Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Journal d'un curé de campagne

1950, France, directed by Robert Bresson

Bresson's great strengths as a filmmaker are underlined, for me, by his ability to make unlikely converts, whether to his exceptionally austere brand of cinema (at least after Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne) or to his intensely personal vision of suffering and redemption. This is the first film in which he fully expressed those cinematic and world views, and it remains one of his most powerful works.

Though Bresson pushes harder than most towards an intense, spare cinema, the film isn't without reference points: I couldn't help but think of Clouzot's Le Corbeau as an ailing young priest (Claude Laydu) experiences a chilly welcome from his demoralised new parishioners, caught up in their own village intrigues. At another moment, when the priest is cared for by a young girl after a fall, I thought, perhaps incongruously, of Frankenstein, where another girl seems to be the one person who understands the monster; given the villagers' attitude towards their curé, the comparison isn't entirely inapt.

Bresson's masterful use of close-ups is a key element of the film's success, whether capturing the anguished features of the priest, or in the startling composition of a young woman's pale face emerging from the darkness of a confessional. Though Bresson would no doubt shudder at the word, there's no doubting the importance, too, of Laydu's performance; his face perfectly captures the priest's physical and spiritual torture, while his expression when experiencing a brief taste of something approaching youthful freedom near the end is heartbreaking.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States