented with kind support from the Institut français (Paris) and the Institut français de Vienne. On opening night, March 8, Michael Haneke will speak about his close relationship with Bresson's cinema. Other guests include Isabelle Weingarten, who worked with Bresson both as an actress and as a set photographer, Florence Delay (“Jeanne d’Arc”), Marika Green ("Pickpocket") and Dominique Sanda ("Une femme douce").
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