Bresson’s influence is immense – both broad and deep. The quality and range of the directors and films screening in parallel with Bresson’s films in this series demonstrates that.
Perhaps his influence might be divided into five categories:
First, Bresson was, perhaps, the most singular and independent of all major filmmakers.
He is an example to all of those who wish to undertake work to which they are personally and powerfully committed. He never made a film he did not want to. I suspect he never placed a camera, or a cut in a piece of celluloid, where he did not want to. Of course, his is not the only way to make films and those who operate more comfortably in an industrial context may make more films and enjoy greater material rewards.
Equally, Bresson’s films are not, in any ordinary sense, auto-biographical but the life and the work spring from the same pure source. They are inseparable. His films are unmistakeable. Their authenticity, ambition, clarity and point of view are evident. They are the work of an uncompromising master and unashamed auteur and they are, as such, hugely influential. They demonstrate what is possible, even in a highly commercialised art form such as the cinema.
Secondly, Bresson is amongst the most spiritually engaged of all filmmakers and an inspiration to all those who would follow his example and explore this difficult but crucial territory.
He achieves this spiritual engagement not in spite of the material and external nature of this medium, cinema, still in its infancy. But rather, directly through these material and external aspects of the medium.
Thirdly, Bresson has a highly coherent and original theoretical approach to filmmaking and so is a major influence upon all of those who seek to define their working methods, from the Vague Nouvelle to Dogme. I hesitate to use the word theoretical but ultimately, the aphoristic Notes on Cinematography, taken together, certainly comprise a coherent and ambitious theory, even if based upon practice and experience.
Many of the elements of Cinematography, defining Bresson’s austere style, are well known – exclusive use of the 50mm lens, attenuated individual images and latterly, no use of external music.
Bresson’s conception of Cinematography insists upon the absolute independence of the medium from all others.
At its very heart, Cinematography draws together Catholicism and Modernism and so is unique to Bresson, a Catholic immersed in the cultural milieu of inter-war and post-war Paris.
Bresson imposes automatism upon his models, a state in which, he believes, the exterior powerfully reveals the interior. The imposition of automatism lies behind the huge volume of takes for which Bresson is notorious – it takes a while to get there and it can only be achieved during shooting.
Bresson has a Modernist faith in the objective recording capacities of camera and tape recorder to penetrate the exterior and to capture interior states of soul. These fragmentary revelations of the models’ states of soul are bound together and given coherence – transformed - in the rhythms imposed in editing.
The ‘substance’ of Bresson’s films is, therefore, a documentary of emotions, of the states of soul of his models. This partially explains Bresson’s preference for adapting literary sources. For this most singular of directors, ‘narrative’ in the conventional sense is a pretext or provocation, rather then the ‘substance’ of the film. Of course, it’s worth noting that Bresson is an exceptional storyteller in conventional terms too – who else could have covered so much ground in a mere 84 minutes as he does in L’Argent? Of course, Bresson chooses more or less congenial sources, notably Bernanos and Dostoevsky but conventional narrative is not his main purpose. The use of literary sources frees Bresson to concentrate on the areas where he brings his unique capacities – and the unique capacities of the medium - most powerfully into play.
Fourthly, Bresson’s influence extends to narrative and content. This is perhaps the area where his influence is most obvious – scenes and themes of redemption and grace - but to my mind, ultimately, less important.
And fifthly, Bresson has influenced the way in which filmmakers and audiences conceive of viewing films.
His is not an aesthetic of over-determined meanings and responses, or of superfluous kinesis.
Rather, directly in parallel with the uncertainty relating to his models’ un-predetermined states of soul in Cinematography’s documentary of emotions, Bresson allows audiences to participate in the creation of meaning. His films reward careful attention, or contemplation.
Bresson’s is a unique and towering body of work. His influence is already considerable. It will surely increase as cinema continues to evolve.