Robert Bresson was a French director who made thirteen feature-length films and one short between 1934 and 1983. Adored by the New Wave of directors who sprang up around him during the 1950s and early 1960s, the much older Bresson stood at a remove from any cinematic movements of the period, making films sporadically when funding was available before retiring and falling silent between 1983’s L’Argent and his death in 1999.
His films have had an incalculable impact on me, but I have never found a critical literature that even begins to adequately describe them, and my awkward attempts to sell my friends on his work usually end in a shrug. Rather than trying to overcome my inarticulacy, I want to follow it and focus on a trio of American punks in the late 1970s—Dennis Cooper, Patti Smith and Richard Hell—whose reception of Bresson was steeped in a similar misunderstanding, an astonished incomprehension which I believe is central to the films themselves.
In Bresson’s films, those who do understand are cast aside. In the anti-legend Lancelot Du Lac (1974), only the women understand the difference between God’s will and human arrogance; only Queen Guinevere understands love. Guinevere tells Lancelot, embroiled in petty political conflict and denying Guinevere his devotion out of an alleged piety and duty to God, “to think yourself responsible for everything is not humility.” She tells him, “God demands nothing.” He ignores her, and the film ends in unsentimental, ordinary defeat.
Similar scenarios play out throughout Bresson’s body of work, but narrative form was only a prerequisite excuse for the true substance of his films, just as his legendary procedural rigor in instructing untrained actors—who he called “models”—was only a means to an end in search of something greater: “A system does not regulate everything,” he wrote. “It is a bait for something.” To that end, it may be useful to examine the relationship between his style and its effect on viewers.
Bresson’s Style: Against Money Shots
I often have trouble recounting individual moments from Bresson’s films or articulating why I felt what I felt during those moments. This complicates the frustration I already experience in my inability to convey the exact nature of these feelings in the first place, as bracingly intense and often unsettling as they were at the time. While there are exceptions, the most famous of which is probably the final love scene that occurs between the bars of a prison visitation cell in Pickpocket, Bresson’s best films stubbornly resist easily isolated “money shots,” moments that linger in the mind and stand in metonymically as symbols for the film as a whole in the long-term memory of the audience. This is perhaps Bresson’s most significant departure from melodrama. Instead, the effect of Bresson’s style is almost wholly dependent on short-term memory, the real-time perception of the audience and the immediate logic of editing which knits together glances, gestures, sounds and images.
For Bresson, “[n]ot to depend on anything is not to live.” Rather than creating self-sustaining, individually composed beautiful images (which he derided as “postcardism”), Bresson’s constructions prioritized transformative “interdependence” of individually inexpressive elements, both formally and ethically. This alchemical style reaches its apex in the unnerving anti-aesthetic of L’Argent (1983), which almost entirely forgoes static visual beauty in favor of a rapid montage tracing the systemic flows and stoppages of capital through commercial, legal, carceral and medical institutions, eroding the soul of a human being trapped inside them who finally resorts to murder. Bresson’s sound-dominated style does not lead audiences to appreciate memorable stories, scenes or images, but, in the words of contemporary Chinese filmmaker and Bresson devotee Jia Zhangke, allows us to feel “the charm of time itself” as it ceaselessly slips away.
Another Side of Bresson’s Legacy
Queer post-punk novelist and poet Dennis Cooper cites Bresson as his single favorite artist and primary methodological inspiration, but the films that appear over and over in his magnum opus George Miles Cycle (1989-2000) are low-budget horror movies, homemade porn and snuff tapes. There are a few overt connections—Dennis, the narrator of Cooper’s Frisk (1991) observes that “[m]y perfect type tends to be distant, like me. I don’t mean matter-of-fact, I mean shut tight,” a statement that mirrors several in Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography, a book which Cooper also quotes in the epigraph to Try (1994).
But the link between Cooper’s work and that of his idol is oblique. If the film history dogma shaped by Susan Sontag and Paul Schrader’s writing on Bresson characterizes his films as spiritually ascetic, then the atheistic Cooper, preferring the disparaged late color films over the canonical early black and white ones, begins from the sucker punch of visceral, enigmatic feeling that “convuls[es] [. . .] one’s entire being.” As Bresson himself reflected on L’Argent, “It’s possible that certain rhythms, certain cadences, make this film seem more like an action film. That doesn’t bother me; to the contrary.”
To action films we might add melodrama, a style that may appear similarly incompatible with Bresson’s. Belgian director Chantal Akerman, who developed her style in 1970s New York City, muses:
“While my tendency has always been towards Bresson, I think that it’s possible to go towards the same, essential materiality through the opposite path, through melodrama. Bresson and [melodrama director Douglas] Sirk, two opposing paths that finally meet; the final shot of Pickpocket (1959) could be put at the end of a Douglas Sirk film.”
Kent Jones is more direct, writing that Bresson “is every inch a melodramatist.” Certainly the restrained, clandestine sensuality of the hands in the titular scenes of Pickpocket—feeding into its potential subtextual operation as a gay cruising allegory—complicate the traditional reading of the film as an austerely mystical parable of sin and transcendent grace. Across various genre framings, the “essential materiality” that Akerman observes is crucial to Bresson’s reception by his adherents in the younger generation that followed.
In a 1978 poem about Bresson, New York City punk progenitor Patti Smith watches Au Hasard Balthazar (1964) “several hundred times under mild sedation.” Lying in her sickbed in a convalescent haze, Smith fantasizes Balthazar’s evil-incarnate Gerard as her generation’s Modernist-Romantic ideal of the Artist-Poet, an abstract expressionist rockstar dressed in black and wielding destruction as his medium. Given the profound antipathy of the film towards many of the tendencies Smith describes, her identification demonstrates something essential about the complicated relationship between Bresson and the “many depressed young people who’d confused Bresson’s stylistic perfection for a perfect solution,” in Cooper’s words.
Like Cooper, Bresson disciple, onetime Television bassist and former Voidoids frontman Richard Hell identified himself with the suicidal, disillusioned young radical at the center of The Devil Probably (1977), and like Smith, he grasped for the generational punk ideal of reduction and extremity in Bresson’s technique. In an email to robert-bresson.com, Hell recounts a failed attempt to introduce the film before a screening in 2003, in which he “kind of fell apart in the course of [his] talk.”
While Hell has written and spoken at length elsewhere about The Devil Probably, I believe that this moment of inarticulate faltering is more revealing. If certain young American punks in the late 1970s like Cooper, Smith and Hell adored Bresson for his “fairness,” “pragmatism,” rigorous force and above all his “single-minded concern for the souls of young people whose innocence causes them to fail at the cruel, irrevocable task of adulthood,” this did not mean that they could easily understand the director they worshipped. Their dumbfounded incomprehension and obsessive misunderstanding in the face of Bresson’s films says more than any of the established theories about what those films are and how they function.
These films both concern and require a kind of concentrated incomprehension at the world borne of extreme clarity of perception, a perplexed lucidity found in young people and those who are unwilling or unable to acclimate to the profound violence of life. French writer and director Marguerite Duras, for whom Bresson was “the inaugurator of all of cinema,” wrote in 1985 that, “[i]f the younger generation rejects Bresson, it’s because they have lost their own youth, their passion.”
Bresson evidently found his disciples among that blank generation, but theirs was a fanaticism whose immersion in aestheticized nihilism struggled with the more disturbing uncertainty that emerged from the subliminal gestures, precise editing and compact narratives of his films. Cooper’s “long, desperate, worshipful letters” to Bresson received no reply because, like all forms of prayer, they were questions which already contained their own unrecognized silent answer. Like Lancelot, Cooper misunderstood, but the gift of Bresson’s films is that they have the potential to understand us even when we do not fully understand them, and in aligning our perception with theirs they draw attention to how little we understand ourselves. Rather than leading us to understanding, they offer the clarity of a truer misunderstanding.