Over the course of a six-decade career, French filmmaker Robert Bresson made only 13 features. Actually, this is an abundance, as each film seems to distill a lifetime of concentration and feeling; every shot is precise and perfect, every cut conveys meaning, and every emotion is earned. Long recongnized as one of the greatest and most influential of filmmakers, Bresson’s work has been difficult to see on screen, a situation the Dryden is pleased to redress with a selection of the master’s films this March and April.
Scene from Bresson’s ’Au Hasard Balthazar’, 1966.
Born in 1901, Bresson did not turn to filmmaking full-time until 1943, after an early career as a painter and photographer and a year spent in a German POW camp. Though his first two features were comparatively conventional, his style soon became increasingly unique, moving toward an approach that the director labeled as “emotional, not representational.” To that effect, his visual style became sparer and more controlled, his sound design more layered, and his actors entirely non-professional.
Like fellow master Ingmar Bergman, his themes were often spiritual and his characters on the precipice of despair, but the director’s consummate craft and insight into the human condition produce a rare kind of exaltation. These people live in this world and caress every corner of it. Their bodies are beautiful in their imperfections, their attitudes self-effacing, anxious, cocky, and innocent in all the recognizable ways. Above all, Bresson is a social filmmaker. If his early work earned praise for its humanist values, then his ’60s and ’70s output is messier, awkwardly lurching through a violent political landscape. Continually, Bresson pursues a radical empathy, forcing us to engage and experience the world around us. This approach influenced filmmakers from Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader (their Taxi Driver bears heavy traces of Pickpocket) to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (L’enfant, Lorna’s Silence).
These eight Bresson films, presented in conjunction with a nationally touring retrospective, include several that have been imported from France and cannot be screened easily or often. Don’t bet on seeing them again any time soon.
Lori Donnelly is the George Eastman House Dryden Theatre film programmer.
Kyle Westphal is Chief Projectionist and a graduate of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House.
Roxana Aparicio Wolfe is the Curator of Education and Online Communities at George Eastman House.