French film director Robert Bresson is unanimously remembered as a philosopher and spiritual filmmaker. His central themes were always religious, and his visual style was painstakingly crafted – his dedication to the art of filmmaking is apparent in the fact that he was only able to complete thirteen films in his 50 years as a film director.
Bresson’s early life is not well documented – he was born in Puy-de-Dôme, Auvergne and was raised catholic; his religious upbringing would stick with him as an artist for the rest of his life. After studying philosophy at Lycée Lakanal à Sceaux in Paris, Bresson became a painter and photographer before landing work as a scriptwriter. As a writer, he worked mainly on comedies, and his first foray into directing, Public Affairs (1934) was a slapstick comedy short film.
In the 1950’s Bresson directed three films that are still looked upon by film critics as quintessential Bresson – dealing with the themes of redemption, salvation, and man’s metaphysical journey to grace. With Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959) gained Bresson international fame, and A Man Escaped won Bresson a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Bresson also won Best Director at Cannes for A Man Escaped. Based on an autobiographical account of a French Prisoner of War who escaped from the clutches of the Gestapo, Bresson drew upon his own personal experiences in a German war camp to direct the film. The story seems like a simple tale of escape, but the structure that Bresson adopts turns the film into a tale of faith and salvation.
Bresson was so well regarded that he was spared ridicule by the members of the French New Wave. In an article by critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut, Bresson was named as one of nine old guard ‘Auteurs’ (putting him in a group with Jean Cocteau and Jean Renoir), as he defied the stodgy filmmaking technique of his contemporaries.
Among Bresson’s film minimalist techniques, he especially liked to cast non-actors – something he began to do with Diary of a Country Priest. His casting of a non-actor as Joan of Arc in Le Procés de Jeanne d'Arc (1962) is still remarked upon, and this method of nurturing less theatrical and more natural performances has influenced many modern filmmakers today.
He retired from filmmaking in 1983 and died sixteen years later at the age of 98 in Paris.