The World is Not Enough

Follow the money: Robert Bresson's 'L'argent'
New Yorker Films

In interviews, the late French director Robert Bresson--subject of a five-film retrospective at Oak Street Cinema--harped on the distinction between representational "acting" (e.g., performers pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Richard Nixon) and the non-acting of his "models" (who were simply "themselves" onscreen). Yet one of the signature pleasures of Bresson's work, whether he would have liked it said or not, is its magnificent acting--as strong and truthful as that of the writhing Method performers in an Elia Kazan movie. Mesmerizingly attractive, slightly blank, and often inexperienced, Bresson's actors tread on crackling branches, close windowpanes, pour milk; immersing themselves in tasks, they press through the lattice of mere behavior and touch the soul.

The most Vermeer-like of all Bresson's spiritual x-rays is A Man Escaped (screening November 30 and December 1), his almost unbearably tense account of a French prisoner of war's escape from a German prison camp. It must be stated at the outset that this is a 90-minute movie about a guy opening a door with a spoon. Bresson occasionally gives the Escaping Man an actual close-up, in which the character is permitted that single Bressonian expression: a sly cat's swish of the eyeballs, looking to see if the coast is clear. But almost all of the movie concentrates on hands and tools: the peeling of three boards from their joints by way of a curled-up spoon; the transformation of metal bedsprings into a makeshift hook; the hiding of telltale wood shavings using a single straw from a broomstick. The beauty of the film's still-life focus on objects over people is that, as in a Vermeer, the inexpressible freshness and plangent quality of the human heart comes out of the obdurate deadness of the objects. No uplifting "triumph of the spirit" picture carries the charge of hope that A Man Escaped holds almost unconsciously; but the movie is so potent because the hero's need for escape is expressed entirely through physical means. There are no teary, Shawshank Redeeming monologues or scenes of roughneck convicts listening to Mozart in the yard; there is only the brute process of an attempted escape, brought so close that you can feel the calluses on your own hands.

Early Bresson conforms fairly closely to the model of devotional art: Like a fresco of the Stations of the Cross or a mystery play taken from Scripture, these films tell stories of suffering and endurance that strive to make the audience more godly, more patient, less selfish. In his later work, Bresson's choice of subject matter complicates things considerably. In a way, 1983's L'argent (December 7 and 8)--based on a cruel Tolstoy parable--seems as classically "transcendental" as all of Bresson's films: A counterfeit bill is fobbed off on a gullible young man, and the trail of that single phony bill sows unimaginable evil in its wake. But what one notices as this parable unfurls is that the director has now concentrated on something other than the action. Over five decades, Bresson so patiently focused on the smallest details of filmmaking--lens choices that bring us slightly closer or farther away, framing decisions that suddenly inject a charge into an asymmetric frame--that in L'argent he is able at last to obey Tolstoy's command to "make it strange." In the movie's early '80s Paris, nearly every location--an august courthouse, a color-coordinated jail, a toy-store window housing a sinister Rubik's Cube--seems to pulse with an evil, undefinable energy just below the surface. Having spent a lifetime acutely observing the skin of the world, Bresson is at last able, by slightly dilating his plain, handcrafted images, to grasp the ineffable beneath.

Never did the director capture mystery so profoundly as he did in 1966's Mouchette. (The film starts Friday for a week, playing on a double bill with Bresson's Au hazard Balthazar.) Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (who also wrote the book on which Bresson's superb Diary of a Country Priest is based), Mouchette details the suffering of a small-town girl in such present-tense acuity that the film feels like Eraserhead as told from the baby's point of view. Plagued by jeering girls, sneeringly regarded as a "slut" by pinched-face grownups, Mouchette finds solace only in the company of a rabbit poacher who feels funny in the head. When the poacher locks the door in a rain-spattered cabin and pulls out his flask of hard drink, you can feel yourself bracing for the worst. The climax and denouement of Mouchette have a disorienting, otherworldly strangeness. But Bresson makes no plaster saint out of the girl. He pays scrupulous attention to her bratty moments of disobedience in small, uncanny images so alien that they take the breath away--as when Mouchette does an inexplicable soft-shoe scuffle on the floor while an old lady torments her with fancy platitudes on the subject of death. Is Mouchette a tale of pointless suffering or of heroic endurance? Is it evidence that hurt feelings don't add up to a soul? Witness "non-actor" Nadine Nortier's hall-of-fame performance and decide for yourself.

Bresson made sure to tell the press every time he saw a new James Bond movie, as if he were to be congratulated for living in the 20th century. This always felt disingenuous to me. Yet a reinspection of the Bresson oeuvre (a word he despised) tells me that he may not have been, as usual, just reporting the facts. There is such accumulated tension in Bresson's movies, through such stringent economy, that you can't help thinking he would have been one of the great thriller directors of all time. (Few Hitchcock movies amass the sustained anxiety of A Man Escaped.) Worshiper at the altar of High Art as he was, Bresson could probably not have endured a conventional assignment (though it is reported he once wrote to George Cukor begging for one). Instead, his works generate another kind of suspense: How does a fragile thing like a soul survive in a soul-free world?

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