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Bresson – un hommage

a tribute to a great director

On 25 September 1901 a boy was born in the small village of Bromont-Lamothe who, in his life, would go on to become one of the most influential filmmakers of his time: Robert Bresson. It would be a long life, as he died almost a century later, in 1999. During all those many years, Bresson built a small body of work; his catalogue comprises only 13 films. This was not only due to the lack of commercial success, Bresson was also an idiosyncratic man, a man who kept his distance from the film industry, who wanted to control everything himself, who had strong artistic convictions that should never be called into question. His minimalist, existential films never broke through to the general public, his influence on other filmmakers is however all the greater. His views and cinematic approach to stories, themes and actors have earned him a prominent place in film history.

Bresson on acting
Undeniably his ideas on acting were as radical as they were thought-provoking. He believed that acting should be as natural as possible, stripped of all – in his eyes excessive – expression and emotion that he saw in traditional stage and film actors. This is why he preferred to work with non-professional actors. "Models" he called them. For many it was their first role, for some also their last, as for Nadine Nortier (Mouchette) and Antoine Monnier (Le diable probablement). In rehearsals, scenes had to be repeated dozens of times, until all theatricality had been eliminated. François Leterrier, the protagonist of his masterpiece Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, experienced this himself. After endless rehearsals, his performance was stripped to the bone, with a stunning result. Bresson believed that a character's inner life, and with it the complexity of human existence, could only be understood if all words and gestures had become automatic.

Of course, there was also criticism: his views were said not to lead to more realism and to be anti-expressive. Nevertheless, he had a big influence on the work of other directors, including Krzysztof Kieślowski, Lars von Trier and the brothers Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

With his approach, Bresson addressed the themes that were close to his heart. His Catholic background led him to reflect on religion and spirituality. He does so, for instance, in Au hasard Balthazar, in which he narrates the life of a donkey to examine the cycle of suffering and redemption. In Bresson's eyes, much of that suffering stemmed from materialistic greed, often leading to violence. We see this in Pickpocket, a Dostoyevskian story about a pickpocket who thinks he is entitled to the money of "dull" people, and in Une femme douce, a film about a woman who succumbs to her husband's jealousy and possessiveness. How greed leads to moral decay is perhaps most strongly presented in his very last film L'argent, in which a counterfeit money note sets in motion a disastrous train of events.

Un hommage
Bresson's films are austere in tone yet powerful in expression. Precisely his minimal use of images and sound invites us to look beyond what is visible on the surface; behind the mundane a deeper meaning is hidden. To illustrate this, Rialto is screening all seven films mentioned above – a tribute to a great director.