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Robert Bresson

Accent Film Entertainment has released on DVD three films by Robert Bresson Pickpocket (1959), Proces de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) (incorrectly rendered on the packaging and the subtitling of the disk as The Trial of Joan of Arc’) and L’Argent (1983). All are DVDs of exceptional quality and provide the opportunity to see films whose availability, to varying degrees, has been very limited. Proces de Jeanne d’Arc may have had festival or other screenings through the French Embassy but, whatever, it has until now eluded me. I saw Pickpocket when it was first screened at a Melbourne Film Festival in the 60s and it has been shown on SBS. I’ve seen it a number of times since, (including most recently on Italian television in French with Italian subtitles!) L’Argent  has also had screenings on SBS. The DVD release puts them into wide public circulation in splendid copies with (mostly) exceptionally good subtitles. The disks have some splendid extras, the like of which are rarely assembled on locally released foreign language DVDs. The extras may arise because the films have been sourced from MK2 in France which has released them as part of a package of five.

Bresson’s career and reputation was at its peak when he made Pickpocket  and Proces. Between 1943 and 1956 he had made four features each of which had slowly refined his method of filming, most notably in the way he dealt with his actors. He had slowly come to a position where he required his actors to be, as he called them, ‘models’ seeking to find their ‘pure essence’. In his book ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’  Bresson returns again and again to what to what he seeks to obtain from them. Thus we read “An actor draws from him what is not really there. Illusionist”[1]. Then later “your models, pitched into the action of your film, will get used to gestures they have repeated twenty times. The words they have learned with their lips will find, without their minds taking part in this, the inflections and the lilt proper to their true natures. A way of recovering the automatism of real life. (The talent of one or several actors or stars no longer comes into it. What matters is how you approach your models and the unknown and the virgin nature you manage to draw from them.)”[2]

One of the many virtues of the Pickpocket disk is the inclusion of a wonderful documentary by Babette Mangolte in which she tracks down the three principal actors from the film and interviews them about their experience. Martin Lasalle is now living in Mexico having tried to pursue a career as an actor in Europe and America. Marika Green was studying dance at the Paris Opera and, afterwards did make other films, including Emmanuelle. Pierre Leymarie was a science student when first noticed by Bresson and went on to have a distinguished academic and research career far from Paris and the film industry. Each of them tells of Bresson’s methods with a clarity that only confirms his mastery and his knowledge of just what he could expect humans to do when faced with his method of shooting each take up to forty times.

Proces de Jeanne d’Arc features a similar extra, an extended interview with Florence Delay who played Joan (as Florence Carrez). She goes back after forty years to the place where the film was shot in the castle at Rouen where the trial took place. The memories come flooding back and the documentary illustrates her recollections quite precisely. The disk also has one interesting extra, an extended studio discussion with an academic who has studied Joan of Arc and is able to give his view of her history. It confirms in almost its entirety the verisimilitude of Bresson’s Joan. It also makes the point that Bresson’s ‘text’ is now one of thousands of publications, books and films devoted to her. Some of the professor’s points are illustrated by shots and sequences taken from one of the earliest film versions, a silent film whose authorship is not, as far as I could see, identified. That film enables us to see both the ‘truth’ and the ‘myth’.

The additional material on L’Argent is scrappier. Basically it consists of some cobbled together material, possibly, mostly from French TV, assembled when the film had its premiere at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Bresson uncomfortably sits through some interviews, occasionally drawn into a short debate, which he mostly uses to clarify something. There is nothing included about the source material, Tolstoy’s novel ‘The Forged Coupon’, and there is only a brief reference to it in Adrian Martin’s interesting essay included on the cover sleeve.  While mentioning Tolstoy’s novel, Martin gives greater attention t0 the “Dostoyevskyan elements of crime violence and punishment” in pairing L’Argent with Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966) in Bresson’s work.

For a very detailed analysis of the relationship between the Bresson film and the Tolstoy text you need to go to Kent Jones ‘L’Argent” in the BFI Modern Classics series. After summarising the Tolstoy text in one chapter Jones returns again and again to the points where the two works intersect and in particular where characters from Tolstoy are red-drawn and re-situated.[1]

Both Martin and Jones make much of the final sequence, heralded by the burst of green landscape which signals the start of Yvon’s final criminal outburst. Until then the film’s palette has been dominated by grey, steely blue and beige colours in the apartments, the shop and the prison. The disk does render these elements with much greater clarity than any copy of the film I have seen and it is a compliment to the efforts of the DVD producers that they have managed to find such pristine material to show off the work of the two Directors of Photography Pasqualino De Santis and Emmanuel Machuel.

All three disks carry some heavyweight critical commentary in the form of quite extended (at least in such a context) essays by Martin about each film. Adrian doesn’t bother writing for a curious amateur. His essay on Proces includes references to Straub and Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and Akerman’s Golden Eighties as well as comparisons to a number of other cinema Joans including those of Preminger, Besson, Dreyer and Rivette. These are excellent commentaries and much can be gained by reading them both before and after a viewing. They stand in marked contrast to the slop on the back cover of Pickpocket which, after referring to the lead throughout as ‘Michael’ contains such pearls as “one of the pioneering examples of cinema verite”(!) and “an enormous influence on Hal Hartley and Martin Scorsese” (Gee whiz!). I’m not so sure that much is added to the discussion by Martin even obliquely referring to L’Argent as the ultimate art house slasher film but I suppose it is of some interest that both Martin and Jones draw a relationship between this film and American titles Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer  and (in Jones text) The Silence of the Lambs

Finally a quibble. There is one major question with the subtitling of Pickpocket. The last line of the film uses the words “quel drole de chemin”. To translate this only as “what a path” misses the point entirely about the road that Michel has travelled to reach, as the Lully swells on the soundtrack, this moment of profound adoration. Interestingly the words are discussed in Babette Mangolte’s documentary and translated in their entirety.

I can only hope that the other the two remaining Bressons promised by Accent on the titles are delivered soon. More please and with similarly brilliant copies and no stinting on the extras.

[1] Bresson, Robert, Notes on the Cinematographer, Quartet Encounters, London, 1986, p.57

[2] Ibid, pp59-60


[1] L’Argent by Kent Jones, BFI Modern Classics, BFI Publishing, 1999