Robert Bresson was born at Bromont-Lamothe. Little is known of his early life and the year of his birth, 1901 or 1907 varies depending on the source. He was educated at Lycée Lakanal à Sceaux, Paris, and turned to painting after graduating.
Born in central France and educated in Paris, Bresson's early ambition was to become a painter. Three formative influences in his early life seem to have a mark on his films - his catholicism, work as a painter and his experiences as a prisoner of war.
Initially a painter and photographer, Bresson made his first short film, Les affaires publiques (Public Affairs) in 1934. During World War II, he spent over a year in a prisoner-of-war camp--an experience which informs Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped).
In a career that spanned fifty years, Bresson made only 13 feature-length films. This reflects his meticulous approach to the filmmaking process and his non-commercial preoccupations. Difficulty finding funding for his projects was also a factor.
Bresson's early artistic focus was to separate the language of cinema from the theatre, which often heavily involves the actor's performance to drive the work. With his 'actor-model' technique, Bresson's actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of 'performance' were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw, and one that can only be found in the cinema.
Some feel that Bresson's Catholic upbringing and Jansenist belief-system lie behind the thematic structure of most of his films. Recurring themes under this interpretation include salvation, redemption, defining and revealing the human soul, and metaphysical transcendence of a limiting and materialistic world. An example is his 1956 feature A Man Escaped, where a seemingly simple plot of a prisoner of war's escape can be read as a metaphor for the mysterious process of salvation.
Bresson's films can also be understood as critiques of French society and the wider world, with each revealing the director's sympathetic if unsentimental view on its victims. That the main characters of Bresson's most contemporary films, L'Argent and The Devil, Probably (1977), reach similarly unsettling conclusions about life indicates to some the director's feelings towards the culpability of modern society in the dissolution of individuals. Indeed, of an earlier protagonist he said, "Mouchette offers evidence of misery and cruelty. She is found everywhere: wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations."
In 1975, Bresson published Notes sur le Cinématographe (most commonly translated as "notes on cinematography"), in which he argues for a unique sense of the term, "cinematography". For Bresson, cinematography is the higher function of cinema. Whereas a movie is in essence "only" filmed theatre, cinematography is an attempt to create a new language of moving images and sounds.
Bresson is often referred to as a 'patron saint' of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. His original directorial language can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous 'actor-model' methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors.
He has influenced a number of other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky, Michael Haneke, Jim Jarmusch and Paul Schrader, whose book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (ISBN 0-306-80335-6) includes a detailed critical analysis.
"Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music" — Jean-Luc Godard, French film director (Robert Bresson (Cinematheque Ontario Monographs, No. 2), edited by James Quandt).
"My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water." - Robert Bresson
Film: How Robert Bresson Saved Cinema - and a Condemned Man ; David Thomson's TOP TEN FILMS: 5 `A Man Escaped', Robert Bresson, 1956
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