published 22/12/1999 at 10:11 GMT by Brian Baxter
Cinematic genius in search of inner passion and complexity
The image most associated with the French film director Robert Bresson, who has died aged 92, was that of an austere, pessimistic critic, a Jansenist at odds with the modern world. Living on the top floors of an elegant 17th-century building on the Ile St Louis in Paris, he was accused of an ivory tower existence outside the mainstream of cinema, refusing the slightest compromise.
He declined to travel outside France, despised the publicity machine and, when awarded an ex-aequo prize at Cannes in 1981, refused to attend - leaving his admirer and co-recipient, Tarkovsky, to accept on his behalf. This was for L'Argent (1981), a masterpiece for which many French people never forgave him - critical, as it was, of their obsession with a second god, money.
All of the above is part of the truth. But Bresson was grave not dour. He was unwilling to compromise only because he was secure in the belief - or knowledge - that his interior view of cinema had no application if modified.
He was a proud man, but also the most singular of all directors, an indisputable cinematic genius whose comparatively modest output of one book, Notes On The Cinematographer, one comic short, Les Affaires Publiques (1934) and 13 features made between 1943 and 1981 carry a weight and influence belied by the mere 20 hours of screen time. He demanded "not beautiful images, but necessary images". The resulting body of work is rigorous, demanding and concentrated. He was the least bombastic of directors and the one for whom the word auteur is most apt.
His films, from Les Anges Du Péché (1943) onwards, are instantly recognisable and constitute a pyramidic volume of work that is unique and unsurpassed. His refusal to compromise meant that projects and scripts remained unfilmed, and that producers and backers were difficult to find or hold on to. He never worked outside the cinema, and never taught or wrote for other people. Paradoxically, as purely a "cinematographer" - his word - he puts to shame the conventional aspects of movie-making.
The austerity is most noticeable after the third film, Journal D'un Curé De Campagne (1950), when he finally rejected collaborators on his screenplays, never again used professional actors, eschewed the use of background music and used only one lens. In all but Lancelot Du Lac (1974) he relied on sparingly used classical music, normally integrated into the action and complex sounds.
Bresson was born in Bromont-Lamothe. He studied Greek, Latin and philosophy and appears to have had a comfortable early life, of which - characteristically - little is known. After his first wife's death, he remarried.
He aspired to be a painter, but said that this made him "too agitated". He is credited as a photographer, and two works were exhibited at the Barbican, in London, in the late 1980s. He was also an accomplished pianist, playing until he "lost the nimbleness" in his fingers. Music remained a dominant interest in his life and he believed that aspiring film-makers should study music, painting and poetry - and not attend film school.
During the 1930s Bresson moved towards cinema and aimed at "seeing everything", with Charlie Chaplin a special favourite. He contributed to a screenplay, C'était Un Musicien (1933) and had contact with the director René Clair. He made a surreal comedy, Les Affaires Publiques, with backing from the art historian Roland Penrose. This oddity, starring a droll clown Bébé, was long suppressed, but he allowed two screenings during a season of his work at the National Film Theatre in London. Even then, he insisted that I introduce the programme and explain that - like his first two features - it was only there to "complete the retrospective".
Only after he had served 18 months as a prisoner-of-war did Bresson's cinematic career really begin, with Les Anges Du Péché, set in a Dominican convent. It had some dialogue by Jean Giraudoux and a melodramatic story concerning two women, one the saintly Anne-Marie, the other a murderess, Thérèse. It was an extraordinary debut, unsensational, economical and serene. Although only a modest success, Bresson moved quickly to a second project - with dialogue by Jean Cocteau.
This adaptation of a section from Diderot's Jacques Le Fataliste became Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne, again with music by Jean-Jacques Grunenwald and using established actors. The story concerned a woman's intended revenge on the lover who had rejected her. Told simply it sounds like a Sirkian melodrama, but the film had a cool elegance and the timeless quality that marked most of the later work.
Bresson waited several years before realising the project that established him as the foremost French director of the next three decades. Based on a novel by Bernanos, Journal D'un Curé De Campagne (1950) was awarded the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion and became a commercial success. This was his last use of Grunenwald and any professional actors. Subsequently, he cast by face, gesture and even by voice over the telephone.
In 1956 Bresson made the film that became - and remained - his greatest popular success, Un Condamné à Mort S'est Echappé (A Man Escapes). This masterpiece concerns the true story of the escape by a French prisoner-of-war from a Nazi stronghold. The achievement becomes, in Bresson's hand, a miraculous journey and the most jubilant testimony to faith in all cinema. The blend of documentary realism and the director's insistence that the story has "no embellishments" is a wonderful contrast to its interior passion and complexity.
Although life for Bresson never became easy, this success led to six features in the following 15 years - Pickpocket (1959), Le Procès De Jeanne d'Arc (1961), Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1969) and his first films in colour, Une Femme Douce (1969) and Quatre Nuits D'un Reveur (1971), the last two taken from Dostoevsky.
Bresson's first use of Dostoevsky was more obliquely in Pickpocket, where the inspiration is Crime And Punishment. The film of Joan's trial is based on the actual transcripts of the period. His masterpiece Balthazar, ostensibly about a donkey, is rare for its circular movement, rather than his usual linear approach. Mouchette, another country-set story - Bresson moved confidently between rural and urban settings - also derives from a Bernanos novel. It is a severe, majestic work with a final suicide that results from an unsentimen talised accumulation of suffering and despair.
In 1974, Bresson completed a long cherished project. Once planned as an English-based film, Lancelot Du Lac was reissued in 1994 and still looked years ahead of its time, with its timeless quality and its concern with spirituality and earthliness. He followed this classical work with his most controversial one, Le Diable, Probablement (1977), inspired by a newspaper report of a student who committed suicide by proxy - paying another boy to shoot him. Bresson parallels the suicide with a materialist rush to oblivion that he foresaw in the modern world.
The French resented the implicit criticism - as they did in L'Argent, the film which Bresson once said gave him the "most pleasure". This final masterpiece proved to be his last film, although all the works continued - and continue - to be revived and reissued. In 1986 his logbook of discoveries was published, and remains for me the best book on cinema ever written.
Bresson's reputation has never faltered, and Jean-Luc Godard's comparisons with Dostoevsky and Mozart have been echoed a thousand times. He was a man of unfailing courtesy, happily receiving guests at his Paris apartment (but never at his retreat at Epernon) and sending handwritten notes in reply to any question or concern. David Thomson wrote that Bresson's films "surpass beauty, in both intention and effect, and stress necessity". His fine essay echoes Bresson's own words, asking for "nothing too much, nothing deficient". His genius was in combining that lack of surface bombast with an interior complexity of unsurpassed richness.
In recent years Bresson's reputation has continued to grow, thanks to the reissue of several films, the adulation of fellow film-makers and the publication of innumerable articles and books. Earlier this year, the Cinematique Ontario initiated a complete retrospective using new prints, which was repeated at the Edinburgh Film Festival and London's National Film Theatre to capacity audiences.
He is survived by his second wife, Marie-Madeleine.
Robert Bresson, film director, born September 25 1907; died December 18 1999
published 22/12/1999 at 10:11 GMT by Brian Baxter