Tuesday, 10 August 2010


Dostoevskyian morals and Bressonian 'acting' in masterpiece of understatement and perhaps the main influence on Matt Damon's wooden style.

I'd wanted to watch this film after reading Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer - his Marcus Aurelius style treatise on how to make films and how actors should act. This short work is full of gems on how film should not just be a pseudo theatrical artform but should take advantage of what the camera can do that the stage cannot.

The film follows a newly released prisoner (Michel) as he navigates his way around getting back into normal life again. We see him in his one room flat, grubby, dishevilled bordering on unhygenic. We see him visiting his terminally ill mother, trying to work out a way of getting hold of her money. We also see him interact with a female neighbour of his mother's. We also see the police keeping an eye on him, in bars and other locations. We see him make contact with another thief, and attempt to set up several robberies.

All the time we are with Michel, we begin to realise that he is amoral, almost psychopathic or sociopathic. Bresson's direction to his actors is simply to read the lines and act out the part. There is no emoting, no gestures, no raised voices and for some characters virtually no facial expressions. Bresson argues that most film acting is born of theatre acting, where actors have to exagerrate emotions in order to reach the back row. In film however, the camera picks up every tiny movement and so actors (or models, as he calls them) are required to do no more than they would in real life. He argues that in reality emotion and expression often do not match up neatly in time, so that even if you argue with someone, you may only really show your feelings once alone.

Part of this method is to get the actors to read and rehearse lines again and again until the script is engrained in their memories and that they will then read their lines with ease and more realism.

As a viewer, this way of acting is really interesting, especially when compared to the Method acting style and the mainstream of Hollywood acting. We almost forget that we're watching a flesh and blood person and we certainly don't associate the character with the actors own gestures as with many very famous names (think Jack Nicholson's trademark grin etc.). We are simply given action and observation.

And what action it is. Michel goes from almost getting back on track to falling fully in with a gang of thieves and perfecting his pickpocket technique. There are some virtuoso and near silent scenes in which we watch in detail as Michel robs from fellow travellers on trains and at a railway station. The timing is fantastic in these scenes and they are really tense to sit through.

Eventually, the catalyst of his mother's death means that Michel's journey back to proper badness and prison is complete. The film reminded me of Crime and Punishment, another story of an outsider testing out morality and societal norms until they reach breaking point.

A really fascinating and unique take on what cinema can do.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053168/

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