A few nights ago, I watched Robert Bresson’s ‘L’Argent’. I had seen it before, years ago, and remember being less impressed with it than some of his other films.
With this film as well as his others, it’s as if Bresson constructed his own film language, completely apart from what others have done with film over the last 150 years. You can take it or leave it, like it or not. It’s as if he’s found a way to write stories using only nouns: tree—man—star. The pace and simplicity of the shots are like that: often static shots of people standing, nearly expressionless.
Bresson doesn’t use actors. He uses people who have never acted before. He calls these people ‘models’. He, evidently, doesn’t actually coach them to ‘act’. More often than not, they appear blank.
Bresson’s is a cinema of gesture, but not the kind of mannered gesture, this phrase might call to mind; more an awareness of gesture in everyday life; an understanding of the awareness encapsulated in gesture, so that the simple opening of a door or exchange of money seems to have, nested within it, everything that will happen and could happen next.
Bresson’s color films are not pretty, but they’re not ugly. They seem, in a way, visually indifferent; as if one color might be as good as another. The framing, however, is precise; the editing sharp and clear.
The pace is exacting. After being away from his films for a time, when I return I’m never quite sure for the first thirty minutes whether he knows what he’s doing at all. The juxtaposition of shot after shot seems almost arbitrary, but not in an associative or impressionist sense. It’s only nearly halfway in before the pace gathers its cumulative effect and begins to take on something for me.
‘L’Argent’ is often referred to as bleak, but it doesn’t strike me that way at all. It’s simply that Bresson withholds a certain kind of judgment and doesn’t allow us, as the audience, the escape into easy emotions of pity, horror or sympathy.
There is almost nothing that ever happens in a Bresson film that doesn’t happen in our own prosaic lives. He doesn’t film the sunset in glorious colors to accentuate the beauty we might tend to miss. He shoots a sunset. There is almost no music to telegraph feeling and, when music is used, it’s never for that reason. There are no actors to bring our attention to the feelings of the characters. A kiss is as awkward or glancing, as badly accomplished, as it might be between any of us on any day.
He’s working toward the elaboration of an inner reality but that reality is not personal. Personal interaction in Bresson films operate more on the level of metaphor, but even this makes them sound more ‘artistic’ or symbolic than they actually are because, for the most part, his films bear little relation to what we usually think of as ‘art films’.
Bresson is aware of suffering. He accepts suffering as a given and finds no reason to romanticize or elevate it. The impact of his character’s suffering is blunted, drained away. His earlier films modeled a certain thread of redemption which eventually nearly disappears from the later films, where it seems there is very little we might accomplish.
In Bresson, one is aware of ‘vision’ (an overused word to be sure, but no other will do), and a vision extended into a medium, changing that medium to its own ends, generating a new and vital vocabulary from elements that have been used many, many times before.
One is aware of an inner reality (Bresson’s) taking an outer form (the film) in order to activate an inner reality (the viewer). This is the communication of inner experience, not as a story (this happened and I thought this, then that happened and I felt this), but as an experience in itself.
Art is about initiating the viewer into an experience they either don’t know they have access to, or they don’t know how to access. The experience allows for the awareness, the definition, the search, for other experiences of the same kind. The simple opening of a door. No more, no less.
Bresson’s film are quiet, deceptively unassuming. They find doors where no one thought to look.