Difficult directors are difficult in different ways; however, the end result is generally the same. Few people have the stamina to watch, possibly even to think about, their films.
An even better possibility is that no one has heard of them. Indeed, difficult directors from outside North America will have or have had problems getting their films shown widely.
Robert Bresson’s credentials sport 13 films over 40 years—one of the first signposts of a difficult director. The others?
He takes his time with projects. His films don’t make much money. Critics love ALL of his work.
His topics are varied. He adapted two novels by George Bernanos: Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette. He made a film about Joan of Arc and another dealing with Arthurian legend. Two of his most famous, if not most watchable, are Pickpocket (1959) and A Man Escaped (1955), a tense story about a condemned French Resistance fighter escaping from a Nazi prison. He also has a film about a donkey, Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), which rekindled my interest in Bresson last year.
Lancelot du Lac (1974) was the first Bresson film I saw, in 1976. It made such an impression that I still consider it one of the most important films I’ve seen. It de-romanticized the Knights of the Round Table story, illustrating the mean temperament and bloodlust of medieval society. A few years later, when Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1978) raked over what was left of the legend, they parodied some of the extreme bloodletting in the Bresson film.
I didn’t follow his work for another 34 years.
It was not because I thought Lancelot too difficult. Of all the Bresson films I’ve seen, it may be the most accessible. What I learned in the last year, though, was that the matter-of-fact action and characterization of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the others was an essential aspect of the Bresson’s method and style.
In Lancelot, there is little use of a score (the opposite of Excalibur , a film I like very much) and no attempt to create dramatic points in the film narrative. My response to it then, knowing nothing of Bresson, may have been instinctively what he wanted. I know better now how he arrived at this style.
Bresson published Notes on the Cinematographer in 1975. As you will see in the attached YouTube interview, he stresses the non-theatrical in his films. For him, most cinema is saturated with theatre: “Counter the high relief of theatre with the smoothness of cinematography.” This logic stems from his belief that the arts must be separate: “Impossible to express something strongly by the coupled resources of two arts. It is all the one or all the other.”
Two consequences of Bresson’s approach are the use of non-actors and the absence of contrived drama. He calls his actors his ‘models’; he wants them to be automatons. Bresson writes about wanting to “move people not with images likely to move us, but with relations of images that render them both alive and moving.”
He doesn’t want voice inflection or facial reaction to signal what is happening to the character, and feels the same about music, not specifically in the film: “No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement.”
Essentially, these are the ingredients to deconstruct how most us watch movies. There is drama and tension in his films, but these come from within the film or, as he say, from the inside going out. We are so cued to respond to the reactions, the music, the gesture, that their absence would make it near impossible to get our narrative and emotional bearings. Bresson works mightily to void his films of emotional triggers for his audience, to the point that he never re-uses an actor or actress from his previous films (with one exception):
Do not use the models in two films. (1) One would not believe in them. (2) They would look at themselves in the first film as one looks at oneself in the mirror, would want people to see them as they wish to be seen, would impose a discipline on themselves, would grow disenchanted as they corrected themselves.
It would seem that Bresson strives to create a hyperrealism, not unlike the Italian neo-realists DeSica, Rossilini, Fellini, Antonioni, and Visconti, who often used non-professional actors to create more "natural looking" characters.
Yet his films seem profoundly more emotionally distant than do Italian films like Bicycle Thieves (1948), Open City (1944), and La Strada (1954). Bresson wants the words, the actions, the people to be real, but that reality is derived directly from what we see on the screen:
It is from being constrained to a mechanical regularity, it from a mechanism that emotion will be born. To understand this, think of certain great pianists.
In a sense, he strives for two realities or truths. The first comprises the flow of the film’s action, what might be called its naturalism. An apparent lack of drama occurs because he does not try to force the events to create tension. The second is the emotional truth that he creates within the audience. Call it a revelation or catharsis. A corresponding revelation or event occurs in his films.
In my Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) I have tried to avoid ‘theatre’ and ‘masquerade,’ but to arrive at a non-historical truth by using historical words.
My first example of a difficult director, Terrence Malick, mystifies his audiences with sequences that are difficult to explain. Bresson avoids narrative gymnastics and epic scopes in his cinema. What commonality Malick’s and Bresson’s share is an absence of forced dramatic actions; what some might consider the deliberate denial of the cinematic desires of most moviegoers.
Bresson and Malick also entertain few moments of humor and levity. (Another signpost: difficult directors are extraordinarily serious. Some might call them pretentious.) Great artists take this risk and court being misunderstood. One might even believe that making films for these men is painful; Malick has made only six features in 35 years. Bresson sums it up like this:
"These horrible days – when shooting film disgusts me, what I am exhausted, powerless in the face of so many obstacles – are part of my method of work."
Of all the directors I like and have written about it, Robert Bresson comes the closest to what I would call a purist. He seems to possess the most demanding methodology among a group of cinematic giants who have thrived on being extremely self-demanding. His cinematic oeuvre is one of the most demanding on viewers.
Yet, despite all of this, I wouldn’t call him the most difficult director of films that I’ve experienced...
Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.