I have to admit that I struggle with Robert Bresson.
I get that he was an important filmmaker with a resolutely personal vision at odds with many of his contemporaries, that he was a singular influence on the national cinemas of Romania and Iran, and that many great films from those countries, alongside much of the work of Aki Kaurismäki (Finland,) Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey) and Ousmane Sembène (Senegal,) to name just three, would not exist or would be significantly different were it not for his presence. But there can be no denying that unlike all the above his films are, well, a little dry. Not so Edward D. Wood, Jr., another important filmmaker with a unique approach to cinema.
Love him or hate him, no-one could ever claim to be bored by an Ed Wood movie. Both men preferred to work with non-professional actors (with the possible exception of Bela Lugosi,) both struggled to find funding for their projects but both men stuck to their guns through thick and thin against the odds, making the films they wanted to see the way they wanted them made. Wood may not receive the cultural reverence currently reserved for Bresson, but to my mind he is no less important a director.
…spouting sub-Nietzschean gobbledygook…
With this in mind I finally got round to taking the shrink wrap off my DVD copy of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, bought several years ago for the princely sum of £5 in the Shaftesbury Avenue branch of Fopp principally because he is An Important Filmmaker who tons of other filmmakers that I love (Andrei Tarkovsky being at the very top of that list) respect and venerate and it was probably about time that I bit the bullet and got over my prejudice for his work. I have no idea where this comes from, probably a half-remembered TV screening followed by an aborted attempt to sit through his donkey classic Au Hazard Balthazar, another Bresson DVD that I have yet to finish watching. I managed twenty minutes before zoning out and gonging that one off in favour of something more interesting. So, with all this in mind I sat down to watch.
My first response was a mixture of boredom and ridicule. Here were non-actors stumbling woodenly over their lines, spending long periods of time peering at the floor, spouting sub-Nietzschean gobbledygook in bars or just wandering forlornly around Paris, and what was with all the voice-overs?
…one of several unsettling elements that contribute to the overall tone of the film…
Anyone who has ever studied screen writing knows that voice-overs are the last refuge for naïve and inexperienced film-makers, used far too often to salvage the narrative when a story doesn’t come across as planned and should be avoided in favour of visual storytelling wherever possible, but here it is maddening. And just what was it with the grotty condition of the lead character’s room? The door doesn’t even lock, for heaven’s sake! What self-respecting pickpocket would allow themselves to live in a situation like that?
And then, around thirty minutes in, something strange happened. I found myself caring about the characters, wanting to know what happened, and most significantly, delighting in the visual language of the film, particularly in the many beautifully choreographed scenes of pickpockets at work in public, and the ending, which reframes the context of the narrative entirely, is subtle but very clever. The overbearing and over-explanatory voice-overs began to make sense too, especially since the principal character happens to be a writer (presumably not a terribly successful one.) Voice-overs work in Film Noir for similar reasons. The way the main character’s accommodation is presented also turned out to be just one of several unsettling elements that contribute to the overall tone of the film, which leaves only my reservations about the wooden and deadpan acting. Well, I guess that is precisely what Bresson wanted. I refer the reader back to any movie directed by Aki Kaurismäki (or Jim Jarmusch or Takeshi Kitano, although to be fair his principal inspiration is probably Ozu) to see how this method of directing actors can work superbly within the worlds they consistently manage to create and sustain from film to film. Martin LaSalle’s central performance is still arguably the film’s one real weak point. However, despite having been plucked off the streets to appear in this film he went on to have a long and distinguished career and presumably got much better at it.
…you will be rewarded with some extraordinarily poetic film-making…
So, what lessons can be learned from this? Firstly, you have to be in the right frame of mind to watch Bresson but if you are patient you will be rewarded with some extraordinarily poetic film-making. His influence on and importance to other film-makers cannot be over-stated, and for this reason alone he is worth taking the trouble to investigate even if you don’t immediately appreciate everything that he is trying to say. I shall leave the final word to Bresson himself as it more or less sums up his entire approach to film-making in a single sentence:
“When you do not know what you are doing and what you are doing is the best – that is inspiration.”