My Problem with Bresson
Robert Bresson is one of the most important names in cinema history. He is as fundamental to the craft as names like Murnau and Eisenstein despite emerging years later. He is often considered as one of the best to have ever done it, yet I can’t shake a disconnect when I watch his films. I appreciate the craft, but I have yet to fall in love with any of the 4 works I’ve seen from him. They’re all good films, with one I consider great, but they feel like lost potential once I finish them, and after recently seeing Pickpocket, I think I’ve nailed why.
Bresson is the pioneer of a type of cinema called minimalist film. Minimalist film lives up to its namesake with very tight cinematography, sparse scoring, and very scaled back narratives. The presentation is what sells these simple stories, it aims to break down the film into the basic human elements and what the camera shows. In stark contrast to the Hollywood films of the 50’s and the Neorealism of Italy, Bresson’s minimalism emerged as a remarkably different cinematic language. Fundamentals are what dictate minimalist films, and within those fundamentals the audience is invited to reflect upon their own reality. This approach was revolutionary and continues to influence the modern cinematic landscape. Films like Jeanne Dielman, Sátántangó, and the works of Antonioni owe a lot of their style to Bresson and his minimalism. Yet, it’s Bresson’s revolutionary style that I feel gets in the way of his films.
Bresson’s minimalism is as minimalist as you can get. Films like L’Argent and A Man Escaped are almost claustrophobic in their minimalism. This style is hypnotizing to watch unfold, employing cuts and closeups to create action through only filmic technique. It transcends style and becomes the essence of the film, beyond narrative and acting. Bresson himself said he doesn’t direct actors, he directs himself, and that shows. However, in making the presentation and thematic essence one entity, Bresson’s films fail to emotionally engage with their audience.
Emotion within minimalism is different than in other films. Bresson’s films will never have an emotional climax like a Douglas Sirk melodrama, nor does it need to have one. Emotional engagement is not defined by strictly visceral emotional outbursts and connections. Emotional engagement is the reason why I’m watching the movie for a deeper reason. Formal attributes are imperative to this and can often be the driving factor behind that. Wes Anderson’s remarkably idiosyncratic style elicits emotion by using visual wonders and unique verbosity in its characters the hook the audience into its world. David Lynch’s style engages emotion by appealing to the audience’s fear of the unknown and fascination with the subconscious. Bresson’s style, while formally unique, fails to engage emotionally. Its style is the emotional engagement, and in turn creates a vague wash of audience attachment.
Bresson’s characters and narratives take a backseat to a style that aims to formally emphasize actions and minutiae. It almost returns to the cinema of attractions model that film followed at the turn of the 20th century. It aims to use the camera to unlock things the naked eye tends to miss, and it accomplishes this in spades. Watching action in a Bresson film is experiencing life through a completely alien medium, and it’s incredible. But over the course of a narrative feature, that spectacle loses its impact. It doesn’t reinforce any theme because the theme is the formal attributes. It’s an ouroboros of a viewing experience where the style chases a theme that ultimately relies far too much on the style. Themes exist, but not substantially, opting to instead be presented vaguely to let the audience form their own ideas in it. The ensuing viewing experience is frustrating as the audience attempts to uncover themes buried in an overbearing style that won’t budge.
In all my Bressons, only Au Hasard Balthazar has intrigued me all the way through. The film’s focus on the donkey worked in tandem with the style and made the themes of human cruelty far more compelling. The ending scene felt like a culmination of Bresson’s minimalist style that served a purpose beyond experimentation with the camera. I cared about the donkey and Bresson’s style made me. The narrative was simple yes, but it worked. His other films are still good, but not quite as impactful as Balthazar.
When it comes down to it, I would say Bresson hasn’t aged as well as his minimalist cinema contemporaries like Ozu or Tarr. Bresson presents very undefined yet simple themes and implores the audience to use his style as a vessel to explore it. However, with themes so blurry and a style so prescient, the emotional experience becomes muddled. This style is still revolutionary and compelling, but his archaic approach to thematic storytelling has fallen to the wayside. It’s visual poetry, but it’s hard to discern what’s between the lines. Perhaps Bresson warrants repeat viewings, but his films are so cold in their minimalism, they hardly ever feel like experiences wort revisiting.
Robert Bresson will always remain one of the most important and distinct cinematic voices of all time. He was a brilliant filmmaker, and anyone interested in cinema as an art form should be well-acquainted with his works. While I will always recognize his brilliance, his films simply don’t speak to me like many others. When it comes to the arthouse greats, Bresson will simply be one I admire from a distance.