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Le Journal d'un curé de campagne, 1950
[The Diary of a Country Priest]

LayduA young, weary priest (Claude Laydu) arrives at the rectory of his new parish in Ambricourt on the French countryside, and catches the averted, suspecting gaze of the Count (Jean Riveyre) and his mistress. Frail and weak from a debilitating, undiagnosed stomach ailment, he is resigned to a spartan subsistence of bread, sugar, and wine: an ascetic diet that, he believes, sharpens his resolve and dedication to his spiritual vocation. The young priest is received with polite indifference by the townspeople. A brusque, wealthy man named Fabragars (Leon Arnel), exploits the young priest's naiveté to strike a bargain on the funeral arrangements for his wife. His friend and mentor, the Priest of Torcy (Andre Guibert), cautions that the role of a priest is to maintain discipline and spiritual order, and not to seek to be loved by his parishioners. His idealistic hope for reaching the souls of young people through catechism classes for First Communion is deflated when his favored student, Seraphita Dumouchel (Martine Lemaire), seemingly mocks his attentive interest by remarking that he has beautiful eyes. He performs his daily order of mass to a lone congregation: the tutor, Miss Louise (Nicole Maurey), who asks him to intercede in a conflict involving her pupil, the Count's daughter, Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral). One day, when the troubled and manipulative Chantal tests the priest's compassion by threatening to commit suicide, he is drawn into ministering the Countess (Marie-Monique Arkell), a resigned and tormented woman who continues to grieve for the loss of her young son, and succeeds in helping her find inner peace. Unable to comprehend her mother's spiritual transformation, Chantal misinterprets his actions as cruel and interfering, and instigates a denunciation of the idealistic priest.

Robert Bresson creates a visually spare and deeply moving film on faith, alienation, and perseverance in Diary of a Country Priest. Using minimal dialogue, introspective journal entries, and isolated long and medium shots, Bresson presents the harsh reality and inherently misunderstood existence of a man of faith in a secular world, where altruism and unyielding devotion are viewed with cynicism and distrust. Metaphorically, the physical malady of the priest is a manifestation of his spiritual health and eroding idealism, as his affliction evolves from a passing discomfort that is ameliorated by abstinence and self-denial, to a degenerative illness that slowly consumes him. But inevitably, the final image of an isolated cross encapsulates the life of the nameless priest: a symbol of profound suffering, alienation, and human cruelty - yet ultimately, transcendent.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le Vent Souffle òu il Veut, 1956
[A Man Escaped or The Wind Bloweth Where it Listeth]

Leterrier/Le ClaincheA Man Escaped opens with the indelible image of a pair of restless hands belonging to a French resistance officer named Lieutenant Fontaine (Francois Leterrier). His face is inscrutable and impassive, concealing his calculated attempt to flee from the escorted prison transport vehicle. He reaches for the door handle, retreats, then reaches again. At a momentary distraction of a crossing railcar, he seizes the opportunity, but is immediately recaptured, and is severely beaten by the German guards for the attempt. Imprisoned and condemned to die, Fontaine finds the courage and determination to escape his certain fate. Based on a true account by Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped is a visually minimalist, emotionally austere film about friendship, hope and perseverance. Despite the bleak and cruel circumstances of the Lyon internment camp, the innate humanity and interminable hope of the prisoners surface as they struggle for meaning beyond their captivity. An imprisoned priest (Roland Monad), driven to despair without his Bible, is encouraged by Fontaine's offer of a pencil, writing down his religious passages, and forming a clandestine ministry network among the prisoners. Terry (Roger Treherne), a complete stranger who passes under Fontaine's window each day, offers to smuggle his notes through his visiting daughter. Blanchet, a silent, suicidal old man imprisoned in an adjacent cell, is profoundly affected by Fontaine's compassion and tenacity, restoring his will to survive. Fontaine methodically spends every waking hour devising equipment for his escape. As Fontaine's actions become increasingly suspect to the prison guards, he places his trust in his recent cell mate, a young prisoner named Jost (Charles Le Clainche) to assist him in the escape.

Robert Bresson's spare imagery and poetic realism depict the harsh existence of the prison camp without emotional manipulation or overt symbolism. The objective distance of retrospective narration divorces the precise and factual revelation of the story from the bias of perspective associated with the tension of his singular objective. The dialogue between the prisoners is minimal, reflecting their largely solitary confinement and introspection: finding redemption through purpose. Furthermore, several close-up shots of Fontaine's hand pervade the film: exchanging notes and useful items between prisoners, chiseling the door panels of his cell, crafting his escape equipment. These images reflect the film's underlying theme of activity. In essence, it is through human action - distractive ritual, meaningful creation, compassionate assistance - that the soul is redeemed. Denied their freedom and under the pervasive specter of death, the prisoners find a reason for continuing the struggle, and deny their oppressors the ultimate triumph over their souls.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Pickpocket, 1959

Kassagi/La SalleMichel is an inscrutable young man - neatly dressed, mild mannered, intelligent - hardly the type whom one would suspect to be a pickpocket. And perhaps, that is reason that he does it. Robert Bresson's Pickpocket is a well crafted, austere, and taut film of a man driven by his self-destructive compulsion. We first encounter Michel (Martin LaSalle) at a Paris racetrack, stealthily fingering through the clasp of a woman's handbag, reaching in, pocketing her money. A wild, almost euphoric gaze comes over his impassive face, heightened by the cheering crowd as the horses approach the finish line. Soon, his compulsion consumes him. His friend, Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) furnishes him with contacts for employment opportunities, but he does not follow through. He abandons his studies, preferring to devote his time perfecting sleight of hand techniques: using a newspaper to disguise his actions, grabbing a victim's wrist, bumping into taxi riders. But he is not as invisible as he thinks, catching the attention, not only of the police inspector (Jean Pelegri), but also a professional thief (Kassagi), who recruits him into his crime syndicate. In a mesmerizing, precisely choreographed train station scene, the band of thieves weave though the ticket counter line and a boarding train: distracting passengers, stealing, passing between accomplices, returning empty wallets to their owners. When his mother's neighbor, Jeanne (Marika Green), is brought into the police station for questioning, Michel, warned by an already suspicious Jacques, flees to London to avoid arrest. Two years later, Michel returns to Paris, to an abandoned Jeanne, and inevitably, to his life of crime.

Similar to A Man Escaped, Bresson uses the recurring imagery of hands in Pickpocket: exercising his fingers for dexterity, practicing scenarios for deception, executing the theft. However, in contrast to Fontaine's hands which serve as an instrument of his intellect, Michel's hands represent a moral fracture within his soul. In essence, his compulsion is a subconscious disconnection of his mind from his body, a separation between his ambitious, theoretical ideas, and his common, unremarkable existence. His attraction to a life of crime is a reflection of his psychological fear of failure - his inability to achieve his perceived potential - a suppressed realization that he is not the "extraordinary man" that he believes himself to be. In the end, we see a humbled Michel, enheartened by a long-awaited visit from Jeanne. As Jeanne kisses his hands, Michel is redeemed from his past transgressions, with a renewed faith and the love of a devoted woman.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, 1962
[Trial of Joan of Arc]

DelayTrial of Joan of Arc opens to the austere, fragmented image of the hurried footsteps of an indistinguishable figure dressed in a black robe. Carrying a parchment into the vestibule of a chapel, an unidentified woman delivers a personal statement on her daughter's religious upbringing and death at the hands of the church, visibly supported by two sympathetic advocates. The somber and official tone of the grieving mother's testament is subsequently reflected in the demeanor of the accused, Jeanne d'Arc (Florence Delay), who is first introduced through a shot of her manacled hands as she places them on an opened Bible before beginning her sworn testimony in front of the presiding judge, Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau). Direct, rational, and resolute in her conviction, her responses are met with skepticism and contempt by the clergy who are eager for an expedient disposition of her case in order to appease the British authorities. However, unable to break her will, Jeanne is subjected to interminable cross-examinations, secret monitoring by unscrupulous British guards, and threats of physical torture and violation in an attempt to force a confession on the charges of heresy and witchcraft, in order to ensure her death sentence by burning at the stake.

In contrast to the highly emotive, polarized, and concentrated inquisition of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc
, Robert Bresson's filmic adaptation, similarly based on the actual transcripts of the trial, is emotionally muted, bureaucratic, and methodical. Through a ritualistic presentation of Jeanne's imprisonment and trial, Bresson visually correlates Jeanne's inviolable conviction with her spiritual redemption: the intrusive sound of foreign (English) voices as courtroom spectators call for Jeanne's death and British guards systematically peer through a hole into her prison cell; Jeanne's tempered and deliberate responses to the judges' interrogation that is visually reflected in her depiction through medium shots; the disembodied framing of the quick footsteps in the opening sequence that is contrasted against repeated images of Jeanne's shackled feet in the prison cell. Inevitably, as the symbol of Jeanne's physical captivity is visually transformed in the shot of her rushed footsteps as she is led to the stake, her corporeal station of oppression and human suffering is transfigured into an indelible image of purity, spiritual liberation, and eternity.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966

WiazemskyBalthazar is a farm animal - a donkey - born into a life of servitude: a beast of burden destined to work the land, carry bales of hay, provide occasional transportation. His harsh, often exploited existence is paralleled through the life of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), a reticent young woman whose father (Philippe Asselin) has been asked to maintain a friend's farm after tragedy compels the owners to leave. Years later, the owner's son, Jacques (Walter Green), returns to the farm to profess his support for Marie's father, whose reputation has been ruined by persistent debt and rumors surrounding the unresolved ownership and usage of the farm. Jacques is devoted to Marie, but his declaration of love is received with complacent resignation. Instead, Marie is drawn to Gerard (Francois Lafarge), a cruel young man whose participation in the church choir is a facade for his activities as a thief and smuggler. Balthazar's ownership passes to a baker (Francois Sullerot) and his wife (M.C. Fremont), and into Gerard's hands, who delivers their baked goods and collects payment. Inevitably, an ailing Balthazar is turned over to Gerard's accomplice, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a career criminal suspected of murder, and begins a new life as a guide animal, then a circus attraction, before being sold at auction to a miserly, abusive merchant (Pierre Klossowski). When Gerard spurs Marie, she turns to the merchant for companionship, but is led further down a path of hopelessness and despair.

Au Hasard Balthazar is a haunting, subtly disturbing, and thematically uncompromising portrait of man's innate cruelty and destructive impulses. Through the transfiguration of a mistreated animal as an allegorical symbol of virtue, purity, and redemption, Robert Bresson creates a visually spare and indelible film of startling intensity: the symbolic image of Marie, Gerard, and Balthazar in the snow; the framed shot of a humiliated Marie against the back closet of the farmhouse; the final, sublime shot of Balthazar with the grazing sheep. Alone in the countryside, wandering and without direction, Balthazar finds a place of peace...his sanctuary.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Mouchette, 1967

NortierRobert Bresson distills the superficial portrait of the archetypal gamin in order to derive the indelibly bleak and caustic cinematic image of Mouchette. Hardly the hapless waif or endearing pixie, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is all too human: a slovenly, unremarkable, and asocial adolescent neglected by a terminally ill mother (Maria Cardinal) and an abusive, alcoholic father (Paul Hebert). She hides behind a ravine after school, throwing dirt at other children. She jumps into a puddle in her church clothes on her reluctant way to mass. She purposely tracks mud at a neighbor's rug, after the elderly woman offers to donate clothing for her mother's funeral. But there are also subtly poignant moments of humanity: an abbreviated encounter with a boy at a carnival; concealing her mother's alcohol consumption by adding water to a bottle of gin; attending to the helpless game poacher, Arsene (Jean-Claude Guilbert), who has suffered a seizure. Drawn into complicity by Arsene's seeming kindness, she stays at his house during a rainstorm, and is violated. Returning home, her attempts to recount the painful episode are truncated by her mother's incessant instructions and, eventually, her death. In the morning, attempting to escape the misery of the situation, she leaves the house on an errand, only to find the same cruelty beyond its walls.

Bresson's use of spare and minimal camera work serves a greater purpose than to merely provide a signature style. From the extreme close-ups of the opening scene, showing only Arsene and Mathieu's (Jean Vimenet) eyes, to the headless shots of people in the bar, Bresson creates a metaphor for the fractured soul. Mouchette is profoundly alone, incomprehensibly searching for connection and acceptance, but is answered with betrayal and violence. Note the analogy of the two animal sequences in the film: illustrating the struggle to live, the crushing of the spirit, and the inevitable surrender to its fate. In essence, we are Mouchette - foundering and incomplete - seeking redemption from the misery of existence, incapable of articulating the pain - resigned to our own private hell.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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Une Femme Douce, 1969
[A Gentle Woman]

SandaA young woman steps off a bedroom balcony and falls to her death, her white shawl hovering above, deflected by the breeze. Her pawnbroker husband (Guy Frangin), speaking with methodical detachment, recounts their relationship in a series of flashbacks. But inevitably, the answers remain as elusive as his lost, despondent (and appropriately nameless) wife (Dominique Sanda). Robert Bresson's A Gentle Woman is a spare, elegant and poignant story of isolation, miscommunication, and emotional cruelty. An early transaction between the two characters foreshadows the tragedy of the film. She is a poor orphan, pawning her final possession - a crucifix. He pulls off the plastic figure of Jesus Christ and weighs the gold cross. Struck by her beauty and enigmatic demeanor, he is attracted to her, and attempts to pay her more than its fair value. She returns the additional money, and explains that she cannot be bought. He is persistent in his pursuit of her. Eventually, she relents and marries him. It is apparent that the two are ill suited: she, passionate and generous; he, calculating and materialistic. There are unbearably long silences between them: walking in parks, listening to records, working in the shop. He scolds her for buying a worthless brooch from an elderly lady. Yet, after her prolonged illness, he attempts to assuage her by purchasing other equally worthless objects, believing that his "generosity" would endear him to her. He begins to suspect her of adultery, but cannot prove it. When he finds her alone with another man, he overhears her reject the man's advances, but rationalizes that she must have seen him. As in Luis Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, he attempts to win her by adopting the persona of what he perceives to be her needs: aggressive suitor, generous benefactor, sacrificing husband. The use of cycles in the film, as in Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim, further conveys a sense of entrapment: from the suicide leap to the repeated breakups and reconciliations. Searching for the gentle gaze extinguished by his smothering obsession, he now possesses her body completely...but in the process, has lost her soul.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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L'Argent, 1983

Patey/LangA young man, Norbert (Marc-Ernest Fourneau), unsuccessfully asks his father for an advance in his allowance. He visits his friend, Martial (Bruno Lapeyre), and is goaded into passing a forged 500 franc note at a photography shop. The photographer (Didier Baussy) censures his business partner (Beatrice Tabourin) for accepting the forged banknote - the third counterfeit bill for the week - and decides to pass off the forged notes to an unsuspecting victim. When the serviceman from the oil company, Yvon Targe (Christian Patey), arrives to resupply their fuel tank, he is paid with the counterfeit bills. Yvon attempts to use the money to pay for a meal, and is detained by the police for forgery. In order to clear his name, Yvon hires an attorney to sue the photographer for fraud. But the photographer, unwilling to recant his false testimony despite the dire consequences it bears on the innocent Yvon, enlists his assistant, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), to validate his claim and deny recognition of the serviceman as well. As a result of their perjured testimony, Yvon loses his job. Unable to find another job because of his tainted employment history, he descends into a life of crime, despair, and eventually, murder.

Robert Bresson creates a harrowing, caustic and socially relevant indictment of materialism and amorality in his final masterpiece, L'Argent. The protagonist, Yvon, is first introduced through a shot of his hands as he connects the fuel supply line. As in Pickpocket, the image suggests a figurative fracture between the body and the soul. However, in L'Argent, the body is not a biological entity, but rather, a representation of a material one: the universal mechanism of money - created, utilized, circulated. In the impersonal detachment of contemporary society, money serves as the surrogate for human emotion - love, guilt, shame, devotion, trust - are frivolously expressed through its casual exchange. But money also exihibits a biological behavior in its virulence - the forged banknotes, in essence, contaminate everyone who comes into contact with them. Norbert is punished for his childish prank. The photographer's reprehensible act escalates to perjury. Lucien's deception eventually leads to theft. Yvon resorts to a life of crime and brutal murder. Inevitably, the pursuit of money serves as a symbolic means for the destruction of the soul. As the counterfeit note serves as an imitation of money, so too does money, in turn, represent an artificiality - a false soul.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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