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The Road to Bresson (1984)
"De weg naar Bresson" (original title)

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February 1984 (Netherlands)  »

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The Road to Bresson  »

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This documentary is available as an extra on the 2008 UK DVD release of A Man Escaped (1956) from Artificial Eye. See more »

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References Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) See more »

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THE ROAD TO BRESSON (Jurrien Rood and Leo De Boer, 1984) ***
21 December 2011 | by (Naxxar, Malta) – See all my reviews

Though he is one of my favorite film-makers, this is actually the first documentary I have watched about Bresson. Even if I was aware beforehand of his repudiation of 'constructed' cinema (which he tried in his first 3 efforts then abandoned for the remaining 11!), I was still taken aback by his evident lack of appreciation for the work of directors at least as revered as himself (as a side-note, having just acquired his undeniably interesting if underwhelming THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC {1962}, I read that he was severely critical of the stylization within Carl Theodor Dreyer's otherwise no less austere rendition of the same events, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC {1928}, generally acknowledged as one of the pinnacle achievements of Silent cinema!) and also analysts of his work (writer/director Paul Schrader: more on this later). Apart from which, he acts rather condescendingly towards the 2 directors of the documentary, who are repeatedly shown throughout trying to contact him for a brief interview (presented at the very end).

I cannot say how the participants in the documentary were chosen (that is, if others were approached but declined to contribute) but the 3 directors who do appear all had some connection to the subject of the documentary. Though Andrei Tarkovsky admits to being influenced by Bresson, there was a whiff of topicality to his presence, since both film-makers had just shared the Best Direction prize at the latest Cannes Film Festival, the award being presented by none other than Orson Welles (unfortunately, though both much younger than him, Welles and Tarkovsky would die within 2 years of the documentary's release, whereas Bresson passed away, a venerable 98-year old, on 18 December 1999 i.e. 12 years to the day of this viewing!). At the Press Conference for his latest and, as it turned out, last work (i.e. L'ARGENT {1983}), Bresson displays typical evasiveness – even joking about his old age by feigning to be hard of hearing! As for Louis Malle, he states that Bresson (whose rigorous working method the "Nouvelle Vague" exponent witnessed first-hand) has left an indelible mark on French cinema, but his own style in particular. Writer/director Paul Schrader (author of "Transcendental Style In Cinema", a book comparing the spare modus operandi of Bresson, the afore-mentioned Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu) recounts how, during an interview for which he had prepared a specific (and, to him, vital) set of questions, Bresson only contrived to give vague answers (reiterating the point I made about the auteur's indifference to anybody else's opinion)! Also on hand is Dominique Sanda (unsurprisingly the only one of his actors to turn up, since she had the most fortuitous career after debuting – in A GENTLE WOMAN {1969}, watched just prior to this – under his guidance) who says that, working for Bresson, invariably renders one prone to underplay any given role!

The documentary, then, is quite insightful – even providing quotes from Bresson's slender book "Notes On Cinematography", collecting a series of casual observations he made over the years and which would inform his distinct cinematic style – culminating in the afore-mentioned interview with the documentarians (who he almost walks out on because they exceed the number of questions that was stipulated beforehand!), where he rejects their idea of his work being intrinsically pessimistic in nature (becoming increasingly so as it went along), arguing that, whatever his characters' ultimate actions, they were arrived at after having attained a complete state of lucidity! One disappointment here, though, is the fact that only 3 pictures are discussed in any detail and represented by clips – namely 1956's A MAN ESCAPED, 1974's LANCELOT DU LAC and 1977's THE DEVIL, PROBABLY – with the film-makers going so far as to visit their respective locations! While discussing LANCELOT, it is remarked how little we see of the 'medieval' scenery throughout – a jousting tournament is exclusively shot from mounting level – however, by doing this, rather than alienating potential viewers, Bresson forces them to be active participants in the narrative as each will be trying to imagine what they are missing. Interestingly, this very same method of audience identification had been adopted much earlier by none other than Dreyer – ironically, for JOAN OF ARC itself! – but, in his case, he ended up exasperating the producer instead, by ordering expensive sets to be erected (so as to supply the proper atmosphere) and then proceed to shoot virtually the entire film in close-up!

In conclusion, there is another well-regarded feature-length documentary on Bresson, called UN METTEUR EN ORDRE (1966): this is included on the Criterion DVD edition of his AU HASARD, BALTHAZAR (1966), which I own but have yet to go through…


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