Were he still alive, Robert Bresson would probably not be pleased that his films — so meticulously conceived for the bigscreen — are now seen mainly on DVD. On one hand, it’s a cause for celebration that two of Bresson’s greatest later films, “Au Hasard Balthazar” and his last, “L’Argent,” are appearing nearly simultaneously in good-to-great packages. On the other, the releases reinforce the hard fact that this is about the only decent way to view his films now, since retrospective screenings of this exceptionally challenging (and profoundly rewarding) artist’s work are about as rare as a lunar eclipse.
As any reader of his essential little book “Notes on the Cinematographer” knows, Bresson had an unshakable belief that film’s basic qualities separate it from every other art form. He paid more attention to rhythm than story, and held that everything in filmmaking was mere prelude to the editing, where the film was really made.
Outside of his book, probably nowhere does he express his grand notions better than in a marvelous interview, “Un metteur en ordre,” produced for Gaul cultural TV in 1966 by Roger Stephane; it’s the major extra on the “Balthazar” disc. Helmers Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, Francois Reichenbach and author Marguerite Duras praise the then-newly released “Balthazar,” a fable of the miserable life of a humble donkey and the young girl who tries to care for it, as a new breakthrough. But it’s Bresson who articulates his aims best, an exceptional case of an artist who can explain his extremely radical intentions.
Criterion’s transfer is even more brilliant than its previous Bresson packages, “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne” and “Diary of a Country Priest.” Instead of a commentary track, Ontario Cinematheque director and critic James Quandt contributes a polemical booklet essay that questions the popular view of Bresson (famously promoted by Paul Schrader) as a “transcendental” filmmaker, and cautions against reading “Balthazar” as a modernized biblical tale.
Distrib New Yorker has been the U.S. shingle most loyal over the years to Bresson, and “L’Argent” release is its third DVD title from the helmer (following last year’s issue of “Lancelot du Lac” and “A Man Escaped”). Color transfer is only fair, and an ultra-brief interview clip with Duras is pointless, given two other solid interview segs (one with the late legendary critic Serge Daney) that allow the now-82-year-old Bresson to talk about his work, though not so much about the film’s subject about a young working man who falls into a life of prison and crime thanks to a counterfeit bill.
The real keepers on this disc start with critic Kent Jones’ relaxed, inviting yet extremely thoughtful commentary, where he delves into Bresson’s particular adaptation of Tolstoy’s story “The Forged Coupon” and reminds that Bresson’s near-fanatical cult of supporters has done him no service over the years by turning him into a guru. And don’t skip the “L’Argent” trailer (made for Gaul theatrical release), a wordless 25-second montage that may have been one of the last bits of film Bresson ever edited, and could be that glimpse of perfection he always strove for.