The essential Robert Bresson moment takes place in a stifling jail cell, two men stuffed in a space barely big enough for one, as murder crosses a man’s mind. It’s the definitive juncture of 1956’s A Man Escaped, the point where its protagonists’ thirst for freedom meets its first human obstacle, and it seems to call for an accordingly large presentation. Instead the scene is fragmented, brief, and decidedly anticlimactic. Our hero, Fontaine, whispers to his bunkmate, attempting to wake him, to implicate him in his escape or kill him if he resists; the man stirs, but keeps his eyes shut, pretending to be asleep. Fontaine gives up. His face, despite the conflicting emotions undoubtedly roiling beneath, is as stony and immutable as the walls of his cell.
Like a sculptor, Bresson worked in terms of negative space, less involved with the direct shaping of his final product than the painstaking removal of the matter surrounding it. He took the conventions of the theater, the straight lines that dictated the rise and fall of a story, the clean field of play afforded for the action to exhibit itself, the presentation of feelings through active faces and inter-related bodies, and sanded it down to a jagged, nearly unrecognizable fragment. It’s a process most famously expressed through his actor-model theory, which prescribed a grueling succession of takes to strip any hint of pretense from the actor’s performance. As he noted in 1975’s Notes on Cinematography: “If, on the screen, the mechanism disappears and the phrases you have made them say, the gestures you have made them make, have become one with your models, with your film, with you—then you have a miracle.”
So the most basic, and most instantly recognizable, element of Bresson’s work is this absence, the assurance that there will be no acting with a capital A. This kind of emoting was in his opinion not only impure and artificial, it distracted from the image-making power inherent to cinema, where the story isn’t fixed to the fusty dictates of the stage, on which perspective is forced and unyielding. It’s a style that often seems alienating, and if presented on its own might have been simply that. But Bresson’s best works attain an air of perfect reverie not only through their blank-slate performances, but a conception of framing and montage that seems equally contrary to the classic idea of what an image, or sequence of images, should represent. The result is a matchlessly ascetic form of filmmaking, drawing poetic grandeur out of abject simplicity.
Bresson’s rhythms form their own collective vocabulary. There’s the slashed framing of bodies, hacked down into the legs and feet that creep into the shot alone, their upper parts left tantalizingly out of view. The staccato cadences formed from often frenetic montage, quick actions repeated until their sequencing becomes musical. Close-ups on faces, which seem to suggest offered meaning but provide no emotional recourse. Plots that pluck an ordinary individual out of the crowd, telling their story through an accretion of anecdotal events rather than a traditional three-act arc.
These are markers that, in sharp contrast to their omnipresence in most of his work, are noticeably absent in the director’s first two films. Les Anges du Péché, from 1943, and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, from 1945, operate in a much more conventional fashion, betraying their auteur’s later formal experimentation through only the slightest hints of incipient oddness. They apply theatrical methods, use their sets and settings to communicate the inner lives of characters, feature big performances by famous actors, employ stories that ripple with revenge and betrayal and other literary devices. They’re also great, albeit entirely different, movies, ones which serve as useful guideposts to Bresson’s more distinctive work.
And despite the formal differences present, these two efforts still share a lot with such work. Their stories, both of which deal heavily with religion, forgiveness, and weighty questions of inter-personal turmoil, could easily be imagined, with some necessary stripping, as classic Bresson. Like all of his films, they concern fundamentally isolated individuals struggling mightily against the expectations of society, fighting exaggerative versions of the everyday battles that are part of being human. They act out, responding to the systems of cruelty and coldness that seem endemic to life. Their isolation reminds us that Bresson’s later formal experimentation isn’t just a difficult visual choice, but instead a technique to compound this developing focus on personal and internal seclusion.
By the 1950s, Bresson’s visual and narrative approaches have aligned. The resultant style is one that operates in broad strokes, portraying doomed individuals whose lives, despite their outwardly Spartan nature, are fraught with issues and complications. They’re morality plays twisted into brutal contests, anecdotal case studies that feel like parables torn from 16th-century philosophy, more Montaigne or Thomas More than Diderot. This is a specific brand of cinematic theater. Unlike so many other directors, who reveal the medium’s freedom from stage-bound convention by broadening its horizons, Bresson constricts, highlighting the tiny, compressed lives of his characters by shrinking the walls around them. The resultant worlds, like those of Ingmar Bergman’s movies of the same period, are both timeless and stifling, part of a remotely relatable universe operating within a defined set of repeating rules.
In Bresson’s case, this universe is one where the grammar of the theater—the communicative power of a face, an arm, the placement of the body in a fixed frame—is still intact, but its power is purposely dulled. He creates an environment of dense isolation by chopping such static images into defined beats, namely the titter tatter of shot/reverse shot that punctuates so many of his character’s conversations—deep, potentially dramatic discussions where the words are reduced to the level of props. Language has no power and no ability to convince, no capacity to pierce these people’s outer shells. Their diminished reactive capacity identifies their impenetrability, the words bouncing weakly off their sad visages.
The resulting style is relatable to that of silent film, due not only to its reliance on images over dialogue, but through the primacy given to the face. Only here it’s not a communicative tool, but a murky bellwether for how restricted and alone these characters remain. In his 1958 essay on Diary of a Country Priest, André Bazin identifies a key element of Bresson’s world: “The words themselves are so much dead weight, the echo of a silence that is the true dialogue between these two souls.”