Robert Bresson (25 September 1901 18 December 1999) was a French film director known for working chiefly with non-professional actors and for his unique, inimitable, and if youre in the mood ultra-low-key but hauntingly powerful style of filmmaking.
Bresson is sometimes associated with the French New Wave movement, but he was actually considerably older than the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette. However, they all tended to revere him, especially Godard, and he was if anything even more of an influence on other filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Dardennes, Aki Kaurismäki, Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver is very Bressonian) and, in particular, Taxi Drivers screenwriter Paul Schrader, whose book Ozu / Bresson / Dreyer: Transcendental Style in Film contains some of the acutest writing about Bresson.note
Bresson is an unusual director from TV Tropes' point of view because he was notably trope-averse. After his first couple of movies he started using non-professional actors, not because he was too cheap or was trying to make some point about actors as such but because he didn't like what professional actors bring to films, namely performances, and all the tropes that go with them, from Method Acting to Chewing the Scenery and all stops in between. His whole method of storytelling means that you just don't get those beats where the audience wants to punch its collective fist in the air, or burst out laughing, or go "Awwwww". This often has the effect of annoying non-admirers, and Bresson didn't make things better with some of his more pompous and oracular remarks on the subject, in which he sometimes came across as believing that only he made real cinema, and all other filmmakers were basically making filmed theater.
As a result, it's probably easier to characterise his films in terms what tropes they avert. Nevertheless, tropes are present in his films as they are in everyone else's, and sometimes to great effect.
- Les Anges du péché (The angels of sin) (1943)
- Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Women of Bois du Boulogne) (1945)
- Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) (1951)
- Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped) (1956)
- Pickpocket (1959)
- Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc) (1962)
- Au Hasard Balthazar (Balthazar) (1966)
- Mouchette (1967)
- Une femme douce (A Gentle Woman) (1969)
- Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer) (1971)
- Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake) (1974)
- Le diable probablement (The Devil Probably) (1977)
- L'argent (Money) (1983)
Tropes common to Bresson and his works include:
- An Axe to Grind: An axe is seen lying around in the last reel of L'argent. Yes, it is a Chekhovs Gun.
- Auteur License: Bresson was given this early on and he clung to it fiercely. He kept it because although his films never made much money, he shot them very economically on very low budgets and they almost invariably got very good reviews.
- Batman in My Basement: The family in L'argent hides the protagonist in their shed.
- Bittersweet Ending: Pickpocket. Michel is in jail for pickpocketing and his friend Jeanne visits him regularly; at the end of the film, he suddenly realises that it's because she loves him and he loves her.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Jost in A Man Escaped is this to Fontaine, the main character. Initially, Fontaine regards Jost as at best The Load and at worst a fatal liability. In the end, Fontaine decides to take Jost along with him, and at one point during the escape they reach an unexpected obstacle which Fontaine couldn't have overcome by himself. He does so with Jost's help, making Jost this trope.
- Christianity Is Catholic: Bresson's films tend to be very Catholic in terms of subject matter and themes, though they can have quite a materialist bent to them. Some theorists have stated he was inspired by Jansenism, a French Catholic sect that emphasized austerity and simplicty. Bresson confused the issues further by calling himself a "Catholic atheist", whatever that means. Religion is less overt a subject matter in his later films than his earlier ones, and indeed by the time of his final film in 1983, Bresson was calling the description of him as a Jansenist 'madness'. By the 1970s at any rate, Bresson no longer seemed to believe in Christianity as a solution for anything.
- Crapsack World: Very much the world in Le diable probablement, and a major cause of the main character's depression.
- Death by Newbery Medal: Subverted in Au hasard Balthazar. Balthazar does indeed die at the end, but Marie doesn't get to see it or even hear about it; in fact, we don't know what happened to her.
- Determinator: The hero of A Man Escaped, who painstakingly busts his way out of a German prison fortress. In a meta-example, Bresson himself, who was absolutely determined to make his films the way he wanted to and if he couldn't do that, the film didn't get made.
- Downer Ending: Oh so many. Mouchette, Une femme douce, Lancelot du Lac, Le diable probablement, L'argent. Strangely averted in Diary of a Country Priest and Balthazar. Even though the titular characters in those two films die in the end, it's not quite a downer in the way the deaths in the ends of the other films are. Bresson became grimmer as he got older.
- Dull Surprise: A characteristic response of actors in Bresson's films, largely on account of his preference for non-professional actors. He managed to make it work for him by means of extraordinarily acute editing; Bresson never dwells on a character's reaction, but always moves on fairly quickly to the next beat in the story.
- The Dung Ages: Lancelot du Lac may be the Trope Maker in film.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Les Anges du péché, Bresson's first film and his only comedy.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: A Man Escaped. Well, duh.
- Face Death with Dignity: Bresson's characters tend to do this, although it's cruelly averted with Charles in Le diable probablement, who was planning to do it but who gets Killed Mid-Sentence by his best friend, who's too baked to do it properly.
- Gory Discretion Shot: The ax attack on the old woman in L'argent. We only get to see blood splattered on the wall.
- Kick the Dog: Au hasard Balthazar is basically Kick The Donkey: The Movie.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Happens to Charles in Le diable probablement, because he's arranged for a friend to kill him but the friend is stoned, and too impatient to wait for Charles to finish talking.
- Please Kill Me If It Satisfies You: The nameless woman in the last act of L'argent gives this to Yvon, when she finds him standing in her bedroom in the middle of the night with an axe.
- Reality Has No Soundtrack: L'argent lacks a soundtrack.
- Shameful Strip: Marie in Au hasard Balthazar is given a brutal one of these offscreen, but we see the result.
- Shown Their Work: Both in-universe and meta- in Pickpocket: the hero learns how to pick pockets onscreen from a pickpocket played by a real pickpocket, Henri Kassagi, whom Bresson hired for the purpose. And it's awesome. Kassagi later went straight and became a well-known magician and performer.
- Silent Credits: The opening credits of L'argent run without soundtrack, we only hear street noise.
- Signature Style: Bresson's style is very particular.
- He uses almost exclusively non-actors, giving most of the performances in his films a Dull Surprise quality.
- He is interested in mechanical motions, operations and movements, such as turning cranks or folding napkins. He drilled his actors on these motions repeatedly so that they would perform them like machines.
- Sliding Scale of Animal Cast: Au hasard Balthazar is Type 3: the secondary main character is a girl, Marie, but the main character is Balthazar, a donkey she cares for (in fact she's the only person in the whole film who cares for him.)
- Stock Sound Effects: Conspicuously averted. One of the pleasures of Bresson's films, especially his later ones, is the way he painstakingly recorded specific sounds to go with the appearance of the exact action that went with them, not even using Foley artists to fake them: for example, in L'argent, the sound of a broken wine glass being mopped up, or the sound of a price sticker being ripped off a camera box.
- Then Let Me Be Evil: The events of L'argent make its central character Yvon resort to this.
- Trauma Conga Line: Bresson protagonists commonly go through these. Consider Yvon in L'argent: early in the film he's passed a forged banknote. He doesn't realise it's forged, and when he attempts to pay for a drink in a bar with it, he's arrested. He doesn't get sent to prison, but loses his job. Needing money, he tries to help a friend rob a bank, and is caught and re-arrested. While in prison, his small daughter dies and his wife leaves him. He attempts suicide and fails. On being released from prison, he immediately murders two hotel keepers and robs their money, then a kind woman shelters him in her house. He kills her and her family with an axe before finally offering himself up for arrest again, this time for multiple murder.
- Tropes Are Tools: Largely averted. Bresson didn't really believe this, and went to enormous pains to not rely on existing cinematic tropes, but to make up new ways to tell the stories that he wanted to tell. Unsurprisingly, this has tended to alienate some cinema fans; those who hate Bresson tend to regard his films as being cold, mechanical or rigid; those who love him tend to regard him as just more perceptive, inventive and focused than most other directors in the entire history of cinema.
- Villain Protagonist: Yvon in L'argent starts out as an innocent heating oil engineer, and the film is about how he becomes one of these.