Robert Bresson was a French filmmaker whose minimalist approach to filmmaking and dedicated precision in his style made him a favorite among his contemporaries and the following generation of filmmakers—most notably Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky, both of whom cited him as a strong influence. His filmic philosophies of using real locations, non-actors, and retaining authorial control helped to inspire the start of the French New Wave.
Bresson was born in 1901 in central France and later moved to Paris where, as a young man, he wanted to be a painter. In fact, he didn’t make his first feature film until he was already in his early forties. By that time, he had been a prisoner of war for a year and his debut film, released in 1943, would be his only feature film made during the Nazi occupation of France. The film is titled ‘Angels of Sin’ and follows a young woman who decides to become a nun. ‘Angels of Sin,’ as well as his second film, would be the only of Bresson’s films to feature a cast of professional actors.
His time spent as a prisoner of war would influence one of his most famous films, titled ‘A Man Escaped,’ which follows a French Resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied France named Fontaine, who is taken prisoner. The film traces Fontaine’s attempts to escape the prison, and the story is based on a real person named Andre Devigny who managed to escape a Nazi-run prison in France during World War II. Bresson tells this story as factually as possible—the events are not sensationalized, and this allows us to better connect with the experience of Fontaine’s predicament and put ourselves in his shoes.
Catholicism would also be a major influence on his work, showing up in nearly all of his films, and several center entirely around the religion. Bresson himself was said to have identified as a “Christian Atheist,” although it is unclear to what extent. The themes of his films range from finding salvation and redemption to commentary on French society.
Perhaps his most famous film, titled ‘Pickpocket,’ follows a thief learning and practicing techniques to master his craft. Bresson’s discipline as a painter most likely contributed to the precision of his shots. He would storyboard his shots alone and then set his drawings aside never to look at them again during production. He is well-known for fragmenting the body through composing shots of hands or feet, which was part of his aim to find and define the language of film as opposed to many other films, which could just as easily be done on the stage.
In his forty years of filmmaking, Bresson would make only thirteen films, yet his impact on cinema as an art form leaves us with a masterful and unique demonstration of what the medium can do.
‘Angels of Sin’ (1943 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘Diary of a Country Priest’ (1951 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘A Man Escaped’ (1956 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘Pickpocket’ (1959 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’ (1962 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘Au hasard Balthazar’ (1966 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘Mouchette’ (1967 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘A Gentle Woman’ (1969 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘L’argent’ (1983 dir. Robert Bresson)
‘Breathless’ (1960 dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.