by Dennis Cooper
IN THE EARLY '80s, A FRIEND INVITED ME TO a screening of Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably, on the condition that, no matter what, I not say a word about it afterward. He claimed that Bresson's films had such a profound, consuming effect on him that he couldn't bear even the slightest outside interference until their immediate spell wore off, which he warned me might take hours. He was not normally a melodramatic, overly sensitive, or pretentious person, so I just thought he was being weird-until the house lights went down. All around us, moviegoers yawned or laughed derisively; some even fled the theater. But, watching the film, I experienced an emotion more intense than any I'd ever have guessed art could produce. The critic Andrew Sarris, writing on Bresson's work, once famously characterized this reaction as a convulsion of one's entire being, which rings true to me. Ever since, I've imposed basically the same condition on those rare friends whom I trust enough to sit beside during the screening of a Bresson film, and I'm not otherwise a particularly melodramatic, sensitive, or pretentious person.
Bresson isn't just my favorite artist. There's a whole lot more to it than that, though the effect he has had on me is too enormous and personal to distill. On a practical level, his work constructed my sensibility as a writer by offering up the idea that it was possible for an artwork's style to embody a kind of pragmatism that, if sufficiently rigorous and devoted to a sufficiently powerful subject, would eliminate the need within the work for an overt philosophical or moral standpoint. Every artist tries in some way to find that least compromised intersection of planes where his or her ideas meet and slightly exceed the world's expectations, but I don't think anyone has found a more perfectly balanced style than Bresson. His work communicates an unyielding, peculiarly personal vision of the world in a voice so sterilized as to achieve an almost inhuman efficiency and logic. The result is a kind of cinematic machine whose sets, locations, narrative, and models (Bresson's preferred term for actors) function together as an unhierarchical unit so perfectly self-sufficient that all that is revealed within each film is the disconcerting failure of the models to fulfill Bresson's requirements. Their emotions resonate, despite a conscientious effort on Bresson's part to make them move about and speak as though they have none. The fact that the actors, unlike any other aspect of Bresson's films, are driven by individual feeling draws attention almost by default, and creates a relationship with the audience so intimate that it's almost unbearable in its aesthetic restrictions.
A full appreciation of Bresson's work requires moviegoers to approach his films as though starting from scratch. This is a huge thing to ask of an audience, which is why Bresson's films will always select their admirers with care and infrequency. But the films earn that degree of commitment because, despite their intensive demands, they ask almost nothing for themselves. They're too plain to be considered experimental or avant-garde, and require no suspension of disbelief. But they're antitraditional as well, although their respect for the tradition of storytelling borders on the fanatical. They're neither difficult nor easy to watch, at least not in the usual senses of those words. Instead of flaunting their difference, or feigning modesty by deferring to the conventions of Hollywood film, they offer up an art so unimpeachably fair, so lacking in ulterior motivation that the effect is a kind of mimicry of what perception might be like were one capable of simultaneously perceiving clearly and appreciating th e process by which perception occurs. The only thing these films ask is that one share a fraction of Bresson's single-minded concern for the souls of young people whose innocence causes them to fail at the cruel, irrevocable task of adulthood.
Apart from his first feature, the comedy Les Anges du peche, and perhaps the curiously terse if fascinating Une Femme douce, Bresson never made a film that's less than sublime. For whatever reason, his early, black-and-white films like Pickpocket, Diary of a Country Priest, and Mouchette are the most celebrated. But, if anything, his later, less widely circulated color films-Four Nights of a Dreamer, Lancelot du Lac, The Devil, Probably, and L'Argent-are the masterpieces among his masterpieces, to my mind. Many of the aforementioned stylistic tropes for which Bresson is alternately reviled and admired reached their full significance in this latter part of his oeuvre, as the lapsed Catholicism that gave his early, doomed characters the remote possibility of redemption and allowed viewers to interpret his work's introversion as a metaphor for religious self-erasure loses ground to an even more thoroughly hopeless notion of fate as the random and godless chain of events that structures a life. In Bresson's ea rlier films, the protagonist's almost inevitable suicide is a tragic segue into the comforting delusion of heaven; in the later films, suicide is the inexorable outcome, given the bleak circumstances; and the staggering numbness induced by Bresson's cold, mechanical witness to these deaths forms the least opinionated, and therefore only accurate depiction of suicide's consequences that I've ever come across.
When I first saw The Devil, Probably at the age of twenty-eight, I wrote Bresson a number of long, desperate, worshipful letters offering to do anything, even sweep the floors of his sets, to assist him in his work. At the time, I would have given up my life, my friends, even my dream of being a novelist in order to help him create films that, to this day, are for me the greatest works of art ever made. It's an unjustifiable, perhaps even irrational claim, but I'm not alone in my devotion, which might also explain why my pleas went unanswered. Perhaps I was just one of many depressed young people who'd confused Bresson's stylistic perfection for a perfect solution and my letters went straight into the trash. In any case, I've now lived longer than any of the Bresson characters whose hopelessness I once took as a reflection of my own, and I credit his films, whose effect on me remains indescribable, but whose consequence to the novelist I eventually became is simply put: In my own dark, idiosyncratic art, I continue to do everything in my power to carry on a fraction of Robert Bresson's work.
BRESSON MOVIE STILLS