French auteur Bresson dead at 98

Filmmaker's career spanned 50 years, 14 pix

Robert Bresson, the master director once described by fellow filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard as the Dostoevsky of French cinema, has died in Paris. He was 98.

Bresson, whose rigorous, austere and enormously powerful films are revered by critics, buffs and other filmmakers, directed 13 features and a short film during the course of his 50-year career.

He died Saturday of natural causes.

“He expresses himself cinematographically as a poet would with his pen,” remarked Jean Cocteau, who wrote the screenplay for the director’s first international success, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,” in 1945.

Among Bresson’s other best-known films are “Diary of a Country Priest,” “A Man Escaped,” “Pickpocket” and “Au hasard Balthazar.” He retired after his last picture, “L’Argent,” premiered at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, where he shared a special creative filmmaking award with Andrei Tarkovsky.

Working in a measured fashion on the margins of the commercial industry in France, Bresson made films that stood apart from the mainstream even in their day, but now seem even more distinct due to their Spartan look, spiritual content, largely non-professional casts and utter obliviousness to fashion. Overt dramatics and camera movements were minimized, and dialogue was delivered in flat, unemotive tones.

Initially an aspiring painter, Bresson later said, “Painting taught me to make not beautiful images but necessary ones.”

Born in Bromont-Lamothe, Puy-de-Dome, France, Bresson studied philosophy and the classics before trying his hand at painting. Unhappy with his progress, he began collaborating on screenplays, starting with “C’etait un musicien” in 1933, “Les jumeaux de Brighton” in 1936 and “Courrier sud” in 1937.

He directed his first film, the 25-minute comedy “Affaires publique,” in 1934 (pic was long thought lost, but a print was discovered in 1987). Just before WWII Bresson worked as an assistant to Rene Clair on the unfinished “Air pur.” During the war he spent a year in a German POW camp, an experience that would later inform “A Man Escaped.”

Religious themes

In his first two features, “Les Anges du peche” (1943) and “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,” he used professional actors and screenplays by Jean Giraudoux and Cocteau, respectively.

“Les Anges” is set in a nunnery and dealt with Catholicism and sin, as would many of his subsequent films. “Les Dames,” adapted from Diderot’s “Jacques le fataliste,” was a landmark of French cinema, an abstract tone poem that continues to exert its influence.

Yet neither work satisfied him, and from then on he wrote his own scripts and mostly used non-professionals. Still, those first two films established him as an international name when they were released in the U.S. after the war.

‘Country’ classic

Based on a Georges Bernanos novel, “Diary of a Country Priest” was widely heralded upon its release in 1951, as was “A Man Escaped,” based on a true story about the escape of Andre Devigny. Bresson won the best director award at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival for the latter film.

From this point on, the release of every Bresson film was a major event for cinephiles, and the ’60s and ’70s were his most productive decades.

After “Pickpocket” in 1959, Bresson made “The Trial of Joan of Arc” in 1961 (based on the actual minutes of the trial), “Au hasard Balthazar” (1966), “Mouchette” (1967, also based on a Bernanos novel) and “Une femme douce” (1969, from a Dostoevsky story). Latter was the director’s first film in color and served as the career launching pad for leading lady Dominique Sanda.

Dostoevsky provided the inspiration again in 1971 for “Four Nights of a Dreamer,” and three years later Bresson made his most elaborate production with “Lancelot of the Lake,” his meditation on the King Arthur legend. His last two films were “The Devil Probably” (1977), a shattering study of despair, and “L’Argent.”

In 1975 he wrote “Notes on Cinematography,” a book-length essay on his filmmaking ideas. It was published in the U.S. in 1977.

Bresson will be buried after a private funeral in Chamonix in the French Alps, the setting for a number of his films.

He is survived by his wife.

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