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Emotional Engagement in the Films of Robert Bresson

Austere minimalism is clearly embodied in Robert Bresson’s body of work. His films depict the power of sheer simplicity. It is an undeniable fact that the French director earned his reputation as an accomplished filmmaker. Alas, Bresson’s diligent and eccentric approach to filmmaking can leave many bewildered and downright disoriented. There are some who deem that his work lacks vehemence and restrains the viewers from emotionally engaging with the characters on-screen. That is, however, quite the opposite. Bresson employs constructive editing with the intention of executing absolute minimalism. He chooses to get rid of the usual cues of music and performances as a means to coerce the audience into making deeply personal judgments about the characters. Using constructive editing, Bresson strips away all cinematic emotional cues and enables the audience to make moral evaluation based solely on the characters’ actions.

A Man Escaped (1956)

In A Man Escaped, for instance, the director eliminates the vital cinematic element of music during an exceedingly intense scene. In this particular scene, the inmate of the Nazi-held Fort Montluc finds himself in a troubling situation. The prisoner, known as Fontaine, has to kill a guard in order to escape the Fort. Bresson makes a loose close-up shot of Fontaine hiding behind a wall as he attempts to restrain the loud beating of his heart. By using a medium shot, a significant emphasis is placed on body language. Bresson does not need to add tense music in order to generate an aura of unease. Body language is enough to convey emotion in Fontaine’s moment of trepidation. That being said, the viewers already know that the inmate is going to escape. This fact is revealed in the title. Bresson allows the audience to ponder on the question of how Fontaine will achieve his escape. Therefore, all throughout the sequence, the viewers remain focused on his behavior, examining it thoroughly. No aid or guidance is provided to tell them how to feel. There is no music and Fontaine’s performance is limited to his gestures and movements.

Film critic and author Murray Smith argues that there are two ways spectators emotionally engage with characters: sympathy and empathy. When Fontaine tries to reduce the thumping beat of his heart, the audience somehow sympathizes with him. Viewers understand that Fontaine is panic-stricken and agitated at the thought of killing another human being. This is based solely on Fontaine’s movement. Even though sympathy keeps a certain distance and is cognitive in nature, the audience understands his suffering.

The French filmmaker forces the spectators to look deep within themselves and morally evaluate the character. With the simplest of concepts, Bresson directs one of the most intricate scenes in a film. The viewers might not see it the same way, but in truth, they are anchored to Fontaine’s emotional reality because Bresson makes it so.

Pickpocket (1959)

In Pickpocket, the French director uses constructive editing in a very similar fashion. The morally ambivalent aspect present in the film is accentuated with the use of constructive editing and the elimination of typical cinematic cues. The film recounts the story of Michel, a young man who spends his days pickpocketing in the busy streets, subway cars, and train stations of Paris. The way Bresson crafts Pickpocket is so graceful and enthralling one could almost believe it is a story meant to study humanity and all its complexities. While it is true that Michel’s performance is rather lifeless, the technique the director employs to tell his story is extraordinarily engaging. Using constructive editing, Bresson renders Michel’s behavior captivating and thought-provoking. This is especially manifested in the scene during which Michel pushes himself to perform a difficult pickpocketing trick for the first time. Bresson makes use of medium shots as Michel spots his victim on the streets of Paris. Medium shots give the audience a means to pick up on Michel’s body movements. In this case, it is imperative to note that medium shots usually follow establishing shots. Bresson, however, doesn’t use establishing shots. This is most likely so that he can achieve austere minimalism. Here again, it is proven that body language is indispensable to convey emotion. The audience can infer that Michel has a compulsive drive for stealing.

Throughout the entirety of the sequence, the master filmmaker also makes ample use of close-up shots. These gorgeous shots follow Michel’s hands as they perform the pickpocketing ruse on an innocent elderly man. By focusing only on the hands, Bresson renders the character of Michel free of guilt. The viewers are not being manipulated to feel or think a certain type of way about his doings. Furthermore, Bresson does not show the consequences of Michel’s actions. The facial expressions of the elderly man aren’t revealed. The story thus becomes morally ambivalent. Most individuals consider stealing a dishonorable crime, but Bresson makes no attempt to reinforce this traditional mindset. The viewers are obliged to ethically evaluate the character of Michel on their own. Constructive editing is used sophisticatedly so as to strip away cinematic emotional cues and allow the audience to judge Michel based solely on his actions.

Relinquishing the traditional cues of music and performances is perhaps the most controversial and effective decision ever taken by Bresson. It is what makes his body of work so striking. According to the award-winning author of Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, “this decision was consistent with his aim of creating a uniquely cinematographic narrative form, one less dependent on psychologically motivated acting and dramatically structured scenes.”

Bresson’s approach to filmmaking earned him the reputation of an uncompromising artist. By using constructive editing, he actually empowered his audience. Bresson gave us absolute freedom and autonomy in assessing the worth of characters on-screen — a craft most Hollywood directors unfortunately lack.

Based in Florida, USA.

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