Stations of the Cross

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The viewer must work to savor the subtleties of this form of storytelling, and to read the roiling moods on the faces of Bresson's non-actors, whom he called "models." His visual style is, at first glance, similarly uninflected. "I flatten the image," Bresson said, "as though I were ironing it." The camera doesn't face scenes head-on; it sees them in elegant, terse diagonals, thus creating a geometric tension that complements the narrative anguish. And yes, there are the walking-legs shots that so exasperated De Laurentiis. Yet if there was a visual trope that spanned his oeuvre, it was of a young woman, her face streaked with tears in the wake of some awful injustice, some rank defiling. The woman is silent, but her tears scream outrage.

Bresson, for all his austerity, knew how to energize and eroticize the movie frame. The director also knew that, if viewers were to stare at his sere images for 80 minutes, they needed something-someone-attractive at the center of the frame. And casting about for non-actors, he had an eye for submerged star quality. Claude Laydu in Country Priest is a sallowly romantic presence with the sensual mouth and mooniness of the postwar star Gèrard Philipe. Dominique Sanda, just 17 when she was cast in Une Femme Douce, radiates a unique glamour; one would gladly watch her read the phone book-to herself. Each of Bresson's "stars" has an empty mystique into which alert viewers could pour their feelings and, by so doing, become the director's co-conspirators in creating dramatic tension.

Like Ingmar Bergman, Bresson was that unfashionable commodity, an artist obsessed by the mysterious workings of God's will. Les Anges du pèchè tells of a nun's strenuous attempt to bring a young prisoner to Jesus. The rapturously ascetic Country Priest is about a curè suffering from both stomach cancer and the intransigence of his flock. Bresson filmed The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) straight from the transcript of her inquisiton; without adulterating the text or romanticizing Joan, he depicted a state of grace under pressure. Balthazar could be the donkey that carried Jesus to Jerusalem or, with a little metaphorical stretch, Christ himself-the supreme sufferer.

But all Bresson heroes, whether explicitly religious or not, are in a personal Passion Play, trudging toward their own private Calvary. His 13 features plus the long dreamed-of Genesis project constitute a modern Stations of the Cross-an endurance test of scourgings, of garden agonies, of man's hostility or wounding indifference-and a testament to the strength and danger of faith, faith in anything. In Mouchette, the beautifully unforgiving story of a teenage outcast so maladroit that she must try three times before she succeeds in drowning herself, the girl's schoolmates sing one refrain as if it were a prayer: "Hope-for more hope."

The later, color films, more beautiful visually, turn terminally darker in mood. When Lancelot and his crew are slain, they collapse in a pile of clanging armor, on the junk heap of history. The images of industrial pollution in The Devil, Probably suggest that not just the addled hero but the world is ready to kill itself. And the decent fellow in L'Argent, unfairly convicted of theft, does not slouch into suicide; he impulsively, dreadfully, kills an entire family. After this, could one even hope for hope? Could one hope that Bresson, who called himself a "jolly pessimist," would find the courage to make another film?

Well, a director's "final" film is often the one he never got to make. Even before De Laurentiis asked him to direct The Bible, and for decades after, Bresson had planned his own version of Genesis. "I want to do it so badly," he told critic Michel Ciment in 1983. "I'll rush at it the way one rushes into the ocean." But the money men declined to bankroll Bresson's dream project. One is left to imagine his Genesis as the cinema's Revelation: the animals stepping, two by two, closer to God, or death, or deliverance.

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