What does ‘Bressonian’ really mean?

Along with Hitchcock and Fellini, Robert Bresson is one of the few directors with a style so unique that it’s given rise to its own adjective. But has anyone since perfected the recipe?

31 May 2022

By Alex Barrett

Pickpocket (1959)

Ever since the auteur theory bulldozed its way into film discourse in the early 1950s, it has become common to talk of filmmakers having a ‘signature’: a recognisable set of characteristics, narrative and stylistic, which recur throughout their work. Around the same time, French director Robert Bresson was coming into his own and, with Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and A Man Escaped (1956), laying the groundwork for a unique style that he would continue to refine over the next 30 years. It’s a style so singular that he now belongs to that select group of filmmakers whose work has formed the basis of an adjective, ‘Bressonian’, used to describe the work of other directors.

And yet, to acknowledge such adjectives is surely to acknowledge an inherent contradiction: if, by definition, ‘Bressonian’ refers to the distinct characteristics that constitute the work of Robert Bresson, to what extent can it ever really be applied to work by other filmmakers? If the adjective itself embodies uniqueness, how can it then be used to describe the work of others?

Perhaps, before we can discuss this further, we must first define what we mean by ‘Bressonian’ – what are the singular qualities that characterise Bresson’s work? 

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

With the very broadest of brushstrokes: Bresson’s films have narratives which unfold with brisk economy, a lack of psychology, and many ellipses, often telling stories of downtrodden loners fighting imprisonment (both literal and metaphorical) in a corrupt world, who eventually achieve redemption and grace. He has a filmmaking style that foregrounds rhythm through short shots and a selective use of sound, which combine to create new meanings via their juxtaposition. There’s a deep saturation in religious significance and a highlighting of surfaces in order to show us the mystery that lies behind them. And there’s striking use of non-professional actors, or ‘models’, which involved using repetition to automate their action, in order to bypass thought and reveal something of their true nature. 

Taken individually, many of these elements have been used by others. You could point, for instance, to the bricolage techniques of the Soviet montage theorists as a forerunner of Bresson’s fractured approach to editing. But, taken together, they constitute Bresson’s commitment to cinema as something transformative and creative, rather than shallow and reproductive. His goal was not entertainment, but a search for truth. It’s this search, achieved through the totality of individual elements, which defines Bresson’s work.

Slacker (1990)

So, with this in mind, can we really say that something like Richard Linklater’s beautifully plotless walk-and-talk-a-thon Slacker (1990) is ‘Bressonian’ because, like Bresson, Linklater restricted himself to the use of a single camera lens throughout the whole film?  And what if we add the fact that Linklater has acknowledged Bresson’s influence, that Slacker’s cast is predominately made up of non-professionals, and that some critics have likened the film’s baton-passing structure, which moves continuously from one character to another, to that found in Bresson’s L’Argent (1983)? Such elements may well bear traces of Bresson’s widespread impact, but do they, by themselves, really justify the use of the ‘Bressonian’ adjective? 

Asking this opens up general questions surrounding influence and intertextuality, and the way directors transmute the techniques of others to make them their own. It also circles around the issue of how much one film (or filmmaker) must resemble another before we acknowledge the similarities, and probes the matter of where we draw the line between an allusion and an imitation.  

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

When it comes to Bresson, two films that carefully tread that line are Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), which resemble Bresson’s work in their use of montage, in their lack of psychology, and in their concerns for the disintegration of modern society (another of Bresson’s key themes). Indeed, in its use of quick-cut close-ups and its focus on details, the former almost becomes a Bresson parody. But the narrative, concerning a bourgeois family’s disenchantment with daily life, is sparse and progresses slowly, a far cry from Bresson’s breakneck speed. 

71 Fragments…, meanwhile, presents a tapestry of short moments from the lives of various characters in the lead up to a mass shooting, and Haneke contrasts the montage-based scenes against sequence shots and long takes that owe more to the lineage of Kenji Mizuguchi or Michelangelo Antonioni than they do to Bresson. Haneke, like Bresson, is a rigorous, committed filmmaker, but his stylistic interests ultimately took him in a different direction – for whatever you want to say about Bresson, he doesn’t belong to the world of ‘slow’ cinema, and his unique pace is one of his unmistakable qualities. 

Horse Money (2014)

Still, Haneke isn’t the only director working within the sphere of slow cinema who could, perhaps, be labelled as ‘Bressonian’ – especially if we allow that the adjective may, at times, be used to describe filmmakers whose work resembles Bresson’s in less obvious ways. For instance, at first glance the languid pace and dreamlike chiaroscuro of Pedro Costa’s films may seem far removed from Bresson’s world, but, taken as a whole, Costa’s oeuvre resembles Bresson’s in the way it has developed and refined a singular style along a straight trajectory. Like Bresson, Costa has also pitted this style in direct contrast to conventional cinematic practices, and created an instantly recognisable cadence all of his own: see, for instance, Horse Money (2014) and Vitalina Varela (2019), two startling reveries on the history and memory of the immigrant experience, which represent the apotheoses of his approach.  

With this in mind, then, can ‘Bressonian’ only be used to describe films that actually recall Bresson, or can films (or filmmakers) be ‘Bressonian’ solely in temperament? In the case of Costa the question is further complicated by the fact that he makes use of elliptical narratives and non-professional actors, and has directly acknowledged Bresson as an influence. But is even this enough to make him ‘Bressonian’ when his work has such a different rhythm from Bresson’s? 

The Portuguese Nun (2009)

Another director who has created a visionary, hermetically sealed universe is Eugène Green – the arguable heir to Bresson’s crown. A deeply spiritual filmmaker who shares Bresson’s interest in penetrating the mysteries of reality, Green’s work shines like a beacon in an increasingly secular world: witness, for instance, the intoxicating divinity of La Sapienza (2014), in which a frustrated architect studies the Roman baroque churches of Francesco Borromini, or The Portuguese Nun (2009), in which a young actress becomes fascinated by the nightly prayers of a nun. And while Bresson himself may have argued that God is most present when not mentioned by name, the lack of piety in most of today’s cinema is undoubtedly another reason why so few filmmakers truly resemble Bresson. 

Still, despite their similarities – Green’s films even feature a unique, stylised approach to acting that recalls Bresson’s use of models – Green’s energy is not the same as Bresson’s. Where Bresson feels sparse, Green feels opulent and luminous. As such, the ‘Bressonian’ trappings of Green’s work only serve to remind us that, as influential as Bresson is, he nevertheless remains utterly unique.

Of Sin and Salvation: The Films of Robert Bresson runs at BFI Southbank in June 2022. June’s Big Screen Classics strand is devoted to films influenced by Bresson.

Alex Barrett will take part in the discussion Style, Anti-style and Influence: Robert Bresson Re-assessed at BFI Southbank on 7 June.

Pickpocket is back in cinemas nationwide from 3 June.

Pickpocket, The Trial of Joan of Arc and L’Argent will be released on BFI Blu-ray on 11 July.

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