Day 85: Robert Bresson 1951-1966 + ‘The Fall’ 2006

Robert Bresson 1951-1966

The intention, twelve days ago, was to watch Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), one of cinema’s most highly regarded films, as well as Pickpocket (1959) and Mouchette (1967), both of which popped up on several critics’ top ten lists.

I wasn’t able to find a copy of Mouchette but I was able to locate copies of Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962). It’s certainly more than I’d ever hoped to achieve in the last two weeks, giving me a look at a fifteen-year period of Bresson’s filmmaking career from 1950 to 1966.

I can see why four of his films frequently turn up in lists of the Best 100 Films. He’s got a voice which I think was most distinctive in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket.

I wonder if coming to these films so unprepared for what I’m going to see, and without a general understanding of the cultural and filmmaking context of the films I’ve not seen before, does me a great disservice? Does watching Balthazar three times to wrap my head around its greatness undermine what I’m doing? If I’d read about it first, and read about where its value lies, I may have had a different initial response, and gone, “That’s amazing. I get it.”

Instead, my response to Balthazar is purely intellectual. I have no emotional connection with the film whatsoever other than hating Gerard and wondering what Marie is doing by being involved with him. In contrast, Pickpocket and A Man Escaped drew me in on an emotional level and I went, “Wow. These films are amazing.” The Trial of Joan of Arc didn’t capture my interest immediately but on a second viewing, I felt a lot for Joan and both times I admired the dialogue. Diary of a Country Priest left me coldest. It was the earliest of the five Bresson films I watched and undoubtedly suffered from that. Having watched the other four films, which followed Diary, already, it felt more like Balthazar, but was overstated, generally, in the acting and scripting. If I’d seen it first, I might well have look at the naturalistic style of Bresson as it developed from film to film. Coming back to it, I think it’s by far the lesser of the five films.

I’m intrigued to see where Bresson went in his next films and will seek them out in a year or so. He made 13 films and I’ve seen 5. It’s a pretty good effort given his importance.

‘The Fall’ 2006

The Fall (2006) is full of falls. Falls from grace as well as from bridges. Falls from being worshipped and the great fall – original sin.

Tarsem Singh, who directed music videos for R. E. M. Suzanne Vega, En Vogue and Vanessa Paradis, debuted with his first feature film in 2000, The Cell, which I though was interesting visually but unconvincing as a whole. His next film, was this one, followed by a couple of films I haven’t seen. In 2012 he made the stupendously mediocre Mirror Mirror. In 2015 he directed Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds in Self/less, which rated as a solid effort in the sci-fi genre despite numerous reservations.

The Production

The script is credited to Dan Gilroy [who wrote and directed Nightcrawler (2014) seven years later], Tarsem and Nico Soultanakis. I don’t know who conceived this adaptation of the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho but given that he co-produced the film, and that his video commentary states that he funded a lot of the film personally, shooting it over four years in twenty-eight countries, it sounds like Tarsem deserves the credit. I wonder, given the low success-rate of his other ventures, artistically, if he commissioned Dan Gilroy to adapt, write or polish the script? Tarsem’s screenwriting credit presumably comes from the fact that he improvised a lot of the scenes in the film with the young actor who plays Alexandria and contributed a lot of ideas that become part of the final script.

It’s a diamond in the rough, full of sumptuous locations that boggle the mind. The look, as with all of his films, is stunning. The costumes by Eiko Ishioka and production design by Ged Clarke – beautiful.

The Narrative

The final screenplay, what is on the screen and what is played by the actors, mostly unknowns, is definitely the vision of one man (along with another screenwriter and a previous film on which it was based). It is so coherent and sensible in the way it unfolds, I can’t fathom why Tarsem Singh hasn’t done more with the interesting premise in each of the other three of his feature films which I’ve seen.

The framing device of someone telling a story to another person (and in some cases featuring as the hero of their own fairytale) is as old as the hills. Much older than the silent movies that the film finally presents in a respectful montage of crazy, stupid, and spectacular falls. Every one of those close shaves shows how and why movie stuntmen end up in hospital talking with Romanian nine-year-olds.

The other two strands of the film’s story aren’t quite as successfully realised as the relationship between Roy and Alexandria, which is patiently and painstakingly filmed. The story of the fantasy is undoubtedly spectacular in all aspects of vision and sound.

It’s rude to pull the film down even a peg because its achievement is vast – an achievement of marrying the talents of twenty different departments.

The story is, however, about pirates, and villains and pretty maids who need rescuing and like The Majestic and A Wonderful Year, the film within the film isn’t Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk or Captain Blood or Robin Hood. And it also isn’t The Princess Bride in which William Goldman ingeniously substituted humour as an antidote to the fact that the story isn’t ever going to live up to one of the great Errol Flynn adventures.

The third strand, Roy’s desire to be dead, doesn’t have enough definition in its emotion to involve the viewer as a film like Betty Blue, or Jean de Florette or Cinema Paradiso does in making the main characters, as revealed to the viewer: characters who are tense, ambiguous and heartbreaking. I found Roy more ambiguous than feeling a strong emotion.

But that’s me.