Tuesday 6 June 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (14), France part 6 : Creator of Forms (i) Bresson - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues

Robert Bresson

Some other ‘creators of forms’ in modern French cinema include Godard, Duras, Varda, Marker, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.                      

“In a medium that has been primarily intuitive, individualized and humanistic,” the work of Robert Bresson (1901- 99)  “is anachronistically non-intuitive, impersonal, and iconographic” (Schrader 85). 

Bresson had been an inspiration for the nascent new wave in the early 50s with his breakthrough third feature, Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and three following films that, with Country Priest, form Bresson’s prison cycle although he was still well over a decade away from his radically affecting narrative, Au hasard Balthazar (1966).

After mixed critical receptions for his two theatrical debut features made during the Occupation, Bresson fully arrived when both the world of letters and the world of cinema enthusiastically accepted his version as writer-director for the proposed film of Georges Bernanos’s novel.  ‘Cahiers’ editor Andre Bazin’s finely wrought review of Bresson’s film was subsequently endorsed and pointedly directed at the mainstream tradition of quality by a young Truffaut in 1954 in his first major essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema.” Truffaut takes Diary up as a cause célèbre in which “the literary masterpiece was wrested from the overweening hands of these “professionals” and given over to a true man of the cinema.”

The special status of the adaptation adopted by the French press gave Bresson unusual scope to insist on his rigorous conception of the novel as a film, refusing the slightest compromise in taking on the tradition of its premier scenarists, allowing him to break with standard practice in overturning the notions of the “cinematic story” and the “primacy of the image.”

Whereas French quality cinema is architectural, public, clear, gaudy, and conventional, Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, on the contrary, is fluid, musical, interior, obscure, aesthetic, and idiosyncratic (Dudley Andrew 117).

Diary of a Country Priest

As he makes clear in his subsequently published ‘Notes on Cinematography’ (1975), Bresson was concerned to completely rethink the notions of the actor, the shot, and the sound track. Most important was his strategy of total discipline and control “put at the service of discovery, that is, at the service of the spontaneous revelations that grace the making of a work of art.” In contrast to conventional commercial practice Bresson warns himself in his notes “to be prepared for the unexpected and to bend with it so it can be incorporated into the living texture of the work.”

Let no classic and imperfect images draw attention to themselves; let no editing structure rationalise and clarify motivations; let not the actors think through their roles. Rather all should happen with the smooth unrolling of a natural gesture, but a gesture acquired after infinite, patient practice.  And may this gesture be prepared to seize whatever sparks of life or truth emerge from the encounter with the subject (ibid 119).

This tends to render standard film analysis irrelevant.  The success of Diary of a Country Priest, suggests Andrew, “is not as an allegory of spiritual experience but as direct exemplification of such experience.”

Bresson doesn’t argue for the presence of the supernatural in his film, nor does he demonstrate it as the logical result of his intrigue. It is simply there as an effect of the text, produced, critics seem to agree, by the accumulative method which couldn’t be further from conventional plotting.

Diary of a Country Priest

Country Priest 
is, Andrew concludes, “a meditation that forces us to revaluate experience” refusing conventional values, “concentrating on new facts and events, over-determining them until they form a spiritual economy.”

Bresson’s main body of work is identified by Kovács as the first to develop a radically minimalist form in modern cinema (141). He defines and re-defines his own path in his films in what builds into an investigation of the nature of cinematic narration. His first three films in the 50s are variations on the notion of written diary entries being transposed to voice-over commentary on the visualised action. In The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) the transcript of the trial provides a variant on this form of narration. In Une Femme Douce (1969) the voice of the husband recalls the history of their relationship as he keeps vigil by his wife’s body while in the following film, Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), the lead couple define themselves by relating their previous histories to each other.  

Adams Sitney notes that Bresson allows the tension between the continuity of written and spoken language and the fragmentation of shots in the search for meaning, to become, per se, an important thematic concern.  The narrators tell stories in search of that meaning for themselves (and thus the audience) which is finally rendered elusive through Bresson’s elliptical style. 


In his sixth feature film, Pickpocket (1959), Kovács considers that Bresson’s style with its unfailing unity of form and theme, reached its maturity. That is true if applied only to the prison cycle concerned with the theme of spiritual escape beginning with Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and culminating with The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962).  It can also be argued that early stylistic maturity is shared with the second film in the cycle, A Man Escaped (1956). However Dudley Andrew in his essay recognises that it was already there beyond doubt when Bresson “seized the chance” to take on the entrenched traditions of the “prettifiers and popularisers of literary classics” in the French cinema’s so-called tradition of quality. Just before his death in 1948 the author Bernanos had given a humiliating reception to the script of his novel by the well-established writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (La Symphony pastorale, Jeux interdits and many others).

Schrader makes the point that the premise of Bresson’s films has precedence in religious art in the “surface aesthetics” of the everyday. The details of location and insistence on live sound is “a stylisation that consists of elimination rather than addition or assimilation. This is based “not on a concern for ‘real life’, but from an opposition to the contrived, dramatic events which pass for real life in the movies“. Like Ozu he uses music only in what Schrader terms the “decisive action” in the narrative that ends in the “stasis” of the final image inviting meditation (89).


Bresson and Carl Dreyer are seen as the major predecessors, in the 50s, of modernism. Bresson introduced “a kind of minimalism based on extensive use of off-screen space that was a result of radically static composition” combined with a uniquely dispassionate acting style of his own devising, referring to the actors in his films as ‘models’. With the ‘model’ technique Bresson required them to do repeat takes multiple times for each scene until all semblance of performance was stripped away. Kovács’ fully includes spiritual style in the trajectory of modernist European cinema, 1950-80, most notably its spread into what he terms the “expressive minimalism’, for example, of Antonioni and some of Bergman in the 60s.

Bordwell writing in the 80s finds that only Bresson and Ozu had intuitively and consistently employed what he identifies as parametric narration (see para 4 above) in their films in which cinematic style - the repetition and development of technique - tends to become the dominant factor at the expense of other factors, even plot.  He and Kovacs in their analyses implicitly in effect leave the posing of meaning to André Bazin,  Amedee Ayfre, Susan Sontag, Paul Schrader et al. 

Sontag’s path-breaking essay on Bresson’s “Spiritual Style,” was first published in 1964 and is therefore  focused on the prison cycle. She placed Bresson’s then six films in the field of great reflective art in which “the form of the work […] is present in an emphatic way.” The intended effect on the viewer is an awareness of form causing extension (“elongation”) of emotional response providing  a state of ‘spiritual balance’ for what Bresson wants to say. Sontag identified his interest “in the forms of spiritual action - in the physics as it were, rather than in the psychology of souls,” the subject of Simone Weil’s book ‘Gravity and Grace’ from which Sontag quotes : “Grace fills empty space, but it can only enter where there is void to receive it, and it is grace itself that makes this void.” 

The wind blows where it will; it doesn’t matter once all is grace.  This phenomenology of salvation and grace in his films has been chronicled by the above named critics and by Bresson himself. Schrader notes he was a rarity among film-makers: he knew exactly what he did and why he did it” (85).

Au hasard Balthazar 

Beginning with Au hasard Balthazar  (1966) and Mouchette (1967) there is an increase in the arbitrariness of wilfully evil or morally ambiguous actions in comparison with the prison films with their binaries of confinement and freedom, free-will and predestination, religion and crime as a vocation with the real conflict individually interiorised. It had also seemed almost unimaginable that the images in Bresson’s films would be other than black and white, never more so than in Mouchette, until colour unexpectedly opens up the potential for further expressiveness in Une Femme Douce (1969) and the four films to follow.

In his final film, L’Argent/Money (1983), Bresson fully extended his minimalist style in terms of narrative, “visually mutilating” a scene by using medium close-ups whose composition is made unclear from the beginning of the shot sequence in combination with elliptical editing involving minimal framing in providing a tenuous continuity. This stylisation gives the impression of a series of still images much as in silent cinema where the means of creating continuity were much more restricted and supplemented by inter-titles (Kovacs 142-144).  As in The Devil Probably (1977) the form seems more implacably all-encompassing in its representation of materiality, the protagonists’ death described by Bresson as “the routing of the forces of evil”, the extension of grace more elusive or short lived in a world of dehumanising violence and corruption. Kovacs contents himself with only describing the form of Bresson’s ‘new minimalism’. No other major filmmaker has gone as far into formally raising unanswered moral questions about the nature of being in an increasingly hostile world while invoking spiritual mystery.


As Bresson made clear in interviews, he had no wish to win a wide audience if it meant having to adopt the prevailing norms of mainstream commercial filmmaking. “By forcing an active, deflected concentration on the spectator’s part, Bresson creates a sense of intensity that an ordinary film would invest entirely in the actions and expressions of conventional performances” (Kristin Thompson 312).


David Bordwell  Narration in the Fiction Film 1985                                                                            

Susan Sontag “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” essay in Partisan Review (1964) reprinted in Against Interpretation 1967                                                                                              

P Adams Sitney entry on Bresson in The International Dictionary of Directors  ed  C Lyon 1984 

 András Bálint Kovacs Screening Modernism  2007                                                                            

Kristin Thompson Breaking the Glass Armour 1988                                                                          

Dudley Andrew  essay on Diary of a Country Priest in Film in the Aura of Art  1984                        

Adrian Martin entry on L’Argent in 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die  2003 ed.                  

 Paul Schrader Transcendental Style in Film  2018 edition                                                                        

Dana Polan revisionist view of Bresson’s cinema in Au hasard Balthazar  Senses of Cinema 42



Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

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