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April 1 - 8, 1999

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Cinema Purgatorio

The dismaying grace of Robert Bresson

by Peter Keough

"THE FILMS OF ROBERT BRESSON," At the Harvard Film Archive and the Museum of Fine Arts, April 1 to May 1.

The Trial of Joan of Ark The Force will be with us soon enough. In the meantime, another kind of cinematic power prevails in the series "The Films of Robert Bresson" which is screening this month at the Harvard Film Archive and the Museum of Fine Arts.

It would be hard to imagine two filmmakers more at odds than George Lucas and Robert Bresson. The first promotes easy thrills and a facile faith through clichés, astounding special effects, and a readily consumed mythology complete with a soon-to-be-inescapable marketing empire. The latter employs the most elusive and austere means to probe the most elusive and austere mysteries of human existence: freedom, destiny, and grace (themes admittedly shared by Lucas).

"The ideas, hide them," wrote Bresson in Notes on Cinematography, his collection of maxims reminiscent of Pascal's Les pensées, "but so that one can find them. The most important will be the most hidden." In the age of Star Wars, every triviality of that phenomenon will invariably find you; meanwhile, Bresson teeters on the brink at the ripe age of 88 (or is it 97?). In their reserve about their personal life, at least, the two directors have something in common. Which of the two will endure seems preordained.

Such a fate would be in keeping with the themes of Bresson's films. They typically begin in opacity and obscurity -- literally so with the Pollock-like ink patterns on the blotting paper covering the first page of the title work in Diary of a Country Priest (1951; April 16 at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts), his adaptation of the Georges Bernanos novel -- and don't seem to progress much further. The sickly prelate (played by nonactor Claude Laydu, who looks about 12) reads in voiceover from his record of "the insignificant secrets of a life that is in any case without mystery." Without purpose, too, it seems -- his tale is like that of Sartre's Nausea with bad faith.

The source of the priest's dyspepsia is a bad stomach -- to placate it he eats only bread and wine, and whether communion gives way to alcoholism is one of the film's ambiguities -- and it plagues him as he fumbles into the affairs of his scant parish, traipsing over the murky countryside like a revenant with a bicycle. Most regard him with malice and contempt or with a morbid fascination, and though he achieves one meaningful conversion, it is misperceived by the community. No matter: the real struggle is within, as the priest wrestles through his words with his inability to pray and the doubts that rack him more grievously than his cancer. In the end, the journal falls from his hands and the priest's last words must be written by a scarcely comprehending colleague: "All is grace."

An inscription opens A Man Escaped (1956; April 24 at 2 p.m. at the MFA) as well: a plaque commemorating the thousands killed by the Nazis in Fort Montluc Prison during the Occupation. The plaque gives way to a blank wall, over which soars the Kyrie from Mozart's Mass in C minor; then Bresson cuts to the hands of Lieutenant Fontaine (standing in for the real-life André Devigny, on whose memoir the film is based -- though Bresson served time in a German POW camp) of the French Underground as he is being driven to incarceration and likely death. His hands are not idle like those of the country priest -- in a nearly comic moment, he opens the car door in a brief escape attempt. Later, when one of his fellow inmates, a pastor, tells him God will save them, he replies, "Only if we lend a hand."

A Man Escaped Easier said than done as Fontaine stares at the walls of his cell, occasionally tapping messages to his neighbors. Then he sees the weak link in his confinement -- a flaw in the joints of the door. With painstaking meticulousness (for all his abstractness, Bresson is unequaled in depicting the concrete details of how things are done), Fontaine labors for a month to breach an opening. Isolation, however, is a greater obstacle -- the voiceover narrative underscores his solitude. On the eve of his escape, another prisoner is tossed into his cell. Should he kill the man or include him in his plan? Although theological reflection scarcely interrupts his observations, the repeated strains of the Kyrie accompany his most regimented activity, and the surge of its chorus at the end confirms that he made the right choice.

As diligent as Fontaine's hands in breaking out of prison are those of Michel, the title hero of Pickpocket (1959; April 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the MFA) in breaking into places. Like the country priest, he keeps a journal, but his describes his growing facility at relieving strangers of their intimate belongings. He also has a driving philosophy -- like the hero of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, on which the film is loosely based, he believes that superior individuals are above the law. Mostly, though, he's a lonely guy in a bad suit with guilt feelings over his mother (his first victim). Maybe he just needs to get laid, but he is awkward and virginal in rebuffing the attraction of his virtuous neighbor, Jeanne. In truth, he finds ecstasy in his trade, which is rendered in one montage as an exuberant Busby Berkeley production of transgression. At last he achieves his goal through the aid of a father-confessor police inspector, and behind bars he exults to Jeanne, "What a strange path I have taken to come to you!"

Should we believe his conversion? Words and deeds are often inconsistent in Bresson; at one point, Michel notes in his voiceover that he has fled the country, frittered away his money on women and gambling in London, and returned two years later to find Jeanne with a child by his best friend. Not only is this completely out of character, but it disposes of at least two complete Hollywood movies in a single aside. Such an ellipsis is nothing unusual in Bresson. In Lancelot du Lac (1974; April 30 at 5:30 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive and May 1 at 2 p.m. at the MFA), his Cubist, 80-minute Arthurian epic, he dismisses the catastrophic final battle with a single off-screen sound effect. Inveterately anti-theatrical, he denies the viewer's pleasure in spectacle for the more fulfilling mystery it conceals.

It's not that the emoting in this Pickpocket scene indicates any profound sentiment, either -- though Jane's face is beatifically lit, the two might be discussing legal fees. Lack of affect is the hallmark of Bresson's style; he directs non-professionals, called "models," in a regimen he refers to as "automatism." It's methadone rather than Method acting. With his characters reduced to evocative masks, if not mere detail shots of hands and feet and torsos, he compels the viewer to search for the truth beneath.

Such woodenness is one of the frustrations, or triumphs, of his The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962; April 4 at 2:30 p.m. at the MFA and at 9 p.m. at the HFA). Furious that Bresson cast the beautiful Florence Carrez in the title role only to have her shot with her eyes downcast, his cinematographer, Léonce-Henry Burel, refused to work with him again. The rigorous 65-minute Q&A between Joan and her accusers (which Pauline Kael likened to a PhD oral exam) allows Carrez one thespian opportunity -- with her feet. They stumble to the scaffold, and the film's punishing catechistic litany surrenders to the sublimity of her martyrdom: smoke veils a raised cross, then lifts from the charred stake to reveal nothing -- she is a woman escaped.

Beating out Joan in the martyr department is the hero of Au hasard Balthazar (1966; April 23 at 6 p.m. at the MFA). And it's a logical extension of Bresson's ideas on acting that that hero is a donkey. Named after one of the Magi, Balthazar brings to his series of owners the gift of transcendent stoicism. As a colt he's baptized by a pair of children in love. They are separated, and the girl, Marie (the Raphael-esque Anne Wiazemsky), becomes Balthazar's human counterpart -- a dumb innocent brutalized by vicissitude, vice, and cruelty.

Although Marie's fate is tainted by willfulness and sado-masochism, Balthazar remains pure even as he's hounded by personifications of each of the seven deadly sins. No Babe, this -- though Balthazar enjoys a delightful respite in middle age as a prodigy in a circus, his comforts are few. The end is one of the most moving in cinema, oddly combining two motifs from Buñuel: the hideous bee scene from Land Without Bread and the conclusion of The Exterminating Angel. Backed by Balthazar's theme -- the Andantino from Schubert's D.959 Piano Sonata -- it's a consummation of ineffable beauty.

The dour fates of Bresson's heroines in his next two films -- the surly rural waif of Mouchette (1967; April 5 at 7 p.m. at the HFA) and the dreamy teenager crushed by marriage (played by Dominique Sanda, who graduated from model to film star) in his first color film, Une femme douce (1969; April 2 at 8 p.m. at the MFA and April 4 at the HFA) -- seem anticlimactic. His later efforts' focus on suicide and despair over the triumph of evil takes a brief detour only with Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971; April 28 at 9:30 p.m. at the HFA and April 30 at 6 p.m. at the MFA), his adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella White Nights. A bittersweet romance reminiscent of Eric Rohmer, it does offer a pretentious art student pontificating on a theory of minimalist aesthetics ironically similar to Bresson's own.

Dreamer provides little relief to the vision of a world abandoned by God in which armored hollow men dismember one another that Bresson flatly puts forth in Lancelot du Lac. The title of The Devil Probably (1977; April 3 at 4 p.m. at the MFA and April 7 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at the HFA), the tale of a callow teenager who decides to do himself in to protest the state of things, suggests who Bresson suspects is the deity's successor. Wry and listless, it enjoys its most powerful moment when the hero overhears Mozart from an open window as he trudges to the cemetery.

Bresson is more specific in apportioning blame in L'argent (1983; April 18 at 12:30 p.m. at the MFA and April 21 at 9:15 p.m. at the HFA), which is based on Leo Tolstoy's story "The Counterfeit Note." A pair of idle bourgeois teens, the heirs of the doomed idealist of The Devil Probably, pass on a fake 500-franc note for some ready cash. Yvon, a stolid oil truck driver, gets stuck with it, and though cleared of the crime he quickly loses his job, his wife, and his family and ends up in prison.

When released, Yvon finds his non-comprehending passivity has changed to cleansing rage -- he has earned the crusading amorality the pickpocket only dabbles with. No film has equaled L'argent's elliptical, stunningly composed climactic violence (it overshadows that of Taxi Driver, whose screenwriter, Paul Schrader, is a Bresson acolyte). The root of all evil is not counterfeit money, or even money itself, but all bought and sold simulacra of truth, beauty, and grace. In this last film, Bresson shows us the face of the real phantom menace.

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