Au hasard Bresson

Au hasard Bresson (1966)

DVD extras aren’t always so informative; you get the impression producers compile whatever they can find off the editing room floor or use the opportunity to re-sell the movie (as if that were needed), with actors and technicians warmly reminiscing about the production.

One of the best DVD extras I’ve seen recently is included with the Criterion Collection’s Mouchette DVD, Theodor Kotulla’s 30-minute Au hasard Bresson, but maybe that’s because it’s a real documentary (that won a German Lola) and not a “featurette.” It offers a rare glimpse into the production of Mouchette, and the working methods of then-65-years-old Robert Bresson, once one of cinema’s greatest but most reclusive filmmakers, who was often prone (like Hitchcock) to rely on favorite, enigmatic phrases in interviews and insist that his work speak for itself. (But not always; his amusingly terse exchange in Andrew Sarris’ Conversations with Film Directors is as pre-planned and abbreviated as his 1967 interview with Cahiers du cinÈma‘s Godard and Delahaye is freewheeling and lengthy.)

So it’s a real pleasure when Kotulla incorporates wonderful handheld interviews with Bresson standing in a field between setups, or long takes featuring him directing scenes, speaking with actors and discussing camera angles with his operator, Jean Chiabaut, and smiling and relaxing with the crew on lunch breaks. I’m sure there are a few recordings of this nature floating around the archives of the CNC, but the documentaries more widely available (like The Road to Bresson or Ni vu, ni connu, or previous extras on Criterion discs) contain standard interviews or commentaries by film experts. Kotulla’s film captures Bresson in creative mid-stride and allows his words and actions to speak for themselves.

Despite the rigorous and exact style of his films, Bresson highly valued spontaneity and chance occurrences on the set, one of the reasons he insisted on working with nonprofessional actors. Kotulla’s film shows him rehearsing scenes over and over, but one gets the sense that the purpose is to hone a developing perception rather than adhere to a rigid plan. “I always like to see and hear a film before I shoot it,” Bresson explains, “to come up with things by working on my own, things from my memory or imagination, even if I don’t end up filming them. . . . You must be constantly alert to seize new ideas on the spot, things you’d never think of. . . . You must allow yourself to be surprised.” Bresson directs with an obvious eye (and ear) for rhythm, continually asking his actors to speed up or slow down, often modeling their actions or arranging the props himself.

He also appears to direct with a great deal of intuition; instead of asking actors in a scene to place a crate onto a truck bed in a certain position, Bresson tells them “we need to feel you’re hiding them. If you put them here, we lose that.” In interviews and even conversations on set, he often speaks with his eyes downcast–much like the models in his films. This might be attributed to a natural shyness, but it’s also a mark of someone accustomed to listening intently within.

Bresson had a fluid relationship with his cameraman, often jumping behind the camera and checking the framing himself, or even arguing (calmly, politely) about the proper way to shoot a scene. “Jean, are you framing her head or her elbow?” he asks during rehearsals, peering through the lens. “Or purposely not framing? That might be best.” After a bit of back and forth, he concedes, “Fine. Do whatever you think is best,” demonstrating a surprising leniency from a filmmaker known for his precision. (The conversation occurs while rehearsing and tweaking a simple movement–Mouchette awakening and rising to her feet–at least six or seven times, though Bresson was known for much greater numbers of rehearsals.)

In all, it’s a privileged and relaxed portrait of the master at work; Bresson aficionados won’t want to miss it. (And although Criterion’s other film supplement is a more popularized 1967 account made for the French television series, CinÈma, it too is a worthwhile compilation of on-set footage.)

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