By: Trolley Freak
Just his early comedy short Public Affairs to see now before I’ve completed the set..
Robert Bresson (1901-99)
1. A Man Escaped (1956)
Though not my favourite prison escape film – that honour going to Becker’s Le Trou – Bresson’s meticulous account of a Frenchman’s incarceration and subsequent escape from a Lyon jail had an impact that surely influenced every film that followed in this most gripping of genres, whether it be Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz or Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Based on a true story, this absorbing film is a must-see.
2. L’argent (1983)
For the final film of his long but hardly prolific career Bresson turned to Tolstoy for inspiration to make a brilliant adaptation of The Forged Coupon. In telling the story of a young man whose life is turned upside down and eventually ruined when he unwittingly passes on forged bank notes, Bresson retained his familiar sparse style. Some director’s end their careers with a whimper. Bresson ended his with a bang.
3. Une Femme Douce (1969)
The last film Bresson made in the most productive decade of his career was the first he shot in colour. It was also the first of consecutive adaptations he made from short stories by Dostoyevsky. The beautiful Dominique Sanda plays the young wife who throws herself from the balcony of her apartment, leaving her husband to contemplate what could have made her commit such a final act. Bold, devastating and despairing.
4. Angels Of The Streets (1943)
In his astonishing first feature, Bresson established his unique style of Christian parable with this film about an order of Dominican nuns devoted to aiding women just out of prison. Centre stage is the character of Anne-Marie, an enthusiastic novice nun who makes it her mission to save an embittered woman, on the run after committing murder. Beautifully shot in gorgeous monochrome, this is one of Bresson’s finest.
5. Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne (1945)
Beware the wrath of a woman scorned… Casares is chilling in Bresson’s second film as she seeks revenge on her lover when he confesses that his infatuation with her has ended. Dialogue writer Cocteau was so impressed with her performance that he went on to cast her as Death in Orpheus five years later. As for Bresson, this was his last film using mainly professional actors before his style became more austere and personal.
6. Mouchette (1967)
Bresson’s trademark austerity and spare use of dialogue enhance this bleak story of a withdrawn teenage girl living in a rural village where she is an outcast at school and has to cope with a troubled family life. Misfortune and misery pile upon her shoulders when she becomes involved in a dispute between two villagers, leading to a quite devastating finale that is one of the most beautifully directed I’ve ever seen.
7. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Described by critic Roger Ebert as a ‘heartbreaking prayer’, Bresson’s complex contemporary parable chronicles the life of a donkey up until his death amidst a field of sheep during a smuggling expedition. We see him passed from owner to owner and witness several instances of human failing and corruption but Bresson, like Ozu before him, never judges his characters and leaves the audience to make up their own minds.
8. Diary Of A Country Priest (1951)
After a long six-year absence from the screen Bresson returned with one of his most acclaimed films. The story is of a sickly young priest, old beyond his years, who cycles around his wintry parish of Ambricourt in Northern France struggling to bring spiritual enlightenment to its godless inhabitants. Reputedly the favourite film of Tarkovsky, this austere and bleak work secured Bresson his international reputation.
9. Pickpocket (1959)
In the fifth of a brief career of just thirteen features, Bresson’s minimalist style is in evidence again in a story that has been said by some critics to be a modernised interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment. The pickpocket in question certainly commits several crimes and is eventually punished but there is also redemption of sorts as he comes to realise his love for the woman who stands by him after his arrest.
10. Four Nights Of A Dreamer (1971)
As a fan of Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche I was eager to see what Bresson could do with his adaptation of the same original material, Dostoyevsky’s White Nights. As I expected, Bresson’s no-frills approach contrasted wildly to Visconti’s opulent studio creation but that’s not to denigrate his achievement. His muted style works beautifully for this story about the fragile nature of love set in a dreamy nighttime Paris.
11. The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962)
Critical of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Bresson made his own version of the trial of the Maid of Orleans. Whereas Dreyer had the expressive face and haunting eyes of Falconetti to portray Joan, Bresson typically cast a non-professional. Both films are based on real court transcripts and are remarkable works. I have a slight preference for Dreyer’s version but Bresson’s stark imagery leaves a big impression.
12. Lancelot Du Lac (1974)
Anyone expecting a traditional version of the Arthurian legend may well be confused by Bresson’s interpretation but those familiar with his unique style won’t be disappointed. Returning from a fruitless search for the Grail depleted in numbers, the Knights fall out amongst themselves and Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere eventually leads to everyone’s downfall. Bleak, hypnotic, unconventional and spellbinding.
13. The Devil, Probably (1977)
At a time of life when most director’s would be resting on their laurels with their best work behind them, Bresson proved that he was still right at the top of his game with this powerful and dark work. The film is a passionate howl of rage against the destruction of all he holds sacred shown through the eyes of a despairing youth who comes to a shocking decision after failing to find a direction in his empty life.