|UserReviews 4Approval 94%Soundoffs 55Album Ratings 2199Objectivity 93%Last Active 12-19-19 2:55 pmJoined 09-24-05Forum Posts 22Review Comments 3,649
|FILM: tectac's Robert Bresson, Ranked|
A master of stripped-down stylization and a keen formal rigor that parades itself as a loose-limbed carelessness, Bresson is not a filmmaker for everyone. But given his down-to-earth sensibilities and oft-revisited themes (despite their usual pessimissm), there's bound to be a film or two that captivates even the biggest overall dissenters. That that film is typically a different pick for each person you ask only speaks to Bresson's deceptively wide reach.
>> FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER (1971)
My least favorite Bresson by quite a margin: Painfully articulated expressionism suffocated by a formalism built for anything but. Notable lack of miserablism and pity compared to his other work, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but Bresson’s style of patent non-acting doesn’t bode well for a story whose major linchpin is intense love and affection. His freeform, prosaic approach isn’t quite lyrical enough to construct a romance that doesn’t feel patently artificial, which turns this into a machine of incessant rambling and CliffNotes on existentialism and philosophical adoration. Even amid the gunk, there are a few standout sequences that only Bresson could be capable of (best example: the naked mirror gaze) but the cosmic disconnect in a story that kinda requires it results in a substantial bore.
>> THE DEVIL, PROBABLY (1977)
Not horrid, simply not my cup of tea. Reminded me at once of Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT (which I’m also not a fan of) and a slew of mid-80s-to-90s Godard films that are so beyond the realm of anything I find enjoyable that they all kind of blend into one massive heap of essay-driven, catatonic wank. This is better than both of those things, surely, because Bresson still understands the basic importance of narrative function, even when lobbying some sort of political agency (cf. Godard’s political “films” which may as well just be pamphlets). If soaking up an undecorated flipbook of x-director’s political, environmental, and existential worldviews in the absence of tonal fluctuation is your thing, you’ll love this—there’s a lot of digging that can be done, but the digging seems like more of a chore than pleasure at this point. (The finale is exquisite, though—thoroughly chilling, even though it’s telegraphed ominously.)
>> AU HASARD BALTHZAR (1966)
Have seen this thrice now, with a similarly ambivalent reaction each time. I’m not fundamentally opposed to inexorable misery machines (I love e.g. THE TURN HORSE and SATANTANGO), but Bresson’s trademarks work against him here, twofold:  His abbreviated sylphlike style generates too much turbulence in something that should be decisively fluent and, at a much more basic level,  his techniques are ill-suited for sentimentality. Re the first point, that construction benefits movies like A MAN ESCAPED or PICKPOCKET, but those films tinker with a larger, graspable concept that’s easy to piece together from piecemeal scenes and ideas. BALTHAZAR operates more closely as an emotional, narrative tagalong, which refracts a lot of the through-lines in awkward ways (e.g. the scene with Gerard and Marie by the car is excruciating). Bresson’s greatest films are the ones that don’t actively seek emotion, *especially* from humans. (The donkey, however, is superb.)
>> MOUCHETTE (1967)
This is AU HASARD BALTHAZAR with a young French girl instead of a donkey. No coincidence it begins with a trapsetting scene and ends with a rabbit fleeing amid a hail of gunfire. Animals were a perfect clay for Bresson, augmenting the helpless cavity of misery we know as The World with their inherent innocence and purity. And in that very specific way, children are basically animals, unblemished by knowledge, left to slowly shapeshift as products of our individual environments. Though as I’ve previously mentioned, when Bresson gets too emotional or asks to handedly for our pity/empathy, his intentions are precluded by his bare-bones style. I do prefer this to BALTHAZAR, however, if only because it lends itself to situational discomfort I find more internally stirring (e.g. Mouchette’s flirtatious moment smothered by a drunk, abusive father, or the awkward “sleepover” with a man four times her age). Could’ve done without the occasional bursts of bathos, though.
Just for a Day
>> ANGELS OF SIN (1943)
Like most auteurist’s early pictures, only vaguely reminiscent of what ended up defining their style later on, but in the same breath I’m not surprised to know that this is a Bresson film. It still seizes a large chunk of the themes that would recur throughout his entire body of work: Religion, in the broadest sense, but also the question and application of forgiveness, the exoneration of sins through repentance, and the variability of human nature w.r.t. the presence (or absence) of faith. Granted, he’d tackle similar material more convincingly—and to a significantly broader degree—less than a decade later, but his control here is nothing if not promising. It’s not the kind of overlabored, garish debut that strains itself for recognition; it’s measured, precise, and, if anything, maybe a tad too soft-spoken. The most Bergman-esque moments make me wince (those soliloquies, my god!) but Bresson understood humans in a way Bergman could never quite muster.
Close to a World Below
>> THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (1962)
Too much of an abiding procedural for me to truly adore, but Bresson was wise to keep it at a succinct sixty minutes, staving off tedium despite the film’s inability to fully take hold. There’s an augmenting effect knowing that large portions of the reenacted trial’s dialogue were pulled directly from the historical transcription, rescinding any notion that Bresson is waxing religious rhetoric for heightened poeticism. His artistic liberties generate some of the most affecting moments, but they’re too sparsely distributed, and, given the subject matter, not as traumatic as they should’ve been. Final sequence is ravishing, though, and undeniably Bressonian: Burned clothes fall to the ground, a shot of birds off in the distance, and the lingering image - literally, but also symbolically, a totem of one’s faith and courage - of an empty, charred stake slowly revealed as the smoke begins to clear. Haunting.
Power, Corruption and Lies
>> LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (1945)
Perhaps the least Bressonian of his pictures re themes and flow; more lyrical than much of his later work, almost to its detriment, curbing that authoritative, stripped-down rawness that would define his grandest masterpieces. Cocteau’s influence is felt, and there are hints of Clouzot (less mysterious) and Tourneur (less reliant on saturation), leaving only the nonstop iciness to be accredited to Bresson. Starts off encompassed by his usual worldview of cynicism—humans are evil creatures bound for emotional destruction through various forms, hopeless and irredeemable—before cranking the gears in the final reel, our sympathy abruptly displaced from a merciless woman to her helpless victims, revealing a speck of faith buried deep within the Human Condition, one that’s capable of brushing off rough exteriors to see the treasure underneath. Plotty feebleness becomes and issue at times, but this is otherwise a mighty fine sophomoric effort.
Music for 18 Musicians
>> L’ARGENT (1983)
A tad too methodical and precise for its own good. “But A MAN ESCAPED is methodical and precise and you didn’t complain about it there!” Yes, but a prison break is a methodical process which requires impeccable precision—a large portion of the film is Fontaine, alone in his cell, fashioning ways to break free without detection. Compare this to the scene in L’ARGENT when two teenage boys knowingly use a forged bill to buy a picture frame and could not possibly be more obvious about their transgression, nor the cashier more aloof about her suspicion. That’s Bresson. That’s what he does. He grapples with the antithesis of realism to let the procedural—the cause, effect, and innate sensibilities of the situation—speak for itself, undeterred by actorly emotion. The backdrop here is so assuredly realized, though, that it’s fascinating regardless. I love the ending of this so much that I’m almost willing to forgive how boneheaded the final leap to get there is.
|5||Yo La Tengo|
>> A GENTLE WOMAN (1969)
Bresson and heavy dialogue aren’t always a winning combination, but he uses the situational pith to scrape up his most ripping sentiments, meaning (thankfully) this never dips into what easily could’ve been a painfully somber yin to the yang of FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER. Depictions of consuming male jealously tend to tug at a sour albeit powerful nerve for me, probably because I could’ve, at one time in my life, related on some level. These feelings often morph into unwieldy waves of narcissism and abusive complexes—the coup de grâce: ”I felt bad for her; I pitied her. But I enjoyed our inequality.” A scathing portrait of self-inflicted emotional collapse by proxy—the equivalent of forcing someone to tie you down and whip you, then getting mad when they don’t seem to enjoy whipping you, all while you’ve been garnering no satisfaction from the whipping anyway. A disappointed, ”I thought you’d leave me,” during Luc’s passion-driven apology makes the deepest cut.
|4||My Bloody Valentine|
m b v
>> DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)
Bresson’s longest film which, when coalesced with his usual tendency to trim the fat, gives it the density of a dying star. I’m at a loss for how to succinctly shape my overall feelings towards this reflective mood piece: Not one who’s typically warm towards predominately verbal religious rumination à la WINTER LIGHT (to cite a similarly grappling film), but Bresson has a better understanding of humans as caught in moral latticework than Bergman; his stance more openminded, less inescapably damning, and unrestrained by icy austerity. Even his formalism feels inexplicably tender, the slow pushes and soft fades piling yet another layer of pity upon the poor vicar. Sunken among the workmanlike pillars are moments of unquestionable grace and melancholy, things as simple as our priest solemnly dipping a hunk of bread into a glass of thick, red wine (his dinner, most nights). Probably one of the most cavernous films of all time if you want it to be.
|3||Yellow Magic Orchestra|
Yellow Magic Orchestra
>> A MAN ESCAPED (1956)
This is great, methodical, precise, efficient filmmaking, and it flirts heavily with masterpiece status, though I’m afraid what bars it from the utmost echelons are things I’d normally scoff at others for complaining about, things like “realism” and “plot conveniences” and so forth, but this is so trimmed and particular that any splash of liberty—for additional drama’s sake or otherwise—threatens to bruise the craftsmanship. No matter: The masterful elements are plentiful enough to counterbalance the slag and then some, a compilation of delectably parched mise en scène and studious sound design. Bresson’s pared-down approach goes hand-in-hand with his rigor, cascading tension and allure over confined mundanity. The breach itself was not some cathartic or transcendental experience for me like it was for many others, but I remain in awe of Bresson’s decision to anti-dramatize that moment more than any other: a simple embrace and a stroll away from the grounds.
>> LANCELOT OF THE LAKE (1974)
Bresson drapes his typical, earthly disillusionment—people are ruthless, shitty creatures filled with malice, greed, and spite and the world is an endless sinkhole of torment and distress from which there is no material absolution—over a peculiar context: The Twelfth Century. The result is disorienting, subverting so much of what we’ve come to expect from period pieces of similar times, stripped bare of the traditional glamour and exoticism in short bursts of lore-stripping iconoclasm. The sound of bulky armor and cumbersome weaponry inelegantly clanking against one another provides much of the sobering soundtrack, juxtaposed ironically with recurring shots of the knights’ bare calves. Mise en scène rivals A MAN ESCAPED as Bresson’s best, evoking a similar feeling of isolation, only in a setting much broader than prison. I wish Bresson would’ve done more non-contemporary work like this: I think it abuts his stripped-down style in an arresting way.
>> PICKPOCKET (1959)
Bresson’s masterpiece; as supple and scrupulous as anything he’s done, retrofitting his major pet themes—uncomfortable disconnect from our peers; inability and unwillingness to conform; existential world-weariness that begets abjection—into a portrait of ennui-fueled malfeasance. He paints pickpocketing not as an indefensible crime but a delicate art to be mastered. He doesn’t censure it, he romanticizes it: Close-ups of hands and wrists clung to arms, legs, lapels, purses, dancing around softly and swiftly to avoid detection. Pickings depicted as acts of sensuality, which they decidedly are for Michel; a monetary necessity, but more importantly a source of titillation and reassurance of self-worth. That Bresson chose to reconcile Michel and Jeanne’s battered nonrelationship—peeling away the beaten-down exterior of our protagonists literally seconds before the credits roll—might be the last, fading glimmer of optimism towards humanity that emerges from his oeuvre.
|Haven't done one of these in a while. Figured it was time for a new one. Let's chat, cinepals.|
|Guess French auteurs who came to fruition in the 50s is where I lose you guys, eh.|
|Oh man, L’argent’s too low, but have to *hand* it to you for doing this one, one of the best. Cold and human, side by side.|
|Yeah, I often get looked at funny for my placement of L'ARGENT, but I still consider it a great film. Just goes to show you how strong Bresson's filmography is.|
|I thought this place was rife with movie buffs WHAT HAPPENED|
|They’re all waiting on you to put ya money where ya cinephile mouth is and rank some Tsai Ming-Liang|
|Haha, well that ranking is done already (I mean just the ranking itself - not the miniature write-ups) and has been for a while, so I suppose that can be my next list. I've been holding off on that one thinking most people here wouldn't care to discuss my favorite working filmmaker but who knows. Never thought Bresson would be the one to repel everyone, though - hah!|
Speaking of Tsai, I'm very very very excited for his 2020 feature (DAYS). Should be a good one.
|anyone who puts lancelot/une femme douce in the upper half has my respek|
|i hate this director so much. havey has also earned my displeasure. lovely write-ups tho|
|it's all so austere and precise with tedious after-school level thematic concerns, no idea why he's rated so highly among cinephiles |
|the virgin thematic concerns vs the chad Transcendental Style|
|havey: *fist bump*|
wines: you're dead to me, plebeian.
In all seriousness, i understand the criticism, and had I seen only AU HASARD BALTHAZAR i would be inclined to agree. But in all honestly, there's an intimacy at the cross-section of his austerity and his down-to-earth [""after-school""] thematicism that I've only also found in Rohmer's work (though his thematicism is typically tilted with a more introspective/humanist bent, the themes are similarly trivial by most accounts e.g. should I sleep with *this* woman or *that* woman, does god take pity on philanderers, and can I fashion some scenario where touching this young lady's knee would somehow not be weird for her?).
As I mentioned, said austerity hurts when he vies for tangible emotion - it just ain't there. It works in spades, however, when tackling narratives that can easily absorb a removed, meticulous framework, like a methodical pickpocket or an elaborate prison break etc.
|I'm just talking out of my ass, though.|
What director next? Is sputnik ready for the Tsai (a/k/a the greatest living director!) list?
|to answer rationally and calmly: YESsSSSSSSSSSSSSS|
|bresson mor liek poopy :D|
|Diary, Lancelot (underrated), and Pickpocket are Bresson's best.|
|That'a way, Zig. (LANCELOT is supremely underrated, and I'd argue that even Bressonian dissenters à la Winesturd might appreciate his typical style refracted through a more familiar lens e.g. the twelfth motherfucking century.)|
Guess the long awaited Tsai list is next. Gotta give the people what they want. Had I known you guys cared about Tsai so much I would've done his list a long time ago.