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Austere Perfectionism: The Films of Robert Bresson

January 19, 2012 - February 25, 2012


“It is with something clean and precise that you will force the attention of inattentive eyes and ears.”—Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography

The works of Robert Bresson—fourteen exquisite gems in a career that spans five decades —are as rare as they are revered. So it is with great pleasure that we present this complete retrospective of his films organized by James Quandt of TIFF Cinematheque on the occasion of the forthcoming publication Robert Bresson (Revised), edited by Quandt and distributed by Indiana University Press, an invaluable volume for anyone seeking to understand the beauty and perfectionism of Bresson’s singular body of work.

With his first feature—made after he had been a prisoner of war—Robert Bresson (1901–99) was recognized as an original and authentic voice in cinema. Over the years, this authenticity would rework itself in film after rigorous film, gaining him awe and more than a few imitators, but never a true heir. Even now, the power of Bresson's style—austere, yet deeply affecting; controlled, yet replete with compassion, almost unbearably so—remains one of cinema's pure mysteries.

"As far as I could," Bresson commented, "I have eliminated anything which might distract from the interior drama. For me, the cinema is an exploration within. Within the mind, the camera can grasp anything." Preferring to use untrained actors whose natural impassivity he harnesses to his own ends, the epiphany of Bresson's improvised technique is Pickpocket, which, in a watershed year in French cinema, 1959, was merely the most contemporary film ever made. Similarly, while Bresson frequently bases his films on literature—on Dostoyevsky, on Bernanos—he distills the original, paradoxically remaining true to both écriture and image. "The images must exclude the idea of image," he wrote. The part speaks for the whole, and absence often signifies a larger presence.

The Catholic Bresson evinces an unsparing eye toward French society—in the countryside, in the city, in convent or prison—and unsparing compassion for its victims. But while other directors are concerned with sentiment, Bresson's concern is at once more real and more otherworldly: his subject is suffering and redemption. For his many admirers, his films attain the grace his characters seek.

Thursday, January 19, 2012
7:00 p.m. Au hasard Balthazar
Robert Bresson (France, 1966). Bresson found the perfect protagonist for this film in a donkey, "born, like all beings, to suffer and die needlessly and mysteriously. . . . A morbidly beautiful flower of cinematic art" (Andrew Sarris). (95 mins)

Saturday, January 21, 2012
6:30 p.m. Mouchette
Robert Bresson (France, 1967). Robert Bresson's portrayal of the life and death of a despised country girl is gritty yet lyrical and ultimately sublime. “In Mouchette, the world itself is a mystical stage” (J. Hoberman, Village Voice). (80 mins)

Saturday, January 28, 2012
6:30 p.m. Pickpocket
Robert Bresson (France, 1959). A Parisian thief's anguish and redemption are played out in a famous reworking of Crime and Punishment. Robert Bresson's style is austere, yet deeply affecting and filled with compassion. (75 mins)

Saturday, January 28, 2012
8:10 p.m. Diary of a Country Priest
Robert Bresson (France, 1950) A young country priest tries to live a pure life of goodness, but his parishioners respond with only scorn and indifference, in Bresson’s masterful work. “A film of great purity, and at the end, almost Bach-like intensity” (Pauline Kael). (114 mins)

Friday, February 3, 2012
7:00 p.m. The Devil Probably
Robert Bresson (France, 1977) New 35mm Print! Sick of the modern world, a chic Parisian seeks his own death in what has been called Bresson’s most cynical, controversial film, as relevant now as then. “When a civilization can produce a work of art as perfectly achieved as this, it is hard to believe that there is no hope for it” (Richard Roud). (93 mins)

Sunday, February 5, 2012
4:00 p.m. Les anges du péché
Robert Bresson (France, 1943) New 35mm Print! Bresson’s first full-length feature follows a sophisticated young woman into the closed world of a convent. (96 mins)

Friday, February 10, 2012
7:00 p.m. The Trial of Joan of Arc
Robert Bresson (France, 1962). In an austere, transcendent dramatization of the actual Joan of Arc trial transcripts, Robert Bresson conveys the mystery of the woman and the reality of the saint. “Trial seems like a historical document from an era in which cinema doesn’t exist” (Jean Cocteau). (65 mins)

Friday, February 10, 2012
8:25 p.m. Les dames du Bois de Boulogne
Robert Bresson (France, 1945). Bresson’s most accessible work (on the surface) updates an eighteenth-century Diderot novel to contemporary Paris and concerns a beautiful woman who takes revenge on her ex-lover. Antonioni called it a great influence on his own work. “A landmark in cinema history” (David Thomson). (90 mins)

Saturday, February 11, 2012
8:30 p.m. Lancelot of the Lake
Robert Bresson (France, 1974). Bresson gives us Lancelot and Guinevere and the end of the Arthurian era, a brave experiment in sound, image, and souls. “Stunningly beautiful, mesmerizing, exhausting, uplifting, amazing—all the things you could possibly expect from a masterpiece” (Time Out). (85 mins)

Friday, February 17, 2012
7:00 p.m. A Man Escaped
Robert Bresson (France, 1956) New 35mm Print! A Man Escaped is pure film existentialism. From a newspaper account by a Resistance leader who escaped from a Nazi prison in Lyon just hours before he was to be executed, Bresson created a film in which the drama is all internal. “Essential viewing” (Jonathan Rosenbaum). (97 mins)

Saturday, February 18, 2012
6:30 p.m. Une femme douce
Robert Bresson (France, 1969) Dominique Sanda stars in Bresson’s first color film, the story of a young woman who commits suicide. Adapted from a Dostoevsky short story. (88 mins)

Saturday, February 18, 2012
8:20 p.m. Four Nights of a Dreamer
Robert Bresson (France, 1971) New 35mm Print! Bresson returns to Dostoevsky in this tale of a shy painter who saves a woman from suicide, and their eventual ill-fated affair. “A movie about the condition of being in love. It is shockingly beautiful…and may well be Bresson’s loveliest film” (New York Times). (94 mins)

Saturday, February 25, 2012
8:35 p.m. L’argent
Robert Bresson (France, 1983). A young man unknowingly passes counterfeit money and sets off an escalating spiral of crimes, in Bresson’s last film, an adaptation of a Tolstoy novella— a tough, terse investigation of the power of money. Admired by directors such as Olivier Assayas, Martin Scorsese, and Richard Linklater. (85 mins)

Series coordinated at BAM/PFA by Susan Oxtoby. Thanks to the following individuals and institutions for their generous support of this retrospective: TIFF Cinematheque and James Quandt, Toronto, who undertook the organization of the North American touring series; Institut Français, Paris; Delphine Selles Alvarez at the French Cultural Services, New York; Denis Bisson and Nora Orallo, French Consulate San Francisco; La Cinémathèque Française, Paris; Mylène Bresson, Paris; Pierre Lhomme, Paris; Jake Perlin, The Film Desk, New York; Bruce Goldstein and Eric Di Bernardo, Rialto Pictures, New York; Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac, Janus Films, New York; and Alliance Française San Francisco.