In the early 1960s Robert Bresson was a critic's darling but a producer's dilemma. He had directed two popular films long before (Les Anges du pèchè in 1943 and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne the following year) and three austere masterpieces in the 1950s (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket), without ever attracting the interest of a mainstream mogul. But Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian high roller who had produced the Audrey Hepburn War and Peace, thought he could blend Bresson's religious rigor with his own big-budget showmanship. They would make The Bible! Bresson agreed. And so, for the Noah's Ark sequence, Dino hired a pricey menagerie of wild animals-dozens of them, two by two. Then the director told his boss how he would shoot the scene: "One will see only their footprints in the sand." An hour later, Bresson was fired.
The austerity of his films-not just his taste for shooting moving figures, human and animal, from the waist down, but the whole slim repertoire of exalted minimalism-makes Bresson, who died on December 18 last year aged 98, a caviar taste. An audience raised on Die Hards and Full Montys might find his work easy to laugh at, hard to sit through. If the world's top filmmakers were a family, he was the one who became a priest; nearly everybody else joined the circus. Now a full retrospective of his features, "Radiant Light," organized by the Australian Film Institute-currently in Sydney before heading to Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane-gives the clearest picture yet of a great renegade director who went his own thorny way and, through his severe, seductive example, established the dominant style of a minority art form.
You see the elements of Bresson's style in the works of many cerebral directors in France (Louis Malle, Marguerite Duras), Eastern Europe (Andrei Tarkovsky) and America (Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley). It is storytelling purified, pared down, practically flayed, to its essence-the cinematic equivalent of Samuel Beckett. His tales are full of garish incident: adulteries, petty crimes, beatings, murders, suicides galore-the cinematic equivalent of Georges Simenon. But by stripping the narrative of excess information, he could relate an epic tragedy like that of the 1966 Balthazar (a town's life as seen through the eyes of a donkey) or the 1983 L'Argent (how the passing of a fake 500-franc note led to unjust imprisonment, a broken marriage and the splatter of a serial killing) in 90 minutes or less.
There is little dialogue, though sound effects are important: the scraping bicycle wheel of a Nazi guard in A Man Escaped, the braying of Balthazar, the mad barking of a dog as it scurries from one corpse to another at the horrifying end of L'Argent. His 1950s features were all narrated by the main character. Later Bresson movies discarded this narrative aid. These are virtually silent pictures; they are certainly moving pictures. They make the typical commercial film look preposterously overstuffed. For Bresson, least was most. As he wrote, admiringly, "Debussy himself used to play with the piano lid down."
How to describe this severe form? As melodrama without suspense. The original French title of A Man Escaped (Un Condamnè à mort s'est èchappè) gives away the ending: Fontaine, the Resistance fighter condemned to death, will get out of jail. The opening words of Pickpocket tell the viewer that the protagonist, a Dostoyevskyan figure who taunts the police into capturing him, eventually "finds love." So where's the drama? Like art, or God: in the details. Bresson might have said that we all die; the ending is known. But how do we live?