In this week's Scene, Michael Sicinski offers an overview of The Belcourt's Robert Bresson retrospective, starting tomorrow night and running through April 8 in Hillsboro Village. To call this a rare opportunity is an understatement. Despite his standing as one of the movies' most revered yet polarizing directors, this is the first collection of his films to tour North America in the 21st century.
In addition to the nine films in the series, the theater is sponsoring a Bresson symposium down the street at Belmont United Methodist Church, with four guest speakers discussing a different film each week. First up is Jennifer Fay, director of film studies at Vanderbilt, who will speak 4:45 p.m. this Sunday on the director's 1956 film A Man Escaped.
A steadily gripping account of an imprisoned Resistance fighter inching his way toward freedom, A Man Escaped is as close as Bresson ever got to making an action film (though 1959's Pickpocket, also showing this Sunday, creates considerable suspense). We asked Fay, a Belcourt favorite (she did the excellent intro to Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon last fall), to share a few thoughts on the movie:
A Man Escaped always struck me as one of the Bresson films that even people who didn't like his other work would enjoy. Do you think it makes a good introduction to his movies?
As one of Bresson’s more accessible films, A Man Escaped is certainly a great introduction to his work. The narrative is easy to follow, the story (based in part on actual events in a German POW prison) is gripping, and Bresson carefully teaches the audience how to hear and watch his film. In fact, hearing may be even more important. The story is told from the perspective of Fontaine, a member of the French resistance who, for most of the film, is imprisoned in a German POW camp. Condemned to death, escape is his only chance for survival.
But in order to plot his escape, Fontaine must gather information about his surroundings mostly through attentive listening. We, in turn, learn from Fontaine’s example how to construct a world unseen through aural cues. We hear a train go by at predictable intervals and we hear school children periodically. The German guards announce their whereabouts by their footsteps that echo throughout the prison. Thus we form hypotheses about the spaces outside of Fontaine’s cell and beyond the prison walls. Many of Bresson’s films rely on sound to create his fictional world, but in A Man Escaped, listening is itself thematized.
Another feature of the film that makes it a good introduction is its uplifting tone. When describing Bresson’s oeuvre, critics often turn to such adjectives as “devastating” and “despairing.” A Man Escaped (and the title already gives the ending away) actually concludes on a note of not just redemption, but freedom, happiness, and the promise of friendship.
What's different about Bresson's handling of the POW escape drama from, say, The Great Escape or even Grand Illusion?
In many respects, Bresson’s unique style is most evident in his films that trade on more familiar genres. But as a minimalist director, he strips his stories down to the bare essentials. Escape films, for example, promise a suspenseful and action-packed breakout scene. Bresson delivers this, but the drama itself hinges on a few key sound effects heard over an almost black screen. He managed to create, through the most minimal cues, suspense that is worthy of Hitchcock.
Also, both the films you mention above feature characters to whom we may relate. Renoir especially makes us love even a few of the German captors. Bresson’s characters are completely lacking in charisma or a perceptible psychology. The acting style is minimal and the voiceover narration is deadpan. Thus in place of “acting” we see stylized gestures and inscrutable faces. In the case of this film, the acting makes sense: Fontaine must carefully guard his secret plans.
But the result for the audience is that rather than identifying with character psychology, we find new modes of narrative attachment. For example, we become obsessed with the details of daily life and the procedures of escape. When the prisoners make their daily walk down the stairs to wash, Bresson sets their movements to Mozart. He makes this daily occurrence not a habit but ritual and, among the men, a form of communion.
What do you think of "austere" as a description of Bresson's style?
In his aphoristic Notes on the Cinematographer, Bresson writes: “Build your film on white, on silence and on stillness.” His films are austere, disciplined, and minimalist. But these features do not preclude the films from being riveting or pleasurable to watch. When all is silent, every sound becomes meaningful. When everything is still, the smallest movement is expressive. It is cliché to say that contemporary blockbusters bombard us with so much sonic and visual noise that we do not — indeed, cannot — attend to every detail. Still, the cliché is apt. Against the cinema of sensory overload, Bresson answers with another maxim: “Empty the pond to get the fish.” He reduces sound and image to the most essential, expressive element. I wouldn’t say that his films restore perception (I don’t think our perception is in crisis), but they do bring our awareness back to the conditions of perceptibility.
Because his films are so detailed oriented, because they presume an attentive perceiver, they must be seen projected, in a dark and quiet theater. This festival is such a wonderful gift!
For viewers who were born after, say, 1990, can you think of anything that compares to Bresson in their frame of reference?
Well, for the contemporary cinephile, the Dardenne brothers’ films most closely resemble Bresson’s style and narrative themes. The Belcourt, by the way, is brining the latest Dardennes film [The Kid with a Bike] in the coming weeks.
Is there another film in the retrospective you're particularly excited about seeing?
All of them! But I am especially keen to see Au Hasard Balthazar on the big screen (I’ve only watched it on DVD) and to hear Jonathan Rosenbaum’s introductory lecture.