by Sam Juliano
Frenchman Robert Bresson (1901-1999) is one of the greatest film directors of all-time, yet his output, considering both the advanced age he achieved and his active years was relatively limited. Meticulous and uncompromising, Bresson was idiosyncratic, disavowing conventional notions of cinema and popular subjects, in favor of personal issues and themes. Indeed, despite his astonishing range of subject matter, there are perhaps no films more unified or deeply marked by their director’s personality, which in his instance was marked by three major influences: the Catholic church (which manifested itself into the fabric of three of his films: his first Les Anges du Péché, about an order of nuns, his next, Le Journal Un Cure de campagne, which concerned a priest who lost his parishioners and his faith, and Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, which dealt with the defining aspect of the heroic religious icon; his early years as a painter, which made their indellible mark on his compositions; and his time as a prisoner-of-war. Hence, the concurrent themes of free-will vs. determinism, which is integrated into the secular works, the famed austerity that informs his painstaking cinematic canvases, and the various prison motifs and themes, which are fully examined in the two films he shot in prisons.
Les Anges du Péché (1943) is Bresson’s first feature film, which is a far more conventional film than his later works, as it is talkier and far less reliant on filmic rhetoric, including ‘elliptical editing.’ The film, along with the director’s sophomore effort, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, stands apart from all the subsequent films in that it employs professional actors, who offer more expressive performances than the sullen and seemingly detached (though of course purposeful) amateurs of his later masterpieces. The use of real actors troubled Bresson, who purportedly cautioned himself against drawing “tears from the public with the tears of your models” instead of what he alluded to as naturalistic settings and characters who are “exactly in their place.” Still be admitted he was thrilled with the actual performances in the film.
Anne-Marie (Renee Faure) is a girl from a reputable family who attaches herself to the Sisters of Bethany, a Dominican order devoted to the rescue and rehibilitation of women with criminal records. Almost too high-spirited and strong-willed, she is concerned with one Therese (Jany Holt), who responds with unbridled hatred. “Liberated” Therese shoots the man on whose behalf she was unjustly imprisoned, and returns for refuge to the convent, to the joy of Anne-Marie, who is ignorant of her real motives. Sensing that the girl’s weak point is pride, Therese flatters her, and lures her into denouncing the sub-Prioress for excessive love of a cat, and the Sisters for hypocritically fawning on it too. Refusing the ordered penance to kiss the feet of all the nuns, she is expelled, but humble still creeps in each night to pray at the grave of Father Lataste, the Order’s founder. Caught in a downpour, she falls ill, and is nursed by Therese, whom she dissuades from returning to her disorderly existence. Dying, she is unable to pronounce her vows, so Therese speaks them for her, and is led, manacled, from the convent, past the nuns, to the last of whom she murmurs: ‘A bientot.’… The issue of Therese’s salvation is counterpointed against the subtler issue of Anne-Marie’s. The film is a study of, in a sense, twin souls: of two rebels finding peace through each other and through the system, a system which needs its rebels, but no more than they need it. Therese’s machinations aim not simply at the expulsion of Anne-Marie, but via some unconscious diabolism, at her damnation, through pride – that aggressive vehemence in one’s subjective conscience which Protestantism may applaud but which Catholicism certainly does not.
That Anne-Marie shares Therese’s contrariness is hinted in two early scenes. Her initial refusal to burn the photographs of her family, by way of worldly renunciation, is presented in terms of a refusal which disappoints a not-to-intolerant Sister. And her decision to burn them is presented in terms of its painful effect on her worldly mother.
For Bardeche and Brasillach the story is ‘a matter less of God, than of domination and sacrifice.’ in this sense it is similar to Bresson’s next film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, a tale of revenge transcended by acceptance. There, a lady transforms a sinner, to revenge herself on a man; in Péché a lady converts a sinner also, perhaps as a kind of sublimation of sadism. Péché has its cachet of artistic authenticity that, from a lay angle, it makes an even more disturbing kind of sense. It is tragic rather than cynical, and all the more movingly pessimistic in that the characters, as they are, have no real path to happiness.
Les Anges du Péché is perhaps, more lusher in a visual sense than the later Bresson. Cinematographer Phillipe Agostini favors rich blacks and luminous whites, creating images that seems almost opulent next to the more muted contrasts of the films photographed by L.H. Burel or Ghislain Cloquet. But the two latter cameramen are among the greatest in the history of the cinema. The music in the film is far more obstrusive than Bresson would tolerate in subsequent films, with the minimalist use of it. Bresson once said: “Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added.” Sparing use of baroque and classical punctuates all his mid-career masterworks, but in Péché the more abundant score was written by7 Jean-Jacques Gruenwald, who also wrote Le Journal d’un cure de campagne., which gives the film an austere, if kitschy religious quality.
Although Les Anges du Péché is somewhat distant from the later films in a number of ways, it is still a film of power, precision and expressiveness. It served as a harbinger for what was to become arguably the most brilliant body of work in movie history.