Often described as a "painter" of films, French director Robert Bresson was one of cinema's greatest anomalies. He directed only 13 films over the course of 40 years, but these films were in a category all their own, minimalist works that tended towards radical (and sometimes controversial) reinterpretations of such classical sources as Diderot, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. An expert manipulator of narrative incident, Bresson focused on seemingly incidental details of the stories he told and used amateur actors lacking any trace of theatricality, creating searching meditations on the quality of transcendence, spirituality, and alienation.
The year of Bresson's birth has often been subject to debate; his biographer, Philippe Arnaud, has declared it to be 1901, while others claim that he was born in 1907. Whatever the case may be, Bresson was born on September 25, in the town of Bromont-Lamothe, located in France's mountainous Auvergne region. Originally trained as a painter, he abandoned painting in favor of the cinema in 1934. His first film, a short comedy called Les Affaires Publiques, went largely unseen. In 1939, Bresson joined the French army and spent a year as a POW in a German war camp. The experience had a profound effect on him and would later prove to be a particular influence in his making of Un Condamné à Mort C'Est Echappé (A Man Escaped).
After this release, Bresson returned to Paris, and during the height of the war he began preparing his first feature-length film, Les Anges du Péché (Angels of Sin). Released in 1943, it was one of his only films to use trained actors, stylized dialogue, and a specially composed soundtrack, features that Bresson would reject in his later work.
Bresson sought literary inspiration for his second film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. Made two years after Les Anges, the film's plot was taken from a novel by Diderot, Jacques le fataliste, and featured dialogue written by Bresson and Jean Cocteau. A tale revolving around a woman's revenge on her seemingly uncaring lover, it was made with professional actors and the same composer and cameraman that Bresson used for his first film. Although it proved to be critically and financially, it contained the seeds of what would later become hallmarks of Bresson's work. Bresson's international reputation was established with his third film, Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) (1950). Based on the novel by Catholic writer Georges Beranos, it was a first-person account of the efforts of a young priest to bring salvation to an insular, loathsome French village. The film made evident his preoccupation with transcendence and spirituality, and was centered around the doomed priest's attainment of a state of grace.
The film that many consider to be Bresson's masterpiece came six years later. Un Condamné à Mort C'est Echappé (A Man Escaped) was inspired by the experiences of a former prisoner of war, Commandant André Devigny, and was both an excruciatingly tense study of the details of confinement and a profound interior examination of a human being. Bresson used non-professional actors for the film and only the most minimal of dialogue to create a sort of anxious dream state; even though the title would indicate otherwise, it was never entirely clear whether or not the prisoner would actually escape. Bresson not only succeeded in manipulating his audience in this way, he also achieved complete control through the use of his actors. Manipulating their every move and word, the director, as one critic observed, effectively played all of the film's roles. His incredible handle on all aspects of his film did not go unrewarded: Un Condamné won a number of international honors. Pickpocket, which followed in 1959, was one of Bresson's films that was indebted to Dostoyevsky. Loosely inspired by Crime and Punishment, it told the story of an arrogant pickpocket who feels that he is above the law and normal human emotions. The film employed the same documentary-like approach as Un Condamné, as well as an obvious delight in human skills. Like his previous work, Pickpocket provided another striking example of Bresson's preoccupation with isolation and transcendence and the ultimate attainment of a state of grace.
Following Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc) (1962), a study of Joan's inner struggle that blended historical accuracy and an extreme compression of narrative, Bresson made what many consider his most complex film Au Hasard, Balthazar (By Chance Balthazar) (1966). Deriving inspiration from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, the film was an episodic study of the experiences of a donkey and his victimization during a series of human encounters, each representing one of the deadly sins of humanity. When it was released, Balthazar was hailed as a film of deep resonance and immediacy, and Bresson's next film, Mouchette, followed just a year later with unprecedented rapidity. One of Bresson's most controversial films, Mouchette was banned in some areas as an indictment against teenage suicide. Certainly, the plight of the title character -- a socially isolated 14-year-old girl who is brutally raped and subsequently commits suicide -- is bleak, but as is typical in Bresson's films, Mouchette is more about tragic alienation and the ultimate attainment of inner peace.
Bresson's next film, Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman) (1969), was the first that he made in color. Both a study in the contrasts between its two protagonists and a spiritual examination of its central character, Une Femme Douce met with a fairly cool reception. The director went back to Dostoyevsky for his next film, Quatre Nuits d'un Rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer) (1971). Inspired by the author's White Nights, the film could be deemed a fairly accessible love story, but it was informed by Bresson's attraction to what has been described as "the idea of love being stronger than the love story itself." Although some of the director's admirers expressed concern about his preoccupation with young love and the use of popular music in the film, it still earned a number of honors.
Bresson's subsequent Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake) (1974), was a pet project for the director, who had spent 20 years planning how he would film the search for the Holy Grail. His most elaborate and expensive work, it combined fights and swordplay with long sequences of philosophical dialogue. Deeply pessimistic, it had none of the certainty of grace featured throughout Bresson's earlier works, and it was viewed as his darkest film to date. Bresson returned from the medieval forest to modern Paris for his next film, Le Diable, Probablement (The Devil, Probably) (1977). In rejecting modern society, the protagonist rejects the audience, who are complicit in the evils of society. His eventual death at the hands of a drug addict whom he has bribed to kill him brings with it a nihilistic state of grace, free of the kind of redemption that had dominated much of Bresson's previous work. Based on a story by Tolstoy, L'Argent (1983) was another examination of a world riddled by corruption. It was Bresson's last film, and he described it as the one with which he was most satisfied. It was the final installment in the career of a man who can be truthfully described as one of cinema's genuine auteurs. On December 18, 1999, Robert Bresson died, leaving behind over a half-century's worth of contributions to both his country's culture and that of the world.