Robert Bresson has had a profound effect on filmmakers. He is credited with inspiring the French New Wave. He was ranked above all other filmmakers by the likes of Tarkovsky. He was honoured repeatedly at Cannes in a career that extended from 1943 to 1983, yet included only thirteen films.
Every accomplished filmmaker has his or her own special genius. As students, our task is not to imitate the masters but to learn their strengths and weaknesses so as to exceed them. Giants are there not so that we can kneel before them but so that we may stand on their shoulders and more easily extend our reach.
Apart from students of technique or cultural context, Bresson’s movies tend not to connect with larger audiences. Nor do they seem timeless. Some need to be seen more than once for a proper understanding and appreciation. Modern audiences are likely to find his films boring or little engaging. In our quest to understand how to make great movies, we ask: why?
Below are five Bresson traits that make audience enjoyment difficult:
1) We care little about Bresson’s characters as people. Bresson felt, correctly, that acting and actors suited to live theatre translated poorly to the movie medium. He famously cast non-actors or little known actors in key roles. He described actors as “models” and made little use of close-ups. But models are only objects. Actors, on stage or in a movie, still must serve as the primary instruments through which audience emotions are tickled or released. No “object” has ever evoked the same audience reaction as a smouldering look by Sharon Stone or a raised eyebrow by Anthony Hopkins.
2) The entertainment value is paper thin: it is like we are in church receiving the lesson from a wise father to whom we are meant to listen. Filmmakers tend to err in this way when they have something to teach that they imagine is so important that we will be grateful for the lesson. Such storytelling often begins with the desire for satisfying a storyteller’s needs rather than with the hope of satisfying an audiences’ desires.
3) Bresson’s stories have little plot in the Bob McKee sense. They are tragedies that just move from bad to worse with no gripping emotional reversals in between. Or, where there is joy, it is extremely muted compared to the surrounding ugliness.
4) Bresson’s women are not erotic and only his bad men have daring. It is unlikely that anyone has ever watched a Bresson film and thought, “I wish I was that person.” Instead, people are more likely to think, “I am glad I am not that person.”
5) Bresson does not see that what he thinks of as “good” may also have its evil side and that he, himself, may be part of the problem. The most profound tragedy is where good is pitted against good, each with its own weakness or blindness. The worlds-on-the-screen created by Bresson’s imagination tend not to go beyond good and evil.
Bresson’s heart was in the right place. He loved movies and desperately wanted to use the medium to offer his audience the gift of something important. However, did any person ever come away from a Bresson movie motivated to change his or her life?
Audiences do not go to movies with a first goal of learning something. Their first hope is to be entertained. This desire must be taken care of first, before the movie doctor can take of an audience’s other needs.
Bresson began his career admiring the painter Cézanne as a kind of “ultimate master.” Bresson did then create his own distinctive style in the way that we know painters, each as a force unto him, or her, self. But Bresson is not the “ultimate master” of movies. After he put down his camera, the world still seems open to any filmmaker tempted by the art of sculpting in time, as aided by the brushes strokes of cinematography.