The Definitive Ranking of Every Robert Bresson Film Ever!

The Definitive Ranking of Every Robert Bresson Film Ever! June 17, 2015

Dear friends and readers. Yes, this is satire. Sort of. It’s meant to be a comment on the Buzzfeedy clickbait headlines that clutter our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. But the rankings are more or less how I like them. Whether that makes this list “definitive” is up for debate, I suppose.

13) Lancelot du Lac (1974)

lancelotbreson I love a good Arthurian legend retelling. Who doesn’t? I once wrote an undergraduate paper on Camelot 3000, so it’s not like I object to revisions or updates. That said, there is something about the genre that doesn’t lend itself to Bresson’s taciturn, non-emoting actors. (Or maybe vice-versa?) I’ve tried. I’ve read essays, got my buddy to podcast the film with me, and listened to those who appreciate it more. Maybe it’s the endless shots of the horses. Maybe the armor reminds me of Monty Python. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a work of genius. But I probably wouldn’t watch it again unless somebody paid me. All kidding about Monty Python aside, I get that the brutality in the deaths and the lack of grace in life de-romanticizes the whole narrative, but I got that from “Miniver Cheevy” as well.

12) Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)

4nightsdreamerbressonI will admit here that I’ve only ever seen this film on a bad (bootleg?) DVD that looked like it was grabbed off French television. Focus issues, hard to read subtitles. The film didn’t have much of a chance. As far as the content goes, the story of a young painter who falls in love with a suicidal girl leans a little too heavy on the ironic ending for my taste. This film is based on a Dostoevsky short story/novella, and I while I can feel the Russian’s breath running through A Gentle Woman, there’s a lightness here that I don’t always get. It’s still better than most of the studio stuff that will get released this year. I suppose at some point I will mistake this for one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales when my memory starts to slip.

11) Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

balthazarbressonYeah, Balthazar. Did I mention this was the *definitive* list. Sure Godard loved it, but Bergman knocked it. Are court of public appeals cases ever resolved by expert testimony? I’m on the, “hey, it’s a great film and all, but it’s about a donkey” bandwagon. That’s not fair, really, Balthazar is simultaneously participant, object, and observer. Balthazar is so universally admired, that I’ve probably spent more time trying to warm up to it than any other film that did not feature Jack Lemmon in a dress. The piano music is good. The timing of the last shot is perfect. And I love animals. Heaven knows I have little trouble projecting emotions onto beasts or imagining their interior world. Maybe I end up resenting Balthazar for distracting my attention from Marie. Don’t know. Don’t really care. Just know I’ve been happier since giving up the notion that I should love this film. Then again, it’s great. I mean, don’t watch the ten best Bresson films and then stop, is what I’m saying.

10) Les anges du péché (1943)

angelsofsinThose who presume that Bresson’s signature style–fragmented bodies, non-emotive actors–is what makes him great, almost by force of logic have to assign the pre-50s films to a lesser category, significant for early glimpses of what would be more fully realized in later films. It’s fun to hunt those moments, just as it is fun to look for doorway framing in early John Ford movies, but I actually kind of like Bresson’s early stuff on its own merits. For one, this film is a good introduction to Bresson for those who might balk at the style if you throw them immediately into the deep end of the swimming pool. The plot is very melodramatic, centering around false convictions, secrets, and questions of spiritual rehabilitation. Of all Bresson’s films, this is the one that feels the most narrative in the traditional Hollywood sense. The people look and sound like actors playing characters. The narrative unfolds in a somewhat predictable manner. And yet it’s all well done and interesting with lots of little moments, visually and aurally, that reward close viewing. Ann-Marie joins a convent known for rehabilitating female prisoners. You can imagine the rest of the story.

9) Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

diarycountrypriestThis is such a singular film. It’s filled with all sorts of things I normally don’t care for: voice-over narration, a conflicted but ultimately good (I think) priest, and irony that is more bitter than comic. Here, it all works. One mark of a genius craftsman is that he doesn’t have to be imaginative in conception, he can be imaginative in execution. It also helps (at least it helped me) if you stop thinking about the film as being about the priest and start thinking about it as being about the parish. Once you do that, the themes become a little more complex. This film would probably make a nice double feature with Calvary in that regard. If Diary doesn’t rank higher on my list, which I hope I’ve mentioned is a definitive one, it’s only because the Country Priest never acquires personality. Sainthood sure. But I never feel as though I know him. He ultimately gets lost in his label. Maybe that’s the point–after all IMDB doesn’t even assign him a name. I’ll like to know the name…and other things about him.

8) Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

damesduboisBased on a story by Diderot, this film is a bit of a revenge melodrama. I’ve always wanted to do it as a double feature with Valmont. Maria Cesares is delicious in this the last film before Bresson veered away from professional actors. Even though it is not stylistically of a piece with the more esteemed later films, I like it for the way it somehow–God knoweth how–wrings some sympathy out of me for the plotting Helene. She realizes her lover no longer cares for him and manipulates him  into a relationship with a younger woman about whose past history he is unaware. The consequences are initially predicable, and yet the film never really asks us to revel in the pain of any character no matter how much other films telling the same story might allow us some room to relish the payback of karma. Mostly what I like is Cesares. Isn’t it strange that we pride ourselves in how egalitarian our 21st century is and yet how much more rich and varied were some of the roles for women in the middle of the last century?

7) The Devil, Probably (1977)

devilprobablyI like this film a lot. Who knows, if I ever do the *definitiver* list, it may be even higher. I like it, but it’s difficult. It is difficult narratively (a little harder to follow) and thematically. On a first viewing I wanted more cues on how I was supposed to feel about some of their actions. Bresson never gives you emotive direction. (Maybe not never, but seldom.) He’s the anti-Spielberg in that regard. Anyway, a bunch of college student types are depressed about the arc of the modern world and who is or isn’t sleeping with who. Given this film was made in the late 70s, it feels remarkably topical and of the moment. Bresson was very prophetic, not just about issues like environmentalism but on how the postmodern malaise might grow like mold beneath the skin of anyone with a spiritual temperament. Survival in the modern world is so much about not letting yourself care. I guess I could do this as a double feature with An Education. Why do some young adults escape their existential funks and others never do?

6) Mouchette (1967)

mouchetteSince I seem to be doing a double-feature theme, I guess the obvious choice here is Rosetta by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. If the latter film is one I find easier to revisit from time to time, perhaps that is because the end of Mouchette is so very, very bleak. Mouchette is like a child version of Balthazar. Her mother is dead, and her father neglects her. Her silent, staring face almost dares you to look away. Eventually a poacher in the woods thinks he may need her to alibi him for a crime. Also, because Rosetta is older, I get more of a sense of who she is a person. What I feel for Mouchette may be more intense, but the sting of heartbreak is dissipated somewhat by its numbing, generic quality. Still, of all Bresson’s films, this is the one I could most often watch with no sound, just occasionally hitting the pause button to devour a simple image that could be a painting.

5) L’argent ( 1983)

largentBresson’s last film, based on a Tolstoy story, is almost too perfect. That’s an odd oxymoron, I know, but I mean by it that chain-of-consequences from passing a forged bank note is so economically told that it is the only Bresson film that risks my accusing it of being written around a thesis. Seemingly small sins sometimes have large consequences. We live with ourselves–individually and corporately–by imagining our worst actions as affecting nameless strangers (or collectives) rather than our neighbors. And we are so very, very quick to forget and forgive our own indiscretions while clinging to assumptions about the sources of others’. Because the film is only 85 minutes and yet covers a lot of ground, you do need to pay attention. If you are a fan of the television series Law & Order, this film might be a good entry point into the Bresson canon. It has that seemingly un-plotted quality that comes from following the ripples rather than the stone.

4) Pickpocket (1959)

pickpocketPerhaps the best known of Bresson’s films, Pickpocket is the foundation for Paul Schrader’s important work, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. I sometimes feel like arguing that Pickpocket is the only film that exemplifies Schrader’s definition, but I will save that for another, non-definitive, post. Pickpocket is, like Moll Flanders, part documentary by way of composite biography. I very much like the way that Bresson allows us to see the Michel’s life of crime as influenced by broader forces (i.e.not just a sign of moral weakness) but never slides totally into environmental determinism. There’s a love story after a fashion and cat-and-mouse interaction with a police detective. Also, of all the signature films, this one has one of the best marriage of style and content. The reduction of bodies to hands, pockets, wallets, makes sense. That is what his world is reduced to. The lack of emotion doesn’t seem quite so alien since Michel, like the protagonist in A Man Escaped, is in a setting where he needs his expressions to be stoic.

3) The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

trialofjoanbressonThe obvious double feature here is Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Let’s just get that out of the way. I sometimes think Bresson’s film get’s a bad rap for not being Dreyer’s film, as though there is room in our hearts for only one definitive telling of the story. The understated quality really works for me here, as does the reliance on transcripts. This film is very much about her trial, not her passion (though the latter is included). In a trial, words matter. The perfectness of many of the words points to something beyond what we see on the screen in much the same way that Schrader claims Pickpocket‘s final scene does. The film doesn’t so much argue in favor of Joan’s inspiration and guidance as challenge you to come up with any other suitable explanation. In Dreyer’s Joan we get a lot of close ups; in Bresson’s we sometimes see Joan from a distance, through a keyhole. In Dreyer’s we feel her transcendent ecstasy; in Bresson’s we marvel at the juxtaposition of the body’s frailty and spirit’s resolution. I am so glad we have both.

2) A Gentle Woman (1969)

gentlewoman2No, you can’t object. As I said in the title, this is the *definitive* ranking. About the only thing I don’t love about Une femme douce is the flashback structure, and I like that okay. Based on a Dostoevsky short story, this film begins with a suicide and then flashes back to the meeting of the title character and her eventual husband, a controlling pawn broker. I think a lesser film would reduce the unhappy marriage to one of physical abuse, as though that is the only kind of suffering that really matters. Also, there are moments of seeming happiness here. Are they real? Unlike The Devil, Probably, A Gentle Woman seems to create a world in which happiness is a possibility, at least for some, and is elusively unattainable for a heroine who knows not why. 

1) A Man Escaped (1956)

manescapedA perfect blend of style and content, A Man Escaped is simultaneously accessible and palette-enlarging, narratively simple and thematically complex, breathtakingly tense and yet cruelly devoid of pace. In Andre Devigny’s memoir about a miraculous escape from a Nazi prison in occupied France, Bresson finds the ideal scenario for his observational style, his scrupulous attention to detail, and his pursuit after recording the wind. What does it mean to be spirit led? To trust God only for the present moment? Fontaine lives in  a situation where each decision could be his last and where vision extends only to and never around the next corner. Where I would see a dead-end, he sees only a hurdle. Where I might despair at the minute pace of my plan’s progress, he casts his bread upon the waters. A Man Escaped has a special place in my heart because when I first saw it, I thought to myself very clearly at a particular point that I would make a different decision than Fontaine. Not because my decision would have been more Christian but because I would have rationalized that I had no other choice. We always have choices. They don’t always work out right, and we aren’t promised that choosing rightly will lead to success. But when we trust God for the choice at hand, for the next step, and then the next…journeys that looked impossible from their starting point somehow seem to unfold. I love how the film never depicts the supernatural, never has a single data point that couldn’t be ascribed to human intention, human effort, or blind luck. Yet each one of those plot points extends to a thread which, once revealed as part of a whole, weaves a tapestry that could not have been created any other way.

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