DOWSE guide to the movies                                                                                         

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  Book Review


DOWSE Guide to the Movies
by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press

Robert Bresson

by Keith Reader
Manchester University Press
French Film Directors Series p/b, 166 pages 9.99

The films of the late Robert Bresson are notable for their sparseness: 13 features and one short over a span of 49 years. He was a filmmaker preoccupied with spiritual grace informed by an unorthodox Catholic perspective, often to be found in the most unlikely places: a pickpocket in the film of that name, an escaping prisoner in A Man Escaped, several suicides and even a donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar. As his career progressed, Bresson's work became more and more spare, paring away surface adornment and all the tricks that the cinema is capable of, preferring to use non-actors (or 'modèles' as he called them) instead of professionals, often using sound to replace the image. But his finest films are uniquely powerful and often deeply moving: A Man Escaped, for example, can still grip an audience. Paul Schrader wrote about Bresson (and Dreyer and Ozu) in his book 'Transcendental Style In Film', and the ending of American Gigolo is a homage to the final scene of Pickpocket. (Incidentally, Reader incorrectly refers to American Gigolo as Schrader's directorial debut on p.60.)
  Keith Reader, a Professor of French at the University of Glasgow and an occasional 'Sight & Sound' contributor, has produced a very useful study of this very singular director. His style is academic but not impenetrable. He considers the films in chronological order, beginning with the short comedy Affaires Publiques (1934), the atypical first two features (professional actors, studio gloss), Les Anges du Péché (1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945). Diary Of A Country Priest, made in 1951, is the first film in Bresson's recognisable style, depicting the struggles and possible sainthood of the central character. The 'Prison Cycle' of A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959) and The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962) were followed by Bresson's last two black and white films, Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). His first two films in colour, Une Femme Douce (1969) and Four Nights Of A Dreamer (1972), both updated Dostoevsky adaptations, are minor works and rarely shown, but Lancelot du Lac (1974) is one of the most original films based on Arthurian legend ever made. Bresson's last two films, the deeply pessimistic The Devil Probably (1977) and the study of a man driven into murder, L'Argent (1983) which is one of his finest films. Reader also considers Bresson's book 'Notes On The Cinematographer'. By reading this book, you want to review those films you have seen, and to seek out those you haven't.
  This book is part of Manchester University Press's French Film Directors series, each by different writers. Despite some odd omissions (Claude Miller, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and possibly Leos Carax being the most obvious), it looks to be a useful series.

Gary Couzens

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