On December 20, 1999, I was watching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), not realizing that the film-maker had died a couple of days beforehand, and I was having a fairly studied response to the film (having seen it twice before in recent times), when all of a sudden the narrative cracked … and I jumped. It occurred about 20 minutes before the film’s end. Our anti-hero Michel leaves town, goes overseas for two years. But it isn’t this action that startled me. It was his voice-over in response to his friend Jeanne when, before he leaves, she talks to him about the act of leaving, an act simply not in his head: “I never realized I could do that.” That “never realized” is the key: a character can suddenly turn, and not just once, before reaching his/her destiny. And the turns are unexpected. But oh so right.

* * *

The instant that I was informed that Bresson had died, I froze. I had been anticipating his death for years, of course, due to his age (there’s still some conjecture over whether he was born in 1907 or 1901 – whatever, he was damn old), but it still stunned me. Death, of course, is such a significant part of his films. It’s the last turn a soul can make. And so this was Bresson himself’s last turn, a full 16 years after his last film. In his films, death is an index of life. In his death, I felt … his endeavors, his results, his effects.

* * *

Does any director utilize narrative ellipsis as deftly as Bresson? Foreign audiences (i.e. those foreign to Bresson’s work) caricature him as being too slow, too boring, too flat. In reality, Bresson’s films are heightened, stylized, and dramatic to the point where death (or some other major release) is the perfectly natural conclusion. There are more narrative events, incidents, toings and froings and ups and downs, in films such as Pickpocket or Mouchette (1967) or L’Argent (1983) than in the majority of films made. And more feeling. More full-blooded, heartfelt, overpowering emotion. Bresson’s films purge the emotions.

* * *

One notices something when it is no longer there. One feels the sun’s warm rays best when one steps into them. – This experiential theory based on the principle of contrast is ultimately limited, but it serves one well. Bresson’s characters – whether Michel, Mouchette, the donkey Balthazar, Yvon – are agents that pass through life in a full, rich and bumpy way. They are free agents, in the sense that they are free to live (and die), and they are also open agents – because they as characters are so crystalline, and so tied to the movements of fate, spectator “identification” with them is so easy. And so hard. Once you can transpose yourself and your feelings into these receptacles, however, a world of emotion opens up.

* * *

In his Notes on the Cinematographer (Quartet, London, 1986), Bresson stresses that his films’ components in themselves (shots, movements, etc.) are inefficacious, that it’s always a film’s totality that produces the meaning. The ellipses? – The stuff that seeps through the cracks in the narrative is golden. As a viewer, to suddenly be confronted by a new event or problem, without the linear line or gradual build-up to it presented also, means to be lost at sea momentarily, and you have to quickly assimilate that event. And you assimilate it by putting yourself in the character’s soul, and feeling the full force of that new event, feeling it afresh, in its essence. Bresson presents such (turns of) events as if they were happening to you – what a trick!

* * *

After he made his last film, Bresson involved himself with photography, and some of this work was exhibited. Also, his connection to painting is well known. His films have a remarkable still quality, but it is not an experimental still quality à la Akerman or Warhol, or a ghostly still quality à la Mizoguchi – his stillness is sharp, angular, dynamic (increasingly so in the later films). A cut in Bresson is not as jarring as, say, a cut in Godard, but it is certainly surprising. Bresson likes to cut to the money shot: in Pickpocket, the first instant we see Michel is with him in pickpocketing stance; in Mouchette, the unexpected opening shot is the mother’s lament (as if Mouchette had already died); in Lancelot du Lac (1974), there are all those sudden shots of riderless horses (such an index of “absence” it’s almost comic). This is a well known theory of art: the less that is there, the more the viewer has to do.

* * *

Life gets passed from hand to hand, a movement that is dizzyingly multifarious in Bresson. Just as the donkey is the main “character” in Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966), L’Argent opens with a shot of an ATM, and it is the counterfeit notes that go from hand to hand, signifying “life” (or its opposite). Bresson is a master when it comes to peripherals – every character and look, every location and time, resonate with life. This is where Quatre Nuits D’Un Rêveur (1971) comes to life, in the detailing of Jacques’ very much “everyday” life. Bresson is saying: look around you, there are a million things in life, one of them could be your fate; the hand knocking on your door could be the hand of grace, or the hand of … the devil, probably.

* * *

Our lives are like Bresson films. The phone rings – it could be anyone. Our mother dies. We fall ill. Our lover leaves us. And we feel it each time like we’ve just cut to that shot. When we converse with someone, every mention of a narrative incident or movement produces a small shock in us – something happening to someone is the essence of life, and we recognize it as momentous, mysterious, banal. To do (or be done to) is to be.

* * *

It is only in this sense that Bresson is a “realist” – his films are far from the work of de Sica, Loach, Cassavetes. Bresson films the inner workings of reality, of personal human existence, through the outer machinations of the world. Mouchette opens with the mother’s pain (of childbirth, of motherhood) and closes with Mouchette’s immersion into water, Mouchette going from outer terror to inner haven. In that moment of death, we feel her release, but we also feel her life, her sad, lonely, difficult life. Inexplicably, the feeling Bresson leaves us with is that life is beautiful, magnificent, joyous. I have no doubt that Bresson is the ultimate “feel-good” director.

* * *

I believe that Bresson, married twice, had no children, and there are so few babies born (or around) in his films – Jeanne’s in Pickpocket the one significant exception. Bresson was clearly fascinated by death, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he dearly wanted to film Genesis, The Bible‘s opening book. He was actually very religious. It’s impossible to work him out using conventional ideas/readings of “religion”, “birth”, “death”, “redemption”, etc. His films are beautiful but also full of suffering. His road was strange, twisted, and he found … RIP RB.

About The Author

Bill Mousoulis is the founding editor of Senses of Cinema. He is an Australian independent filmmaker now based in Europe.